On the night of Friday, November 10, several unusual parties took place in the neighborhood of Santa Marta, which clings to the sides of a jagged ravine on the outskirts of San Salvador. Residents were invited to a wedding celebration, though they were never quite sure when the couple had been married. Another party was said to celebrate a young woman’s fifteenth birthday, though many residents thought that she was well past that age. Among the many strangers who turned up at the festivities some guests noticed several women who arrived with one man, danced a few turns with him, then left only to return an hour later with another man.

When, on the evening of the following day, Marxist guerrillas launched attacks in nearly every large working-class neighborhood in El Salvador’s capital, the people in Santa Marta quickly understood that the parties had been the final phase of the rebels’ clandestine infiltration into the capital city in preparation for what soon became their strongest offensive in a decade-old civil war, and their first full-scale combat in San Salvador in seven years.

The people in Santa Marta spent much of the next seven days crouching in the corners and pressed against the floors of their cinder-block houses. They found out that even in their cramped barrio where neighbors watched each other closely, fighters of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the FMLN, had managed to set up several safe houses during the past year, stocked with rifles and ammunition. The guerrillas took up firing positions in the houses, attracting retaliation from government forces, which started with wild sprays of assault-rifle bullets and culminated in mortar barrages and aerial rocketing.

During the first days of the offensive some of the poorest people in Santa Marta, who live in dirt-floor shanties next to a railroad track, helped the guerrillas to build barricades and find food. They became less helpful as the fighting intensified. Soon food ran out in the entire neighborhood, the electricity and water went off, and the bodies of fallen guerrilla fighters lay rotting in the cobbled alleyways. By the end of the fighting asbestos-sheet roofs were blasted off houses, walls were leveled, and street paving stones were torn up. By a miracle, few civilians were injured because they stayed close to the ground for so long.

On Sunday, November 19, the rebels faded into the scrub forest of the surrounding hills. Their week-long siege left behind in Santa Marta a terrible knowledge of how close and randomly lethal the war could become, even in the capital city, and a paralyzing fear that the FMLN might draw the army and the crossfire back to Santa Marta. Therefore the residents returned to a state of fright they had not known since the nationwide terror of the early 1980s, when government security forces waged a campaign of butchery against the left.

None of those I interviewed would consent to having their names published with their accounts. Some observed that men and women they had seen fighting in guerrilla uniforms were still lingering around the neighborhood dressed as civilians, presumably waiting to be ordered back into action. But while Santa Marta residents I spoke with were not about to be friendly with them, they did not want to turn them in to the army.

The heavy combat throughout San Salvador lasted twenty days. The FMLN held the upper hand in the dense proletarian boroughs across the northern third of the city, and in some sections around the southeastern edge, for at least three days, and in some communities for as long as seven. In normal city traffic it takes forty minutes to drive from one end of the barrios they occupied to the other, an area in which more than 250,000 people live. By carrying the attack to the sloping boulevards of Escalón and other San Salvador ghettoes of privilege twice in two weeks, the FMLN demonstrated it could fight effectively in any part of the city. Fighting was also heavy in the provincial cities of San Miguel, Usulutan, and Zacatecoluca.

Eventually the forces of the rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani managed to extract rebels from their positions, mainly by showing that the air force would not hesitate to strafe, rocket, even bomb crowded urban communities. The army reported a total of 446 of its 52,000 troops killed and 1,228 wounded, making the offensive easily the bloodiest episode in the war. The FMLN said 401 rebels died, and did not give the figures of its wounded. (The statistics are probably somewhat low on both sides.) US military sources report that the armed forces are holding some five hundred guerrillas captured during November, which combined with the rebel death toll suggests that the FMLN lost more than 10 percent of its overall force. US sources also estimate that more than seven hundred young men were “forcibly recruited” by the FMLN during November. Since families of volunteers often say their children were abducted in order to protect themselves from government reprisals, it’s possible that new recruits to the rebels nearly made up for those who were lost. Nevertheless, the FMLN paid a very high price for its offensive.


