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On the Road to Peace – Perquin & El Mozote, Ruta de la Paz, El Salvador

Perquin and El Mozote lie at the heart of El Salvador’s Ruta de la Paz (Peace Route). This is where some of the worst atrocities and massacres of the 12 year Salvadoran Civil War happened and that’s saying something. These are haunted places, hard to visit, hard to forget.

Inside the Holy Spirit Grotto

As a prelude to our time along the Ruta de la Paz we visited the ancient pictograph-filled Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish). Be warned: the road that cuts off from the Pan American Highway and heads up to the town of Corinto is a festival of pot holes over pavement that was clearly laid by blind ferrets then attacked by dinosaurs wielding jack hammers and bad attitudes. Luckily, the grotto was worth it.

A two minute stroll took us to an enormous rock overhang which is covered in pre-historic paintings.

petroglyphs Espiritu Santo grotto - Corinto, El Salvador

It was worth braving an evil road to get to the Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish), a huge rock overhang covered in ancient pictographs in El Salvador.

 

Though some of the pictographs are said to be more than 10,000 years old, many still clearly depict hawks and humans. An on-site guide accompanied us and pointed his machete at dozens of images we might have missed otherwise.

rock paintings Espiritu Santo cave - Corinto, El Salvador

This hand is just one of the hundreds of ancient pictographs you can still see at the Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish) in El Salvador.

Even better than ancient rock art? Brand new paving on the road from Cortino to Perquin.

 

Preserving the painful past in Perquin

The Salvadoran civil war was fought between various guerrilla factions cobbled together into a movement called the FMLN vs. the Salvadoran government’s US-backed military. It was the second longest civil war in Central American history and it didn’t end until 1992. Some of the earliest fighting happened in Suchitoto. Horrible things happened in Suchitoto and around El Slavador, but some of the most notorious atrocities happened along what is now called the Ruta de la Paz.

FMLN Che Guevera El Salvador

Che Guevera, FMLN hero, immortalized in a town along the Ruta de la Paz in El Salvador.

During the war guerrilla fighters emerged from all over the country to rise up against the army but Perquin emerged as the spot where FMLN headquarters were set up, in part because of its guerrillas and in part because of its forested, mountain terrain–perfect cover for a guerrilla war.

The region is still staunchly FMLN (which became a political party and is currently in power in El Salvador) and many of the people you’ll meet were guerrillas, including the staff of the excellent Museum of the Revolution (US$1.25 per person).

Museum of the Revolution - Perquin, El Salvador

Deadly weapons in front of a backdrop of art depicting local children’s dreams of peace at the Museum of the Revolution in Perquin, El Salvador.

When we arrived at the humble, low-slung museum we met Carlos who told us he was a guerrilla fighter and now works at the museum. After giving us a thorough history of the war (we were really proud of ourselves for following it in Spanish) Carlos shadowed us as we slowly toured the simple but moving exhibits, pointing out anything important that he felt we might have missed. And there was a lot of important stuff.

A series of adjoining rooms, each with a theme, housed everything from weapons to pictures of FMLN leaders killed during fighting and a few who survived attack and torture. A handful are still alive today. One room displayed equipment used to transmit crucial messages on the FMLN’s ingenious radio network, called Radio Venceremos. 

Radio Venceremos.FMLN - Perquin, El Salvador

Some of the rudimentary studio equipment used by the FMLN to broadcast crucial messages on Radio Venceremos during El Salvador’s civil war.

Under a roof out back we saw the remains of the helicopter used in one of the most daring and famous FMLN assassinations of the war. To get at government military leader Lt. Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios the guerrillas allowed Monterrosa to find a FMLN transmitter which he confiscated, believing it to be a crucial FMLN tool. It was. The FMLN had booby-trapped the transmitter and guerrillas exploded it remotely once the helicopter–and Monterrosa–were airborne. All aboard were killed in what Carlos described as “tacticos del caballo a trojan.”

