The poor farm families living here in northern Morazan province are beset by three armies, and they appear to have tense relations with the left-wing guerrilla force that usually holds sway.
Civilians interviewed during a 24-hour rebel-hosted visit Thursday and Friday complained of the hardships of living in a frequent battleground between the rebels and the government's Army and Air Force. They also reported harassment and occasional mortar bombardments by the Honduran armed forces along the disputed border just two mountain ridges north of here.
"We want to be independent. We want to work. We don't want to be hurt by any side," Alcides Delio, a 33-year-old farmer said.
Peasants have few complaints about treatment by the guerrillas, but most keep their distance from them, according to residents interviewed on this trip, and on visits here in June and October 1984 at the Army's invitation during brief periods when it controlled Perquin.
The civilians resist siding openly with one side out of fear of reprisal by the other. Many peasants have fled to camps in government-held territory to the south or in Honduras to the north, but residents said 5,000 still live in the valleys around Perquin. They plant corn and beans to eat, and coffee to sell, and live in small, ramshackle wooden homes.
Guerrillas of the People's Revolutionary Army, known by its Spanish initials ERP, were firmly in control here during the visit by journalists and a delegation organized by liberal Hispanic-American organizations mostly based in the Los Angeles area.
Dozens of quiet, almost stoic young men and women in their late teens and twenties wandered freely cradling M16 and G3 automatic rifles. They appeared well-fed, carried ammunition pouches and flashlights on their belts and mostly wore military fatigues.
The ERP has been based around Perquin since it drove out the small, local government military outposts, previously stationed here permanently, in the summer of 1981. Believed to have approximately 2,000 armed guerrillas, many of whom are based in Usulutan province south of here on the Pacific Coast, the ERP is one of the two largest of the five forces in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The guerrilla army's top commander, Joaquin Villalobos, is considered the preeminent military strategist in the umbrella organization.
Individual guerrillas were cautious about talking to the visiting reporters. Asked why they were fighting, they generally cited repression by the armed forces and right-wing "death squads" and often mentioned that they had had one or more relatives killed during the past five years of civil war.
A 17-year-old guerrilla, who said her name was Marinda, said she joined the ERP "because of the many massacres been." She said that she was from the nearby town of Torola and that two of her brothers, aged 5 and 13, were killed by an Army bombardment two years ago. She has been with the guerrillas for three years.
The Army periodically sends in forces of 1,500 or more troops to hunt the guerrillas, and small patrols stage cat-and-mouse skirmishes in the jagged, thickly vegetated mountains. The Air Force's small jet bombers and airplane and helicopter gunships assault the rebels, although both civilians and guerrillas said that the aircraft often missed their targets.
The air war, much disputed here and in the United States, apparently serves mainly to scare the peasants and intimidate the rebels. Neither civilians nor rebel officials reported any civilian casualties from aerial bombardment in this area this year.
"The bombing causes terror and leads people to leave their homes," Alonso Barahona, 30, said. But residents also cited other reasons for the seemingly continuous flow of refugees from homes to camps and back again. These included the lack of jobs and problems with commerce, such as the guerrillas' blowing up of the main bridge over the Torola River linking northern Morazan to the rest of El Salvador.
The guerrillas accused the government of deliberately trying to drive the civilian population out of the area and take away a potential rebel organizing base. A variety of residents said that the government's elite Arce Battalion burned corn crops at a cooperative where the Army officers said the local farmers were producing the food for the guerrillas.
The guerrilla army organized a demonstration of 300 civilians, perhaps a third of whom were children, to greet the journalists and delegation on their arrival Thursday. The marchers, who later attended mass on the town plaza surrounded by bombed-out buildings and saw left-wing clowns perform afterward, chanted, "Bombs, No! Schools, Yes!"