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"A gang of assassins from the Popular Liberation Forces will attack Roberto Quesada tomorrow."

As a radio blared out staccato messages between the army posts guarding Highway 7 from San Miguel to the southeast border of El Salvador with Honduras, Lieutenant Guillermo Lizco of Las Boinas Negras stood at attention while he waited for his commander to respond to his statement. An elite unit of American-trained commandos, Las Boinas Negras, Black Berets, served in Morazan province; specializing in long-range reconnaissance and patrol, the unit often intercepted guerrilla kill teams terrorizing the community leaders and civic employees of remote mountain villages.

The guerrillas feared the lieutenant's unit. If guerrillas entered one of his ambushes, they died or became prisoners. But only those with weapons. Sometimes the guerrillas forced the local campesinos to carry their supplies. On more than one occasion, Lieutenant Lizco and his soldiers had only fired one shot each from their rifles. All the armed guerrillas in a group dropped, dead or seriously wounded, leaving the campesinos and the unarmed guerrilla sympathizers standing among bodies. Though the sympathizers disappeared into the torture chambers and mass graves of San Salvador, the Black Berets returned the campesinos to their villages. This gained the respect of the local people, who were accustomed to indiscriminate firefights and death-squad assassinations, and earned their support. Increasingly, campesinos and landowners and embittered leftists brought Lieutenant Lizco information on guerrilla operations.

As if he had not heard the lieutenant, the commander swirled coffee in a cup while he studied a relief map of the province. The contour lines infolded and twisted into an abstract design of near-infinite complexity to suggest the thousands of mountain ridges and valleys and rivers of Morazan.

"I received the information from a hotel clerk who overheard," Lieutenant Lizco added. "He knows they are PLF."

Lieutenant Lizco referred to the Popular Liberation Forces, a Stalinist group that admitted links with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Unlike the rebel forces who hoped for eventual reconciliation of the nation after victory, the Popular Liberation Forces fought a war of annihilation. They took no prisoners in their assaults on isolated army positions, putting bullets through the heads of captured soldiers or hacking fifteen-year-old draftees to death with machetes. They dispatched assassins to silence Salvadorans conservatives, liberals, union leaders, socialists, Marxist Utopians who spoke of peaceful reform or a revolution ending without the creation of a "People's Soviet State." And they preached the doctrine of revenge: all Salvadorans who failed to join the People's Army faced execution after the Triumph.

Outside the mud-walled, bullet-pocked farmhouse where the Black Berets made their barracks and offices, the diesel generator sputtered and stopped. Both soldiers reflexively looked out the sandbagged window to the scorched cornfields. A midday attack? Guerrillas always sabotaged generators first, to cut off the lights and radios. But the officers saw no guerrillas advancing across the fields. No autofire cracked the quiet of the overcast afternoon. As their eyes searched the perimeter, the generator resumed its monotonous drone.

Finally turning to Lieutenant Lizco, the commander's exhausted, expressionless eyes examined the twenty-two-year-old junior officer. The commander glanced to the doorway to the other room. The lieutenant stepped to the door and looked out. The clerk had left the room that served as a unit office. Only then did the commander ask, "Quesada is a friend of yours?"

"No!" Lieutenant Lizco sneered.

"Perhaps his guards will protect him," the commander suggested. He turned away. Adding another cube of sugar to his coffee, he stared out at the black clouds bringing an early end to the afternoon. Lizco did not allow the silence to deny his point.

"It is an opportunity to stop a gang of assassins," he said.

The commander turned to him again. "Quesada is one of the fourteen. We cannot touch him."

For a moment the lieutenant did not comprehend his commander's words. Then he blurted, "No. I mean I mean the Communists..."

"Oh, of course. The Communistterrorists." The commander nodded. "I was confused. I am confused. Perhaps I misunderstand you. You will risk your life, the lives of your men to protect that butcher?"

"No. I will kill the assassins. This time they attack Quesada, but the next time a teacher, a mayor, a soldier, perhaps farmers who want to vote. But it is convenient that they attack Quesada, for if I am too late to save him, I will not cry."

With a quick laugh, his commander granted the request. "Go. Assemble your squad. God grant you luck. But do not hurry, understand me?"

Laughing also, the lieutenant snapped a salute and left the offices. In the farmyard, Lieutenant Lizco looked up at the black sky. The overcast blocked the tropical sun. From the west, a wall of black churning clouds swept in from the Pacific.

The approaching storm confirmed the reports from the American weather satellites. Tonight would be another night of high winds and torrential rains.

No light planes, no helicopters would fly tonight.

Wind-driven rain beat the branches and fronds above Lieutenant Lizco and his men. All through the night, the winds of the violent storm had torn branches from the trees. Flowing rainwater became flowing mud as the steep hillside eroded. Silt covered their boots and camouflage fatigues. When their shallow fighting holes filled with black water that stank of rotting forest debris, the lieutenant and his squad put their weapons and ammunition on the rocks and branches around them. But they held their positions on the hillside. Only the lieutenant moved, leaving the shallow ditch he had gouged in the rocky soil to crawl from man to man, checking the seven men in his ambush squad.

