The War Next Door

Original story can be found here.

The slaying of six Jesuits was only the most recent reminder that El Salvador is one of the few remaining countries where the price of thought can be death.

San Salvador – Several months ago a friend invited me to his sociology class. “Come on,” he said, “we’re going to see a movie.” Beaches, starring Bette Midler, was the day’s discussion subject.

Students milled about the auditorium, many in Levis and Reeboks. With a Coke and popcorn in hand, I felt as close to home as a foreigner can feel in El Salvador.

Entre Amigos –- “Among Friends” –- is how the movie title was translated into Spanish. Readers may be familiar with the plot: two young girls meet by chance in California and build a friendship that stretches to New York and lasts for life.

When the lights came on, a tall man in a long graying beard took his place in front of the class. He spoke in a deep raspy voice.

“What does it mean to be friends?” he asked paternally. “What does it mean to have a friendship?”

But the discussion soon took its own track. “What is the meaning of friendship,” asked one woman, “in the midst of war?”

The more sober theme dominated the rest of the session. In El Salvador, even the most delightful film can offer only transitory escape from violence.

The bearded man was sociology professor Segundo Montes. SJ. Like other Jesuit professors at the University of Central America Jose Simeon Canas or UCA (pronounced “ooka”), much of his coursework was devoted to exploring El Salvador’s “national reality.” Integration of the war and friendship themes was likely part of this plan for that session.

Both Montes and his fellow Jesuit and colleague Ignacio (Nacho) Martin-Baro were immensely popular among students. The last time I saw them was in October, at an UCA-organized conference on the Salvadoran military. That day I spoke with both. We needed to exchange ideas. Segundo, Nacho and I were to speak on a joint panel at an upcoming Latin American conference in Miami.

But I made this trip alone. In Miami I saw next to two empty chairs adorned with flowers.

Before daylight on November 16, in the midst of a major military offensive by leftist guerillas, U.S.-trained and equipped army soldiers surrounded and entered UCA’s grounds. They marched six Jesuit priests, including Segundo and Nacho, into a grassy courtyard in their nightclothes. The Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were shot repeatedly with automatic weapons at point-blank range.

With recent changes in Eastern Europe, El Salvador now remains one of the few places in the world where ideas are genuinely dangerous. Segundo, Nacho and the other Jesuits were targeted to be killed precisely because their ideas were powerful and persuasive.

Segundo, for example, was a noted critic of human rights abuses. He also had done extensive research on refugees created by El Salvador’s 10-year civil war between the U.S.-backed government and the leftist guerillas.

Nacho was chairman of UCA’s psychology department as well as an astute political and military analyst. He also administered a public opinion poll run out of UCA. It explored Salvadorans’ views on subject such as the economy and the war.

Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ, UCA’s rector, who also died that night, was another compelling figure. “The truth is the truth is the truth,” I remember him telling an audience packed with students some years ago. Editor of UCA’s main journal, Estudios Centroamericanos or “Central American Studies,” he was a prolific writer and a powerful critic of both the Salvadoran government and U.S. policy toward it.

In interviews with the foreign press, he and Nacho often told both Salvadoran and U.S. officials what they didn’t want to hear:

“Ideology…had a lot to do with the American involvement in this civil war,” said Nacho. “And unfortunately, you Americans have invested here during the last eight years [$3.2 billion] of your tax-payers’ dollars; just to have in this country more destruction, more death–-and no more democracy, no more peace, no improvement for the majority of the Salvadoran people; just with the obsession of militarily defeating the rebels, militarily putting an end to the so-called advancement of, or the expansion of, communism.”

Nacho, Ellacuria and all the Jesuits at UCA advocated a negotiated settlement to the war, as opposed to a military victory by either side. The Jesuits strongly criticized the United States for pursuing a military solution. They also took issue with claims by U.S. officials that EI Salvador’s civil war was foreign inspired.
“The problem of this country is not a problem of communism or capitalism,” Nacho went on. “The problems of this country are problems of very basic wealth distribution, of very basic needs. Now more than 60 percent of our adult population doesn’t have a job. Can you imagine–how are our people able to…survive without a job?”
The Salvadoran government and military had long equated popular demands to change such conditions with subversion. This is why, argued the Jesuits, EI Salvador’s guerrilla movement was born.

