SAN SALVADOR — In the three years since he founded Goods for Guns, Fernando Mateo has watched lots of folks trade in lots of weapons. After all, the point of the New York-based program is to persuade people to exchange firearms for store coupons to buy consumer goods.
Still, Mateo was unprepared for what happened when he took the idea to El Salvador.
Salvadorans were not just swapping handguns and rifles. They brought rocket launchers, grenades and grenade launchers, detonators, TNT and C-4 explosives to the four churches where arms were being collected.
In two weekends, the program collected 1,262 weapons and 14,580 rounds of ammunition--more than sponsors had expected to receive over eight weekends from September to December.
"What we got was something I've never seen in my life," Mateo said. "There was enough ammunition to start a war. We collected arms I had never seen before: M-16s, AK-47s. These people had these weapons in their houses."
Many of the weapons traded were left over from El Salvador's 12-year civil war--hidden in caches for the four years since the peace agreement was signed.
Estimates are that the civilian population here still has 3,000 to 4,000 military weapons, said David Gutierrez, general coordinator of the Patriotic Movement Against Delinquency, the local sponsor of the program.
Goods for Guns is not El Salvador's first effort to collect those arms--or even the best offer.
Sponsors are giving coupons worth about $172 for handguns and about $345 for more powerful weapons. Government programs have offered nearly twice that much in the past.
"Previous programs have been done by the armed forces," Gutierrez said. "People did not want to show [up] at a military base with illegal weapons."
Most of those turning in arms insist on anonymity.
One man arrived at a church here carrying half a dozen grenades in his cupped hands.
"Here you go," he cheerfully told program sponsors, then collected his $345 in coupons and declined to talk more.
One well-dressed man in his 20s turned in a rocket launcher with Pollo--"Chicken"--etched on the barrel, and two Israeli-made semiautomatic rifles.
He would not say where the guns came from.
"I am turning them in because someone could steal them from the house and increase the crime wave in the country," he said. "Besides, this is a way to bring peace to El Salvador."
The postwar period has not been a time of peace. Armed gangs--many affiliated with Los Angeles street gangs--have terrorized Salvadorans.
A year ago, 40 citizens banded together to found the Patriotic Movement. Goods for Guns is their first project.
The response to the program has startled sponsors, who have already spent about $104,000 that was budgeted to last from now to December.
"We are hoping that the success will generate more donations" to fund more coupons, Gutierrez said.
Eventually, they expect to forge the collected guns into a monument in the form of a plowshare.
And Gutierrez hopes that the success of Goods for Guns will persuade the Salvadoran legislature to accept proposals for stricter gun control.
Mateo is also encouraged. He began the program three years ago in New York when his son suggested at Christmas that people ought to trade their guns for toys.
An independent business owner, he expanded the idea to other U.S. cities and, earlier this year, to the Dominican Republic, where he was born.
He now plans to take the program to Colombia, where a civil war has been waged for three decades and the crime rate is even higher than in El Salvador.
"We in America accuse the Colombians of poisoning our children with drugs," Mateo said in a telephone interview from New York. "More people die from American-made weapons in Colombia than die of drugs in the United States."
He does not plan to stop with Colombia.
"This is an experience I am going to take to all South American and Central American countries," he vowed.