The Autobiography of a Salvadoran Socialist Revolutionary
Roger Blandino Nerio was a guerrilla leader with the leftist FMLN during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. As these selections from his memoir reveal, he was, like many guerrillas, an ordinary person spurred by conscience and history to extraordinary action.
In the following excerpt, Blandino’s guerrilla column is on the march through El Salvador’s mountainous eastern region in June 1984.
The darkness was total. It rained cats and dogs again and the column moved slowly, the ground was slick and we were drenched to the bone and freezing cold. The garbage bags we wore as capes over our heads and packs as protection were insufficient. It poured, and we kept advancing.
It was maybe 3:30 AM when we reached the village of Loma de la Cruz, in Jucuapa. Taking advantage of a brief stop, another combatant, Mayra, and I approached a house where we perceived activity. A fire was burning, and we could hear the slapping sounds of women preparing tortillas. The aroma of corn tortillas was seductive on the heels of our miserable march, but it was the cold that was really getting to us, and we sought the opportunity to ask for a cup of coffee. I was disappointed to find that they hadn’t prepared “tree coffee,” but they offered us “corn coffee” [a blend of ground toasted corn and water], and I thanked them and went out to continue our journey.
We passed through the El Amatón village and El Níspero, reaching a fork in the road known as Chicken Foot, and through the Tapesquillo Alto village until we arrived at the “La Nena” Plantation, where the column descended until arriving at the village of Las Marías. Twice more, I asked for “tree” coffee and was disappointed to discover that this drink was not consumed in these peasant homes. The third time was at the “La Nena” Plantation, in a house of some peons who not only had no coffee but explained to me that the drink was damaging to one’s health, that it made people sick and even insane.
By this time, the first rays of sun were shining, and we began to feel that delicious warmth. We had begun our march the day before in the late afternoon, and it was now morning, late enough for us to feel tired, very tired. It was then that I could perceive, in the light of day, as we descended along a cobblestone road, that everything around us to the left and right and up and down the mountain, all of it, but all of it was pure coffee plants and shade trees — and no coffee to be found in a single home!
I started to wonder about this when Rubén Darío — the pseudonym of a comrade from nearby Chinameca — interrupted to tell me, “That shouldn’t surprise you, comrade. It’s the same in all these plantations.” And we continued down the stone road, as a barefoot child watched us in silence leaning against a mango tree.
Finally, we arrived at the road that ran from the municipality of Jucuapa to Santa Elena, we were only a few hundred meters from Las Marías. The old road, once paved, showed clear signs of years of abandonment. The asphalt carpet had practically disappeared. But it revealed how, down to the foot of the hills, the development of means of communication corresponded clearly to the needs of the coffee barons.
Not long before, the state had met the needs of the rich by providing them with the maintenance of primary and secondary roads, maintaining the roads within the plantations year after year. In other words, the resources of the state, the resources of all Salvadorans, were incontrovertibly at the service of the large plantation owners.
When at last we reached Las Marías, the morning was bright and the sun was shining. Someone told us to head toward the mill, there would be food waiting for us, which provoked many smiles. But I wanted a sip of real coffee.
It was Rubén Darío who asked me if I still wanted some. A few meters from where we stopped for breakfast, we entered a house, and Rubén approached a woman in the hallway. They spoke for a few seconds, and she withdrew into the kitchen, returning with two steaming cups of coffee — real coffee — strong, fragrant, and hot. A pleasure of the gods.
I was enjoying my beverage when a middle-aged man entered, obviously the man of the house. He approached us, appearing relaxed. He introduced himself, “Good morning, I’m Pablo Amaya.” We couldn’t imagine, then, how important this man would be for our guerrilla and the popular organization here in Cerro El Tigre.
I was savoring the flavor of my coffee. It was like having part of my life restored, and he laughed softly when Rubén told him how I had been desperately — exaggerating a little — asking for coffee since the sun came up. I, naively, asked Pablo, “So, why is it that people around here don’t drink coffee — there being plants everywhere, from the edge of the road to the top of the hills — and you so calmly offer it to us here?”
He responded in a soft tone, but with a brutal message: “The thing is, I own my land, and here most people are peons. They’re afraid that they will be accused of theft, of stealing the boss’s coffee.”
In the following excerpt, it’s September 1984. Blandino is recovering from a serious leg wound in a guerrilla encampment. His team hears an exchange of fire, then the movement of an individual toward them. After a tense moment, it turns out to be a comrade: el “Chelito.”
We took him in, and when we asked him what he was doing there alone, he answered that there had been an exchange of fire, and he had lost the group and didn’t know what had happened to Sánchez and Maritza, Sánchez’ partner and radio technician. I told him to get set up to listen to the incoming communications, night was falling and the Daily Situation Report that the army officers transmitted to their superiors would be coming soon. He could try and decode the message.
Some minutes passed until the report came in. Chelito began to decipher it, and when it was ready, he brought it to me. Chelito looked nervous as he handed me the notebook.
“I don’t know if I’ve got it wrong,” he said.
I began to read. It contained information regarding the events of the day and ended, as was customary, with their location for the night and a request for resources for the following day. What mattered was that it reported the death of a “C/T” (“Criminal Terrorist,” as the army was calling the FMLN back then), stating that it might have been someone important, based on the weapon they captured: a Galil automatic rifle and a backpack with several notebooks, although they didn’t have the guerrillero’s body.