Helicopter ruins, Museum of the Revolution - Perquin, El Salvador

What remains of the helicopter which the FMLN shot down using a booby-trapped radio transmitter in order to assassinate Lt. Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios during El Salvador’s civil war.

Guerrilla life, sort of

One of the strengths of a guerrilla army is its ability to hide in and move around rugged terrain. FMLN fighters lived and battled in deep jungle for years and we got a somewhat wacky sense of what FMLN guerrilla camp life might have been like.

A former guerrilla camp is located just down the road from the museum. It’s now on property occupied by a family and they’ve re-created some rudimentary structures, put more bombs and bullets on display (who knew spent bullet casings could be strung together into a pretty cool curtain?) and uncovered a network of tunnels which guerrillas used to move around undetected. You can walk through them if you like (US$1 per person).

El Salvador Revolution war tunnels  - Perquin, El Salvador

Tunnels, like this one, allowed guerrilla fighters to elude army forces during El Salvador’s civil war.

Unprepared for the massacre at El Mozote

The museum and the abandoned camp gave us a sense of what the war was like for guerrilla fighters but it wasn’t until we visited the nearby town of El Mozote that we started to understand the realities for their families, everyday farmers and villagers and anyone else not firmly in lock-step with the Salvadoran government. Frankly, we were unprepared.

On December 11, 1981 Salvadoran army troops, now widely believed to have been trained and armed by the US, arrived in El Mozote, which is still just a dusty collection of simple homes. Rumors of an impending attack had inspired villagers from around the area to converge in El Mozote which they believed would be spared because of its religious and political ties. They were wrong.

Over the next two days soldiers interrogated and killed every grown man they could find. Then they began raping and torturing the women and stabbing and clubbing the children. Those who’d gone into the church to hide were locked in and machine-gunned through the windows before the church was burned.

Reflection Garden of the Innocents, El Mozote, El Salvador.

A memorial garden has been created beside the church in El Mozote where women and children were gunned down by US-backed military forces during one of the most shocking massacres of El Salvador’s civil war.

 

An estimated 700-1,200 villagers were killed, half of them children. Despite scientific surveys an exact number of victims has never been calculated. Too many bodies were too mutilated during what became known as the El Mozote massacre.

El Mozote massacre memorial - El Salvador

This wall lists the names of the hundreds of known victims of the El Mozote massacre.

Saved by her disability

The church has been rebuilt and is still the center of El Mozote. A memorial wall commemorating the attack has been built out front and after contemplating it we headed for the church. At a small table out front we were assigned a guide and she proceeded to calmly and coolly recount the events of those two terrible days.

El Mozote massacre church - El Salvador

Murals and color lend the beginning of hope and peace in the memorial garden to women and children killed in this church during the El Mozote massacre.

 

The church was locked when we were there and we were secretly grateful. Who knows what ghosts might lurk inside. However, a garden has been planted on the side of the church and an entire wall now bears the names and ages of the people who were killed inside the church. Most were women and children. One victim was only three days old.

names El Mozote massacre church wall  - El Salvador

The names and ages of victims killed inside this church the El Mozote massacre are now listed on a memorial wall. One victim was only three days old.

Our guide tells us that she was alive in the area during the attack. How did she survive? Because a congenital leg deformity prevented her from walking from her village to El Mozote with the others.

The memorials in El Mozote left us even more heavy-hearted than the Monument to Memory and Truth (Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad in Spanish) in Cuscatlán Park  in San Salvador. That moving memorial contains the names of tens of thousands of victims along with a shockingly long list of towns where other massacres occurred. It is powerful because of its almost incomprehensible scale. In comparison, the El Mozote memorials are chillingly intimate.

names El Mozote massacre memorial wall - El Salvador

Names of known victims of the El Mozote massacre are listed on this memorial wall in front of the town church. We will never know the names of all of the victims since many bodies were too mutilated to ever identify or count.

