We shall have to wait out what’s left of the twentieth century’s final decade before we know whether it will abide in the universal memory with a blessing or a curse. Even so, it must already be said for the Nineties that they at least began with singular promises of happy endings, especially in Central America.

Nicaragua’s civil war, such as it was, shut down with the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and the inauguration of Violeta Chamorro’s conciliatory regime in January 1990. Two years later, El Salvador’s still formidable rebel guerrilla force agreed to cease further armed struggle in exchange for the Salvadoran government’s pledge to establish “the framework of the rule of law and the democratic system.”

To welcome happy endings is seldom to pulse with assurances of living-happily-ever-after; and that precaution applies in particular to Central America where the pleasant or unpleasant character of pretty much any ending appears to depend upon which of the two parties newly set upon peaceful competition happens to control the army and the police.

Nicaragua’s Chamorro began her presidency persuaded that her dreams of harmony would be safer if she retained the incumbent Sandinista army and police chiefs instead of assuming the possible risk of vengeful excess by replacing them with contras. The government of El Salvador was even more satisfied to preserve the army and police commanders who had defended it with occasional extremes of savagery against the guerrillas they would now be responsible for protecting.

What passes for peace in Nicaragua and El Salvador is describable precisely as more like an armistice than a concord. Violence and terror go on; and if political murders are not as incessant as of old, they are only too frequent and are hardly ever solved by left-wing cops in Nicaragua or rightwing cops in El Salvador.

Figures on the number of political murders in Nicaragua are far from exact; but by universal agreement former contras are distinctly more apt than Sandinistas to be victims. The scrupulously even-handed Americas Watch studied seventy-five contra deaths in 1993 and concluded that “less than half were attributable to current members of the [Sandinista] army and police.” When we speak of violent killers of civilians and decide that “less than half” were policemen and soldiers, we have scarcely dealt a good-conduct citation to the armed forces of Nicaragua.

Americas Watch further reports that “investigations into the deaths of former contras were characterized by negligence or cover-up 76 percent of the time” and one or the other “was present in all cases involving the army or police.” But then, whether the victim be contra or, less frequently, Sandinista, “impunity for violence remains the norm.”

And it appears to remain the norm in peace-restored El Salvador. Last month a study group commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations filed a 104-page report detailing the power that successors of the pre-armistice “death squads” still exercise in the countryside in defiance of their government’s good intentions and with the connivance of state merchants who still operate “the old machinery of impunity and corruption.”

Morazàn, the bloody scene of the most notorious of the Salvadoran army’s wartime peasant massacres, still grieves under the rule of an eleven-member squad, equipped with army-issued weapons and led by a former justice of the peace, who has been identified as commander of the local “civil defense unit” whose major employment was for summary executions of citizens suspected of dissidence during the civil war. The highest risk of being a political murderee is for former contras in Nicaragua and for former guerrillas bent on peaceful pursuits in El Salvador; and in each case the appointed casualty list looks tailored to the taste of the prevailing official authority.

Copyright © 1994 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

December 22, 1994