The violence spread beyond the streets where the two forces battled. Early on the morning of November 16, men dressed in camouflage uniforms raided the Jesuit residence on the campus of the Central American University and murdered six priests, their cook, and her fifteen-year-old daughter. The dead included the university rector Father Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the most distinguished intellectuals in El Salvador. Perhaps symbolically, the priests’ brains were destroyed by the M-16 and AK-47 bullets fired at point-blank range.

Under the state of siege declared by the government on November 12, forty-one Catholic and Protestant churches and religious offices were searched and frequently broken up by the security forces, and forty-eight church workers, most of them foreigners, were arrested. The Lutheran bishop Medardo Gómez, fled El Salvador for his life. Most left-of-center labor unions or civic organizations closed and sent their members into hiding.


The FMLN said it hoped its offensive would smash the long stalemate in El Salvador’s war by transforming city neighborhoods like Santa Marta into strongholds of rebellion. But the San Salvador fighting had a more stunning effect on national politics than it did on the neighborhood streets. The November offensive undermined the main assumptions on which all sides—the government, the United States, and the FMLN—had constructed their policies over the last decade.

First, the offensive demolished the United States’ premise that the government and its armed forces, on which Washington has lavished $4.8 billion since 1981, were prevailing in the war as a result of a policy that sought simultaneously to fortify the army in order to wear down the rebels in combat, and to fortify civilian democracy in order to weaken the rebels’ political legitimacy. It is now clear that in recent years the FMLN has gained military strength.

The offensive shattered the emerging image of the Cristiani government, which was chosen by a decisive margin in a national election in March 1989. It had then appeared that a new business class led by Cristiani had discarded the crude red-hating and vigilante violence of the old landed right-wing class in favor of modern conservatism and rational political debate. It seemed for a time that Cristiani’s party, known by its acronym as ARENA, might have enough nationalist appeal and ties to the officer corps to impose its civilian authority over the military, which the former Christian Democrat president, José Napoleón Duarte, had failed to do. However, it became evident during the fighting that Cristiani was hardly even briefed on the military’s decisions. At a press conference on November 16 Cristiani assured the nation that air power would be used inside the city limits “only where there is a clear FMLN objective.” He was speaking to reporters who had just come from watching Salvadorans in droves flee scattershot air assaults on their houses.

Cristiani appeared to have no control over the government security forces—the Treasury Police, National Guard, National Police, and the civil defense squads. All these took their revenge on churches, human rights groups and unlucky bystanders, whoever they suspected of having left-wing sympathies, using the same methods for which they became notorious early in the decade, unaffected by the intervening years of US human rights rhetoric. For example, Michael Eugene Terril, a forty-two-year-old American plumber from Washington state, was on a trip through Central America when he was arrested by the Treasury Police on November 15, along with another American and seven Salvadorans, at the offices of Comadres, a left-leaning organization of relatives of victims of human rights abuses. Terril said he was at the Comadres office because it was a “cheap place to stay.” Terril was kicked, struck with rifle butts, and left standing blindfolded for two days in the hallways of Treasury Police headquarters without being allowed rest. He could hear sounds of Salvadorans being interrogated in nearby cells; there were crashing and cries as the men were hurled against the cells’ metal doors. The prisoners begged for water.

“They kick you, that heals. But I can remember them screams now,” Terril told me.

The events also served to undermine the FMLN’s own myths. It could no longer argue that it is a purely indigenous force, equipped exclusively with homemade bombs and rifles seized in combat from the Salvadoran army, after a plane that crashed in a bean field in San Miguel province on November 25 was found to be loaded with twenty-four SAM-7 missiles and one Redeye anti-air missile. Days later reporters in Nicaragua learned, by interviewing Nicaraguans who lived nearby, that the aircraft left from the Sandinista military airfield at Montelimar. The case was so clearcut that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega could not even bring himself to issue an outright denial.


The offensive also shattered one of the dearest illusions of the chief FMLN military mastermind, Joaquín Villalobos. For some eighteen months Villalobos had argued that El Salvador was on the brink of a “social explosion” that would be detonated by the FMLN, and he predicted that if his forces launched a “strategic blow” they would precipitate a “general uprising” by the poor. Nothing resembling a mass insurrection took place, a fact that the FMLN acknowledged in an assessment it broadcast on its Radio Venceremos in late November, and blamed the armed forces for this. “The incorporation of the masses in the first days of the offensive forced the enemy to use its aviation indiscriminately to thwart a general uprising and inhibit the insurrection….”

