On March 31, just after the national legislative elections were over, many American reporters in El Salvador seemed close to being in a state of shock. By Salvadoran standards, the vote had been uneventful. The balloting was more or less orderly. Attempts by leftist guerrillas to disrupt the election were scattered and largely unsuccessful. The news that stunned the correspondents came from the Spanish International Network (SIN), a US television company which had contracted to conduct the exit polls. The first SIN results showed that the party of the Christian Democratic president José Napoleón Duarte—described almost universally by the press in the days before the vote as a “beleaguered” leader, with his right-wing enemies closing in on him—had just won thirty-three of sixty seats in the national assembly. Against even his own predictions, Duarte had won the commanding majority he needed to govern.
But the victory went even deeper than that, as Duarte pointed out to the journalists he summoned to his residence that night. “The people got our message,” he said with satisfaction. “They want democracy and peace. This is the same choice the people made in 1972. They reconfirmed it again.” In his first try for the presidency thirteen years earlier, the army robbed Duarte of victory by fixing the results, beating him up, and driving him out of the country. Duarte went into exile for more than seven years, and came back in 1980 to participate in a ruling junta that was steeped in blood. He then stayed quiet until he won the presidency in 1984. By that time, over 50,000 Salvadorans were dead after nearly five years of civil war.
Many in the press were disconcerted that night not only because they had so badly miscalled the results. Duarte’s triumph seemed also to be Washington’s, the vindication after four years of a Reagan administration policy that many reporters in El Salvador believed to be based both on gross exaggerations of the rebels’ allegiance to foreign Marxist allies and on a high tolerance for violence and venality on the part of the right. The administration had argued it could stop the Marxist insurgency by giving political and financial support—some $1.7 billion in aid during the last four years—to the forces of the political “center.” On March 31 it looked as if the administration had been justified. “What happened here,” one disconsolate correspondent said, “is that we lost.”
During the following week, the coalition of the two opposition parties, one of them former major Roberto D’Aubuisson’s rightist ARENA, presented a petition to annul the vote. The coalition’s evidence of electoral fraud—which included claims of interference by the military—was flimsy. But it controlled a majority on the elections council that would pass on the petition. D’Aubuisson’s people were in a position to force a new election.
On April 3, the armed forces called a press conference. Into the dreary auditorium at the General Staff headquarters marched every senior commander in the entire military; they formed a wall of olive green heavily decked with stars and shoulder bars. There were officers known by journalists to have commanded operations where dozens of civilians were cut down; officers who had flirted in past years with D’Aubuisson’s schemes to carry out a coup; officers suspected of complicity in the killing of American citizens. At the front of the room was the plodding minister of defense, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, a warhorse whose chief virtue as a commander is his die-hard loyalty to the military as an institution.
“This is no time to be playing around with the will the people expressed at the polls,” Vides said, slapping his hand on the table. “While the political parties are entertaining themselves exchanging insults on television, we are putting up the bodies. We can’t allow the election to be repeated on the whim of a political party as if it were a game of cards.”
Within hours, the elections council threw out the annulment petition. Tainted as some of its officers were, the military made a strong show of unity to demonstrate, as Vides said, that it “totally supported the efforts of the Salvadoran people to channel its destiny on a democratic route.”
With Duarte firmly in power, Reagan can claim a policy success in El Salvador—a success all the more striking since it seemed so unlikely as recently as eighteen months ago. But on closer inspection the policy that ultimately prospered in El Salvador is not the same one the administration had in mind when it vowed to “draw the line” against communism at the outset of Reagan’s term. Reagan looks successful now in El Salvador largely because his policy makers eventually incorporated into their planning the criticisms of the administration’s most vehement liberal adversaries in Washington and in the press. Reagan, who vowed to free the American people from post-Vietnam fears of intervention, is winning the political battle in El Salvador precisely because his diplomats followed the lessons of restraint the US military learned the hard way during the Vietnam War.