“When in this country you ask for satisfaction for those needs,” said Nacho, “you become a subversive–and you are a subversive. Why? Because if you want to satisfy those basic needs, you have to change the social system. You have to change the regime. But then you become a ‘Communist.’ Then you become a rebel. Then you become a revolutionary. And then you have to be repressed. And you are repressed. And there you have… the civil war.”

The Jesuit killings have received more attention than any Salvadoran crime since the 1980 slaying of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. But over the past decade, over 70,000 Salvadorans–more than one percent of the country’s population–have been killed. According to the human rights office of the country’s Catholic archbishop, the vast majority of victims were assassinated by either the Salvadoran military or allied rightist death squads. They were killed on suspicion of being “subversives.”

Let me offer one family’s story.

In October I interviewed an inspirational young woman, Tatiana Mendoza. Her father was a leading member of EI Salvador’s early democratic opposition movement, before it was driven underground. He and several colleagues were killed when army soldiers raided their offices in 1980.

A decade later, Tatiana, his 21-year-old daughter, was a union organizer who worked with women’s groups. She had recently been detained on charges of being a “subversive.” During her ordeal, Tatiana told me, she was raped by a military guard. Although a court-appointed doctor confirmed her claim, in EI Salvador an attempt to charge a soldier with rape is laughable.

Two weeks after I interviewed her, Tatiana was killed by a bomb. An attacker had placed it in the cafeteria of her trade union office. Two generations of activists; two deaths. The story of Tatiana’s family is the story of her blood-drenched country.

For Nacho and the other Jesuits, such violence was part of daily life. Some of his more recent interviews carried a sense of foreboding. ‘There is an environment,”‘ I remember him saying, “of the possibility of being killed any moment of the day.”

Nacho also did not equivocate about [he likely source of the threat. “As long as [he armed forces in this country are over and above the law, as long as the armed forces [are] a corruptible and corrupt institution, as long as the armed forces have within its ranks … terrible human rights violators, you cannot expect to have in this country peace, to have democracy, and to have [least of all] justice.” Nacho said these words in his last known interview, one week before he was killed.

The UCA Jesuits were full participants in the Salvadoran community. In addition to teaching and writing, they were active at the grassroots and shared a commitment to the poor.

Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, SJ, was another of the murdered men. He ran a program–“Faith and Happiness”–which worked in poor areas with base Christian communities: small groups of local individuals who meet to worship and read scripture.

Despite his death, other UCA Jesuits continue similar work. One, Jon Sobrino, is not only a leading interpreter of liberation theology, but is also active with El Salvador’s base Christian community movement, whose members receive constant threats and other forms of intimidation from the armed forces. Another, Jon Cortina, does his pastoral work in Chalatenango, one of the most war-torn provinces in the country. He recently moved there from UCA to live and work among newly rebuilt peasant communities.

Most of these priests, including Segundo, Nacho and Ellacuria, were born in Basque country in Spain, and later became naturalized Salvadoran citizens. But most of the younger Jesuit seminarians who have been studying under them are native Salvadorans. The seminarians are spread throughout the country. Almost all live and work among poor communities.

Segundo, who had several seminarians under his tutelage, not only studied refugees but frequently traveled to their places of repatriation. He encouraged them to organize themselves to defend their rights and to find ways to improve their conditions. Nacho also worked closely with peasant and labor-based “popular organizations,” as well as community self-help groups.

Nacho and I knew one such refugee community well. Called “Community of the Cross,” it is not far from UCA, on vacant land between lanes of the country’s largest highway. Its 500-odd squatters live in mud and split-bamboo shacks with roofs of tin.

Children with faces mottled by chickenpox and bellies bloated by amoebic infection rush to greet a stranger. They are likely to call any foreign male they come to know. Padre.

People there say that Nacho came every once in a while to say Mass. “Padre Nacho is with us,” one woman, Martha, told me.

Martha later said she was angered by Nacho’s death, but not surprised. Like many others, Martha knew at firsthand the effects of repressive violence. She and her two sons had been taken, interrogated and physically abused by government soldiers two months earlier–again on suspicion of “subversion.”

Martha said she knew who was responsible for killing the Jesuits–this, before government officials admitted military involvement in the case. “The ones who need to be punished,” she said, “are the [ones running the country].”