El Salvador after November was a nation with its unhealed wounds laid bare. The horror of the first years of the 1980s had never ended but had only been concealed. In 1989 the Salvadorans witnessed a recurrence of the tragedies of 1980 and 1981, when right-wing death squads killed thousands of people; when the Catholic primate, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was murdered; when the newly formed FMLN launched a “final” offensive promising to ride a popular rebellion to power; and when the United States, in its determination to draw the line against communism, dismissed gross government abuses as fantasies of the left. At a time when many of the dogmas of the postwar period are becoming obsolescent, Salvadorans continue to die for anachronistic ideas. One of the world’s last devoutly Marxist-Leninist liberation movements is pitted against the reactionary anti-communism of the right, which has intermittently dominated the country for more than half a century, and against the US counterinsurgency theories that had proved both futile and cruelly destructive in Viet Nam.

None of the contestants sought the most immediate visible result of the November fighting. After ten years of strife, it took the FMLN offensive to cause everyday Salvadorans—cooks, teachers, bakers, bricklayers—to despair about the future of their nation. For the first time in the war, the lines outside the immigration offices down-town stretched for three blocks: people wanted to put their passports in order so that they could leave at any minute. Maximiliano Leiva, the immigration chief, said that ten thousand new passports were issued in November, and his office was receiving applications at the rate of one thousand a day. Other lines formed outside the offices of a refugee agency that arranges for Salvadorans to start new lives in Australia. Few in the line knew the first thing about Australia, but they had been told it was a nation at peace.


During the past five years the FMLN has defied the most basic accepted wisdom of guerrilla warfare: that the rebels must have sustained popular support to survive and grow. Measured by the results of three national elections since 1985, public support for the FMLN has declined, yet the revolutionary army’s ability to carry on war has continued to improve. The FMLN has built on its internal strengths: it has a core of thousands of rural peasant and urban working-class fighters; many of them have become committed to the organization because of some unspeakable act of repression they suffered at the hands of the armed forces. The FMLN has resilient, forceful leaders who keep their fighters training and moving about, and who never cease analyzing new developments, setting new objectives—even, as in the November offensive, boldly altering the entire theater of the war, shifting it from the countryside, where it simmered since 1982, back into the city. Most top FMLN comandantes endured the privations of guerrilla life for years along with their combatientes. (Commander “Dimas,” the second in command of the Popular Liberation Forces, one of the five guerrilla groups in the front, was killed in the action in November.)

The FMLN enforces strict discipline, and it thoroughly indoctrinates its militants. (“We will die fighting. They’ll never get us out of here alive,” a guerrilla named “Fernando” told reporters on the first day of fighting.) Finally, the FMLN has patiently organized efficient radio communications and arms supply networks crisscrossing El Salvador and stretching through Nicaragua to Cuba.

The strong military organization protects its leaders from confronting the contradiction between their Marxist interpretation of events surrounding the war and the increasing desire of most Salvadorans to stop the bloodletting. In mid-1988 the highest FMLN comandantes began to work out the strategy that culminated in the San Salvador offensive. FMLN documents captured by the Salvadoran army in early 1988 outlined “Plan Fire,” a blueprint for warfare leading to a broad insurrection. The plan’s preamble suggests how remote the FMLN had become from the currents of change in the Communist bloc, asserting that the world was witnessing

the strengthening of socialism as a system and the decomposition of the centers of capitalist power…a tendency towards the supremacy of socialism.

At a time when it was overwhelmingly evident that neither side in El Salvador could defeat the other, FMLN thinkers wrote:

The struggle of the masses is the decisive factor in the whole process, and to the extent it becomes dominant and revolutionary violence and insurrectional armed struggle become generalized among many social sectors, the possibilities open up again for the victory of the revolution.