In addition, the Reagan administration owes much to its chief enemies in El Salvador, the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the FMLN, whose ranks are now estimated to number about 8,500 fighters. In 1983 the rebels’ punishing offensives finally forced the Salvadoran military to realize that it had to face either change or defeat. By 1985, the arrogant and hypermilitaristic strategies practiced by key guerrilla leaders estranged many of their former supporters among El Salvador’s poor. In a country where Marxist-inspired radicalism has been a force for some fifty years, the most recent cycle of revolution, which began in 1979, is now over. The FMLN revolutionaries said in communiqués and radio broadcasts this spring that they have postponed their expectations of victory for as long as five years; they will return to gnawing away at the government with a war of small ambushes and booby traps. They are sending their cadre back into the cities to try to revive the urban popular movements that gave rise to the guerrilla armies five years ago. They are reverting to urban terrorism—assassinations and kidnappings—which was their standard practice in the 1970s, when they were no more than small clandestine cells. The FMLN has said the killing of four US Marine guards, two American civilians, and seven other people in a sidewalk café in the capital on June 19 was “only a beginning” of this phase of their war.
Finally, if a successful US policy is one that leaves a country economically sound and autonomous, with antigovernment insurgency waning, and people free to express their concerns without arbitrary government retaliation, and with hope for peace, El Salvador today does not fit that description. Most Salvadorans, regardless of their political views, still live with fear, haunted by memories of the terror of the early 1980s. Many show by their words and actions that they no longer believe, as they seemed to in 1980, that the risks of death, exile, or imprisonment are worth taking for a living wage, a decent house, or the prospect of an adequate education for their children—the needs the people now have more urgently than before. Duarte, perhaps inadvertently, was right on election night: his country has an elected constitutional government that falls between the political extremes, but its people are starting again from where they were around 1972.
The policy of the Reagan administration in El Salvador began to make some headway when conservatives in Washington and San Salvador confronted the issue of the right-wing death squads. In 1982 it was heresy for news reports to assert that the squads had intimate links to the military, and that the overwhelming number of human rights abuses—people murdered, mutilated, tortured, or “disappeared”—came from the right. Now the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, General Adolfo O. Blandón, accepts these facts as commonplace. “I began to go to work against the death squads in September 1980, as soon as I returned from being military attaché in Washington,” Blandón claimed when I talked to him in June in his windowless office at the General Staff headquarters. “But at that time there was a very dangerous division in the armed forces that I believe permitted the development of the death squads. Very little could be done in practice then.”
Blandón is clear about what caused the army to rethink its complicity with rightist paramilitary killing. “We knew that public opinion in the United States and the view of many senators and congressmen opposed to military aid for El Salvador were largely due to our bad image because of the squads,” he said. “Knowing that the aid was absolutely vital for us, we concluded we had to take a strong decision to get rid of them.”
As Blandón describes it, the change of heart in the armed forces was parallel to, although not induced by, that of American diplomats. The first sign of the Americans’ shift came when the former ambassador Deane Hinton met with a group of Salvadoran businessmen on October 29, 1981. No one doubted his anger and conviction when he told them, in his nearly unintelligible Spanish, that “the gorillas of the mafia” had to be stopped. The White House disavowed the speech.
A year later, the FMLN forces started an offensive that swept across northern El Salvador and drove local government constabularies out of dozens of towns. Simultaneously, the best-known death squads, the Secret Anti-Communist Army and the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade, again became active in the capital. One of them distributed a videotape showing four captured union leaders “confessing” to their leftist sins. Their mangled bodies turned up the following day on a San Salvador street. In October nine cut up bodies, one of them of a pregnant woman, were dumped in burlap bags in the rural town of Zaragoza.
Us diplomats in San Salvador remember how, one by one, the most powerful conservative policy makers in Washington changed their minds. By the middle of 1982, the CIA had been asked to look into rightist as well as leftist violence. Intelligence agencies in Washington began to turn up evidence that there were killers both in some rightist political parties and in the security forces. Two conservative advisers circulated an informal policy memorandum to the National Security Council recommending a new emphasis on social justice as a strategy for winning the war, and a crackdown on “errant fascist factions.” Andrew Messing, then the executive director of the National Conservative Caucus, had a falling-out with members of D’Aubuisson’s ARENA party. He felt they did not share the “Judeo-Christian ethic” of American conservatives. A confidential internal memo he wrote setting out his concerns was accidentally distributed to caucus members. When Messing visited El Salvador again, he heard indirectly that one rightist had threatened to kill him.
Deane Hinton lost his job in mid-1983, but the new ambassador, Thomas Pickering, arrived with instructions that he could call for a visit from Secretary of State George Shultz if he needed to get the message across that rightist killing was out of fashion. In October when the Kissinger commission interviewed D’Aubuisson, its members did not believe his assertions that there were no rightist death squads, only a few angry army privates avenging murders of their relatives by guerrillas. “The commission saw through him like Saran Wrap,” a US diplomat told me. Fred C. Iklé, undersecretary of defense for policy, was among the officials who visited El Salvador that autumn and went away making biting public statements about rightist murder. On December 11, Vice-President George Bush delivered a list of specific demands to the Salvadoran government to curb the violence, and told the armed forces that the administration might not push for increased military aid if it did not clean up its image.