 

We’re not so naive as to think that war is a black and white affair involving All Right vs. All Wrong. Both sides in the Salvadoran civil war were guilty of kidnapping and murder and worse. The difference is that one side had a super power secretly advising, funding and supplying it fueled by President Ronald Reagan’s cold-war-era fears that El Salvador would go commie, as Nicaragua had recently done, if he didn’t prop up the Salvadoran government. That’s a pretty big difference.

In December of 2011, 30 years after the slaughter, El Salvador’s government officially apologized for its role in the massacre at El Mozote. The US government has still said nothing. A number of foreign journalists covered the massacre including Mark Danner whose book and New Yorker magazine expose paint a more complete picture than we can here.

A host with history

We stayed at the Perkin Lenca Hotel in Perquin where owner Ron Brenneman kindly hosted us in one of his hillside split log cabins. Yes, Ron’s hotel is a super-clean, fully-appointed bargain with rooms starting at US$20 including a great breakfast featuring homemade bread and bottomless coffee. But another great reason to stay here is Ron himself.

Born in the US, Ron first came to El Salvador in 1986 to help rebuild infrastructure after that year’s earthquake. The civil war was very much still on and Ron remembers that the Perquin area was essentially uninhabited as residents fled the war or dug into the jungle to fight it. When the aid group Ron was working with pulled out of the region Ron stayed, determined to help rebuild.

He started a construction company with ex-fighters as employees and began putting up buildings all over El Salvador. When the owner of a project in Perquin couldn’t afford to buy the whole parcel of land he wanted, Ron agreed to buy the steepest section. When the worst of the area’s construction needs were addressed, Ron decided to build a hotel on his land. He wanted to stay in El Salvador and running a hotel seemed like as good a way to do it as any.

This is the condensed version of Ron’s story–for the full, amazing saga check out his book, Perquin Musings, which is full of his extraordinary experiences in El Salvador.

Going forward

Our first stop in El Salvador was Suchitoto where the seeds of the civil war were planted early and sprouted high. Our last stop in El Salvador was Perquin and El Mozote where reminders of why war is hell (but we can never seem to remember that fact when it counts) were all around us. We have loved all of our stops in El Salvador and all the Salvadorans we’ve met along the way and we hope they (and everyone else) keep their feet firmly planted on the Ruta de la Paz.

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Civil War Gets Real – Suchitoto, El Salvador

There are people in El Salvador who will tell you that they’re afraid to go anywhere near
the town of Suchitoto. Why would otherwise sensible and intelligent people refuse to visit a lovely town like Suchitoto? Because El Salvador’s civil war didn’t end until 1992 and some of the earliest fighting and worst atrocities of that war happened around Suchitoto. For us, this is where El Salvador’s civil war–something we (and most North Americans) only vaguely understand–got real. For El Salvadorans it always has been.

Second longest civil war in Central American history

El Salvador’s civil war raged from 1980 to 1992 earning it the dubious distinction of
being the second longest civil war in Central American history (Guatemala takes top
“honors”). For twelve years the military-lead El Salvadoran government did everything in
its power (which included arms, training and expertise from the United States totaling millions of dollars) to wipe out a rebellion spearheaded by a group called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional in Spanish).

At the beginning of the war this front, known as the FMLN, was a coalition of five different revolutionary groups united against the government. On a side note…when the Peace Accords were signed in 1992 the FMLN switched from a guerilla/revolutionary group to a legitimate political party. The FMLN is the current ruling party in El Salvador.

