Colonel Mauricio Ernesto Vargas is the commander of the Fourth Detachment of the Salvadoran army’s Third Brigade in San Francisco Gotera, capital of the warravaged department of Morazán, about a hundred miles northeast of San Salvador. He is thirty-nine years old but looks about twenty-five. I met him early one morning in late March, just as he was leaving the cuartel, his headquarters next to the Franciscan church. Dressed in combat fatigues and a floppy hat, he was on his way to visit one of his units north of the Torola River in guerrilla-held territory. “Would you like to come with me?” the colonel asked.
Minutes later, in an American UH-1 helicopter equipped with huge machine guns, we were aloft over mountainous terrain and deep valleys smoking from intermittent fires or patched with ash where fires had raged. We flew over the Torola toward Joateca, only several miles from the Honduran border. Some of the burned-out patches were straining for rebirth—shoots of new green bush and trees struggled to grow. We landed at the foot of a hill, black with the skeletons of trees still smoldering from a fire, where Colonel Vargas and I were greeted by about forty of his soldiers.
We walked up and down the blackened hills, the colonel conferring with his junior officers, examining his field maps, talking with nearby units on an American PRC-77 radio, scanning the adjacent hills with his high-powered “mil-scale” binoculars and seeing no guerrillas. The day before, he explained, there had been a battle between his men and guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Nobody had been killed, but a guerrilla had been captured and was being questioned. I had heard accounts of what such “interrogation” meant, and was glad I was not the guerrilla, who might have been tortured. I borrowed the colonel’s field glasses, and fell behind him as several of his peasant soldiers—boys no more than seventeen years old—asked me for cigarettes. They were armed with American M-16 automatic rifles. With the binoculars I scanned the hills, and for an instant glimpsed three or four young men in civilian clothes with rifles dashing through a patch of burned-out trees. I said, “Oh.”
“Did you see somebody?” a sergeant asked.
They’re guerrillas, I thought. They may die tomorrow. Why should they die today? I said, “No. Ninguno. Nobody.” I held on to the binoculars, and to distract the soldiers handed out more cigarettes. Eventually I flew back to Gotera with Colonel Vargas.
The colonel is considered one of the most enlightened officers in El Salvador’s army, and in fact if not in name he rules those parts of Morazán held by the government. No one has accused him of the massacres of helpless civilians that took place only a few years ago; he practices “psych-ops” to win the loyalty of his people. In his office at the cuartel he explained how. “Our mission as soldiers is not only to …