“The squads believed they were operating with the protection of the armed forces,” General Blandón told me. “When we let them know we would go after them, they came to their senses, and they dissolved.”
The US embassy’s records, it is true, show only one killing claimed by a named death squad in 1984, and none so far in 1985. Since the intelligence unit of the nefarious Treasury Police was disbanded in mid-1984, accusations of abuse by that force have fallen off as well. US officials note with satisfaction that political killings by the guerrillas have risen to the forefront in the news. “The violence of the left had been constantly submerged in a sea of blood drawn by the right,” one American diplomat said.
But Blandón’s confident term “dissolved” seems overoptimistic to define the current status of the rightist killers. The Archdiocese’s Legal Aid office lists fifty-four politically related cases of civilians who were murdered by nameless plainclothes assailants during the first three months of this year. On November 22, the body of a Lutheran pastor, David Fernández, turned up near the eastern city of San Miguel, his face lacerated with a machete. The following week Ambassador Pickering told me categorically that his confidential intelligence sources blamed the guerrillas. But only days after Pickering’s statement police in San Miguel arrested an army sergeant and a former private for the murder. Their court affidavits suggest that the sergeant, in a drunken stupor, decided Reverend Fernández had to die because it was said in the San Miguel garrison that the pastor was a guerrilla sympathizer.
Aside from two or three prominent cases which have attracted concern in Congress, the Salvadoran military has an unspoken agreement to overlook the past. “There is hardly an officer who doesn’t have some blood on his hands,” a US official told me bluntly. “I think the high command’s deal is, we’ll protect you for what you’ve done so far, but try anything new and we’ll get you.”
On April 9, in the rural hamlet of Santa Cruz Loma, Cecilia Juárez told a group of reporters about the death early that day of her son Daniel. She spoke numbly, factually. Daniel was one of nineteen villagers—including several armed civil militiamen and more unarmed men, women, and children—who were executed or killed in an attack by guerrillas of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five armies in the FMLN, who came into the town posing as army soldiers. Daniel was a militia member, but not on duty on April 9. He was shot at point-blank range. His mother reached into her apron pocket, drew out a flat piece of skull, and held it out to the reporters. “Look what they’ve done to my son’s head,” she said. “I found this in the dust at the edge of the road. I couldn’t just leave it there. What am I supposed to do with it?”
According to pamphlets the guerrillas scattered around the hamlet, the purpose of their attack was to intimidate the village civil-defense militias and to warn people in the nearby hamlets of what would happen if they allowed new militias to be organized. During 1985, the operations of the guerrillas increasingly resembled the one at Santa Cruz Loma, causing villagers to doubt they are the liberators they claim. Countless passenger and commercial vehicles have been destroyed since February. Ten public telephone offices as well as thirty-three town halls were reduced to ashes by sabotage. The rebels have revealed to the population much about their abilities to destroy, but their actions do little to suggest to Salvadorans outside the zones they more or less control what they might create if they gained a share of power.
Meanwhile, senior Salvadoran and US military officers are full of confidence. They note that the rebels have launched only two significant regular combat attacks in or near any cities in 1985. US officers say the 45,000 troops of the Salvadoran armed forces at last have adequately trained, energetic combat leaders, not just for its battalions but down to the level of its thirty-man patrols as well.
Since late 1983 two military commanders have dominated the fighting—General Blandón and Joaquin Villalobos, the thirty-four-year-old commander of the ERP, the People’s Revolutionary Army, a Marxist force of about 2,500 based primarily in eastern El Salvador.
One correspondent remembers when Blandón, in 1981, canceled a lunch appointment because, he admitted, he was too drunk. Since then Blandón, a shrewd, articulate officer, has pulled himself together. He was appointed Chief of Staff in November 1983, primarily, it seemed, because his smooth political manner pleased both hard-line anti-communists and the more moderate officers. But he quickly roused the General Staff from its drowsiness; he created new units to improve communications and centralized command to force listless provincial garrison commanders into action. He broke old rules by promoting officers on the basis of talent, not seniority. He moved the armed forces into a permanent, nationwide offensive, based on cautiously formulated plans covering six-month periods.
