The Interview

Meet the Guerrilla Fighter Who Became a Forest Guide

by Amelia Mularz
Rafael Hernandez. All photos by Amelia Mularz.

In El Salvador, an extra special nature walk includes a lesson in the country’s tumultuous past from a man who lived it. 

When I arrive at El Salvador’s Cinquera Forest (or Parque Ecológico Bosque de Cinquera), only 30 minutes from the colonial town of Suchitoto, I’m struck by how peaceful the area is. After walking just a few minutes into the jungle, we come upon a waterfall and a natural pool where a group of teenagers are taking a dip. It’s hard to imagine that some 30 years ago this same place was a major battle zone in the country’s bloody 12-year civil war.

It’s also hard to picture our tour guide, Rafael Hernandez (aka Don Rafa), as a guerrilla fighter in the war. Now 58 years old, Don Rafa is quick to smile and has an easy-going demeanor. The only thing remotely intimidating about him is the machete he carries in a pouch slung over his shoulder — which he only uses to clear rogue branches to make the forest’s trails more hospitable for guests.

But it’s true — Don Rafa joined the fight when he was just a teenager. Today, he’s head park ranger at Cinquera, the area where he grew up, and he’s passionate about showing tourists the lay of the land. How did he go from guerrilla to guide? This is his story.

The sign on the tree reads, "There's no WiFi in the forest, but I promise you'll find a better connection here."

In 1970, I was eight years old, and that was the beginning of everything, when farm workers started to organize. In that time, 95 percent of the farmers didn’t have their own properties to work. Fourteen families in El Salvador owned everything, and they gave the farmers small living areas. In return, the farmers had to work Monday through Saturday on a salary of one colón per day, or about 11 cents US. On such a low income, they couldn’t provide their families with healthcare or education. Eventually, other groups started to organize, such as the teachers and laborers, and by the middle of 1975, the groups began working together. Collectively, they created the BPR, the Popular Revolutionary Bloc.

A few years later, I moved to San Salvador to work and study. While I was in the capital, I began to learn more about the people’s organizations and what the government was doing to keep them down. One day, I joined a demonstration, and the national guard took me and beat me. That’s when I decided to return home to Cinquera to join the guerrilla fighters full-time. I was 16 years old. I may only have been a teenager, but I was very conscious of how dire the situation was, not only for me, but for everyone living in the Cinquera area.

I now have a chance to protect the area that protected me during the war.

In 1980, the civil war officially began. The government’s army began fighting full force, and many families were separated — some fled the country, some moved to San Salvador for safety, and others joined the fight. Many families living in Cinquera decided to join the guerrillas, but they couldn’t stay in their small towns, so they moved to the side of the river and up into the mountains. There were no houses in the mountains. They lived out in the open.

That same year, I went to Cuba to receive training for eleven months. When I returned, I joined a guerrilla group operating in San Salvador. But all my training in Cuba had been about fighting in rural areas, not in the city. I spoke with my commander, and he moved me to Cinquera. When I made it back, my first order was to train new guerrillas. At the same time, the government sent some of the army to train in the United States. Their strategy was to kill everybody in an area where they believed guerrillas were sleeping. That’s when more than a thousand people were killed in a massacre on the east side of the country. The year was 1981, which is considered one of the worst years not only during the civil war but in all of El Salvador's history. It was a hard time. The only thing we could think about was how to survive.

By 1985, the government began cutting off support to the civilian population because they believed the people were providing the guerrillas with food and supplies. There were seven civilian massacres in the Cinquera area around that time. Even more families fled to Honduras for protection and didn’t return to El Salvador until after the war, including my parents. It was difficult to keep fighting knowing that our families were far away, but it was necessary.

In the following years, one of the most difficult things about being in Cinquera were all the bombings. The government sent the air force to bomb the whole area four to six times a day. With the air force involved, we had to learn new ways to survive. We had to find a way to cook without smoke from our fires giving away our locations to planes flying overhead. We trained with someone from Vietnam to learn how to make a kitchen that couldn’t be detected. We built a channel 20 to 30 meters long with an inch of soil on top. When we cooked, the smoke would go through the channel and filter through materials in the ground so it didn’t rise more than one meter. The air force didn't find us.

We started fighting back against the air force. We trained to find the weakest parts of the plane. We didn’t have big guns, only rifles, so we had to know exactly where to shoot. When we attacked Suchitoto city to attract the air force, we destroyed two helicopters for the first time. Within a few months, we had destroyed six helicopters. It was a way to let the government know that even though we didn’t have planes of our own, we could still fight.

The last big attack was in San Salvador in 1989. Our objective was to take control of the capital, because that could give us the opportunity to create a revolution, like Cuba or Nicaragua. We didn’t succeed, but after fourteen days of fighting, day and night, the international community pressured the guerrilla commander and the president to end the civil war. Both sides knew the fight could go on for a long time without a winner.

In the end, it took three years to reach an agreement. Both sides met at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City to sign the document that ended the war.

For the guerrillas, the end of the civil war was still very difficult, because we’d been fighting as volunteers the entire time. The army had a salary; the guerrillas didn’t. We didn’t have houses, jobs, or skills either. Most of us lived under the trees. The international community stepped in again, sending money through different organizations, including local churches, which helped us buy materials to build houses for former fighters. The United Nations supervised the peace agreement to ensure the government would respect the human rights of everyone involved.

More than twenty years later, things are totally different. There is a new Cinquera, one that’s also a tourist destination. About seventeen years ago, I became a park ranger and tour guide here. Working in tourism has given me a chance to meet people from all over the world. It’s a very important job because I now have a chance to protect the area that protected me during the war.

Every now and then, a local El Salvadoran will come and take a tour. At first I won’t know that they were part of the national guard or army or police during the civil war, but after they hear my story, they come up to me and say, “I’m so sorry, man. I’m really sorry for the situation that happened at that time.”

For the most part, we’ve decided to not dwell on what happened in the past. We were all tired of war.

To schedule a tour of the Cinquera National Forest with Rafael Hernandez, including an English translator, book through the tour operator GreenBlueRed.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.