Guerrilla Tourism Helps El Salvador Heal

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As a teenager, Leonor Marquez led a fleet-footed unit of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla fighters through the steep mountain passes of Perkin, El Salvador. "We were young and fast," Marquez, now 37, remembers. She and her comrades, who were known as "Las Samuelitas", were a fierce group of insurgents who might have been giddy junior high girls had they not been in El Salvador in the 1980s.

The civil war ended 17 years ago, but Marquez is again leading groups through these forested hills with guerrilla warfare on her mind. Only now, those following her are Salvadoran students and American and European leftists stepping gingerly in their Reeboks and khaki shorts, and stopping frequently to drink bottled water. Welcome to El Salvador's new guerrilla-tourism industry.

"We should get going before it gets too dark," Marquez calls out in Spanish, watching the sun set over the mountain ridge and pulling out a flashlight — a visual aid that would have been much too risky to use during the rebels' deadly cat-and-mouse game with the patrols of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army back in the '80s. On the short descent back to the revolutionary museum which houses the twisted carcasses of several attack helicopters downed by the guerrillas, she points out a crater where a 500-pound bomb was dropped by the army. Nearby is a bunker system used by FMLN rebels to escape those air raids. Back at the Perkin Lenca Lodge, Benito Chica takes out his guitar and plays revolutionary folksongs — the same ones he sang at the rebel camps two decades ago.

Marquez's tour is part of El Salvador's "Route of Peace, a network of rural, war-torn communities trying to rebuild themselves through tourism. Ironically, the project, which can include 15-day-long packages for tour groups, is now funded in part by a $184,000 grant from the U.S., which had helped bankroll El Salvador's right-wing military during the civil war that killed 75,000 people. Unlike U.S. historic battleground sites, with musty replica uniforms, powderhorns and recitals of textbook war accounts, here the guides are those that did the fighting. "This is guerrilla tourism," Chica says. He admits the offering is rustic and improvised, but he says the ex-guerrillas have plenty of experience facing challenges. "During the war, they would tell us we had to take a hill," says Chica. "We didn't know how, but we had to do it. Now they tell us we have to build tourism. We don't know how, but we have to do it."...

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