Blandón understood that Duarte—loathed and feared by the armed forces for a decade—was the man who could assure US military aid, and he calmed fears of Duarte in the officer corps. More than $403 million have rolled in since he became Chief of Staff, much of it to increase the air fleet, which now includes some forty helicopters, two AC-47 gunships, nine A-37 jet bombers, and other aircraft. His “heliborne” battalions have been among his most effective units, as some guerrillas will admit. “The armed forces have definitely improved greatly in terms of their firepower and methods,” rebel spokesman Salvador Samayoa told me in an interview in Managua. When he was commander of San Salvador’s First Infantry Brigade, Blandón always refused to have US advisers around. The general learned much of US counter-insurgency theory when he was in Washington, but he keeps enough distance from American advisers to reassure the nationalist officers under him that he is not merely an American pawn.
At the same time, Blandón is also a master of propaganda, and he has succeeded in concealing from the public eye shortcomings that continue to plague his forces. He told me that one of his most important moves was to create a new psychological operations and propaganda unit at the General Staff, and to improve army press relations. Working together with a Venezuelan Christian Democrat public-relations firm in San Salvador, the armed forces and the Duarte government have been skilled at magnifying their confidence beyond its real proportions. In a gesture typical of his style, General Blandón told me, “Only one of our soldiers has surrendered with his weapon since early 1984.” In fact, the FMLN continues to take dozens of prisoners in battle. In late May the rebels attempted to hold a public ceremony in Chalatenango province to hand over twenty-two captured soldiers to the International Red Cross. The event didn’t draw much attention because the provincial commander, Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa, blocked the press from the scene.
In a sense, the four US Marines and other civilians who were gunned down in the sidewalk café were victims of the atmosphere of confidence Blandón and Duarte have established in the capital city. The American soldiers momentarily forgot, on a pleasant evening out, that the ugly war still goes on.
The fact is that despite Blandón’s improvements, the army is still largely avoiding the aggressive long-range night patrolling by small units that the US military advisers have advocated ad nauseam. Even Colonel Ochoa, famous for mopping up rebel bases in eastern Cabanas province in 1982, is combing through Chalatenango, where he is now, with operations of thousands of troops. The US military advisers are pushing the army to form freshly trained, volunteer civil-defense militias in small villages to keep on the lookout for rebel movements. But one officer familiar with the program admitted it is “very, very difficult to manage.” In many towns defense men don’t patrol for fear of attracting a heavy guerrilla attack. In at least one village, in central San Vicente province, the defense men confessed they made a pact with local guerrillas to leave each other alone.
Meanwhile, the boyish-looking Joaquín Villalobos is constantly on the move with his ERP guerrillas through the northeastern mountains. I feel I’ve come to know him from talks with his followers during all the days and miles I walked in fruitless efforts to meet him face to face. Once, in 1983, several other reporters and I trekked seven days to northern Morazán province to see the man at the ERP’s invitation. Along our route to the rendezvous, we posed hard questions, as journalists do, to all the guerrillas we met, including two young men who had just deserted from the army to join the rebel ranks, and many novice fighters who were in training at the ERP’s military school. When word got back to the comandante en jefe of our skeptical interrogatories, Villalobos decided not to face them himself. Our ERP guides, forthcoming and confident when they led us into Morazán, were shaken and intimidated as they hurried us back out after their leader’s abrupt “no.” Later we learned that in the days just before our visit to the military school, the ERP had executed several youths who tried to desert from their courses there.
During the past year the activities of Villalobos’s ERP have caused constant headaches for the four other rebel groups in the FMLN. In July 1984 the FMLN general command concluded that they faced a medium-term risk of US intervention because, they reasoned, the Duarte government could collapse under economic pressures before the end of his five-year term. In most of the rebel strongholds, FMLN regulars set about building bomb shelters and stockpiling arms. That wasn’t enough for Villalobos. In its redoubt in Morazán the ERP began press-ganging villagers into its ranks; this had the effect of exposing local people whose political loyalties were in doubt and forcing them to flee to refugee camps. When the recruits began deserting—FMLN sources say about 90 percent of the ERP’s forced recruits did so—a few who were caught were executed for making off with their rifles.
