YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Media : Salvador Rebel Radio Comes In From the Heat : The clandestine Venceremos station once taunted the army that searched for it. A new, legal life in the capital has its own problems.


SAN SALVADOR — For 11 years, the guerrillas' clandestine Radio Venceremos mocked, taunted and eluded every army officer who tried to silence the official voice of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

"Pig Lips," they called one colonel; "Little Doll" they called another.

Gen. Mauricio Vargas was one of the army officers whose efforts to snuff out the rebel radio in northeastern Morazan province routinely failed. His bombs and rocket fire yielded only insults.

So Vargas was understandably taken aback during a Feb. 1 ceremony marking a formal cease-fire in the Salvadoran civil war when a dashing man in a beige suit offered him a microphone and suggested he speak his mind to the listeners of Radio Venceremos.

"This is the reunification of society," a startled Vargas told the pro-guerrilla audience. "Perhaps this is the most difficult stage, but all Salvadorans must unite to support this . . . . We all must do it."

"Well then, let's do it," said the jocular radio reporter, offering his hand to Vargas.

Throughout the civil war, Radio Venceremos was the guerrillas' most powerful political and ideological weapon--a morale builder and recruiter of combatants and guerrilla counterpart to the government's hearts-and-minds campaign. The reporter who interviewed Vargas was the eternally upbeat voice of Radio Venceremos, Santiago Gallo.

Now, under the peace accords signed by the government and guerrillas Jan. 16, the FMLN, as the rebels are called, will become a legal political party and Radio Venceremos will be an open, legal radio station operating out of San Salvador. The transformation of the radio falls to the man known simply as Santiago.

"What is clear is that the guerrilla radio is dead," Santiago said in an interview last week. "We have to change its language, insert ourselves into the competition and make professional radio."

Historically, the media in El Salvador have not been overly professional, acting primarily as mouthpieces for the army and government. At the height of death squad killings in the early 1980s, for example, the media served as a vehicle to issue threats to opposition forces rather than to expose human rights abuses. During the war, the army's psychological operations were played out in the media.

Radio has been the most open of the media and, in recent years, has been at the forefront of change. Radio was the first to open its microphones to opposition groups and public debate. Radio station YSU was the only member of Salvadoran media to provide detailed coverage of the country's biggest story in 12 years--peace negotiations. Radio is the most popular medium in El Salvador, where many people do not know how to read and cannot afford a television.

In peacetime, Radio Venceremos will continue to belong to the FMLN and to promote its political views, but Santiago insists his intention is not to be a party propaganda machine.

"We will be open to different currents of thought and debate. We no longer need to be the voice of the general command because now if (FMLN commander) Joaquin Villalobos wants to define his political position he simply calls a press conference. In Morazan, we were his only outlet," Santiago said.

Santiago is the pseudonym of Carlos Henriquez Consalves, 44, the son of a prominent Venezuelan diplomat who made his way to Nicaragua during the Sandinista-led uprising against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and stayed to work in the Sandinistas' revolutionary radio.

The Salvadoran insurgents recruited him in December, 1980, a month before Venceremos (the Spanish equivalent of "we shall overcome") was to make its debut during the rebels' Jan. 10, 1981, national offensive. With a team of three to 15 people, the station broadcast daily at 6 p.m. on FM and shortwave--often from underground or under fire.

Most of the time it was Santiago's resonant voice that listeners heard denouncing government corruption and army human rights abuses and issuing reports--often exaggerated--of rebel victories.

During the periods when rebel leaders were unable or unwilling to meet with foreign reporters, Venceremos was their connection to the outside world. Correspondents listened to the transmissions for the rebels' position on any given issue.

But the radio was aimed at Salvadorans, and it was a thorn in the army's side.

"In psychological, social and political terms, the FMLN used the radio very well," said Defense Minister Rene Emilio Ponce. "They used it to convince many people to support them. For us, it was the strongest source of propaganda they had to build the morale of their combatants. They used it to win support."

Ponce said he had refused to listen to the radio so as not to succumb to its psychological effects. But he conceded the radio became an "obsession" for other officials, notably Col. Domingo Monterrosa--the rebels' worst nemesis before they killed him in 1984.

"He listened to it too much," Ponce said.

Los Angeles Times Articles