Lieutenant Lizco peered across the valley to the lights of the Quesada plantation. One of the largest coffee fincasin El Salvador and the largest and most profitable in the province of Morazan, the plantation spread across the hillsides and fields of a valley in the foothills of the Cordillera Cacaguatique Coroban. With the heat of the tropical sun tempered by the altitude, the hills' fertile soil and year-round streams created a perfect location for the production of high-quality coffee.

Yet the valley had not been developed until twenty years before, when the Salvadoran government received a low-interest loan from the United States Agency for International Development. With American money, road crews improved the road to San Francisco Gotera to make it a highway capable of carrying diesel semi-trucks loaded with tons of coffee. The remote valley suddenly had value. The Quesadas, one of the Fourteen Families who had controlled El Salvador throughout the three centuries following the Spanish Conquest, took title to the land. They paid a national-guard commander to massacre the campesino communities farming the valley, then the family developed the land for the production of coffee clearing the fertile valley, building roads, laying out irrigation systems. After the coffee plants matured, the Quesadas exported millions of dollars worth of coffee each year to wholesalers in Europe and North America.

The fincahad a grid of roads interconnecting the fields and warehouses. Elegant gardens lush with flowers and tropical fruit surrounded the sprawling complex of homes and apartments housing the individual families of the extended Quesada family. A reservoir and hydroelectric generator provided power for the streetlights and homes and equipment and concentric circles of electric fences that protected the family. A strip of open ground along a stream provided space for seasonal laborers to make shacks for their families during the harvest. An outer perimeter of barbed-wire fences and watchtowers, patrolled by the Quesada militia, protected the family and their vast fincafrom the guerrillas operating in the mountains of Morazan.

The barbed wire also imprisoned the migrant workers. Once inside the gates of the plantation, the campesinos left the twentieth century behind. The Quesadas ruled their fincaas a feudal state. For three dollars a day, the campesinos began picking coffee before light and continued until dark, the militia enforcing the quick pace of the work with fists and kicks and sticks. The workers slept in cardboard shacks, and tents made of plastic scraps. Injuries went untreated. Children splashed in the muddy stream and died of pesticide poisoning. A Quesada store sold beans and canned food to the workers at prices calculated to take back the few dollars the Quesadas paid in wages. If workers complained of the abuse or the deaths of their children or the low wages and expensive food, their corpses joined the bones of Indians and mestizos who had first farmed the valley.

In case of a revolt of the campesinos or an assault by insurgents, a private airfield ensured the immediate arrival of troops. And the prefab hangars housed several private planes. The Quesada militia had mounted machine guns and bomb-release mechanisms on two of the planes. They regularly dropped twenty-gallon cans of gasoline mixed with concentrated insecticide on bands of suspected guerrillas. Igniters sparked an explosion of flame and choking, sooty smoke that caused convulsions and lung hemorrhages.

But primarily, the airfield and private planes provided safe transportation for the family's most important members such as the colonel. In good weather, family aircraft shuttled between the plantation and their mansions in San Salvador, avoiding any chance of skirmishes or assassination along the highways linking the fincato the capital. The light planes also carried vital supplies weapons, ammunition, French whores, liquor, cocaine and videocassettes of North American television.

This morning, the storm and unnaturally violent winds had grounded all planes and helicopters.

Lieutenant Lizco looked down at the landscape graying with the first light of day. El Nifto, he thought.

The shift in a sea current somewhere in the Pacific Ocean had caused climatic changes throughout the Americas. California enjoyed a mild winter and a long, cool spring. Mexico suffered drought. Guatemala experienced strange incidents of two-hundred-kilometer-per-hour jet streams descending from the stratosphere to rip through the countryside and cities. Hundreds died in Peru and Ecuador when torrential rains washed away pueblos, and avalanches of mud buried entire highways.

It is a warning from God, the lieutenant thought. He can change the currents of the ocean, deny the life-giving rains, or send floods down on our countries. If we do not stop the atrocities and massacres, if we do not stop the injustice and hypocrisy, He will end this world and begin again.

And the trial and punishment of Colonel Roberto Quesada would remove one offense to God from His earth.

Now, after twelve hours of waiting, the lieutenant watched the road for Colonel Quesada. He glanced at the road snaking through the foothills and forested valleys, but he did not take his binoculars from their case. The headlights of the trucks would announce Quesada.

As the day came, the shadowy forms of the mountains became landscapes of undulating green. Black storm clouds obscured the mountain peaks and swirled through gorges. Gusts of wind whipped the trees of the forest from side to side. The swaying branches created a pointillistic panorama of seething fertility and life.