On election day the FMLN declared that traffic must come to a halt in the zones it controlled, a small gesture to hamper the vote. Villalobos’s troops enforced this by ambushing a priest and a seminary student in San Miguel province, killing the latter. The FMLN had to issue a public apology. More recently, in June, forces mainly from the ERP kidnapped sixteen town officials, killing one, to show everyone how powerful they are in zones where they are the most constant military presence. In 1984 the FMLN decided on an abrupt change of tactics, trying to adapt to the new US-supplied air power and its capacity for reconnaissance of rebel forces. The FMLN leaders broke down their “columns” of three hundred fighters into more mobile platoons one tenth that size. In the ERP-dominated eastern part of the country, peasants increasingly reported abuses by petty guerrilla potentates—small-unit commanders who lacked the political and military training the ERP had earlier given to its officers. One high-ranking FMLN leader said that “continuous debates” have taken place during the past eighteen months concerning Villalobos’s “tempestuousness” and the ERP’s “large errors which affect the civilian population.” Other groups, like the Popular Liberation Force (FPL), the other large army in the FMLN, have been more successful. They disregarded the stern advice of their Cuban counselors to build up their armed forces and keep them separate from their civilian supporters, and concentrated instead on organizing hamlets within the zones they control to defend and govern themselves.
Beyond factional disputes, however, other signs multiply of an overall deterioration in the FMLN. The FPL is still wrestling with the aftershocks of the gruesome 1983 murder of the group’s second-in-command, Comandante Ana Maria, ordered by its leader, Cayetano Carpio, who subsequently committed suicide. Several urban splinter groups that broke away from the FPL in disputes over these events have engaged in such senseless terrorism that even the FMLN has disavowed them. A third, more moderate group, the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN), has taken a bad beating from the army in its stronghold on central Guazapa Mountain. The armed forces of the Communist party are rarely heard from. The most recent action of the fifth and smallest group, known as the Central American Workers Revolutionary Party (PRTC), was the killing of the four US Marines.
During 1984, according to official figures, 1,132 Salvadorans from guerrilla ranks turned themselves in to the armed forces—248 so far this year, although only twenty-eight brought weapons with them. The rest were civilian sympathizers. In May the FPL’s top comandante in San Salvador, Miguel Castellanos, was taken by the armed forces under confusing circumstances—he says he turned himself in, the FMLN says he was captured. According to both FMLN leaders and military officers, he has been talking as freely to army intelligence as he has to the press about anything they want to know about the inner workings of the FMLN. Castellanos is the highest-ranking guerrilla to go over to the government since the beginning of the war. The information supplied by him and other deserters led the army to at least two sizable rebel arms caches.
The FMLN leaders continue to misread popular feeling in El Salvador. They refuse to acknowledge the small, but nonetheless palpable, comfort Salvadorans derived from their three elections in two years. Duarte’s government is still called “la dictadura” in rebel radio broadcasts. The FMLN leaders constantly fret over, and even seem to long for, possible intervention by US combat troops, which now seems remote. They persist in believing battlefield prowess is enough to persuade people to trust them; they continue to tell themselves that Salvadorans, by now bone-tired of war, have sufficient confidence in the FMLN’s prospects for victory to put up with its grim campaigns of burnings, bombings, and assassinations. They have failed to offer a convincing new argument for revolution now that the armed forces have curbed the reckless slaughter of civilians. They fail to see the significance of the crowds that teem on Saturday afternoons at the Metrocentro, San Salvador’s biggest and gaudiest shopping center, where they buy American-made jogging shoes and T-shirts that say “Communism Stops Here.”
Nevertheless, just as the government forces hide their failures, the guerrillas have continuing strengths that are not easily visible. Samayoa, the guerrilla spokesman, has some justification when he says, “The Pentagon’s idea two years ago was to push us back to the northeast depths of the country and hit us there. What have they achieved? When can the armed forces say they have ever wiped out a single one of our platoons?” During the last eighteen months at least, the army has not dealt a single major blow to the guerrilla forces. The FMLN has moved the war out of its remote northern strongholds into the central and western provinces. The wards of San Salvador’s military hospital are newly packed with amputees and other soldiers blinded or maimed by ground mines.
Nearly 70 percent of the 2,337 soldiers killed or wounded between June 1984 and April 1985 were hit by mines. The mining has greatly reduced the guerrillas’ need for ammunition at a time when the armed forces are more successfully impeding resupply from outside the country. It may look from San Salvador as if the FMLN is badly shaken, but its leaders refuse to be pessimistic. “Nobody should think that because we spread out our forces, we aren’t preparing some hard blow,” Samayoa told me.
