JUST hours after leading a rebel attack on a Salvadoran Army unit
in the hills above this village, Comandante "Antolin" strolls into
town as if returning from a day at the office.
The hills are still smoldering from the Army's barrage of
helicopter gunfire. Children continue gathering the fallen shell
casings, whistling into them like empty Coke bottles. And fresh Army
troops are expected to pass by the settlement in a few hours.
But Antolin, the top regional commander of the leftist Farabundo
Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) - feels safe and sound in
Freshly shaven and sporting a yellow Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, the
37-year-old guerrilla leader settles in for a long candlelit
interview. He doesn't mind being in plain view of the villagers who
have resettled here after fleeing Army bombing raids in 1981.
"I've been able to show these people that I'm not their enemy,"
says Antol'in, explaining how he can venture here without bodyguards
- and how he thinks the FMLN can gain the upper hand in its nine-
year war against the United States-funded Army.
"The force of the FMLN resides in the people," says the urbane
revolutionary, a university graduate who first became involved in
clandestine leftist groups 21 years ago. He notes that the
guerrillas have reestablished themselves in the Cabanas Department
(province) over the past year and a half. "If the revolutionary
message reaches people's hearts because it describes a situation
that they feel and experience, then there is no power in the world
that can stop them."
So far, not even the 60,000-strong Salvadoran Army - flush with
over $850 million in US military aid over the past eight years - has
been able to squelch the 7,000-member insurgency.
The Marxist-inspired rebels, who are fighting to redistribute the
nation's wealth, have strong roots in communities like Santa Marta
that have been battered by poverty and repression. They control 29
of the country's 262 municipalities, and have expanded their
presence to all of El Salvador's 13 departments - including the
But the FMLN is being forced to play politics. While considered
the best-trained guerrilla army in Latin America, the FMLN does not
have the force to turn the tide of war in its favor. Its
international backers are tired of the war and are pushing for a
negotiated end. So are more than 60 percent of all Salvadorans,
according to a recent opinion poll.
"We need international support and we need the internal masses,"
acknowledges Antolin. "If the people's strongest desire is for
peace, then we must show our real political will and win the
sympathy of the masses."
Pushed to be more flexible by this collective longing for peace,
the FMLN is planning to launch a second "peace proposal" sometime
before newly elected right-wing President Alfredo Cristiani takes
office on June 1.
The new initiative, Antol'in says, will deepen the concessions
made in the rebels' January proposal, which called for a six-month
delay of the March 19 election while the two sides negotiated an end
to the war. Now that the election has passed, he says, the new plan
will deal "concretely with the social-economic model that could be
Antol'in doesn't harbor any illusions of an imminent end to the
The proposals, rather, seem designed to wrest the public-
relations initiative away from Mr. Cristiani's ultraconservative
Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). …