Trained as a Healer, Ana Martinez Is the Che of El Salvador's Deadly War
Revolutionary movements need galvanizing heroes as much as they need guns. The stealth of the Swamp Fox, the fiery courage of Stonewall Jackson and the cunning of Ché Guevara have all inspired supporters to rally round their causes. The leftist guerrillas of El Salvador are no exception, and in that bloody and woebegone nation where 15,000 have died in the last year of fighting, scarcely a citizen can be unaware of the Commandante.
On recruiting posters throughout the countryside, the awesome likeness of the Commandante flourishing a submachine gun, with eyes pointed sternly toward the middle distance, stands in angry rebuke to the regime. To disciples of the revolutionary faction, the Commandante is a folk hero, lightning quick, an adroit tactician, an unrelenting opponent of the military junta. "To the Salvadorean people," says one sympathizer, "the Commandante already has a legendary character. Sometimes there are battles, and people say afterward that the Commandante was there—even if it's not true." The Commandante, in sum, fits the classic mold of the revolutionary leader in every respect save one: She is Ana Guadalupe Martínez, a slight (5'), shy, soft-spoken 28-year-old former medical student who is, by background and demeanor, a most unlikely warrior, much less a jefe in a classically macho Latin culture.
To the government of President José Napoleón Duarte, the terrorists of the left and right in El Salvador are twin bedevilments—and the additional $25 million in military aid and 54 advisers (including 15 Green Berets) dispatched by the U.S. government are aimed at neutralizing both. Still, the leftist ideology of Martínez's guerrillas—who are no more and surely no less ruthless than their rightist counterparts—links them to a threat that U.S. policy perceives as overarching: a Soviet offensive on Central America. On that front, Duarte's junta seems to be winning—the guerrilla movement's "final offensive" launched in January to topple the government has failed. But the struggle is far from over. For the past five months, Martínez has been traveling in Europe, making cabinet-level contacts and arguing her cause in Austria, France, Sweden, Italy, Germany and other nations. Although Martínez denies it, the State Department claims that some guerrilla leaders have traveled farther east with a more disturbing mission: to solicit arms and ammunition for the rebels from Soviet allies. Both sides agree that the guerrillas will not be easily vanquished. "When I made my decision to fight," Martínez asserts, "I knew it would be difficult. I might lose my life. You can't play the opposition without knowing that it might mean death."
Nothing in Ana Martínez's birthright prepared her for a life of revolution. Born of middle-class stock, she is the daughter of a right-wing Salvadorean police chief. (Her mother died when Ana was 16.) Then, while at the Universidad de El Salvador in 1969, Martínez joined a student strike protesting discrimination against poor students. Medical school accelerated her leftward drift. "I saw too many children sick from diseases that were easy to avoid—malnutrition, intestinal problems, dehydration," she recalls. "We'd treat them, release them, and three months later they'd be back. Their parents were too poor to care for them. A lot of times I asked myself if it was worth studying medicine if the economic situation didn't change." Still, it took a cataclysmic event to shove Martínez into the guerrilla ranks. In 1972 a liberal government was elected—and overthrown in a day by a military junta. Ironically, the democratically elected government Martínez supported then was headed by José Napoleón Duarte—the civilian whom the military recalled from exile last year to head the junta. "We saw that elections didn't work," Martínez says. "So we sought another way to change the politics of the country."
"Another way" was the People's Revolutionary Army, a guerrilla band organized in the early '70s by militant members of El Salvador's leftist party. "Its specialties are bombings and kidnappings," says one informed American source. "It is considered one of the more bloody groups." Despite her size and her sheltered background, Martínez proved to be a tough soldier. She participated in raids on banks, factories and police stations—and is said to have personally killed five police officers. By 1974 Martínez was the rebel commander in the country's eastern section. "She is one tough cookie," observes an American expert.
That toughness was confirmed in 1976, when Martínez was captured and imprisoned in a secret jail about five blocks from the national palace in the capital city of San Salvador. There, she says, she was kept naked for seven months in a tiny cell and beaten, raped and tortured with electric shock devices. "I twisted with pain," she said later. "It shook your body to the last muscle fiber." Martínez's guerrilla comrades turned to bloodshed to win her release and that of a fellow guerrilla. They kidnapped one of the richest members of El Salvador's oligarchical "14 families," industrialist Roberto Pomo, demanding that the government exchange Martínez, her comrade and $2 million in ransom for him. The deal was struck, but Pomo died of wounds received during his abduction. Throughout the ordeal, Ana's father refused to use his considerable influence to help gain her freedom.
Martínez spent the next 10 months in exile in Algeria and France, where she wrote a book, The Clandestine Prisons of El Salvador. But in 1978 she returned furtively to El Salvador and rejoined the guerrillas. She became an artillery specialist—and thus began the legend. "She is extraordinarily brave," marveled one fellow guerrilla. "In difficult moments in combat, she can be very serene and self-confident. But when she is not in the field fighting, she is very sensitive and sweet and feminine." One skeptical American observer charges that Martínez led a raid on the San Salvador airport and missed the complex with five mortar shells at point-blank range; withal, her saga has made her a Salvadorean Joan of Arc. "The people feel that she is a kind of superwoman," says one friend. "There have been a lot of incidents where people say, 'Ah, Ana will come back and punish them some day.' "
In fact, though, Martínez is emphasizing reconciliation, not punishment, in her rhetoric these days. "In the past everyone talked about a military solution, but there have been too many deaths," she says. "Everyone has suffered a death in their family." She has lost her oldest brother and his wife, and bristles at the suggestion that her movement is doctrinaire. "When someone speaks of revolution in Latin America, they think of terrorists. They think we are inflexible, that we don't think and that we can't change," says Martínez. "But we want to talk with others and exchange ideas." Martínez makes no secret of the fact that she hopes the Western officials she meets will transmit her message to their strongest ally. "We can't have a big influence on America, but other countries can. We are ready to talk to the Americans and find a solution with the junta, to find a common platform," she insists. "The Americans must be convinced that military aid will only make the situation in El Salvador worse. It will only mean more deaths."
For the moment, Martínez's vision of a settlement seems improbable, to say the least. But there is no doubting her own desire to resume the workaday life she left a decade ago. Eighteen months ago, in a guerrilla ceremony, she married Francisco Maldonnado (a nom de guerre), 24, one of the commandos who kidnapped Porno to gain her release from prison. Yet she has not seen her husband since she left on her diplomatic mission five months ago. She accepts the separation as "a problem of the war" while shyly showing a wallet-size picture of "Claudio," as she calls him. Her personal needs are secondary to her political life—at least for the moment. "I dream of having a calm, stable family life once again," she says. "I don't live with a lot of fear, but there is always uncertainty—not for my life but for what my country wants and its future," declares the Commandante. "I don't see a change in my life until we find the magic solution to the situation in El Salvador. I think it's close. This year or next year we must find a solution. It can't go on much longer."
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