Revolutionary FMLN sign in Cinquera, El Salvador

Revolutionary FMLN sign in Cinquera, El Salvador. “The revolution is not carried in the mouth to live it, the revolution is carried in the heart to die for it.” — Farabundo Marti

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The FMLN is named in homage to a Salvadoran leftist named Agustin Farabundo Martí Rodríguez, a legendary figure credited with opposing exploitation of the poor and helping to develop communist movements around Central America. The real Farabundo Martí died in 1932, nearly 50 years before the El Salvador’s civil war started.

civil war weapons - Suchitoto, El Salvador

Civil war leftovers are found everywhere in El Salvador. These are on display at a restaurant near Suchitoto.

civil war weapons - Suchitoto, El Salvador

Civil war leftovers are found everywhere in El Salvador. These are on display at a restaurant near Suchitoto.

 

The people’s priest

No matter which side of the political fence you were on in El Salvador in the 1970s you had to acknowledge the power of Archbishop Oscar Romero who had the trust and the ear of the poor and powerless, aka most of the population of the country. If you supported the FMLN, Archbishop Romero was a hero. If you supported the government, he was a target.

Archbishop Romero was assassinated by government death squads while celebrating mass in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Two weeks before he was gunned down Archbishop Romero said “If they kill me, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people.” He was right. El Salvador’s civil war began with his death.

Cinquera church - El Salvador

The church in Cinquera, El Salvador was rebuilt after the town was nearly flattened during civil war fighting. The bullet-riddled bell tower (right) was preserved and propped up and bomb casings now adorn the entryway along with a mural showing Archbishop Romero (left).

 

No one wins a civil war

The area around Suchitoto was (and is) a hotbed of support for the FMLN. Some of the earliest FMLN training camps and bases were in operation in the area and the government built a garrison in the nearly deserted town of Suchitoto as a base for surveillance and attack. Some of the earliest clashes between the two sides took place here and it just got worse as the civil war dragged on.

An unknown number of men, women and children “disappeared” across El Salvador during the war and more than 75,000 people are confirmed to have been killed on both sides. In the Suchitoto area every household has a story of profound loss during the war. People recount stories about the abductions, disappearances, executions, hiding, running, fear, deprivation and persecution that happened to them. El Salvador’s civil war didn’t occur in the distant past to people who are long dead. The horror story you’re hearing about hiding under dead bodies or watching soldiers drag another son away happened to the person you’re talking to.

Suchitoto military garrison

The remains of an old military garrison on the outskirts of Suchitoto where, we were told, many not very pleasant things occurred. It’s now inhabited by squatters.

 

A powerful and personal tour

In search of a deeper understanding of what went on here in the not-so-distant past, we went to a bar. But not just any bar. Bar El Necio in Suchitoto gets its name from Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s first nickname. The place is plastered with FMLN posters, memorabilia, pictures of Che and revolutionary slogans plus some still-live munitions. Substitute Martin Luther King Jr’s face on the posters and you begin to get a small understanding of the racial, social and economic struggle the FMLN represents here.

At the time Suchitoto native Luis Carranza,  better known by his nickanme Sapito or little toad, was the El Necio’s gregarious bilingual bartender. In addition to slinging a mean cuba libre (how appropriate), Sapito lead tours beneath the surface of Suchitoto’s FMLN legacy and civil war history (he’s now guiding full-time). It’s a subject he knows a thing or two about.

Born on the run

As she sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes, Sapito’s mother, an FMLN supporter, tells us that when she was nearly nine months pregnant she attended the funeral of a priest who had been killed by government death squads. Her presence at the funeral made her even more of a target than she already was and neighbors warned her that the death squads were coming for her next.

She grabbed her baby girl and, along with a few other FMLN supporters, ran into the jungle. Soon she was having contractions which forced her to hide just off the trail where she gave birth to Sapito. She tells us this with a matter of factness that’s more than just resigned. She sounds as if she has successfully put such a thing (and more) in the past. She sounds like she’s found a way to move on. It’s us who fight back tears.

Military graffiti - Suchitoto, El Salvador

Graffiti near Suchitoto, El Salvador.

