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Hiding out with Marx and M-16s

Deep in the heart of the war zone in northern El Salvador, an 18-year-old guerrilla helps guard the only safe road into this remote mountain village. In his left hand, he holds a weather-beaten copy of Mikhail Gorbachev's address to the 1986 Soviet party congress. With his right hand, he fiddles with the barrel of his US-made M-16 rifle. The jarring juxtaposition of American equipment and Soviet ideology cuts to the heart of a rebel movement influenced by outside powers but rooted in internal conflict.

In late 1980, five Marxist rebel factions united under the banner of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN). They took their name and their fight for economic justice from a Salvadoran peasant leader who was executed when the Army crushed a rural uprising in 1932.

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The FMLN, besides demanding a share of power in the government, calls for a radical restructuring of society that would stress state-run social programs and virtually eliminate the private sector. The five groups range from moderate communists who emphasize political organizing to hard-line Marxists focused on armed struggle.

The Reagan administration sees the rebels as evidence of Soviet aggression. According to US intelligence sources, Cuba and Nicaragua funneled arms to the FMLN before its failed offensive in January 1981. But US Senate committees and Salvadoran military analysts say that since then, there has only been slim evidence of small, irregular shipments from Nicaragua.

The communist bloc still gives the rebels cash to buy arms, leftist political leaders say. Nicaragua and Cuba offer strategic advice, communications posts, and safe havens.

But even the Salvadoran military says the FMLN is largely self-sufficient, with an arsenal of homemade weapons and a sophisticated network of rural support.

By 1983, the FMLN controlled nearly one-third of the country with more than 10,000 troops. But the United States-backed Army's rapid increase in air power that year caused heavy rebel casualties, forcing the FMLN to divide into smaller units and rely more heavily on land mines and sabotage. Partly because of these unpopular tactics, the rebels have not attracted much new political support, diplomats and rebel political leaders say.

Led by hard-line commander Joaqu'in Villalobos, the guerrillas are now trying to exploit the unstable political and economic situation with an energetic new campaign called ``Death to Reagan Policy.''

For Army troops fighting along El Salvador's mountainous spine, the FMLN remains an elusive, persistent force. ``They're much more dedicated than we are,'' says a young Army lieutenant, looking out into the misty rain in guerrilla territory. ``They don't think about visiting their families, going to the beach, or going to church.''

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