Eastern Chalatenango, El Salvador — A helicopter gunship riddled the landscape with heavy machine-gun fire as a battalion of 200 elite army soldiers trailed on the ground behind.
Two miles away, a patrol of six guerrillas kept track on the oncoming battalion, communicating with fellow rebels by radio. They knew the exact location of the troops, but rather than engage the superior force they prudently pulled back. Once the soldiers passed, the rebels reassumed positions they had held before.
The army’s counterinsurgency deployment and the guerrillas’ game of cat and mouse was typical of the 9-year-old conflict between the U.S.-backed government of this Central American nation and the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
It is one reason the Salvadoran army has been unable to defeat the rebels. The army is larger and better equipped, but the rebels are quick and elusive and rely on the support of the populace.
A top U.S. military analyst described the civil war as a “strategic stalemate.” The rebels are not strong enough to take power. But the army is not effective enough to “liquidate the guerrillas,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy rarely comments on military tactics. But privately U.S. officials say that the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency is not going well.
The stakes for U.S. policy are high. Since civil war broke out in 1980, El Salvador has received more than $3.3 billion in U.S. aid. Once barely known to policy-makers, this small Central American republic of five million has become the fifth largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
No regular U.S. ground troops have been deployed in El Salvador. But four U.S. Army lieutenant colonels who studied the level of training, material assistance and technical support provided by the United States described U.S. participation in the Salvadoran conflict as “the most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.”
And the outcome remains uncertain. Former U.S. Ambassador Edwin Corr has estimated it would take at least until 1994 to beat down the guerrillas. Other U.S. officials say it may take longer. And in an interview, a senior State Department analyst said that the government of El Salvador remains vulnerable to the guerrilla threat.
Some U.S. military advisers blame the Salvadoran government for the prolonged stalemate.
The U.S.-backed Salvadoran army is reluctant to break down into the kind of small units that advisers say are essential to counter the insurgency. And government troops, they say, have become too dependent on their U.S.-supplied firepower, which they use more to, defend themselves than to attack. “It’s like chasing a mosquito with a hammer,” one military analyst said.
Most army casualties result from guerrilla ambushes or mines, said military sources, not from coordinated guerrilla offensives.
The guerrillas — including about 6,000 full-time combatants — are outnumbered more than 9 to 1 by the army. But they are attracting recruits. And a U.S. official who monitors the war says the rebels are “more committed and more effective” now than before.
The key to the rebels’ success is the civilian population in areas they control, said a top U.S. military analyst who has advised other Central American countries in counterinsurgency operations.
Army troops who have patrolled in Chalatenango province say that the population collaborates with the rebels.
“The majority of the people there want the guerrillas, not the armed forces,” said foot soldier Julio Ernesto Cabrera.
A guerrilla commander said the rebels have indeed organized a “clandestine power (base) within the population.”
In one village recently, the town council sponsored a dance, Government planes flew overhead as rebels, their M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders, danced La Bamba with girlfriends.
Although the terrain is rugged and mostly accessible only by foot, eastern Chalatenango is heavily populated. Many residents are war refugees who have been repatriated from neighboring Honduras in the last year.
Col. Lopez Roque, commander of the army’s 4th Brigade in Chalatenango, said the rebels have coordinated the repatriations.
The elite Atlacatl battalion passed through a number of refugee communities during its weeklong trek earlier this month and got a reminder of the rebels’ presence. On one trail, between the villages of San Jose Las Flores and Guarjila, guerrillas had disseminated hundreds of fliers just before the army arrived.
Crude sketches were scrawled on the handouts. One depicted a rebel ambush. Another showed a Nov. 1 rebel attack on a National Guard post in the capital city, San Salvador. The drawings included dead soldiers. “This is what awaits you!” read the caption below the sketch.
Such tactics can be particularly frightening to army troops. The rebels could as easily have littered the mountain trail with land mines as with propaganda, the soldiers say.
Large battalions such as the Atlacatl are able to move through rebel-held terrain. But rarely do they encounter guerrillas. And most military engagements that do occur are carried out on the rebels’ terms.
“We (engage the army) when we want to,” said a 25-year-old rebel.”
The rebels still are far from taking power. But in interviews, both the guerrillas and their civilian supporters said they were convinced that time was on their side.
“The struggle is long,” said one guerrilla. “But (we’re) not tired. We’ll fight until we win.”
Said a rebel named Israel: “This isn’t like Nicaragua, where (the guerrillas) won quickly. It’s more like Vietnam – a prolonged war.”
A former peasant, Israel has been with the guerrillas since 1979. The most difficult time, he said, was the early 1980s. Army massacres in eastern Chalatenango were common. Civilians regularly fled from oncoming government troops, rather than stay behind as they do now. The guerrillas, he said, lacked weapons as well as communications equipment.
“I started with a pistol and a homemade rifle,” said another rebel, Pickiri, who takes his nom de guerre from a revolutionary Salvadoran leader. He now is equipped with a U.S.-made M-1 6 automatic rifle.
The guerrillas also use battery-powered two, way radios in the field. The rebels say they captured the equipment from the Salvadoran army. But reliable U.S. intelligence sources say Nicaragua is the more likely source.
Since 1983, however, the flow of arms from Managua has dried up. The rebels’ M-16s in eastern Chalatenango appeared old. Although they functioned, almost half the weapons’ hard plastic stocks had broken off – replaced by homemade wooden versions.
In the last year, the rebels increasingly have manufactured their own mortars and land mines. They make them with readily available materials such as masking tape, tin cans, gunpowder and flashlight batteries. The rebels employed such “popular arms” in the surprise attack on the National Guard post in San Salvador last month, a rebel said.
The guerrillas also have tried to build troop strength and are attracting volunteers. The rebels once relied partly on forced recruitment. But even informed U.S. officials now admit that this practice has been abandoned.
The Salvadoran army, by contrast, rarely accepts volunteers. Military officials fear that those volunteering may be guerrillas trying to infiltrate the army.
Combatants on both sides are strikingly young. The army recruits males as young as 16. And a “class” of about 10 rebel volunteers ranged in age from 14 to 21 — some of them female.
A shy teen-age girl said she was being trained to be a radio operator at a secret mountain location. When asked why she joined the guerrillas, she replied, “You have to fight for the people.”