 

There’s nothing civil about civil war

To be fair, not all of the atrocities were committed by the pro-government forces. The FMLN stands accused of abductions and murder as well, though the guerillas’ piddly resources (augmented with donations from Cuba and Russia) limited their ability to commit these acts while the US-backed Salvadoran military suffered no such limitations.

For example, in January of 1986 the Salvadoran military, aided by United States military advisors, launched “Operation Phoenix” (named and modelled after the operation of the same name in Vietnam) in the Suchitoto/Guazapa area. As part of the operation, a village called Aguacayo just a few miles from Suchitoto was bombarded. Twenty two civilians were killed and 213 others were captured or “disappeared.” By the time the operation was over 22 villages were burned and over 2,000 people were displaced.

“Operation Phoenix’s” scorched earth tactics, as described in this Los Angeles Times story, destroyed homes, fields, livestock and people. The attack was part of a strategy to remove the civilian population from the countryside to keep the FLMN guerillas from having contact with them. For more about this campaign of destruction check out the documentary Return to Aguacayo.

Bombed out Agyacayo church - Suchitoto, El Salvador

Aguacayo church was destroyed in 1981 bombings even before “Operation Phoenix” wiped the village off the map in 1986.

US backed Salvadoran government forces certainly succeeded at scorching and burning. Sapito took us to Aguacayo and even today the town is a propped up shell consisting mainly of overgrown foundations of houses that were never rebuilt and the skeleton of a church with a metal shed inside it for services.

After hollering out cheerfully for a few minutes an elderly couple recognized Sapito’s voice and came out to greet him and invite us into their very humble home near Aguacayo. The woman, in the clutches of dementia, said little. But her husband, fully aware of why we were there, was willing to share some of his experiences during the civil war, including the loss of his daughter which he slowly recounted as we stood in front of the family’s shrine to the dead girl.

Civil war survivor - Aguacayo, El Salvador

A man who lived through El Salvador’s civil war tells us about the war-time murder of his daughter as he stands in front of the family’s shrine to her.

Civil war survivor - Aguacayo, El Salvador

A man who lived through El Salvador’s civil war tells us about the war-time murder of his daughter as he stands in front of the family’s shrine to her.

 

We took ourselves to the town of Cinquera about 12 miles (20 km) from Suchitoto. Though Cinquera was also bombed to smithereens and most of its inhabitants killed or expelled, this town has been rebuilt–often using the detritus of war to do it. The dusty central square is home to the tail section of a downed helicopter. Fences are decorated with old machine guns. The shells of 500 pound bombs have been positioned just so around the church, like sculpture.

Memorial wall - Cinquera, El Salvador

Names of locals killed in El Salvador’s civil war are painted on this wall in Cinquera.

All of the buildings in town had to be reconstructed, mostly in cheap, drab cinderblock, including the church. However, the bullet-riddled bell tower of the church has been preserved and propped up as a kind of monument. FMLN posters are up on every street. There’s a crude bust of Farabundo. Murals list the names of locals killed in the conflict. Of all of the civil war battle sites we visited Cinquera feels most like a tinderbox.

For more about Cinquera, check out  “The Tiniest Place,” a documentary made by Salvadoran Tatiana Huezo in 2011.

Helicopter memorial  - Cinquera, El Salvador

The centerpiece of the square in Cinquera is the tail of a military helicopter that the FMLN destroyed. Note the old machine guns decorating the fence.

Remembering the murdered US nuns in Cinquera, El Salvador

The faces of four nuns from the United States who were brutally beaten, raped and murdered by death squads near the beginning of El Salvador’s civil war stand testament on a wall in Cinquera.

Taking a break from war

There are also a number of non-war related activities around Suchitoto. For example, the word Suchitoto means “place of birds and flowers” in the Náhuatl language and hundreds of species of birds live or migrate through the area. In October and November columns of migrating birds can darken the sky as they circle into thermoclines to help them get up and over El Salvador’s mountains and volcanoes. Guide training programs have taken place to promote bird watching in the area.

