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Guided guerrilla tours

As El Salvador draws more visitors, the latest attraction isn't a tropical beach. It's the country's civil war sites. Former rebels will lead the way.

May 08, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Perquin, El Salvador — EFRAIN Perez moves with a slight shuffle as he escorts visitors through the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. His halting gait, the result of bomb shrapnel that nearly pierced his brain, has slowed the 38-year-old ex-guerrilla's body, but not his mind.

Effortlessly, he rattles off the dates of battles and assassinations, lists the names of obliterated villages and fallen comrades in arms. Then he leads his guests through narrow rooms filled with propaganda posters, Soviet-era surface-to-air missile launchers and dozens of grainy black-and-white photos of the "heroes and martyrs" who died in a brutal conflict that already has slipped into history's shadows.

"When you live it, when you know the consequences, it sticks in your mind. You don't forget," said Perez, a soft-spoken man who became a Marxist guerrilla after his mother, father and brother were killed by army soldiers near the start of El Salvador's 12-year civil war in the early 1980s. He was 11.

Under other circumstances, the musty artifacts on display at the museum, a one-story tin-roofed building perched on a muddy hillside, might have been stashed away in private homes or left to rust in some abandoned jungle lair. Perez might have frittered away his days among El Salvador's legions of unemployed.

But today he and a number of his fellow former rebels have a surprising new profession: tour guide.

While El Salvador's tourism ministry labors to attract conventioneers to the capital and sun worshipers to Pacific beach resorts, many former guerrillas, as well as ordinary civilians whose lives were forever changed by the war, are developing an "alternative tourism."

Since peace accords were signed in 1992, thousands of curious visitors from across Latin America, Europe, the United States and Canada have been drawn to this remote mountain village 10 miles from the Honduran border and other sites scattered across this violence-haunted republic of 6.9 million. While some visitors are sympathetic to the former rebels' cause, others seem simply interested in the history.

Centered on quarter-century-old killing fields and onetime rebel camps, turismo alternativo has brought vanloads of day-trippers to a handful of isolated villages linked to the struggle that claimed 75,000 lives and left 8,000 people missing.

Among the most infamous is El Mozote, a rural hamlet where as many as 900 men, women and children were raped, tortured and massacred by government troops on Dec. 11, 1981.

"There's a new generation that's realizing the history of Salvador," Perez said. "Always there's an ignorance, of not knowing anything, and we have to change the mentality."

Be it Gettysburg or the underground tunnel networks used by the Viet Cong, war-related tourism has become a worldwide enterprise.

What's unusual about El Salvador is that many of its sites are being operated not by the federal government but by its former enemies, the ex-combatants of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a coalition of communist and other leftist forces.

The country's Tourism Ministry doesn't support the sites and said that, while not ignoring the war years, it has other priorities right now. "The war, lamentably, is part of our history," said Minister Jose Ruben Rochi. "We can't forget what happened in the decade of the 1980s." However, he said, Salvadoran tourism is still in a "pretty initial, pretty elemental" stage.

LIKE many Salvadorans, Francisco Armando, 26, and Carlos Pineda, 25, weren't even born when the civil war erupted. They remember the swirling sound of helicopters overhead and the fear they felt as youngsters watching soldiers march through the streets, but not much else.

Earlier this month, the men and their families visited the museum here for the first time after a 4 1/2 -hour trek from their home in Sonsonate. Strolling the museum, Armando compared its artifacts with a documentary about the war that he had downloaded onto his cellphone.

Previously, he said, all his impressions of the era came from movies.

The museum's "reality was much stronger," said Armando, a public health worker.

The guides, all ex-guerrillas, work six days a week from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is 60 cents for Salvadorans and $1.20 for foreigners, plus $1 for parking. The compound includes a small store that sells snacks, Che Guevara T-shirts and books about Archbishop Oscar Romero, the antiwar cleric who was assassinated by government agents while celebrating Mass in 1980.

During holiday periods, such as Holy Week, as many as 6,000 people may visit the museum.

Plans call for adding a 100-seat conference room and theater, one of whose functions would be to host gatherings of families trying to locate missing relatives.

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