By early 1989 the FMLN was stockpiling weapons in San Salvador. In late May the armed forces uncovered the biggest cache of rebel arms that had yet been found, buried under the floor of a carpenter’s shop in Soyapango, a neighborhood which became a center of the November fighting; it contained 283 AK-47 rifles and nearly one million rifle rounds whose markings indicated, according to US military analysts, that they were recently made at an arms factory in Cuba.

In spite of the guerrillas’ confidence, by the autumn of this year their political influence reached a low point. Villalobos and another senior FMLN official, the Communist party leader Shafik Handal, attended peace talks in Mexico and Costa Rica, which stalled after Cristiani didn’t even bother to send a high-level representative. A poll conducted by Father Ignacio Martín Baró (who was among the Jesuits massacred on November 16) showed that 38 percent of Salvadorans rated Cristiani’s performance in his first three months as good or very good, while only 12 percent rated it bad or very bad.

On October 30 a callous FMLN attack with catapult bombs on the army general staff headquarters in San Salvador killed one civilian and wounded fifteen others. In a savage response from the right, a bomb placed at midday on October 31 at the door of the cafeteria of a leftist union ripped ten people to pieces and wounded thirty-five. FMLN leaders then apparently decided to put into effect long-considered plans for an offensive that would use practically every military resource they could bring to bear.

They seem to have decided to press the assault in pursuit of several aims instead of trying to agree on the single goal of toppling Cristiani. According to interviews guerrilla leaders gave to Radio Venceremos, the FMLN hoped to demonstrate its military might in a way that would strengthen its position at the bargaining table; to force the war into the lives of city people; to reduce the capital to ungovernable chaos; to provoke a split in the military; to provoke a bloody rightist backlash that would discredit the Cristiani government; to break the bipartisan consensus in favor of military aid in the US Congress; and finally, although this was not considered imperative, to set off a people’s rebellion and take power.

The guerrillas fought in the city with fury and skill. They prepared themselves with intimate knowledge of the tangled layout of the northern barrios. They knew how to move through gullies and sewer mains. They occupied the taller houses that made the best sniper nests, and burrowed holes in the walls between houses so that they could escape without going into the street. On Tuesday, November 14, the third day of fighting, Villalobos read a “manifesto to the nation” on Radio Venceremos. Claiming that thousands of city residents had shown support for the fighters, he declared “liberated zones” in eight regions and called for the organization of popular governments to prepare for the “total control of the country.”

But as Radio Venceremos admitted, “we never imagined” the government would allow the air force a free hand with its jet bombers and whining gatling guns mounted on C-47s. That anti-aircraft missiles were hastily delivered from Nicaragua suggested that the FMLN badly needed relief from the air barrage. The guerrillas’ withdrew from the northern rim of San Salvador in an orderly way, but they were forced to do so and they left the bodies of their companeros lying in the streets.

Still, in a summation on December 7 Radio Venceremos told its fighters: “We can see an end to the war…. We can count the time now in weeks, days, and hours.” San Salvador had been a “display window, beautifully done up,” but now the war “is no longer in the closet but where everyone can see it, in the window.” The FMLN concluded, “We have our hands on the throat of the enemy,” but insisted that it was time to return to the peace table to “negotiate seriously.”

Yet some of the FMLN’s tactics cast serious doubt on their interest in improving the conditions for peace talks. The guerrillas opened the offensive with nighttime mortar and grenade assaults on the residences of Cristiani, Ricardo Alvarenga Valdivieso, the ARENA president of the national assembly, and assembly vice-president Roberto Angulo. For their attacks on both Cristiani’s own house and the official presidential residence, the guerillas stole two police patrol cars to fool his security guards. Two of Cristiani’s guards were killed and the damage inside the houses was considerable. It still isn’t clear where Cristiani was, but on the evidence it seems fair to say that these were assassination attempts. On November 28 Jose Francisco Guerrero, a sixty-four-year-old conservative who had served as the Supreme Court chief justice under Duarte but had returned to private life under the ARENA government, was gunned down as he was driving through the city with his family. A guerrilla hit-man was captured at the scene. The FMLN remained silent about the murder.


