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Guerrillas licked? - a Salvadorean returns to his farm

Each morning at 4 a.m. Pablo Cero Rodriguez Valdez drives out of this provincial capital to work the land his family has farmed for five generations. For the past four years, El Salvador's war has made cultivation impossible. But in January Rodriguez returned to cut back the prolific undergrowth on the 40 -acre farm and to reclaim the earth that he has known since his birth.

The government places a high priority on reopening farmland like that here in Zacatecoluca. Contending that the Army has ''finished'' its campaign to eradicate guerrillas in the area, provincial military commander Mario Denis Moran, says: ''Our job now is to convince landowners to come back and begin cultivation. The Army is here to provide security for the people who want to work.''

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Mr Rodriguez say he worked in a bank when the war made farming too difficult. ''But what I wanted to do was to come back to our farm. My brothers gave up and left El Salvador, but I stayed, and hoped, and now I think we can begin again.''

The fighting in La Paz Province turned the surrounding countryside into a battleground as early as 1979, he says. In that year, his family's farm was destroyed.

''The guerrillas burned the buildings and killed the four families we had living on the property,'' he says. ''After that, everything was stolen - the cattle, the horses, even the tile from the roofs.''

Like most middle-class and upper-class Salvadoreans who stayed in the area, he became obsessed with security, the effects of which are still visible.

Shoppers are frisked before entering the supermarket, and pass in and out of bombproof doors held in place by massive ship's anchors. Private security forces stand in front and behind the bank tellers, toting automatic weapons. Cars have darkened bulletproof windows.

Homes, hidden behind tall stone walls, have armed men out front. Almost everyone here seems to carry a sidearm.

One former university professor refuses to replace the broken panes of glass in her house because ''they will only be shattered again by more bombs.'' She twice called the Red Cross to remove corpses from the front of her house in the first years of the conflict.

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The uneven dirt road leading out of Zacatecoluca became too dangerous to travel after 1979, Rodriguez says. The lush vegetation engulfed the fields and fruit orchards. The land was abandoned.

''It became an area where only the Army and the subversives dared to go,'' Rodriguez says. Farmers began to return a year ago.

''I returned in May,'' says Natividad de Jesus Santa Maria, who is raising dairy cows next to Rodriguez. ''It has not been easy,'' he says.

The problem now, according to several farmers in the area, is the banditos, small armed gangs of thieves who roam the countryside. The banditos have stolen nine of Mr. Jesus's 35 cattle.

''The Army cleaned this area out well,'' says Jesus. ''You can see from the destroyed houses and overgrown fields that no one has been living here for some time, but we still have lawlessness.''

Landowners in the area say they do not fear the guerrillas, who they claim have been almost eradicated in this region and rarely stole when here, but the banditos.

''With the destruction of the farms came very high levels of unemployment,'' Rodriguez says. ''These bands of thieves are the result of a loss of employment for over half the population.'' Rodriguez, like his neighbors, carries a pistol. He keeps an automatic shotgun in his truck.

Standing in the remains of his farmhouse, Rodriguez looks out toward a cluster of coconut trees. ''We kept this place very well,'' he says pensively. ''It is my dream to live here again.''

Rodriguez has hired 30 workers to harvest rice and beans. He pays them $2 a day.

He is confident that the government has begun to put down the guerrilla threat, and he is pleased.

''The communists are being defeated as we defeated them in 1932,'' he says, referring to the year peasants staged a revolt known as the matanza (massacre). The revolt was led by communist leader Farabundo Marti and ended with his execution and the death of several thousand poor workers.

''The difference between the two revolts is that before they used machetes and now they have guns,'' Rodriguez says. The farmer feels that the United States' ''former preoccupation'' with human rights harmed the ability of the armed forces to flush out guerrilla groups.

But ''The Army is not as constrained as it was a year ago,'' he says. ''For this reason we are winning the war.''

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