To the degree that the Salvadoran army has made any headway, the consensus at the US embassy is that it benefited from the limits imposed by Congress on the numbers of US soldiers that can be sent there. One US diplomat now describes the fifty-five-man ceiling, the subject of so much congressional bickering, as a “blessing in disguise.” US officials say that even in the darkest hours of 1983, committing US troops was never seriously considered. “It’s the lesson of Vietnam,” one US official said. “Ultimately the Salvadorans have to solve their own problems.”
On the matter of ties between leftists in El Salvador and in other nations, however, the administration’s original assertions that the FMLN is supplied and influenced by foreign Marxist allies proved factually correct, if distorted in its emphasis. The Pentagon finally completed this spring its long-awaited analysis of the serial numbers of M-16 and AR-15 rifles captured from the guerrillas. It found that about 70 percent of them were weapons left by American troops in Vietnam, not issued to the Salvadoran army and then seized by the rebels. Among the documents found in the backpack of Nidia Diaz, a senior guerrilla commander taken prisoner in combat in April, one, apparently her personal diary, lists thirteen rank-and-file rebels to be trained in 1985 in Vietnam, Bulgaria, or the Soviet Union. The FMLN now says openly that, as Reagan had charged, it maintained its operational command in Managua until early 1983, when Cuban and Sandinista advisers urged that the command be moved to El Salvador. Managua remains an FMLN radio communications center, as well as a meeting place and a refuge for traveling comandantes and burnedout combatientes.
Castellanos described substantial stockpiles of munitions awaiting transshipment in Managua, some purchased by the FMLN and some donated through Cuba. The FMLN continues to fly small planes back and forth from Nicaragua, and to bring in arms in false-bottomed trucks and by muleback through Honduras and Guatemala, and more rarely by water from Nicaragua. But Castellanos confirmed what US intelligence reports have suggested: since last year the flow of arms has fallen off and now consists mainly of rifle rounds and explosives.
Relations among different groups of Latin revolutionaries are often strained, FMLN leaders say. Cubans, Sandinistas, and Salvadorans differ about which country is likely to be invaded first and how to negotiate with the United States. In Managua, the Sandinistas have asked the Salvadorans to live far out of town, and haven’t given them houses or other amenities. “They look after their interests,” Samayoa said. “We look after ours.” Even if the United States forces the Sandinistas to cut off aid to the Salvadorans entirely, this will not bring the FMLN down. If the FMLN is crushed, the main reason will be its own political inadequacies.
The weekly meeting of the Coffee Growers’ Association in El Salvador is an unhappy occasion. Before 1980, the private growers owned the entire ten-story building known as the “Coffee Company”—one of the tallest in the city. But in early 1980 a series of reforms by the civilian-military junta, of which Duarte was a member, expropriated 426 of the nation’s largest haciendas, some belonging to coffee families, and nationalized coffee exporting. Now the Growers’ Association has been shunted off to a few offices on one floor, while the state coffee agency occupies the rest.
The board includes people whose family names were formidable during El Salvador’s oligarchic past: Francisco García Rossi, Orlando de Sola, and Gerardo Escalón, after whose family San Salvador’s most stylish boulevard is named. These men now claim there never was a landed elite in El Salvador. The much-talked-about “fourteen families” were a myth, they say, propagated by socialists in the American government. “We were just a herd of cattle that was fattened up to be slaughtered when the time was right,” a prominent fifty-year-old board member, Raúl Calvo, told me.
The coffee growers’ lament is that the state coffee agency, INCAFE, has set prices so low that they can’t break even on coffee production. Association members as a whole owe $80 million in debts they can’t possibly repay. They are, they admit, no longer replanting and fertilizing their coffee groves. “To produce more is to lose more,” another board member observed. Duarte recently raised coffee prices and offered the growers loans, but they want profits, not credits.
Unlike the former cotton and sugar barons, who adapted grudgingly to the new system, the coffee growers are holding out in the hope that they can roll back all the reforms. They find it simply insulting that they have to sell their coffee to the government. “I don’t work to benefit others,” said Raúl Calvo. “I work to benefit myself.” They vow not to rest until the coffee trade is denationalized.
Before 1980 the growers were the pillars of anticommunism in El Salvador. Today they view Duarte as a more formidable enemy than the guerrillas. Most coffee is grown in western El Salvador, where rebel activity has been only sporadic. The growers see the war effort as a waste of money, particularly coffee money, that has been siphoned off by the government but should have come to them.
