We were asked, you know, why did you start the war? He laughs. My response? We didn’t start the war, we defended ourselves from the war.
I was fortunate enough to meet with Don Rafa, a guerrilla in the Salvadoran Civil War, in July of this year. The following is the narrative of our conversation, through a translator. He details his time as a rebel fighter in Cinquera, a guerrilla stronghold near Suchitoto, El Salvador. I have tried to keep Don Rafa’s voice as much as possible – luckily he seems to love the word oligarch as much as I do. The following opinions may or may not reflect my own.
Historically, El Salvador has been mostly a poor country, dominated by oligarchs, rich people, who kept the rest of the country ignorant, to use as cheap labour basically. In 1932, there was an attempt at a revolution. There was a military power – Maximiliano Hernández Martínez – who was a tough man. And the Indigenous, they got together and they attempted a revolution. During that attempt, most of the indigenous peasants had machetes only. They didn’t have guns. And they were fighting the army. Not a chance!
So, Farabundo Martí, who is on the political party’s name – FMLN: Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – he was the son of a very rich man, an oligarch man. He did not agree with the way his father was treating his employees. They were basically slaves. He was the leader of that 1932 movement, he was captured and he was shot dead.
Forty years after Farabundo Marti, there was this new movement that he was a part of. Then again, the same story happened… Indigenous peasants, farm workers, they organised to fight against the oligarchs. Same story, but in the 1970s. Statistically, the land was owned by 5% of the population – all of the land. So 95% of the population had no land at all. The oligarchs would give a little piece of land for the peasants, the workers, for them to build a shack. They were forced to work from Monday to Saturday. The fertile lands were used by the owners, the oligarchs, for grass for the cattle; for sugar cane; for lucrative products.
In 1975, in Cinquera the movement chose an oligarch who was the face of the devil, the worst one. Berto Martinez was his name. The organisation took over two hectares of land from Berto Martinez; the flatter, fertile land where he was cultivating sugar cane. The group of peasants took over that land by force. For the next year, they grow their food on that piece of land that they took from this guy. They had an abundance of food for the first time in their lives. I was a part of that movement. I was 14 years old. I was in the trenches overlooking the farm – if anyone were to come, I was the one who had to yell (He speaks in English for the first time), “Incoming!” I was the watchtower, basically. I had no gun, just a machete.
The change in his voice is noticeable, transforming from a stoic lecturer to the local gossip.
In 1977, after more than a year of occupying that land, illegally, of course, the military brigades came here to kill us. They came with tanks and machine guns against our machetes. We fled from these “heroes”. We ran away, everyone had to find their own shelter, we didn’t run everyone as a group, so we spread around to nearby villages in El Salvador. I was 15 years old and I went to San Salvador to start my life from scratch. My family was in a nearby village, Quezaltepeque. I wanted to try my luck in the big city.
When I was in San Salvador, I had a hard time because the police, the national guard, and the military would persecute any young man, like I was that was from a village like this. They assumed I was a Communist and they would beat me, they wouldn’t let me get a job, there were some cruel times in the 70s in San Salvador. After I was beat up by the national guard, they tried to kill me by beating me up. They were tough guys, they could kill you. But I survived, and I decided, no, I’m not staying in San Salvador, I’m going back to my town. I’m joining the rebel forces. I was 16. At the time, I couldn’t imagine the consequences of what I was getting into. I was just a teenager. I knew, and the other people around me knew, that we needed to do something about this terrible situation.
Here, there were only 10 rebel fighters. I was number 11. I was the youngest as well. But, we kept growing, more people joined the rebel forces until 1980 when war was officially declared. By then, we were a big group.
This place, this village, was first a military base, and anyone who didn’t agree with it would be kicked out. There were 200 militaries [sic], national guard and paramilitaries here, in Cinquera, at the beginning of the war. I was living in the jungle, when you join the rebel forces, you have to go to the campsites, you have to give up your life, your house, everything to join them in the mountains. Back then, it wasn’t a jungle like it is now. It was treeless, corn and beans. The nature reserve we have now was just starting to grow. One of the most difficult things was finding food. It was one of the most difficult things I had to go through. 1980 was the last year that they cropped beans and corn, and in 1981 we had no more food stored so we had to eat native plants, root vegetables and whatever we could find. Sometimes, we had access to Lake Suchitlan and back then, it wasn’t that polluted so we could fish. But, we had no salt, we had to eat the fish without salt, in a soup. Salt was a luxury back then. We were starving.
