Metalio, El Salvador
A few of the peasants were angry but most just looked shocked. The week before, the National Guard had delivered them eviction orders, saying that they had two weeks to clear off the small lots of land that they had been working for the last five years to pay off.
They unwrapped their carefully kept yearly payment receipts -- receipts the illiterate farmers were told had no legal validity in the absence of a formal written contract.
The 25 peasant families here will lose the land that they had thought they were buying. Their story is a common one in El Salvador.
This is a rural country and much of the rural population owns no land. At the time of the last official census, which was taken in 1975, 40 percent of El Salvador's population was landless, and the ranks of landless peasants have expanded rapidly during the last three decades, according to one social scientist who has written extensively about the Salvadorean countryside.
These peasants formed a base for the revolutionary movement that organized in the early 1970s. They are viewed by analysts as a political time bomb -- one that the government tried to defuse in 1980 by enacting an agarian reform. But many peasants, like those in Metalio, were never benefited by the reform and have fallen between the cracks.
Five years ago, say the Metalio peasants, they had seen signs for the sale of lots of land. They had contacted the owner, Ricardo Gutierrez, and orally agreed on purchase terms. After an initial down payment of $75, each of the 25 peasant families paid an average of $65 a year -- a pittance by US standards, but a major investment for farm laborers who usually make between $1.50 and $2.00 a day during the four or five months when work is available on the large haciendas.