The 1980 reforms, which were in part designed by the Carter administration, broke the power of rightist domination in El Salvador. But now the growers say they see the United States coming back around to their side. US embassy economic advisers approached them in recent months to discuss ways to increase their control over the industry. “We have seen how the armed forces and the opposition parties have been tamed,” said Orlando de Sola. “The only restraint on Duarte’s abuses and craziness is provided by the Reagan administration.”
Even after the crushing political defeat they suffered in March, rightist politicians and businessmen sense that their time may be coming again. The coffee growers are already moving to strong positions in other sectors of the economy, like real estate and banking. A former oligarch, Roberto Hill, now heads a foundation which has been charged by the US embassy with doling out $7.5 million in aid to the private sector. The ultraconservative Hugo Barrera, once righthand man to D’Aubuisson in ARENA, has formed his own party, sensing that Duarte’s predicament, with a near-bank-rupt economy, conflicting demands from labor and business, and a possibly insoluble war, will give new legitimacy to antistatist, anticommunist views in coming years.
But the coffee growers’ meeting ended with ominous words from Orlando de Sola. He is a striking man, much younger-looking than his forty years, who tends to glance sideways when he talks to a reporter. In 1983 he was accused of raising funds from Miami for rightist death squads. Now back from exile, he makes one doubt that the right has abandoned its interest in organizing private, semiclandestine armies.
“I think killing is intrinsically bad—with some exceptions,” De Sola said. “One exception is self-defense. Right now, in this place at this time, someone may be waiting to kill us. You don’t need to wait for a threat to defend yourself. Normally we should be protected by government security forces that we create. But when those fail, as they have in El Salvador, you have to defend yourself.”
“Of course we will have our own private security forces,” De Sola said bitterly. “We have to.”
Beneath the plausible surface of Duarte’s political success, El Salvador remains a violent, often desperate nation. On the back of Guazapa Mountain, a longtime rebel stronghold in central El Salvador, there is a hamlet whose name in English means, inappropriately, “consolation.” Its inhabitants can’t tell you exactly how often this year US-supplied A-37 jets have made the earth near Consolación shudder with deafening bombs. The days and the bombs have blended together in their minds in a long haze of panic. They can’t specify how many people died this year in Consolación from bombing—maybe fourteen, maybe fifteen.
Marta Alicia Herazo, twenty years old, of Consolación, remembers how the bombing started in the middle of the afternoon of April 22. Soon after, army troops descended on the hamlet, spraying machine-gun fire. Almost every resident has some relative who is a rebel fighter, but the hamlet itself, the residents said, is not an FMLN base. There were no guerrillas around that afternoon.
“The army gets scared they will find guerrillas, so they come in fighting with the chickens and with anyone who tries to run away,” I was told by Fidelina Mendoza, a woman of forty-three. Some residents reached the underground bomb shelters they had dug nearby, while others huddled in their houses. The soldiers didn’t kill them, but instead corralled them together and over the next two days evacuated them from the hamlet by helicopter to a refugee camp near San Salvador.
Did the soldiers burn houses in Consolación in April? No, Herazo says, the houses had already been burned by the army in 1984. Did they burn crops? No, the crops were burned in an earlier sweep this year. They killed the last fifteen chickens, “and they didn’t even eat them,” said Mendoza—the final insult.
The army says the people of Consolación—about 270 in all—asked to be “rescued” from the guerrillas. The villagers don’t dispute that they left their homes voluntarily. “There was nothing left there for me to hold on to,” Mendoza said.
“We were just sitting there waiting for death,” Marta Alicia Herazo told me, her thin arms crossed over her stomach.
The armed forces, and President Duarte himself, have said that no A-37 bombing raids are authorized unless they are called to support actual ground combat between soldiers and guerrillas. “There certainly are areas where the army feels the guerrillas are the main inhabitants, and some areas they don’t think there is anything but guerrillas,” said one Western military observer familiar with air-force operations. “But I think they’re sensitized to the basic point that you don’t go shooting at something unless you’ve got a target that you know is guerrillas, if for no other reason than bombs and artillery rounds are very expensive, and it’s really a waste of effort and ammunition to just go shooting stuff out there at nothing. It’s not worth it tactically.”
But countless statements by refugees point to a systematic effort by the armed forces to remove the population—with bombs, scorched earth, and random mortar fire—from areas where guerrillas are present. When the army is certain that the residents of a town have turned against the rebels, it resettles them. In central El Salvador, stepped-up army sweeps keep civilians who favor the guerrillas on the run in headlong mass flights for days on end. (After five years of war, more than half a million people have been displaced from their homes, though fewer than 20,000 of them are in camps. The army’s depopulation tactics are not responsible for displacing many of these people; most of them have just fled from the fighting, whatever side it was coming from.)