The lieutenant stared at the beauty of El Salvador. At moments such as this, after nights without sleep, his fatigue and fear and adrenaline heightening his emotions, he loved his El Salvador with an intensity beyond simple military esprit or mere patriotism. For a moment, he surrendered his identity to the embrace of the earth of El Salvador, the warm rain drumming on his back becoming the blood drumming in his ears, his flesh merging with the warm mud, his eyes and what his eyes saw becoming inseparable. All became one: his dark skin, his Olmec-Nahua-Spanish face, his European name, his Indian heritage and his twentieth-century hopes the earth of Cuscutlan-El Salvador received him as the faithful son it had created, Indian and Spanish, sometime poet and dreamer and full-time commando

A hiss from his nearest soldier startled him. Lieutenant Lizco realized he must have slept with his eyes open. Now the storm clouds glowed silver with the sun. He looked down to the road.

Trucks approached.

What the lieutenant saw confirmed the information he had gathered in the preceding months.

The first truck was a four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser with a whip antenna. It served as the point vehicle. The militiamen inside watched for guerrilla roadblocks and ambushes, the radio always on, the microphone at hand to instantly transmit warning to the other trucks following a kilometer behind. They also had the duty of finding any land mines placed by guerrillas in the road. The second and third trucks, both armored Silverados, identical in year and color and trim, stayed in the tracks of the Toyota's oversized tires. Colonel Quesada rode in the second or third truck, unseen behind the gray-tinted windows. No guerrilla could aim an antitank rocket at one of the Silverados with confidence of hitting the fascist colonel.

The trucks moved as fast as the mud-slick asphalt of the road permitted.

To his sides, despite the drumming of the rain and wind-lashing branches, the lieutenant heard the faint clicks of weapons going off safety as his men prepared to counterstrike the Communist assassins.

The soldiers watched the roadside for the Communists. This section of road, so close to the gates of the finca, offered the ideal opportunity for an ambush with rocket-propelled grenades. Following the folds of the mountains until the hillsides sloped into the valley, the road ran straight for the last few hundred meters to the gate. Flat expanses of truck-rutted mud created a trap. If the convoy swerved from the road, the mud would stop the trucks. If Quesada and his bodyguards stayed on the road and returned fire while they waited for rescue by the fincamilitia, the mud flats would become a kill zone. Only a hundred meters away, the forested hillsides could hide machine guns and rocket teams and snipers.

Finally taking his binoculars from the case, Lieutenant Lizco focused on the last Silverado, hoping to see through the windshield. Did Quesada ride inside? The high-powered optics revealed only silhouettes. Then the lieutenant watched the gate. A militiaman, rifle slung over his shoulder and walkie-talkie clipped to his belt, pushed open the steel-and-barbed-wire gates. In the watchtower, another militiaman casually held an M-16 as he watched the approaching convoy.

The point truck left the winding curves. The lieutenant looked to his soldiers. They shouldered their rifles and grenade launchers. The unit's sniper put his eye to the scope on his match-grade G-3 rifle while the spotter swept the scene with binoculars.

In the quiet of the rainswept morning, they heard the Silverados shift into high gear and accelerate into the straightaway. The lieutenant refocused his binoculars on the gate. He hoped to see one of the guards salute.

Perhaps Quesada would wave to his militiamen. Perhaps, once inside the finca, the lead truck and the Silverado carrying only the bodyguards would take a different road while Quesada sped in his Silverado to his luxurious home in the center of the valley.

No rocketflashes came from the mountains. No machine guns fired on the convoy. The lieutenant watched as the trucks roared across the last straightaway. The drivers screeched the trucks' brakes to slow for the series of speed bumps. Once they passed through the gate, they accelerated to a hundred kilometers per hour.

As his men muttered curses and gathered their equipment, the lieutenant kept his binoculars on the trucks inside the plantation. The lead truck the Toyota Land Cruiser turned onto a side road. But both Silverados continued directly to the gardens and homes of the Quesada family.

Lieutenant Lizco returned his binoculars to its case. He had not determined which truck carried Colonel Quesada, but he had confirmed several other important details. Though his soldiers cursed the informant who had misled them and condemned them to an all-night wait in the storm for nothing, Lieutenant Lizco considered his unit's operation a success.

No Communist assassins had waited for the fascist convoy, contrary to what the lieutenant had told his commander. Lieutenant Lizco had lied. True, an informant did tell the lieutenant of the colonel's rare overland commute to the finca. Only a few times in recent years had the weather forced the colonel or any of the other members of the family to risk the highways; now, in this year of strange weather when God sent violent storms to warn of His wrath, when weather denied the Quesadas their inviolate passage through the skies, the family would take the highways more often.

No Communist assassins lay in wait today. But soon the lieutenant himself hoped to ambush Quesada. He would not murder Quesada. He would kidnap him for the humiliation of public trial and judgment in the courts of the United States.

The lieutenant lay in the mud watching Colonel Quesada, the fascist murderer of Salvadorans and North Americans, race to the safety of his fortified estate.

That night, wearing the casual fashions of a Salvadoran playboy, with forged papers concealing his identity, Lieutenant Lizco carried his information far to the north, to San Francisco, California, to set in motion the relentless process of justice.

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