You can also take a zip line from the shore of Lake Suchitlan, below Suchitoto, across the water to a small island in the lake or tour the enormous lake in a small boat.

We wanted to check out Cascada Los Tercios, a few miles from Suchitoto to see the hexagonal stone spires, created in some ancient volcanic event, that form a dramatic jumble of rock over which water tumbles. However, robberies had been reported at the waterfall itself and we’d been advised more than once to take advantage of a unique service in Suchi: free police escorts.

So we walked into the police station, told the officer we wanted to visit the waterfall and before we knew it we were in the back seat of a police SUV being driven and escorted by two uniformed officers (one for each of us!). The drive to the waterfall was dusty and peaceful through tiny villages and past fields. Eventually the driver pulled over. He stayed with the vehicle and the other cop guided us through a fence, along a short trial through a pasture then down toward the waterfall.

The columnar basalt rocks, formed like pillars, were almost jet black and very well-defined which gave them a man-made look. It reminded us of Devils Tower in Wyoming, a monolith formed by a similar volcanic rock phenomenon, which we visited very early in our Journey. It was nice to visit a site in the area that didn’t have civil war baggage and we think the cops liked the excuse to get out of the office too.

Los Tercios waterfall - Suchitoto, El Salvador

The unusual columnar basalt rock formations of Cascada Los Tercios near Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Columnar basalt at Los Tercios waterfall - Suchitoto, El Salvador

The unusual columnar basalt rock formations of Cascada Los Tercios near Suchitoto, El Salvador.

 

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Zapatista Signs of the Times – Chiapas, Mexico

The New York Times called the Zapatista movement “the first post-modern revolution.” The movement boiled to the surface on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect–when mysterious balaclava-wearing Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Romona lead thousands of armed villagers in a surprise attack on the Mexican army which culminated in a bloody shootout in the main plaza of San Cristóbal del as Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Fighting went on for years and the Mexican Army still maintains a very visible presence in the area.

Though technically still at war with the Mexican government, the days of palpable Zapatista revolution (which called for land rights, resource rights, rights for women and economic and educational equality for Mexico’s indigenous poor) seem gone. For the visitor, at least, the most noticeable remains of the movement are hand-painted signs and murals which keep the spirit alive in the many rural village that support the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, the Zapatista government) in Chiapas.

We saw dozens of Zapatista and EZLN signs throughout the state and here are a few of our favorites examples of this ongoing artful protest.


This mural, on a building in the Oventic caracol, an autonomous village run by or Zapatistas, depicts corn (a symbol of the land), an indigenous woman defending her rights and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata--the inspiration for the term Zapatista.

This sign shows a snail (caracol in Spanish--which is also the word Zapatistas use for their autonomous villages) wearing the signature black balaclava of the movement's leader, Subcomandante Marcos. We love the Virgin of Guadalupe at the bottom wearing a typical EZLN red bandana over her face too.

In this sign little baby Zapatistas are depicted as growing ears of corn--wearing balaclavas, of course. Part of what was (and still is) radical about the Zapatistas was their inclusion of women and women's rights in their doctrine.

An ode to Emiliano Zapata, for which the Zapatista movement is named.

We loved the simple, graphic nature of this painted wall depicting Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos on the left and Emiliano Zapata on the right.

"Land and Liberty," two basic tenets of the Zapatista movement.

"The land belongs to those who work it" is a basic belief of all Zapatistas.

A tienda in a village in Chiapas which is sympathetic to the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas stay involved in fresh issues that affect them too--including taking a strong stance against a major road project through Chiapas.

"You are in Zapatista territory" this sign proclaims.

This is one of the most understated EZLN signs we saw.

The Zapatistas stay involved in fresh issues that affect them too--including taking a strong stance against a major road project through Chiapas.

This sign welcomes you to an autonomous Zapatista village and makes it clear that the people here are "in rebellion."

An autonomous EZLN-run village makes its politics known.



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