We knew that the only member of the BRAZ [Rafael Arce Zablah Brigade, an ERP guerrilla unit] in the area assigned a Galil rifle was Comandante Sánchez, and we knew that Sánchez, a true combatant, would never abandon his rifle alive. Furthermore, we were concerned that Maritza hadn’t checked in and that nothing was known of her whereabouts. We reported to [our Comandante] Licho, by radio, that Chelito was with us and communicated the Daily Situation Report we had deciphered. His response was that we stay put until a sweep of the area could be conducted.
At last, they carried out the exploration. The enemy had retreated. In our comrades’ search, they reached the San Andrés slope and descended toward the north. In that area, to the west, a few dozen meters into the coffee fields, was the body of Comandante Sánchez and, a few meters away, the inert corpse of Maritza, still holding her weapon. Maritza had cared for Sánchez in her last moments, and, conscious that death was approaching from her own wounds, she took the time to write in blood on the butt of her rifle, “We women will triumph, long live the revolution.”
The night was colder with that news. It was truly an enormous loss. Sánchez was part of the generation of legendary leaders of the BRAZ, forged by Licho, who, as part of the mobile column and later, with the concentration of forces in 1982, began to take on greater responsibilities. He, together with Hernán, who fell in the taking of the Cacahuatique Antena (1983); Guadalupe, head of the Special Forces, who would fall in the attack on the Third Infantry Brigade (1984); Walter (“Che”), who fell in the road between Sesori and Ciudad El Triunfo (1983); Goyo (“Negro”) and Ángel who fell in combat during the November 11, 1989 offensive — these were the hardened leaders of the column, born in Morazán, who with their effort and example forged the signature combativity and efficiency of the BRAZ which had already in those early days transcended our borders with its heroism.
Early next morning, we received a message from Comandante Licho ordering us to travel to his camp, which was situated between the Zelaya Plantation and the Los Lazo village, less than an hour from our position. My leg pained me, but I longed to be back with the rest of the comrades and that eagerness tempered my discomfort.
We arrived at camp around 10 AM and, immediately presenting myself, I was called into a meeting. Right away, Licho said, “They screwed us. Sánchez’s death fucked up our plans, but we’ve worked it out.” As he spoke, Lucho maintained that half smile that he always wore.
He was silent for a moment, then asked, “And how is that leg doing?”
“It’s a lot better, I walked the whole way today, slowly, but it didn’t hold me back,” I answered.
He started to laugh. “Oh, well then! That means you’re all better, I’m going to send a message to them (the ERP Commandancia) letting them know there’s no problem.”
Suddenly, he started taking things out of his backpack: topographic maps, active codes, reserve codes, documents, and money in colones and dollars. “Here, keep these safe, never let go of your backpack. If you lose it, you’ll really fuck everything up!” he exclaimed, laughing. Then, he let slip, “From now on, you’re the boss! I’m leaving, so from here on out the column is under your command. Don’t fuck it up,” and he laughed even harder. I was a bit surprised and, knowing Licho, I wasn’t sure if he was joking. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I remember that, on one occasion, a few months back, in the Esperanza or Infantossi Plantation, we were standing in the hallway of the main house and looking east toward the Chaparrastique volcano one afternoon. He said, “It looks so calm and pretty, doesn’t it? To think that in less than a month, everything you see will be so different.”
His tone was serious and mysterious, so I asked, “Is there something new they haven’t told us? What’s going on, Licho?”
After a heavy silence, he said, “Those gringo bastards are coming any day now. They’ve got ships with 250-millimeter and 400-millimeter canons that reach over 200 kilometers not far from the shore, and they’ve concentrated planes, helicopters, and paratroopers in Honduras to invade us.” He was stone-faced. “What do you think? What should we do?”
It was such a shock that I stayed silent, struck by the news, taking it in, imagining it all. Licho insisted, “Are you shitting yourself?”
I stayed silent, until finally I said, “Well, if that’s what’s coming, that’s what’s coming.”
He asked me again, “Aren’t you freaked out?”
I only managed to say, “Well, what can we do, Licho? It’s what it is. I think the best thing to do is to inform the whole troop. There’s going to be fewer of us once they know.”
Suddenly, Licho started to laugh, saying, “I got you, man! It’s bullshit!”
“What the fuck, Licho! That’s no joke, you bastard!” Finally, we laughed together for a good while.
The truth was that, in those days, and for months prior, the rumor was circulating that the decision had been made for a direct invasion of our lands by Yankee troops. There were waves of rumors at certain points, no doubt spurred by the nearby movements at the gringo military base in Palmerola, Honduras, or in the Panama Canal Zone.
But this time, he wasn’t joking. After a moment, he insisted, “Look, I’m serious, you’re in charge. The thing is, I’ve got a serious health problem and I put off my departure as long as I could, but this thing won’t let me stick around anymore. It had been decided that Sánchez would be the first in command and you the second, but after what happened yesterday, Sánchez is gone, so it’s up to you. Take all these documents. Here’s a page of pending tasks so that you don’t forget. All the personnel is informed that you’re taking over for me. After lunch I’m taking off and who knows if we’ll see each other again. I’m sure we will.” Finally, he asked me again, “Is your leg really better? You’re not bullshitting me?”
That was how I was promoted to head of the El Tigre zone, the political-military coordinator of a key area fiercely disputed by the enemy, a nest of coffee enclaves between the two main highways that unite the country from east to west.