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Never mind Che Guevara. The true master of 20th-century Latin American guerrilla warfare is not the celebrated Argentine but a one-time Marxist revolutionary from El Salvador, who dwells serenely today in a picture-postcard English village in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire political constituency, with his wife, sons and boisterous golden retriever.
Joaquín Villalobos is his name. A British citizen now, he spent 22 years in rebellion, 15 of them — from 1977 to 1992 — as commander of the People’s Revolutionary Army, the 3,000-strong elite military arm of an insurgent coalition known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Villalobos was a legend in those days, an elusive military mastermind whose units operated against huge odds. In the eastern corner of a cramped country the size of Wales, he would inflict devastating losses on the far larger, American-trained-and-armed Salvadoran army with lethal Viet-Cong-inspired raids. The capture or liquidation of Villalobos, Fidel Castro’s favourite guerrilla comandante, became the prize most sought by his enemies and their backers in Washington. He survived the war with barely a scratch but, to Castro’s disappointment, with his devotion to communist dogma much attenuated.
Between 1990 and 1992, when the guerrillas engaged in UN-steered negotiations with the Salvadoran government to end a conflict which had claimed some 75,000 lives, it was in good measure thanks to Villalobos’s ideologically uncluttered pragmatism that the peace was eventually sealed.
When I was a foreign correspondent in Central America in the 1980s, I had plenty of contact with Villalobos’s fighters but I never met him. Now, on a cloudy English morning more than two decades later, I step off a train from London at Bicester North station and there he is — a softly spoken 64-year-old, who became a naturalised Briton in 2009.
We get in his car and he drives me past the lush green fields of the Oxfordshire countryside to the village of Tackley, where he lives. The sky clears a little and we sit around a table in the garden of his neat English home with his wife Roxana, who was a TV reporter in El Salvador during the war. There’s a small lawn, potted plants and a shed at the back where Roxana likes to hide away and paint. Coco the retriever prods at me with his nose as we reminisce about the old days. But my purpose today is not historical; it is to hear Villalobos’s view of his adopted country, where he fetched up in 1995 without the slightest notion of what to expect. I also want to know what he has to say about the west’s latest insurgent enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
“I was persuaded that I had to get out,” Villalobos explains. “If I had stayed in El Salvador they were either going to kill me or destroy me politically. The left hated me because I had abandoned my old religious notion of politics and become a social democrat; the right hated me, well,” he shrugs, “for obvious reasons.”
He found allies in diplomats from Chile, Mexico and Britain, all of whom advised him to leave his country. With financial support from Mexico and the assistance of the Foreign Office, he and his family were provided in October 1995 with lodgings in the city of Oxford and English lessons at an expensive language school. He got a Masters degree at St Anthony’s College and then embarked on what has been a successful career ever since as an international consultant on security and conflict resolution. He has advised the UN, as well as governments and politicians in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and, more recently, Mexico and Colombia. In 2000, the family made the move 12 miles north to Tackley.
“We never imagined we’d stay five years, let alone 20,” Villalobos says. He speaks Spanish not in the declamatory style you might expect from a one-time revolutionary but in a mild, professorial sort of way. “From the day we arrived until barely a couple of years ago we used to say to ourselves, ‘OK, 18 months more, then we go back home.’ But this is home now, our three sons are completely British, and we’ve decided we’re staying.”
Regarded as a sellout by many of his former revolutionary comrades, he says he continues to view the world “from the left”, a perspective encouraged by his years in England. “The basic values of the United Kingdom are of the left, if you compare them with those of the US or the majority of countries,” he says. “I am thinking of the NHS, of course, but more significantly of the religious and political tolerance, the social atmosphere here, which you see in the way the police treat the public — compare them with the American police!
“I’ve been struck lately by the British response to the young people who are heading off to join Isis. It’s not, in the first instance, ‘Let’s take reprisals’; it’s ‘How did they become so radicalised? What can we do to change their thinking?’ The response is not emotional, it’s measured. That’s the realistic, rational, generous and pragmatic approach to politics and society with which I identify now.”
His gratitude towards Britain is immense. In the first place, for the opportunity given to his sons to grow up “with values of compassion, tolerance and peaceful cohabitation” and make them their own. But also for the deepened understanding he says he has acquired here, and that it took him so many years of war to grasp, that there are no miracle recipes for improving a nation’s fortunes.
“Let’s be frank. This is a superior culture,” Villalobos says. “There’s no harm in saying it because the social cohesion and political order here have been hard won, built on a history of revolutions, suffering and world wars and these values that have emerged, built on a respect for the law, are in people’s bones.”
What do the terms “social cohesion” and “superior culture” mean in terms of his own life, I ask. For a moment he is at a loss. He is introspective by nature, with a ceaselessly analytical habit of mind. It was not a Castro or Hugo Chávez-style charisma but a quiet authority and a demonstrable ability to get results that had persuaded his men and women fighters to invest their trust in him. Yet in the tranquil social world his family inhabits now, Roxana comes across as the more self-confident of the two.
It is she who tells me about the two policemen who arrived at their door one day to inform her politely that one of the back lights of their car wasn’t working; back home in El Salvador such a visit would have been cause for outright panic. She mentions the kindness of a woman neighbour who picks up their post when they are away, and fills their fridge the day before they return.
