As a teenager, Leonor Marquez led a fleet-footed unit of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla fighters through the steep mountain passes of Perkin, El Salvador. “We were young and fast,” Marquez, now 37, remembers. She and her comrades, who were known as “Las Samuelitas”, were a fierce group of insurgents who might have been giddy junior high girls had they not been in El Salvador in the 1980s.
The civil war ended 17 years ago, but Marquez is again leading groups through these forested hills with guerrilla warfare on her mind. Only now, those following her are Salvadoran students and American and European leftists stepping gingerly in their Reeboks and khaki shorts, and stopping frequently to drink bottled water. Welcome to El Salvador’s new guerrilla-tourism industry.
“We should get going before it gets too dark,” Marquez calls out in Spanish, watching the sun set over the mountain ridge and pulling out a flashlight — a visual aid that would have been much too risky to use during the rebels’ deadly cat-and-mouse game with the patrols of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army back in the ’80s. On the short descent back to the revolutionary museum which houses the twisted carcasses of several attack helicopters downed by the guerrillas, she points out a crater where a 500-pound bomb was dropped by the army. Nearby is a bunker system used by FMLN rebels to escape those air raids. Back at the Perkin Lenca Lodge, Benito Chica takes out his guitar and plays revolutionary folksongs — the same ones he sang at the rebel camps two decades ago.
Marquez’s tour is part of El Salvador’s “Route of Peace, a network of rural, war-torn communities trying to rebuild themselves through tourism. Ironically, the project, which can include 15-day-long packages for tour groups, is now funded in part by a $184,000 grant from the U.S., which had helped bankroll El Salvador’s right-wing military during the civil war that killed 75,000 people. Unlike U.S. historic battleground sites, with musty replica uniforms, powderhorns and recitals of textbook war accounts, here the guides are those that did the fighting. “This is guerrilla tourism,” Chica says. He admits the offering is rustic and improvised, but he says the ex-guerrillas have plenty of experience facing challenges. “During the war, they would tell us we had to take a hill,” says Chica. “We didn’t know how, but we had to do it. Now they tell us we have to build tourism. We don’t know how, but we have to do it.”
Salvadorans have responded positively to the idea. Some 70,000 students visited the Route of Peace last year. And, especially because Washington played such a large role in El Salvador’s bloodletting, the site has also become an important educational tool for some U.S. university students. Christopher White, assistant professor of Latin American history at Marshall University in West Virginia, has brought students to El Salvador for the past four years, and says the Route of Peace has had a profound impact on them. “The students become immersed in the civil war, which means that they leave informed about the ability of our government to determine whether people will live or die at the hands of our allies in poor countries. They talk to former refugees who fled the scorched-earth campaigns, they talk to former guerrillas who took up arms at age 10, and they begin to see how complex the world is.”
Tour guides say talking about the war has become a form a therapy. “For four years after the war I had nightmares every night, but talking about it with groups has helped me to overcome some of those issues,” Marquez says. “Now I remember it like a movie or a dream.” For others, the memories are still more like a nightmare. “This is something we still haven’t gotten over yet,” says a soft-spoken Maria de la Paz Chicas, one of the few survivors of the El Mozote Massacre, in which the military murdered 1,700 villagers on Dec. 11, 1981. Chicas, who was 11 at the time, went into the nearby mountains to help pick coffee that day. She returned home to discover that everyone she knew — including playmates, neighbors and 17 family members — had been brutally slaughtered, and their bodies burned.
Standing in front of a memorial to the dead, Chicas speaks in a soft voice to a group of tourists, whose wide eyes glisten with tears. “We used to play here as children,” she says. “It has been very difficult to return. It’s still hard to talk about, but I ask God for help.” Regaining her composure, she adds, “I feel comforted by talking about our history, so we never forget it ever again.”
El Salvador’s civil war officially ended with a peace accord in 1992. But this month marks the 20th anniversary of the conflict’s last major battle, a 1989 FMLN attack on the capital San Salvador. As part of its counterattack, the Army murdered six Jesuit priests and two of their housekeepers; but the rebels’ actions during that urban offensive, which killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds more, weren’t particularly admirable, either. If the Route of Peace can help to keep Salvadorans, and foreign governments like the U.S., from repeating the mistakes of that dark decade, then it seems worth the price of admission.