Martha must have had better insight than U.S. officials here. Nearly up until the time that army involvement in the case was made public, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador William Walker tried to convince Congressional leaders in Washington that leftist guerrillas and not army soldiers were responsible. U.S. officials also questioned the credibility of a key witness in the case, seriously straining relations with the Catholic communities in both countries.

Maria Julia Hernandez, a tough little woman who directs the Catholic human rights office, said she’s not surprised by this behavior. “I don’t know if they are aware of it or not,” she said, “but U.S. Embassy officials have the ability to deceive themselves, and to never hit the mark [on human rights] in EI Salvador.”

Some U.S. officials–speaking privately–seem to agree. “If we can have 55 military advisors,” said one, “why can’t we have 55 human rights officers?” The Jesuit case has disillusioned many U.S. officials need to put a good face on the case in order to ensure continued Congressional approval for military and economic aid. But when confronted, some admit they no longer believe in what they’re doing.

Many Congressional leaders have also lost faith. The idea that an army trained, financed, and advised by the United States would commit such a crime proved too much for them. A bipartisan task force looking into the slayings recently visited EI Salvador. By the time members finished their investigation, they were openly questioning whether senior Salvadoran military officers were trying to cover up the murders; whether the killings were “the actions of a few renegade military figures or whether, in fact, they stem from attitudes and actions that go to the very heart of the armed forces and other major institutions in this country.”

The evidence doesn’t look good for the armed forces. For years army officers had accused the UCA Jesuits of being allied with the guerrillas. Last April, then Army Intelligence Chief Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda accused the Jesuits of running guerrilla operations out of the university.

For several days prior to the murders, the armed forces radio program broadcast threats against the UCA Jesuits. “Anonymous” phone-in callers were encouraged to express their views. The army aired repeated demands for the Jesuits’ deaths in revenge for the offensive by leftist guerrillas. Approximately five hours before the killings, the military high command held an emergency meeting. Military sources quoted in The Washington Post and elsewhere said the officers present decided to use greater air power to put down the guerrilla offensive and also decided to attempt the assassination of suspected guerrilla leaders in the capital city.

Shortly after the murders, a second meeting took place in the military’s intelligence complex, which shares facilities with the CIA. An army officer interrupted the meeting to announce the Jesuits had been killed. According to military sources present, the attending officers clapped in approval.

Nevertheless, only one army officer present at the first meeting has been charged with the crime. Many non-American Western diplomats here believe other senior officers were involved in planning the murders.
Preliminary treatment for accused Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides doesn’t offer much cause for hope that justice will be served. He is being held in a luxury apartment at the headquarters of the National Police. The “prisoner” has also been seen at a military-owned resort hotel on the Pacific Coast.

I was in a small parish in San Salvador the morning of November 16. It was the fifth day of combat since the guerrilla offensive had begun. An orphanage, called Mary, Mother of the Poor, had been hit by a grenade. Young Jesuit seminarians were evacuating civilians under heavy fire. One of them stopped to tell me that Ellacuria and the others had been killed.

I felt relatively little on learning this shocking news. My senses were numbed by the wanton violence I had seen over the previous days. The most extraordinary experience of many was watching a government’s helicopters and planes strafe, rocket and bomb its own people. On the second day of fighting, I saw a helicopter fire a rocket at a mud and split-bamboo shack. I can still see the victims–a mother and her decapitated daughter.

Many similar incidents occurred. The Jesuit murders are only the most celebrated in a series of atrocious acts. Leftist guerrillas share in the blame. Their worst violation was to discourage or even temporarily prevent people from leaving combat areas, in order to use them as a deterrent against government air strikes. But both human rights groups and international monitoring organizations cite army soldiers as the most consistent and flagrant offenders. One of the most inexcusable crimes was not allowing the International Red Cross and other relief groups to evacuate wounded from battle areas–out of fear they might unknowingly treat “subversives.”

The violence of November has left the country scarred. Most UCA students, for instance, who come from EI Salvador’s wealthier classes, seem generally repulsed by the killing of some of their most prestigious and popular professors. But indicative of the country’s mood, few are willing to express their views. According to several students I’ve talked to, most will keep their feelings private rather than admit them even to each other.

