NUEVO SAN FERNANDO, El Salvador — Before he arrived, guerrilla sentries climbed surrounding hilltops and took up positions on the town's only cobblestone street. Another rebel, armed with an M-16 automatic rifle, searched an abandoned rural health clinic with a flashlight.
In the darkness before a full moonrise, the sound of quick boot steps broke through the night, and bodyguards burst into the clinic ahead of him.
"Hello, I'm Ferman Cienfuegos," the guerrilla commander said with the grace of a host at a cocktail party.
The slender, bearded guerrilla leader is one of the five commanders of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, fighting a bloody war to oust the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte. Cienfuegos heads the Armed Forces of National Resistance, a small, Marxist-Leninist party that is one of five armed groups in the front.
Since the presidents of the five Central American countries signed a peace plan last August, there has been mounting international pressure on the government and guerrillas to end the civil war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
In the wake of the peace plan, Duarte met with the guerrillas to argue that a multitude of political killings and a military-dominated government--the principal issues that sent thousands of guerrillas to the mountains eight years ago--have been resolved by his elected Christian Democratic government.
Duarte said the Farabundo Marti guerrillas, known by their Spanish initials FMLN, must put down their guns, form legal political parties and take part in national elections in what he and U.S. officials call a burgeoning democracy.
But from the steep mountains near the Honduran border, the rebel view is dramatically different. Cienfuegos said the guerrillas' military pressure, rather than democracy, has brought about changes in El Salvador. Elections, human rights improvements and Duarte's government are symptoms of a U.S. counterinsurgency program, not democracy, he said.
"It would be political idiocy to disarm," Cienfuegos said. "Imagine the FMLN without an army. They would annihilate us. There would be a bloodbath."
At 40, Cienfuegos has been a revolutionary for nearly 18 years--10 of those as a clandestine urban guerrilla and eight in the impoverished countryside that he says he has not left since he made a speaking tour of Europe in 1984.
He takes his nom de guerre from two fallen combatants, has survived rightist death squads, deadly internecine struggles among the left and a war in which, as a commander, he is a principal target. Over the years, his group has carried out kidnapings and executions, as well as countless military operations. Those experiences, perhaps as much as his radical ideology, help explain why this war is not likely to end soon.
'No, There Is None'
Asked if he seeks any alternative to armed struggle to bring about social change in El Salvador, Cienfuegos answered without hesitation, "No, there is none."
During a nightlong interview by gas lantern last week, Cienfuegos drank sweet coffee and tirelessly answered questions on behalf of the five-member guerrilla command. He wore solid green fatigues and studious-looking horn-rimmed glasses, and he spoke in an even manner more suited to the art teacher that he once was.
Throughout the night, two bodyguards stood by his side with their rifles at the ready. One of them, who goes by the name Baltazar, said, "We are willing to continue fighting until the end, and after our triumph we will keep on fighting."
At 24, Baltazar has been a member of a guerrilla organization for 11 years.
The guerrillas' response to Duarte's call for their disarmament is a demand that he agree to a provisional government that includes the FMLN and its political allies in the Revolutionary Democratic Front. With a transition government in place, they may then be willing to negotiate a cease-fire and organize new elections. The rebels want a referendum on a new constitution.
"Without our participation, there is no solution to the national situation," Cienfuegos said.
Protest Over Assassination
The October peace talks in San Salvador produced little more than a cease-fire commission that has met once in Venezuela. The guerrillas suspended the next meeting scheduled for Mexico City to protest the assassination of human rights activist Herbert Anaya Sanabria, and Duarte has since refused to hold further talks.
Cienfuegos said he expects cease-fire talks to resume next month around the time that the five Central American presidents meet to evaluate each country's progress in complying with the regional peace accord.
Last month, Revolutionary Democratic Front leaders Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora returned briefly from exile to begin organizing a legal movement of the political left. The visit produced speculation of a possible split between the politicians and armed rebels.