Perquin and El Mozote lie at the heart of El Salvador’s Ruta de la Paz (Peace Route) where some of the worst atrocities and massacres of the 12 year Salvadoran Civil War happened. They’re not easy places 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. 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.
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 and most gruesome fighting happened in Suchitoto, but horrible things happened all around El Slavador and some of the most notorious atrocities happened along what is now called the Ruta de la Paz.
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 we met were guerrillas, including the staff of the excellent Museum of the Revolution (US$1.25 per person).
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.
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.”
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 to make 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).
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, 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.
An estimated 700 to 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s more about travel in El Salvador