UCA’s academic programs have been scaled back. Several professors have fled the country in fear. At least one senior editor and writer for UCA’s journals barely missed encountering a death squad of heavily armed men in civilian clothes at his home. He has now taken refuge in another Latin American country.

Many lesser known Salvadorans have fled as well. Jesuit seminarians have arranged visas for people who feel particularly targeted to flee to Canada–it is not possible to obtain such visas from the United States. But others have been smuggled into the United States illegally by the religious-based sanctuary movement.
But most Salvadorans don’t have the luxury of flight. For them, violence is a recurring agony to be endured.

Nevertheless, there is some reason for hope. In the wake of the November offensive, an increasing number of players on all sides of the conflict have come to see that a negotiated settlement, rather than a military victory, would indeed be the best solution. The slain Jesuits certainly believed this. It is worth noting that as a community the Jesuits believe that the most efficacious way to bring about genuine negotiations is to cut U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government and army.

I was recently invited to a base Christian community meeting. It took place in one of the areas I had reported from during the fighting, the same community in which I had learned of the UCA massacre.

A family had invited me to commemorate a previous tragedy–the ninth anniversary of their son’s death. In 1981, along with 25 other young men from his community, he had been dragged from his home and shot by army soldiers.

A Christian catechist, brother of the murdered man, led the ceremony. After a short reading he asked, “What is the fruit of his death?”

“Well,” said a peasant woman, addressing the mother, “the fruit of his death is in the children you still have.”

“But,” responded another, “we are all children of God. The fruit is in all the children, all of us. ”
But the mother had a different answer: “For me, I cope with his death by giving to other children who have no one else.” A seemingly frail woman, the mother, since her son’s death, has tenaciously managed a home for children abandoned or orphaned because of the war. “I had a choice,” she said. “I could have gone into despair. But I decided to make something good come out of it.”

It’s possible there may be no negotiations in EI Salvador–and no cuts in U.S. aid. I wonder, what then would be the fruit of the Jesuits’ deaths?

Frank Smyth lived in El Salvador during the 1980s, serving as a radio report for CBS News and reporting for The Village Voice and other publications.

Salvadoran Abyss

Escalon, San Salvador — “They should either kill them all or negotiate,” the well-to-do Salvadoran businessman said in nearly flawless English. Leftist guerrillas had taken over this usually quiet suburban neighborhood, and some had even passed the night in his home. “This thing has to end,” he added. “We need a solution.”

The November military offensive by the F.M.L.N. has forced a watershed in El Salvador’s history and overturned all conventional assumptions about U.S. policy here. In Escalon and other wealthy areas of the capital, the rebel drive has generated a new sense of pragmatism among right-wing people who had never entertained the concept of negotiations between the government and the F.M.L.N. Within the Salvadoran military, however, the offensive has strengthened the hand of the most ruthless and uncompromising army and air force officers. Unless there is swift action in Washington, total war may break out, leaving the United States with the choice of embracing the bloodshed or cutting off aid — thereby risking a military victory by leftist rebels. Events are moving at lightning speed, and the window of opportunity closes a little further each day.

A negotiated solution is Washington’s best hope for avoiding a policy disaster. But policymakers should abandon self-serving illusions, remove their ideological blinders and recognize the consequences of the November offensive.

First, it demonstrated that despite ten years of U.S. intervention and more than $4 billion in aid, the Salvadoran government and armed forces still cannot defeat the F.M.L.N. Militarily, the offensive was the rebels’ most spectacular demonstration of strength of the war. Politically it fell short of becoming a general insurrection or a seizure of power. But tens of thousands of Salvadorans collaborated, with a sophistication that demonstrates the rebels’ deep and highly organized base of clandestine support.

Second, the offensive prompted the government to shed its mask of democracy and civility with amazing speed. Its behavior surpassed even the worst expectations of its critics. The level of human rights abuses has been unprecedented since the early 1980s. The indiscriminate strafing, rocketing and bombing of heavily populated neighborhoods was appalling to behold.

Third, an overwhelming sense of terror has seized the country. The killing of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter seems irrational to the naive denizens of Washington, but in El Salvador it made perfect Machiavellian sense. The Jesuits were vociferous critics of the government and the most persuasive advocates of a negotiated settlement. Their murders sent a message: Anyone who even thinks of supporting the F.M.L.N. or a negotiated solution is at risk. And no one, from highly visible critic to anonymous peasant collaborator, is immune.