The resistance of the Salvadoran armed forces was a model of military inertia. Although the FMLN had been gradually moving back into the city for almost two years, army officers admit they gave their own troops no training for urban warfare. Neither Salvadoran officers nor US officials could describe any contingency plan drawn up for an important urban attack. Many of the ten thousand Salvadoran troops from the US-trained rapid reaction battalions and regular infantry who were deployed in San Salvador are as tough and experienced as the guerrillas of the FMLN. But, US officials told me after the offensive, they fought in the alleys of Mejicanos just as they would in the rural reaches of Morazán. Ground units, as a matter of routine, called for air support when they came under heavy fire, often without regard for the city neighborhoods in which they found themselves. US embassy sources said that nine out of ten calls for air support were rejected during the first days of fighting.

The high command and US Ambassador William Walker hotly rejected the charge that the air force had attacked indiscriminately. Walker said there was a “high rate of accuracy” in the air strikes. But could it be other than indiscriminate when an air force gatling gun fired thousands of bullets through the tin roof of a parish church in Soyapango, while the priests huddled under a stairwell down below? Could it be called anything but indiscriminate when an air force projectile destroyed the second floor of the house of Ninfa Margot de Orellana on Montreal Avenue in Mejicanos as the family lay on the floor downstairs?

“It was like an earthquake—overhead. I thought we were going to be buried alive. I looked up and saw death,” Orellana recalled, though she carefully avoided any direct criticism of the armed forces.

Maria Socorro González Anaya, a hospital cook, returned with her aging mother on December 6 to see what was left of her house on Montezuma Passage in Soyapango. They and their neighbors had all fled by the time the air force dropped three huge bombs on guerrillas who were holed up in the block. One crater was nine feet deep. Half the block was nothing but shards, and a bulldozer was still turning up remains of rebels’ corpses. González’s roof was pulverized, and looters had swooped down, stealing everything, including the toilets. Maria González’s mother wandered about the ruins touching the walls and crying.

“Some may blame the FMLN for the army’s brutal reaction, but the people will never have any sympathies for the army that bombed them,” Radio Venceremos said.

Adding to the army’s lack of preparation was an immense failure of intelligence. For several weeks before the fighting started, the FMLN secretly moved more than one thousand fighters into San Salvador from the countryside. Colonel Carlos Avilés, head of psychological operations for the general staff, said that the army deduced that something was coming on Friday, November 10, barely thirty hours ahead of time. “We knew there could be something spectacular but we didn’t expect a general offensive,” Avilés said in an interview. “We didn’t know where we would be hit.”

“Intelligence comes in a thousand varieties. We are inundated with information. I wish we could always be sure what it means,” Ambassador Walker explained in his defense of the armed forces.

A major problem for the government is that while the somewhat more professional regular army is stationed in the countryside, the security forces, who are generally feared, are mainly responsible for patrolling in the capital. Eugene Terril and Brenda Hubbard, an American teacher who was arrested with him, saw the efficiency of the security forces’ intelligence-gathering in action. They were lined up outside the Comadres office while the police produced an FMLN banner and laid it out on the sidewalk in front of them. Terril was made to dress in an olive-green shirt, also provided by the police. Pictures were taken and published the following day in a rightist daily identifying both Americans as FMLN combatants. Terril had been in El Salvador for all of one week.

Now the armed forces, with the help of ARENA and the US Embassy, are busy rewriting their estimates of the FMLN’s goals in the offensive in order to portray it as a crippling defeat for the rebels. Salvadoran military intelligence has decided that the guerrillas hoped to seize the four key military garrisons in San Salvador in the first forty-eight hours—even though reporters saw little evidence of these attempts. The army says 2,134 guerrillas were killed more than the entire force that it originally estimated was committed to the fight in the capital. The guerrillas’ “ability to mount a massive attack is gone,” one US official concluded.

Cristiani continues to call on the FMLN to renew negotiations. But behind the army’s triumphant appraisals is a deepened determination not to make any of the concessions that seem likely to be necessary for the talks to work. Says Colonel René Emilio Ponce, the army chief of staff: “The government is always willing to negotiate, but we are going to crush the FMLN completely on the battlefield.”

