In the army cuartelof San Francisco Gotera, North American and European journalists crowded around the commander of Las Boinas Verdes, Colonel Alfredo Perez, as he spoke in English of the U.S.-sponsored pacification program. He posed against a ceiba tree, his camouflage fatigues starched and creased, his jump wings flashing on his chest, an Uzi machine pistol slung casually over his right shoulder. His deep, resonant voice boomed in the garrison courtyard.
At one time, the cobblestoned courtyard — brilliant with bougainvillea and hibiscus, shaded by the ceiba — echoed with typing and ringing telephones as the town officials of Gotera administered the prosperous farming region. Secretaries hurried from office to office in the two-story stucco-and-tile buildings framing the courtyard. The national police maintained an office on the ground floor where officers slept through their careers.
A guerrilla bomb had destroyed the national-police office. The soldiers now quartered in the civic buildings had placed a Browning Model 1919A6 .30-caliber machine gun pointing out through a window bricked-in to a horizontal slit. The weapon's field of fire included the town square, the Cine Morazan, the church, and a cafe advertising Coca-Cola and Cervezas Pilsner. Where the now-deceased policemen had slept with their chairs tilted against the walls, soldiers slept against sandbags. On the second-floor balconies where secretaries had minced from office to office in their tight skirts, their heels clicking on the tiles, soldiers played cards behind rows of sandbags, oblivious to the American-accented English of their commander.
"The political details and legal technicalities don't concern me. My duty is the protection of the administrators and the campesinos. If the guerrillas kill the government workers or the farmers who work the land, they kill the reforms.
"Though the war requires more supplies of material from the United States, the reforms are the best weapon we have to defeat the Communists.
"While the Marxists promise a new social order, the government of El Salvador creates a new order.
"The guerrillas make promises while they burn fields and cut roads and destroy bridges. We issue land titles and loan money for seed and fertilizer.
"We'll win. It may take a year or two to drive all the Communists back to Nicaragua and Cuba and Russia, but we'll win because the people of El Salvador are with us."
Two of the colonel's aides applauded his speech. The journalists glanced at their watches, bored. Expecting the newsmen to snap photos, the colonel turned his profile to the group. But no shutters clicked. The colonel dropped his pose and leaned against the ceiba tree.
"Questions?" he asked the journalists.
A gray-haired reporter in a guayaberashirt and plaid Bermuda shorts held up a hand. He held a cassette recorder to tape the colonel's answer.
"Colonel Perez, this morning I saw two bodies just outside town here. Two middle-aged men. Looked poor, had callused hands like farmers..."
"Yes, it is terrible. The terrorists always take the good men, the men who work for a living. If the farmers refuse the propaganda of the Communist terrorists, they're shot like dogs. Next question."
"Colonel Perez, allow me to finish, please. One had this piece of paper wadded in his mouth." The gray-haired reporter held up a sheet of thin, yellowish paper with printed and typed text. "This land title granted the man ownership of seventeen acres of undeveloped land just north of here. I checked it on the map and it's property claimed by the Quesadas. What..."
"What is your question?" one of the aides demanded. His right hand gripped the flap of his .45 automatic's holster.
"Please state your question, sir," the colonel requested.
"What would the Communists have to gain by protecting the Quesadas' property?"
The colonel laughed. "I don't know. I haven't studied Marx. Maybe you should ask the Communists."
"Have you questioned the Quesadas about the murders?"
"What murders? Next question."
Another reporter spoke. "Has the tempo of the fighting decreased since the negotiations began?"
"What negotiations? How can a democracy bargain with terrorists? There are no negotiations that I know of… perhaps the leftists and Communist sympathizers have initiated a sham…"
A soldier ran through the dust and the shadows to hand his commander a slip of paper. The colonel glanced at the message. He turned to the journalists.
"Thank you for your attention and concern, gentlemen. I must end the press conference now. Buenas tardes."
One of the newsmen's drivers rushed through the gates of the cuartel. He whispered to the journalists.
"Ambush on road. To the north. I hear army radio. We go?"