Fourth, the country’s political center has collapsed. With the exception of a few leaders, the left-led popular movement has been driven underground. Formerly U.S.-supported Christian Democrats find themselves either threatened or irrelevant. Church-based community activists have been targeted for repression. The only two political options that remain are the Salvadoran Army and the F.M.L.N.

Fifth, President Alfredo Cristiani is technically the commander in chief of the military, but he is an inexperienced politician who is in over his head. A bloc of ultraconservative military officers, including Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo of the air force and Vice Minister of Defense Juan Orlando Zepeda, has effectively assumed command. Zepeda is the officer that army defector Cesar Joya Martinez named as ordering military death squad assassinations as recently as last June. Bustillo has ordered his planes to buzz and drown out several presidential press conferences in open mockery of civilian authority. Bustillo himself may soon be headed for retirement, but he and his ilk have built alliances with junior and senior commanders throughout the military, reducing Cristiani’s role to little more than figurehead.

Sixth, Cristiani’s middle- and upper-class supporters have been left dumbstruck by the offensive. They once believed the predictions of Cristiani and the U.S. Embassy that prosperity was just around the corner. After F.M.L.N. guerrillas appeared literally on their doorstep, they are now leaving El Salvador en masse for Guatemala or Miami. Their exodus is likely to precipitate a long-term economic divestment. U.S. aid, which offset this trend in the early 1980s, can no longer be absorbed. And El Salvador is already more dependent on U.S. aid than any nation since South Vietnam.

Finally, although this aid and intervention represent the greatest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort since the Vietnam War, the ability of the United States to influence or control events here has been reduced to almost nothing. In previous years, policymakers argued that current levels of U.S. military and economic assistance were necessary to support “moderates” in the Salvadoran military and to avoid a bloodbath. But the bloodbath has begun and the “moderates,” it seems, are either impotent or nonexistent.

Faced with the choice of negotiations or all-out war, the Salvadoran military has begun to opt for war. Its most powerful officers believe the United States will tolerate any level of abuse in the name of anticommunism, whatever that now means. Only a substantial cut in U.S. aid when Congress reconvenes in January will make them see things differently.

Negotiations or Total War

Morazan, El Salvador — Compa, read the posted handwritten note, “Why did the insurrection not occur?”… Many people at all levels of El Salvador’s leftist guerrilla movement genuinely believed that they would be raising their flag over San Salvador by March of this year. But at a base in the rebel stronghold of Morazan province, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.) has to question its own views. This process of self-criticism and re-evaluation has been described by sympathetic Salvadoran political analysts as the rebels’ Vatican II.

In short, both the leadership and the rank and file of the F.M.L.N. are weighing whether they can negotiate a compromise settlement with the government and still remain true to their revolutionary vision. Although this debate is more than five years old, never before in the history of the Salvadoran guerrilla movement has the concept of negotiations taken root so deeply. The reasons are both internal and external to El Salvador’s nine-year-long civil war.

First, rebel leaders cannot but take into account the geopolitical realities of Central America. Like it or hot, the Reagan Administration successfully demonstrated that the United States retains veto power in its backyard, and the Bush Administration is unlikely to depart radically from the old framework. Nicaragua, where most of the F.M.L.N. leadership has been living for the past year, has just marked the tenth anniversary of its revolution facing the worst economic crisis in its history. Regardless of the origins of that crisis, Salvadoran rebel leaders know that a second successful revolution in the region cannot afford to engage the wrath of the United States.

Second, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev has voiced its opposition to a military victory by the Salvadoran rebels. Although its influence over the F.M.L.N. as an insurgency is marginal, it has nonetheless made it clear that a post-revolutionary El Salvador should expect much less than Nicaragua in the way of support. Again, the point is that a revolutionary El Salvador would face even narrower options than Nicaragua in trying to establish its independence from the United States.