The fighting at least momentarily seemed to improve the esprit of the often fractious Salvadoran officers, and it strengthened the hand of several right-wing extremists, including General Juan Rafael Bustillo, the air force chief, and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, commander of the first brigade in the heart of the capital. Bustillo printed a flyer that was dropped from airplanes over the city. “Salvadoran patriots: you have full rights to defend your life and property. If you have to kill FMLN terrorists and their internationalist allies, do it.” In response to the outcry from Church and relief groups who saw this as an invitation to the execution of their members, Ponce, described by US embassy officials as a cooler head, firmly endorsed the flyer’s message.

Meanwhile, one evening in early December, explosions were heard at the first brigade headquarters, sending panic through the nearby communities. But it turned out that the fire was outgoing. The brigade had set up some of its big artillery inside the garrison and was heaving shells through the dusk at guerrilla infiltration routes on the flank of the San Salvador volcano, at least four miles away. It seemed an appropriate maneuver for an army whose counteroffensive was more ideological than military.


The military received encouragement for its views from Ambassador Walker. The fifty-four-year-old foreign service professional arrived in El Salvador last year preceded by his reputation as a reformer, which he earned through his vigorous interest in human rights dating back to an earlier tour in the US embassy in El Salvador in the mid-1970s. But the November fighting put Walker on the defensive. He has taken it on himself to be the most aggressive spokesman in El Salvador for the ARENA government. Today Walker does not simply carry out American policy, he is the policy, and he takes any challenge to it as a personal affront.

In no matter is this clearer than in Walker’s reaction to the attacks on the churches. Walker rejected the suggestion that priests and the people who work with them are facing persecution. He describes the murders of the Jesuits as a random psychopathic event, comparing them to the “Son of Sam” killings.

He has heard the evidence for what the usually mild-mannered Archbishop of San Salvador, Arturo Rivera Damas, calls a “witch hunt”: some Catholic parishes were searched five times. The American Dominican priest, Father Jim Barnett, fled El Salvador on November 20 after a chilling death threat. On November 27 the house of Lutheran Reverend Philip George Anderson was ransacked. Two truckloads of soldiers twice in one December night came hunting for an American Jesuit, Father Richard Howard. Walker responds to this and other evidence—I have given only a sample—by saying that the “silent majority” of churchpeople in El Salvador are “totally unaware of any persecution of the church,” but their voices have been drowned out by isolated complaints. His views are based on faith. “I honestly believe the Cristiani government would not be so stupid as to take on the world’s churches,” Walker said.

Sharing ARENA’s distrust of the progressive church, Walker got into an open feud with Archbishop Rivera. While under FBI protection in Miami, the one known witness to the Jesuit murders, a housekeeper named Lucía Barrera de Cerna, was questioned intensively over four days by US officials and one Salvadoran official and subjected to six polygraph tests. Confused and intimidated, Cerna failed the tests and changed her version of the events several times. The Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, which assisted the Jesuits in the case, commented that US authorities “treated an obviously frightened and traumatized woman more like a criminal suspect than a potential cooperating witness.”

Although Walker said that the future of US military assistance to El Salvador depends on the murders being solved, he did not seem concerned that the United States’ chief contribution to the investigation was suddenly to impugn the integrity of the only witness. Instead of seeking to clarify what was happening to Ms. Cerna. Walker’s embassy officials were quick to reject her as unreliable and to accuse the archdiocese human rights office of coaching her testimony. The Salvadoran attorney general then said he was considering pressing charges against the archdiocese lawyer for coercing a witness.

This angered even the impassive Rivera, who accused US authorities of “brainwashing” Ms. Cerna in his Sunday homily. Walker reacted by belittling the archbishop’s authority. “You don’t find the truth by slinging around charges of psychological torture when you don’t really know what you’re talking about,” he said huffily.

Walker was offended that Church leaders would question the embassy’s motives. “Why does anyone think that we would go to all this trouble just to discredit her?” he asked. But how could the Church ignore that the US provided $85 million in aid in 1988 alone to the military forces suspected of being involved in the massacre? The episode left him squarely on the wrong side of the primate of the Catholic Church, one of the few men in El Salvador besides Walker keenly interested in prosecuting the Jesuit case, and practically the only public figure left who speaks for the majority of Salvadorans who want to see a negotiated settlement to the war.