In the years ’82 and ’83, the military did this operation, these missions, of wiping everything off the land; fruit trees, houses, they would turn over rocks just to see what was underneath so they could kill it. They would kill dogs and cats so that the rebels wouldn’t have any food. They just left the soil, basically. The civilian population was affected by food shortages too. There are some stories about importing beans from Guatemala for example, we had no beans, we had no farms, we didn’t have any products like fertilizers or anything, or seeds, we needed to import. The military would stop those trucks and they would take the beans to their base and they would leave the towns without any food. Their target was to eliminate guerrillas from the face of El Salvador.
The battalion here was… a very crazy battalion. In ’83, they started to massacre people and they were trained in La Escuela De Las Americas, which is still a military school today. We received orders to attack those 200 militaries [sic] that were here. We succeeded and we took over this place. It became a guerrilla base, not only here, but the villages nearby, with Cinquera in the middle of it. We had to gather 600 guerrillas to fight against 500 militaries. That’s why we succeeded. After that successful mission, mission accomplished, we took over Tenancingo, which is all the way back over towards Suchitoto. That way, we could get closer to where there were food supplies. We would go by foot to Suchitoto, walking, and we would buy 50-pound bags of corn and beans. Then, we would have to carry them back.
The military, the army, of course, they weren’t happy that we had taken over all of this area, so they counterattacked with a new plan. In ’87 and ’88 we experienced airstrikes; helicopters and aeroplanes bombing, machine guns, and we weren’t ready. Our battle techniques were no longer going to be one-on-one combat, we had to learn how to shoot flying objects as well, to defend ourselves. We spent two months in a very intense training, we had to learn how to measure the height, the speed, the wind, to aim at helicopters and aeroplanes. Our final test was to go to Suchitoto and start a riot. We knew that if we started a riot that helicopters and aeroplanes would come. Our test was to shoot the helicopters and we managed to take down two of them. So, I guess you can say that we passed. After that, of course, the pilots were afraid of us. They were afraid of us! We weren’t afraid of them anymore, but the pilots of the army [sic] were afraid of guerillas!
The final offensive to take over San Salvador, November 11th, 1989, we failed. But that was a way for both sides to say, “Okay, we’re even now. Nobody is going to win this.” After this attempt to take over San Salvador, there was this international pressure, the United Nations, other countries’ governments, were saying, “You should sit down, guerrillas and government sit down and start negotiations for peace.” From the end of 1989, we started negotiating, but it was very difficult because we were opposite forces, deadly enemies. We really wanted to kill each other. We sat for two years, up to the 16th of January 1992 before peace treaties were signed by both sides.
This began a new, tough time. We had to surrender our guns. It becomes a part of your body after 12 years of carrying it. We had no money, we had nothing, we had no land. At some points, I slept under a tree! After the war ended, I had no other options. We had nothing after the war, but thanks to NGOs and the solidarity of many people around the world, we received donations of construction materials, milk and sugar and beans, so things started to get better. We were very grateful. Reconstructing the town was a big labour, this town was bombed during 1983. All the houses were mud bricks and clay bricks. It takes one bomb and the whole thing goes… Everything here now is new.
I felt fear all the time. I still feel fear when I hear the helicopters. In my job as a park ranger now, I still feel fear when helicopters pass overhead. I start sweating. The fear will just possess you, but I always knew I would survive. That bullet, for me, was never made. Am I proud of the stuff I did? A lot of it was just survival. A lot of it we just had to do. But the stuff that made a difference, of course. Our cause was just. Righteous.
The president now, in El Salvador, was one of the big leaders of the guerrillas. The vice president as well. The government here is better now, there are a lot of things that are better. All the children at school get free milk every day. A lot of things are better, but it’s populism. We achieved only 50% of what we wanted to achieve, but it’s better here than in other areas, where they still live as enslaved labour. I think it’s a better future for my children than what I had, but because we didn’t achieve all the goals that we wanted, I still get frustrated.
When asked, “If you had your time again, would you make the same decisions? Would you still join the guerrilla movement?”
Una, dos… siempre.
Don Rafa has been the head park ranger at Parque Ecologico Bosque De Cinquera for the past 17 years. He is a father of five.
Wherever possible, I have fact-checked the information presented to me by Don Rafa. I highly recommend the book Poets and ‘Prophets of the Resistance: Intellectuals and Origins of El Salvador’s Civil War’ by Joaquín M. Chávez if you care to do the same. Alternatively, you can check out this article from the Washington Post archives.