Third, the F.M.L.N. has always perceived itself as being within a broad vein of Latin American nationalism. But on their nine-country tour of Latin America last fall, the two top Salvadoran rebel leaders, Leonel Gonzalez and Joaquin Villalobos, received unexpected criticism from sympathetic countries such as Mexico, whose views they take seriously. The message from the continent was clear: Pursue negotiations rather than a victory on the battlefield.

Fourth, the F.M.L.N.’s attempt to achieve a military win by way of popular insurrection did not succeed. Certainly, insurrection has not been abandoned. Part of the strategy behind it is to make the country ungovernable, forcing the government either to negotiate or collapse. But the rebels’ dream of seizing power through revolt this year didn’t happen; in fact, they didn’t even come close.

And fifth, in light of the failure of this insurrectional strategy, rebel leaders are aware that a military victory over an army that is so heavily bankrolled and equipped by the United States is not a viable option.

As in any such process of rethinking, it will take time for a consensus to form in light of these changes. Debate over whether the F.M.L.N. could genuinely support negotiations and a compromise settlement as its ultimate goal remains vibrant. But rather than pitting rebel factions against one another, the split — as far as one exists — is largely between the F.M.L.N.’s leadership and its rank-and-file supporters.

One frequently painted image of the F.M.L.N. is that of a band of zealous ideologues manipulating innocent civilians. But the irony is that, over time, the F.M.L.N.’s peasant base has grown more radical than its leadership. At least 90 percent of the F.M.L.N.’s combatants and civilian supporters are drawn from the ranks of El Salvador’s radicalized peasantry. Their participation in a revolutionary movement has been an experiment in empowerment; most have gruesome tales to tell of army repression. Unlike their leaders, who are better attuned to geopolitical realities, these radicalized peasants resist equating revolution with elections and negotiations with “the enemy.”

In January, for instance, the F.M.L.N. made the unprecedented offer to participate indirectly in elections (through the left-of-center Democratic Convergence) and to their outcome, on condition that the vote be delayed for six months. For the, F.M.L.N. leadership, the most difficult exercise was, not to persuade its adversaries of its sincerity but to convince its supporters that taking part in elections did not mean selling out the revolution.

The concept of negotiations and power sharing also raises a number of ideological questions for groups that have grown up within the Marxist tradition. But it is worth noting that the dominant element in the F.M.L.N. today is one of the least ideologically driven of the five rebel groups. The People’s Revolutionary Army (E.R.P.), led by Comandante Villalobos, is regularly misidentified as the “most dogmatic Marxist-Leninist” rebel organization. But the group was armed in the early 1970s out of the New Left tradition and not, like other member organizations of the F.M.L.N., as a splinter group from the Salvadoran Communist Party.

The E.R.P. can be called radical, even ruthless, in its tactics. The eight mayors assassinated by the F.M.L.N., for example, were all killed in areas under E.R.P. control. Nevertheless, the E.R.P. is politically pragmatic, and the group least constrained by the kind of Marxist orthodoxy that was dominant within the F.M.L.N. as recently as five or six years ago.

Writing in the Spring issue of Foreign Policy, Villalobos told his U.S. readers that the F.M.L.N. is committed to a third way of revolutionary democracy. “The Salvadoran revolution is conditioned by the geopolitical realities of Latin America and the United States,” he wrote. “The F.M.L.N. pursues an El Salvador that is open, flexible, pluralistic, and democratic.” Critics may be skeptical, but this position is entirely consistent with the E.R.P.’s own history and the internal evolution of the F.M.L.N. as a whole. Even so, the situation remains fluid, with no single group calling the shots for the F.M.L.N. Smaller rebel units acting independently are widely believed to have been involved in the recent wave of assassinations of high-ranking Salvadoran government officials, actions not authorized by the F.M.L.N. General Command.

How the cards ultimately fall will depend in large part on the response of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and army. While there has been considerable pressure on the F.M.L.N. both at home and abroad to re-evaluate its position, there has been no corresponding pressure on its opponents. Rather, El Salvador’s newly inaugurated government, led by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), has shifted the country’s political balance markedly to the right.

Arena, like nearly everyone else in El Salvador, believes that the U.S.-advocated ‘low-intensity’ approach to the Salvadoran conflict has failed. Arena is right; a change in tactics is bound to occur. The question is whether the government will attempt to end the conflict via negotiations or the all-out military strategy that some army commanders favor.

