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«Kill School», Dick Stivers


"A gang of assassins from the Popular Liberation Forces will attack Roberto Quesada tomorrow."

As a radio blared out staccato messages between the army posts guarding Highway 7 from San Miguel to the southeast border of El Salvador with Honduras, Lieutenant Guillermo Lizco of Las Boinas Negras stood at attention while he waited for his commander to respond to his statement. An elite unit of American-trained commandos, Las Boinas Negras, Black Berets, served in Morazan province; specializing in long-range reconnaissance and patrol, the unit often intercepted guerrilla kill teams terrorizing the community leaders and civic employees of remote mountain villages.

The guerrillas feared the lieutenant's unit. If guerrillas entered one of his ambushes, they died or became prisoners. But only those with weapons. Sometimes the guerrillas forced the local campesinos to carry their supplies. On more than one occasion, Lieutenant Lizco and his soldiers had only fired one shot each from their rifles. All the armed guerrillas in a group dropped, dead or seriously wounded, leaving the campesinos and the unarmed guerrilla sympathizers standing among bodies. Though the sympathizers disappeared into the torture chambers and mass graves of San Salvador, the Black Berets returned the campesinos to their villages. This gained the respect of the local people, who were accustomed to indiscriminate firefights and death-squad assassinations, and earned their support. Increasingly, campesinos and landowners and embittered leftists brought Lieutenant Lizco information on guerrilla operations.

As if he had not heard the lieutenant, the commander swirled coffee in a cup while he studied a relief map of the province. The contour lines infolded and twisted into an abstract design of near-infinite complexity to suggest the thousands of mountain ridges and valleys and rivers of Morazan.

"I received the information from a hotel clerk who overheard," Lieutenant Lizco added. "He knows they are PLF."

Lieutenant Lizco referred to the Popular Liberation Forces, a Stalinist group that admitted links with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Unlike the rebel forces who hoped for eventual reconciliation of the nation after victory, the Popular Liberation Forces fought a war of annihilation. They took no prisoners in their assaults on isolated army positions, putting bullets through the heads of captured soldiers or hacking fifteen-year-old draftees to death with machetes. They dispatched assassins to silence Salvadorans — conservatives, liberals, union leaders, socialists, Marxist Utopians — who spoke of peaceful reform or a revolution ending without the creation of a "People's Soviet State." And they preached the doctrine of revenge: all Salvadorans who failed to join the People's Army faced execution after the Triumph.

Outside the mud-walled, bullet-pocked farmhouse where the Black Berets made their barracks and offices, the diesel generator sputtered and stopped. Both soldiers reflexively looked out the sandbagged window to the scorched cornfields. A midday attack? Guerrillas always sabotaged generators first, to cut off the lights and radios. But the officers saw no guerrillas advancing across the fields. No autofire cracked the quiet of the overcast afternoon. As their eyes searched the perimeter, the generator resumed its monotonous drone.

Finally turning to Lieutenant Lizco, the commander's exhausted, expressionless eyes examined the twenty-two-year-old junior officer. The commander glanced to the doorway to the other room. The lieutenant stepped to the door and looked out. The clerk had left the room that served as a unit office. Only then did the commander ask, "Quesada is a friend of yours?"

"No!" Lieutenant Lizco sneered.

"Perhaps his guards will protect him," the commander suggested. He turned away. Adding another cube of sugar to his coffee, he stared out at the black clouds bringing an early end to the afternoon. Lizco did not allow the silence to deny his point.

"It is an opportunity to stop a gang of assassins," he said.

The commander turned to him again. "Quesada is one of the fourteen. We cannot touch him."

For a moment the lieutenant did not comprehend his commander's words. Then he blurted, "No. I mean… I mean the Communists..."

"Oh, of course. The Communistterrorists." The commander nodded. "I was confused. I am confused. Perhaps I misunderstand you. You will risk your life, the lives of your men to protect that… butcher?"

"No. I will kill the assassins. This time they attack Quesada, but the next time… a teacher, a mayor, a soldier, perhaps farmers who want to vote. But it is convenient that they attack Quesada, for if I am too late to save him, I will not cry."

With a quick laugh, his commander granted the request. "Go. Assemble your squad. God grant you luck. But do not hurry, understand me?"

Laughing also, the lieutenant snapped a salute and left the offices. In the farmyard, Lieutenant Lizco looked up at the black sky. The overcast blocked the tropical sun. From the west, a wall of black churning clouds swept in from the Pacific.

The approaching storm confirmed the reports from the American weather satellites. Tonight would be another night of high winds and torrential rains.

No light planes, no helicopters would fly tonight.

Wind-driven rain beat the branches and fronds above Lieutenant Lizco and his men. All through the night, the winds of the violent storm had torn branches from the trees. Flowing rainwater became flowing mud as the steep hillside eroded. Silt covered their boots and camouflage fatigues. When their shallow fighting holes filled with black water that stank of rotting forest debris, the lieutenant and his squad put their weapons and ammunition on the rocks and branches around them. But they held their positions on the hillside. Only the lieutenant moved, leaving the shallow ditch he had gouged in the rocky soil to crawl from man to man, checking the seven men in his ambush squad.

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