Another neighbour, a retired senior civil servant, had recently mown their lawn when they were on holiday. “Can you imagine someone of his rank in El Salvador or Mexico or Argentina offering to do such a thing for you? Impossible!”
Villalobos is away a lot in Latin America these days, helping make peace in Colombia or advising the Mexican government in the war against drugs, but he was at home one evening when David Cameron arrived to address residents on the anniversary of the opening of a local, non-profit community shop.
“He was prime minister now and we were expecting a convoy of cars, maybe a helicopter in the air,” Villalobos recalls. “But no. Here is a man who has to deal with problems in Syria, the Ukraine, Afghanistan, the EU and yet he found the time to come here to celebrate the anniversary of a tiny shop. Wow!”
Talking of Syria and Afghanistan, and in light of his comments on the pragmatic approach the British take to those compatriots who join Isis, I ask Villalobos what would be his pragmatic advice for defeating the terrorist organisation.
Military defeat, he says, lighting up to the challenge, is not an option. “I remember once back in the 1980s, when Raúl Castro was minister of defence, he confessed to me that the US would be able to mop up Cuba’s conventional troops in a matter of hours, but that the principal problem they would then face would be how to occupy the island. Apply this lesson to Isis and the inevitable fact is that, sooner or later, the west is going to have to negotiate with them.
“Let me explain. Wars are won with infantry, with soldiers on the ground, because this is the only way you can occupy territory. That was how the second world war was won. But the economic, political and social changes since then have modified the way the west wages war. I am talking about the much higher value placed on soldiers’ lives, the unwillingness to run risks in wars beyond one’s own frontiers where one’s national survival is not directly at stake, the political resistance to seeing one’s young people dying for causes that are hard for the general populace to understand. What has been the logical outcome of all this? That western governments have turned to technology to fight their battles.”
This reminds me of the war in El Salvador, I say, where the Americans, shaken by the experience of Vietnam, did not commit soldiers against his guerrillas, limiting themselves to providing a small core of military advisers who ran the war from the capital and to supplying their Salvadoran allies with bomber jets and helicopter gunships. They threw everything at Villalobos’s guerrillas from the air but they held their ground.
“Exactly,” he replies. “Wars cannot be won with bombs or missiles launched from ships or drones steered by people thousands of kilometres away. The western military can harass, can destabilise, can strike hard against the enemy’s capacity for command and control. They can even disarticulate and destroy a large conventional army, they can seize Baghdad in a matter of days, but they cannot then consolidate the territory. They can go where they want but they cannot stay where they want.
“In Isis you have an enemy whose mentality belongs to another age. They are a medieval army fighting in the 21st century. They are fanatics who do not place anything like the value we do on their fighters’ lives. Yet they are not a small terrorist band. On the contrary, they have significant popular support, territorial control and military power. Their rapid growth demonstrates that they represent a political phenomenon that has arisen from the change in power relations in the region.”
Which is why he believes the solution must eventually be political? “Yes. Since war is a continuation of politics, the pragmatic outcome with Isis will have to be political. At some point the west will have to seriously consider seeking a political agreement with Isis because there is no way to defeat them militarily. Right now it is very difficult to talk, even to find who to talk to, but with time such a relationship can be built. The military pressure being put on Isis, and the alliances made with those who can dispute territory with them, must form part of a strategy that can eventually be capitalised upon at the negotiating table. Otherwise, the war in Syria and Iraq will never end.”
Such an outcome seems enormously unlikely today, I say. He reminds me that it seemed hardly more likely once in Northern Ireland or in his own native country, where military-run death squads carried out 30,000 assassinations between 1979 and 1982 — but took the precaution that Isis scorns of not advertising their barbarity to the world.
In the light of the horrors he lived through, and was partly responsible for, I ask him whether, with so many of his old comrades dead, he ever feels guilty about his present good fortune.
“Not at all!” he exclaims. “On the contrary. In El Salvador the doors had been closed to me. I see our coming here as a privilege, an opportunity, a stroke of great luck. I feel as if I am living in a giant garden, where people are socially integrated and politically equal.” And where, he adds, they have a great sense of humour.
“Nothing is sacred. No one takes themselves completely seriously. Contrast that with the unbearable pomposity of Latin American leaders of right and left! I imagine you might find much the same thing in places like Iraq and Syria. It’s their colossal vanity that so often gets in the way of finding practical solutions to life or death problems.”
Talking of which, Villalobos points out that the greatest Englishman of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, is buried a couple of miles away but that his grave is “humble, no more ostentatious than any other in the little cemetery”. That would be outside Woodstock, where Villalobos suggests we go for lunch. We get back in his car and five minutes later we are strolling through the beautiful little country town towards a café which Villalobos and his wife describe as their local favourite. We sit down, he chats with proprietorial pride of the splendour of nearby Blenheim Palace and, when the waitress arrives, he orders a sandwich and a cup of tea. Hot tea with cold milk. With his lunch.
The tea arrives, he takes a sip and reflects, “You know, go anywhere else in the world and it doesn’t quite taste right. Too watery or something. They just don’t know how to make a good cup of tea abroad.”
I chuckle. The transformation is complete. Joaquín Villalobos, the cold war guerrilla comandante who made war and then peace, who Fidel Castro loved and the Americans feared, is an Englishman now.
John Carlin is a journalist and author
Photographs: Getty; Hana Knizova