In the capital small events mark the continuing uneasiness of daily life. The offices of the antigovernment Human Rights Commission and the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared were sacked on June 12 by intruders who made off with lists of names of the mothers of disappeared Salvadorans, as well as $10,000. Two European relief workers were picked up on charges of collaborating with the left, an unsettling throwback to the early 1980s. In a seemingly quiet middle-class neighborhood in San Salvador stands a modest, middle-of-the-road Lutheran church, a one-room affair. Since the election, the pastor, Rev. Medardo Gómez, has received a death threat from someone posing as a guerrilla in an attempt to extort some money from him; and he had a warning that the national police believe he is supplying medicines to the guerrillas. Someone called the church and rattled off machine-gun rounds over the telephone. Two church members have fled into exile since the election after threats from the police. “Everyone lives in an extreme state of tension,” another Lutheran pastor told me. Among the rapidly growing congregation, dependence on Valium and alcohol is high.
José Napoleón Duarte was an independent-minded, populist reformist when he was robbed of the presidency in 1972. Now, after five years in which he has been the main hope of the United States’ policy to defeat the left, Duarte has the power he sought for so many years, but he seems a different, far more conservative man. The US embassy sees this period as an opportunity to bring him further around to Reagan’s politics, urging him to make concessions to business, dismantle state bureaucracies, and return agrarian reform cooperatives to private hands wherever he can. Thus far, Duarte’s moves have been consistent with US goals, since he has made it his priority to revitalize the economy by reassuring the private sector, before turning his attention to the desperate demands of the working poor. Economically, El Salvador remains a captive of the United States; without more than $325.4 million in aid this year the nation would be technically bankrupt.
Durate is dealing with the rapid resurgence of militant union activity in the capital with a hard hand. He says the strikes are an FMLN ploy to destabilize him; and FMLN leaders proudly acknowledge their inside ties to the teachers’, water-workers’, and hospitalworkers’ unions. But while the FMLN fails to see that few workers are still willing to risk their lives in street demonstrations, Duarte for his part does not admit that many rank-and-file demands are legitimate. In 1985, El Salvador’s per capita production has not even returned to where it was in 1972. Many workers have only had one raise in five years. Duarte, citing “dangerous disobedience,” will only negotiate with the unions on limited issues of wages and hours. If the unions occupy their workplaces, as the hospital workers did recently, he will send troops to take the place back.
But Duarte’s ultimate test is whether he can bring peace, as he promised, to El Salvador. The Christian Democrat president had his finest hour when he marched, unarmed and unprotected, into the little church in La Palma last October for his first talks with the FMLN. But now Duarte is pressed by a Salvadoran military that is richer, larger, and freer from constraints than ever before. General Blandón told me in June that his troops are in a position to win “absolute victory” over the FMLN. General Vides, on the day he roared out his defense of the elections, ended by saying: “It’s time for the Salvadoran people to join together in an effort to defeat our common enemy, communist-terrorist subversion.” Such talk may tempt the Reagan administration to push for a flat-out defeat of the FMLN. In any case, there is no possibility for the rebels to take a share of power, as they have demanded. But neither are FMLN leaders any closer than they were at La Palma to surrendering their arms to General Blandón.
One sign of change seemed to come after the killings of the US Marines, when some members of one of the non-Marxist political parties in the leftist alliance, the Popular Social Christian Movement, took out ads in San Salvador newspapers to say the attack “certainly does not contribute in any way to the attainment of a just peace in the country.” But within days their leader Rubén Zamora revised their position, and said that Duarte himself would be a legitimate target of assassination. Leading politicians of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the nonarmed wing of the insurgent alliance, have been outspokenly critical of the FMLN in recent months—but they have not indicated that they are ready to come to any separate agreement with Duarte to return to political life in El Salvador.
The best Salvadorans can hope for, so far as I can see, is limited, infrequent negotiations to civilize the conduct of the war. Peace will have to be made gradually, by Salvadoran citizens, not only by their leaders: by guerrilla fighters who lay down their rifles and return to their families, or by policemen who adhere to legal procedures instead of brutalizing captured youths they suspect of leftist sympathies. Duarte and the United States have had greater successes than their critics predicted, but they will be presiding over war in El Salvador for a long time.
August 15, 1985