Becker told the mayors that he was prepared to give each of them $3,000, no strings attached. All he asked was that each town decide, democratically, how it wanted to use the money and create something of value from it. Becker told the mayors that no accountants would come later to inspect their books; nor would El Salvadoran officials punish any misappropriation of funds.

He paused, looked at the mayors, then explained that any malfeasance would simply be reported to the townspeople, who would likely then tell the FMLN. And this, the mayors understood, would be their death sentence.

The mayors took the money, returned to their constituencies, set their priorities, and went to work. As their projects took shape, Becker grew worried. "They were doing strange things with the money," he said. "Instead of building schools or bridges, they were putting walls around cemeteries. Or rebuilding town halls."

Becker remembers thinking that these bizarre uses of American dollars would end his career. "It took me a while," he said, "to figure out what was happening."

In essence, what all of these towns chose to create was symbolic rather than pragmatic. Respect for the dead meant more than a new bridge, because, as one mayor explained, if his town was to be rebuilt it first needed to reconstruct the essentials of community.

Becker realized that, from their perspective, these actions were nothing less than a slap in the face to the guerrillas.

As Becker came to understand these priorities, he gave more money to even more mayors. "By the end of five years," he said, "they were building more roads than the Ministry of Transportation. Building more schools than the Department of Education. Building more miles of power lines than the Ministry of Development."

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