Whatever possibilities for reconciliation may exist were badly damaged in November. The most devastating loss was the death of Father Ellacuría. When Archbishop Romero was cut down by a sniper in 1980, he had been undergoing a radical change in his thinking; he had come to identify with the dispossessed and felt an obligation to become a witness to the right’s terrible repression. Nine years later Father Ellacuría, before he became another Catholic martyr, was also undergoing a difficult process of change, but in the direction of dispassion.

In the August-September issue of the university’s review, Estudios Centroamericanos, which Ellacuría edited, he wrote an essay giving a guardedly favorable evaluation of Cristiani’s first hundred days in office. He deplored ARENA’s free-market economics, which he said were only making the poor poorer and could lead to polarizing political forces. But he said that the “militarist line” of one-time death-squad sponsor and ARENA founder Roberto D’Aubuisson had not (at that time) overshadowed Cristiani’s more “civic-minded” approach. Ellacuría, who was often reviled as “Comandante Ignacio” in the right-wing press, criticized the FMLN for labeling the Cristiani government a “fascist dictatorship.” “This theoretical definition is completely incorrect even though it might be useful for propaganda purposes,” he scolded.

In his closing paragraph Ellacuría had written:

Will Cristiani represent an increasingly firm and consolidated moderation and economic and political modernization of the right, which will reach peace through negotiations…or will he be nothing more than a front for the return of an oligarchy which will harden the war and the repressions…? What has happened in these hundred days…seems to indicate that the first possibility is more likely, which is certainly better for the popular majority, and therefore for the whole country.

In the days before the killings government-controlled radio had broadcast calls from ultrarightists demanding “summary justice” for Ellacuría, based on the fantasy that he was the architect of the FMLN’s war plans. The murders were carried out by men who seemed to believe they enjoyed a “luxurious impunity,” the Jesuit Provincial, Father José María Tojeira, commented. A nighttime curfew was in effect, and military guards were posted around the univeristy campus. Yet the killers entered the Jesuits’ house around 3 AM without difficulty. They forced the priests onto the lawn to execute them, and then dragged two of their corpses back to bedrooms in the house. The prolonged gunfire was heard by neighbors outside the campus; and the killers also took the time to burn several offices in the residence.

Ellacuría was a fifty-nine-year-old Spanish-born academic who had adopted Salvadoran nationality. He had long had easy access to the top FMLN commanders, and he had opened some channels between himself and the Cristiani government. He was uniquely situated to serve as the kind of intermediary who could make a vital difference to peace negotiations. In this sense his murder and the murders of the other Catholic victims by a rightist death squad were particularly disastrous, the work of bigots far too ignorant to understand the vision of the Jesuits and the contribution they could make to the country’s future.


A bewildering number of labor unions, political parties, and humanitarian groups have emerged in El Salvador, thriving on the very limited degree of tolerance that has been allowed since 1987. As a result of the offensive, these groups have been put in danger by the vendetta of the security forces and by the FMLN. Having themselves organized or infiltrated a number of these groups, the guerrillas summoned many of the undercover militants to the barricades. “We are not front people anymore. Now we are the FMLN,” one rifle-bearing woman said when she turned up at a guerrilla press conference. She had until recently worked for a human rights group.

Such changes have created immense dangers for a man like Miguel Angel Montenegro, a leader of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission. The commission, which is sympathetic to the FMLN, has for more than a decade been gathering reports on human rights abuses, which are biased but useful nonetheless. Now the commission members can’t go to their offices because plainclothes police are waiting to pick them up. Early this month two gunmen tried to kidnap Montenegro as he talked on a pay phone downtown, but he managed to break away.

Montenegro said the commission is not ready to relinquish the political ground it won and that its members have decided that their monitoring of human rights was too important to abandon. “Even if the FMLN had called us, we wouldn’t have gone,” he said. Montenegro plans to remain “semi-clandestine” in El Salvador in order to take testimony from victims, while opening a temporary public office in Mexico. “Neither the FMLN nor the army can tell us to get out of here,” he says.