"Fighting going on?" a photographer asked.
"All over. No danger. Many dead. Soldiers going in trucks."
"Who won?" a writer asked in English, then repeated in Spanish when the Salvadoran driver did not immediately answer. "Quien son los ganadores?"
The Salvadoran laughed, spoke in English as before. "Mister, who knows? We go see? Yes? We wait for soldiers to go, we follow."
The group moved for the press vans, all of the journalists and photographers speaking to one another. The gray-haired journalist who had questioned the colonel on the murdered campesinos, Alex Johnson of the San Francisco Globe, glanced around the pueblosquare.
In front of the Cine Morazan, he saw a young man speak with the soldiers quartered in the abandoned theater. The young man looked at the group of journalists leaving the cuartel, gave the soldiers a salute and crossed the unpaved square to the vans.
The journalists knew the young man as Jose Lopez, a United States citizen born in Puerto Rico and working with American journalists in Latin America. He spoke excellent English and idiomatic Spanish. Twenty-two years old, a mulatto with wavy close-cut hair, his skin a cafe au lait that matched the color of most Salvadorans, Jose had already proved himself invaluable to the North Americans and Europeans. Local people stared at the foreign journalists. Jose went unnoticed. Salvadorans turned their backs to the questions of the foreigners. Jose gossiped and joked with campesinos and soldiers and village women.
The young man went to Alex Johnson. As the other reporters crowded into the vans, Jose whispered a report to the San Francisco journalist.
"This commander's a complete fuck-up. He's lost a hundred men in the past three months. Not prisoners and wounded. Dead. They're up against the Popular Liberation Forces. The PLF don't take prisoners. The commander only goes through the motions. He resupplies the garrison in Perquin by truck. Which means the guerrillas hit them at their convenience. Maybe once a week there's an ambush like the one the Commies just did. The soldiers are scared shitless."
"What about the two dead farmers?"
"They bury people every morning. Those two today. Three yesterday. One the day before. Every day."
"Who's doing it?"
"Isn't those guys. They don't leave town day or night."
"They can't say..."
"Don't know. If they knew, they'd say. Because the people hate, I mean they hate, the Quesada militia. The Quesadas have got helicopters to patrol their property while the soldiers ride around in trucks and get shit on by any Commie with a rifle and a bottle of gasoline. And Mr. Johnson, it is my recommendation that you stay in town. Forget this little press jaunt up to the killing ground."
"Man, because it's unsafe!" Jose laughed. He pointed to the words whitewashed on the sides of the vans: Periodistas, U.S.A., U.K., Alemania. "That paint don't mean a thing when you got a world of bad things happening in those mountains. Besides, there's a unit called the Black Berets coming in off a patrol. They're hardcore LRRPS," he added, referring to their Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. "They'll be hanging out at the cafe while they wait for a helicopter out. Those guys will have some information."
"Will they talk to us?"
"You make friends with them. I'm leaving with these hacks."
"Into the mountains? You said..."
"I'm getting out at Lolotiquillo and hiking across to the Quesada plantation for a look-see. I'm meeting a group of friends out there."
Johnson paled at what his assistant told him. "What are you talking about!"
"It's cool. I arranged it in Mexico City. I'll be back in San Salvador in three days."
The older journalist glanced around. The other newsmen waited in the vans. Across the square, soldiers climbed into two troop carriers. A jeep with two pedestal-mounted M-60 machine guns would provide additional firepower on the road.
No one stood so close that Johnson could be overheard. He whispered to his assistant, "Floyd, there's a limit to what you can do."
"Yeah, I hear that. I hear that from the FBI, the Justice Department, the embassy. But if you knew... If you…You must understand that I've already gone past the limits. It's the only way to work. I learned that from experts. Specialists in the outer limits."
The troop trucks roared into gear. In the clouding dust, "Jose Lopez" climbed into a press van. Johnson saw the young man pull a backpack from under the seat. As the van followed the trucks, Jose leaned forward to speak with the driver.
Alex Johnson stood alone in the dusty town square of San Francisco Gotera, Morazan.