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Rural Towns in El Salvador Join “War Tourism” Trend

Florentino Menjívar (left), his wife María Dolores Gómez, and Víctor Manuel Escalante at the foot of a mural showing prominent figures from El Salvador’s civil war, in Dimas Rodríguez, a settlement of former insurgents in the town of El Paisnal, which is tapping into “guerrilla tourism”. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

EL PAISNAL, El Salvador , Feb 10 2015 (IPS) - The memory of a priest killed shortly before civil war broke out in El Salvador is so alive in this small town that it is now the main attraction in a community tourist initiative aimed at providing employment and injecting money into the local economy.

The Historical Memory Tourist Route is the name of the project in Paisnal, 36 km north of San Salvador. The initiative revolves around Rutilio Grande, a locally born Jesuit priest who was killed by government forces in March 1977, before the start of the 1980-1992 civil war.

“Father Rutilio taught people about liberation and commitment to the needy, and that’s why they killed him,” said 62-year-old María Dolores Gómez who, before she joined the guerrillas in 1980, was a catechist and met the priest. Now she forms part of the El Paisnal Municipal Tourism Committee.

The tourism project, whose first stage begins in March, is part of a growing trend in this formerly war-torn Central American country to draw visitors interested in the political and historical context of the armed conflict and the prewar period. And in the case of this town in particular, in the life of the famous Jesuit priest.

Rutilio Grande was the first priest killed in El Salvador in the context of the 12-year civil war, which left over 70,000 people – mainly civilians – dead and 8,000 disappeared before the 1992 peace agreement put an end to it.

After decades of electoral fraud by the military and the local elites, opponents of the system took up arms and formed insurgent groups to push the military regimes out of power and usher in socialism.

Grande, accompanied by Manuel Solorzano, 72, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, 16, was driving near the town of El Paisnal on Mar. 12, 1977 when the three of them came under machine gun fire and were killed. They are buried in the village churchyard, which is already a pilgrimage spot for visitors from within and outside the country and will be an obligatory stop on the new tourist route.

Historians and theologians say that after Grande’s murder, the conservative views of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, radically changed in favour of the poor.

Romero himself was assassinated three years later, in March 1980, while saying mass in a small chapel in San Salvador.

The Truth Commission set up by the United Nations after the end of the conflict to investigate the human rights violations blamed army Major Roberto D’Aubuisson for planning the assassination.

D’Aubuisson was the founder of the far-right Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), which governed El Salvador from 1989 to 2009, when the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) came to power. The former guerrilla group won the national elections a second time in March 2014.

Before and during the war, a segment of the Catholic Church in El Salvador espoused liberation theology, which promoted the fight against poverty and broke with the church’s traditional alliance with those in power.

The new tourist route starts at a place known as Las Tres Cruces (the three crosses), halfway between El Paisnal and the neighbouring village of Aguilares, where a small monument marks the spot where the priest and the other two men were killed.

“We have delegations of foreign and local visitors who come to commemorate the murder of Father Grande, and the tourist project aims to create the infrastructure needed to give them a better reception,” town councilor Alexander Torres told IPS.

He explained that the El Paisnal local government is going to invest 350,000 dollars in establishing basic infrastructure catering to tourists, such as rural hostels and small restaurants, which will be run by local residents and people from nearby villages.

“The good thing is that the community is actively participating,” 62-year-old former insurgent Florentino Menjívar, María Dolores Gómez’s husband, told IPS.

“This was conceived of to generate possibilities of growth for our local communities,” he added.

The couple lives in Comunidad Dimas Rodríguez, a settlement of former guerrillas founded in December 1992 near El Paisnal after the demobilisation of the armed groups.

The community, which forms part of the tourist route, was named Dimas Rodríguez in honour of one of the commanders who led the guerrillas in this area, members of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five armed groups that made up the FMLN.

Every Dec. 15, the date of the founding of the community, the local residents hold a guerrilla military parade to remember their commander, who was killed in combat in 1989, and to keep alive the history of the settlement. The event is attended by local and foreign tourists.

In the last few years, government officials who used to live in the settlement of former guerrillas have also attended the parade.

“The country’s current vice president led the forces here, when we were demobilising,” said Víctor Escalante, referring to Vice President Oscar Ortiz.

Since June 2014 the president of El Salvador is another former guerrilla, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

There are plans to open a museum, where visitors will be able to see the original weapons used by the insurgents, which were surrendered and rendered useless after the peace deal was reached. And a rebel camp will be recreated in a forested area near the town.

“I still have my backpack, and other people have radios and other artifacts from the war, and all of us together can set up the museum,” said Escalante, 45.

The local residents are organising to provide services to tourists, and there are groups working in the areas of food, crafts and other activities tied to the new initiative.

Employment is hard to come by in El Paisnal, a town of 4,500, where most of the locals are dedicated to agriculture and up to now there have been few opportunities for work in other areas.

The route also includes an ecotourism component, with visits to the El Chino hill, seven km from El Paisnal, and to Conacastera, a beach on the Lempa river.

The tour will also take the visitors to the San Carlos Cooperative, which is getting ready to host tourists who want an up-close look at the cooperative’s agricultural production processes.

Similar initiatives have been developed in other parts of the country over the last few years.

The town of Perquín in the eastern department or province of Morazán is the best-known for its war-tourism projects. In the local museum, visitors can learn about the civil war and see war memorabilia like guns, artillery pieces and even helicopters shot down by the guerrillas.

And in some rural areas, tourists can visit mountain caves and other bunkers used by the guerrillas as hideouts or even field hospitals.

In this country of 6.7 million people, Central America’s smallest, the Tourism Ministry reported that the tourism industry brought in 650 million dollars in the first half of 2014 – a 33 percent increase with respect to the same period in 2013.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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  • Sam

    Extremely biased article, it almost seems as every country should have a communist up rise and guerilla take over the government by realizing prisoners and bribing them to vote for them in the elections. Because that’s what FMLN did in El Salvador and that’s what Maduro did in Venezuela but I guess the UN doesn’t care about these issues as long as the countries stay poor they will keep on taking out loans from developed nations.