Galloping Through Guerrilla Territory




Civil Society, Conflict Resolution and Mediation

By Sonja Peteranderl

On the rocky outcrop, from which guerrilla fighters used to aim sniper rifles at approaching enemies, Erick Castro scans the mountainous landscape before his eyes with binoculars – on the lookout for rare birds. His horse grazes next to the viewpoint; in the impassable, densely forested area, the young Salvadorian can only get around on foot or on horseback.

The mountain area near the town of Suchitoto, 50 kilometres northeast of the capital San Salvador, was one of the hotspots of El Salvador’s civil war from 1979 to 1992.

Guerrilla fighters from the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) entrenched themselves in the Cerro de Guazapa. The military-led junta government Government of El Salvador bombed whole mountain slopes and forest areas bare (Williams 1985), and destroyed fields and settlements to take away their infrastructure, hiding places and local support. The Salvadorian military and right-wing death squads killed guerrilla fighters and peasants alike.

Today, Castro shows tourists around the former war sites and explains to them the roots and the impact of the conflict. He is part of Guazapa Tours, a cooperation of tour guides that offer ecotourism with the goal of preserving the historical memory – hiking tours, canopy, bird watching or horseback riding in the former conflict zone. “I think it’s important to know the history so that it doesn’t repeat itself,” says the 28-year-old.

30 years ago, on 16 January 1992, a peace deal between the Salvadorian Government and the left-wing guerrillas ended the 12-year civil war – but many wounds have still not healed (UN Peacemaker). The bloody conflict cut a path of destruction through the whole country: 75,000 civilians and thousands of soldiers and insurgents were killed by massacres, executions, landmines and bombings in the small Central American country, which had 4-5 million inhabitants at that time. Nearly one million people (Chávez 2015) were displaced within El Salvador or fled to other Central American nations, the United States, Mexico and other countries.

Hand-dug bomb shelters and makeshift hospitals

El Sitio Zapotal, the tiny village at the foot of the Guazapa mountain where Erick Castro lives, was created after the peace agreement – families affected by the war and ex-combatants settled here. Castro’s father had fought for the guerrillas, his mother had supported the fighters as a nurse. The remnants of the guerrilla camps where they lived during the conflict, hand-dug bomb shelters and makeshift hospitals can still be visited.

The paths on which the horses and its riders climb towards the summit are made of earth, until they disappear in the forest into ever narrower trampling paths. Erick Castro uses his machete to clear overgrown paths. The guerrilla posts are hidden so deep in the mountains that they can only be explored on foot.

A small community museum in El Sitio Zapotal provides an insight into the bloody violence that played out here. Rusty rifles, ammunition, hand grenades and shrapnels are at on display as well as photographs of underage guerrilla fighters, military raids, and memories of massacres.

Civilians caught in the middle

“Both sides have committed murder, but the military is responsible for most of the violence”, Castro says. According to the United Nations, more than 80 percent of the deaths can be attributed to the Salvadorian army, its paramilitaries and death squads. While the FMLN was supported by the Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Soviet Governments (Allison 2012), the military and its death squads were US-backed (Milz 2021). The US Administration massively funded the civil war and supported the military with weapons, advice and training. Civilians were often caught in the middle (Williams 1985). In the 1981 El Mozote massacre in eastern El Salvador, the US-trained military’s Batallón Atlácatl unit killed around a thousand people within three days. Almost half of the victims were minors, many women and children were raped before the soldiers executed them (Milz 2021). Several massacres also took place in the region, where Erick Castro lives.

Unpunished war crimes

Most of the war crimes have gone unpunished (Doyle 2020). The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Comisión de la Verdad Para El Salvador, CVES) investigated the conflict’s atrocities, but an amnesty law passed in 1993 protected perpetrators from persecution.

The law was annulled in 2016, but “justice has not yet been served”, according to the Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF). The organisation criticises, the Government’s refusal to make available the archives on the armed conflict held by the military for investigations; the role of the United States in the human rights violations also needs to be investigated more comprehensively (Doyle, Lanza, Arteaga, Snodgrass-Godoy 2021).

A slippery path to peace

Social justice and a more equitable distribution of resources such as land were at the heart of the conflict (Center for Justice & Accountability), but at the end of the war, 60 percent of the population was living on the national poverty line (Bell 2013). In the course of a land reform as part of the peace treaty, the villagers of El Sitio Zapotal were allocated small plots of land to earn their livelihood as farmers.

Castro’s parents started to grow maize – his mother also later set up her own catering service. Despite the reform, the levels of poverty and inequality in El Salvador remain high and the majority of the population struggles to get by. Corruption and gang violence (International Crisis Grouphas also hampered the success of poverty alleviation programmes.

“I think the redistribution of land was fair, but there are people who see it differently,” – Castro says. Only a few young people from rural communities go on to university like him. He started studying architecture in the capital San Salvador, but quickly returned to his village. He could no longer afford to live in the city, but he also missed the forest, nature. Castro still has plans to finish his studies, but right now he is happy to be able to earn money as a tour guide – in addition to working in his family’s fields.

Hope for the next generation

Guazapa Tours was founded in 2005 by young adults from the region to provide youths like Erick Castro an opportunity to earn income, motivate them to remain in the area and improve the local quality of life. The garden in front of the community museum, where today only a vendor is selling drinks and ice cream, is also to be transformed into a small park, with more market stalls and leisure activities for children in the future.

“The whole village should benefit from our tourism project -,” says Castro. They borrow the horses for horsetrekking from the local farmers – the cooperative gives the owners a share of the tourism income. During the pandemic, hardly any tourists came, but slowly business is picking up again.

Castro also tries to pass on his knowledge about the history of the place, flora and fauna, to children and young people. “For the youth, the war is far away, they are more interested in social networks and music -,” he says. Nevertheless, he believes that it is important to preserve the heritage of the place – for that also opens paths to a better future.


About the author:

Sonja Peteranderl is the founder of BuzzingCities Lab and reported from El Salvador as a fellow of the International Journalist’s Programme (IJP) Latin America 2021. Twitter: glocalreporting

Published on February 17, 2022.

Photo credit: Sonja Peteranderl

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