Another man who is staying in El Salvador is Ruben Zamora. After working in exile as the FMLN’s political diplomat for years, Zamora returned to El Salvador in 1987 and ran last March for vice-president on a ticket headed by the socialist Guillermo Ungo. They were not helped by the FMLN’s demand, which they publicly deplored, that citizens not vote in the election, and they won about 3.5 percent of the vote. Ungo fled El Salvador in November, but Zamora remained as the leader of his party, the Popular Social Christian Movement. All eleven of the party’s offices were ransacked by the military, one was occupied by the National Guard for a command post, and in Mejicanos members of the civil defense squad went from house to house with a list of party members’ names. But measuring the recent repression by a standard only a Salvadoran could apply, Zamora said, “It’s really not a slaughter.”

He pointed out that a prominent member of his party, Jorge Villacorta, was detained by the Treasury police when he arrived at the international airport on December 6; after being punched, kicked, and questioned, he was released the following day. “The political space is like an accordion; it shrinks and stretches,” Zamora said. “But the government can’t carry out a truly massive repression because the popular forces are not totally defeated. So we’re not giving up yet, though we are living very close to the knife’s edge.”

The prospects for durable peace in El Salvador are extremely dim. Though living conditions for the poor in the tiny nation are deteriorating and the economy could not function without the $312 million in aid given in 1988 by the US, revolutionary social discontent is no longer the source of the conflict. Increasingly it is a standoff between two powerful, ideologically committed armies. Both hope to bludgeon the other into yielding to their demands at the bargaining table. The constituency for peace throughout El Salvador is large but powerless. Only a change in the leadership or in the coherence of either force could significantly alter their willingness to consider peace for its own sake.

The FMLN is aligned with Cuban president Fidel Castro who, as communism dissolves in Eastern Europe, sees El Salvador as crucial proof that Leninist revolution can still succeed. During the November offensive Castro claimed that the FMLN was “teaching a lesson to imperialism.” Last February, in meetings in Caracas with Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, Peru’s Alan García, and others, Castro refused to renounce his military support for the FMLN. According to participants in those sessions, Castro simply said that the United States had exaggerated the amount of weapons he was sending. “Besides,” Castro said, “the [FMLN] can win.” Now the US invasion of Panama has given renewed force to the anti-interventionist rhetoric of radicals such as the FMLN leaders, and it has undercut the United States’ moral argument against arms support for the FMLN from Cuba and Nicaragua—even though it may have deprived the guerrillas of a useful arms transshipment station between Cuba and El Salvador.

As for the armed forces, the fighting revealed that the United States’ ability to influence them has not improved, while its investment has grown much larger. The US Congress recognized this in promising to make the murders of the Jesuits a test case for US military aid. But still lacking is a coherent policy making it clear that Americans do not have an eternal commitment to financing internecine bloodshed in El Salvador. Washington, having given priority for a decade to defeating the left, has become wedded to the ARENA government and the army high command. Several years ago, for example, US officials pressed for a broad reorganization of the security forces under officers who would be held accountable for abuses; but that demand has evidently been dropped. No American policy maker is willing to say that during the 1990s Washing-ton should be less concerned to continue the war than to wind it down, preserving what progress was made toward establishing democratic institutions during the 1980s. The US makes little effort to encourage the peacemakers, like Father Ellacuría, who can both speak to the right and influence the left.

Even in the midst of this polarization, it is possible that negotiations between the government and the FMLN will begin again. Improbably, Cristiani, isolated and weak as he is, will be crucial to starting whatever negotiations take place. He rode out the offensive while keeping his emotions in check and avoiding talk of vengeance. His aides say that he has not forgotten that his presidency will fail if the war does not diminish and if some economic recovery does not take place. And it is doubtful that the rebels can, in the foreseeable future, do bet-ter militarily than they did in their November campaign. So there is a minimum of common interest that might provide the basis for talks. But virtually no basis at all for results.

This Issue

February 1, 1990