How one chooses to measure the insurgency is important, and will weigh heavily on the course that the government ultimately decides to pursue. By conventional military standards, the F.M.L.N. may appear to have been weakened. In 1983, for instance, the rebels controlled more than one-third of El Salvador’s territory. Operating in large columns of several hundred fighters, the F.M.L.N. was able to overrun key economic and military targets and control, many major towns and highways. But a turning point came with the introduction of increased U.S.-supplied air power by the Salvadoran government that year, bolstered by the bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy in El Salvador that crystallized after the election of President Jose Napoleon Duarte 1984, The combination of increased air power tilted the balance in the war. Saturation bombing of guerrilla strongholds such as the Guazapa volcano, nearly twenty miles from San Salvador, wrought havoc on the rebels’ network of civilian supporters. Helicopter strafing of guerrilla columns inflicted high casualties on rebel fighters.

But the F.M.L.N. adapted accordingly, and by unconventional standards — as a rural-based guerrilla insurgency — it is stronger and more deeply rooted in 1989 than ever before. To avoid presenting an easy target to the government, a normal rebel unit is now made up of only three to eight fighters. Since 1985, these smaller and more mobile guerrilla patrols have concentrated on bleeding the Salvadoran economy and wearing down the army through classic guerrilla tactics such as land mines and ambushes. The F.M.L.N.’s most important change, however, has come in the political arena, especially in the attempt to reorganize and expand its civilian support base. On the slopes of the San Vicente volcano, for instance, the rebels have built organized support among coffee pickers. Growers there, who include El Salvador’s newly inaugurated President, Alfredo Cristiani, used to pay their workers about 65 cents (U.S.) for picking twenty-five pounds of beans. They now pay more than $1 — the wage demanded by the F.M.L.N. and imposed under threat of reprisals for noncompliance.

For the past three years, the rebels have focused on organizing pickers in areas that produce crops for export, such as San Vicente, Usulutan, the San Salvador volcano and the western province of Santa Ana, while the army protects the growers. On the volcano of El Tigre in Usulutan, for example, peasants who voted for the Christian Democrat Duarte in 1984 now work diligently making homemade contact bombs for the F.M.L.N.

The F.M.L.N.’s new, stronger and more highly developed civilian infrastructure presents a problem for those who wish to eradicate the rebels militarily. Although the F. M. L. N. may still be far short of taking power, the government is even farther away from its goal of defeating the guerrillas now than it was when hostilities began.

The U.S. approach to the problem has been to continue advocating counterinsurgency techniques similar to those employed in Vietnam — small-unit patrols to root out the rebel fighters, coupled with “hearts and minds” civic action and psychological operations to wean away the rebels’ civilian base. But the Salvadoran Army looks all too much like the A.R.V.N. forces in Vietnam. “It’s like chasing a mosquito with a hammer,” complained one U.S. military adviser. The Salvadoran armed forces have become too dependent on their U.S.-supplied firepower, which they use to defend themselves more than to attack. Motivation is also a problem. Press-ganged into military service, most Salvadoran Army soldiers would rather try to obtain a visa to the United States than fight. And civic action projects? As long as the rebels defend coffee pickers and the army defends coffee growers, no amount of free government handouts will be able to conceal the class-based nature of El Salvador’s civil war.

Yet the Arena government, together with hard-line elements in the army, have another plan: an escalation of the counterinsurgency effort to approach something that leading Arena deputy Sigifredo Ochoa, formerly a top field commander, calls ‘total war.’ Like many critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam, Ochoa accuses the United States of having “no political will to end the war.” He is correct. The Salvadoran insurgency is simply too strong and too well entrenched to be defeated without the violation of human rights on a massive scale. That is a price Arena may be willing to pay, but that U.S. policymakers may not.

For all intents and purposes, the U.S. military option is dead in El Salvador. And the F.M.L.N. is not about to go away. The country will become more ungovernable the longer the war drags on. Two ways remain to resolve it: negotiations or total war. Although both the United States and the Salvadoran government missed an unprecedented opportunity by refusing the F.M.L.N.’s January peace proposal, the window is still open. But with an Arena government in power it may be closing fast. The United States must choose which path it wishes to pursue. If it does not, the Arena government and the Salvadoran Army will make the choice themselves.