Caught With Their Pants Down: Why U.S. Policy – and Intelligence – Failed in Salvador

Original story can be found here.

“I DON’T THINK THEY HAVE the capability,” said a U.S. Embassy official as he sipped coffee one Saturday morning in the tropical setting of his patio. I asked him if he thought rumors of an upcoming rebel offensive were true. “We’ve heard some things,” he said. “But ESAF’s [El Salvador Armed Forces] taken measures to prevent it.”

Seven and a half hours later, heavy gunfire had made his pleasant, suburban street impassable. He was forced to barricade his family inside his home for hours as the battle raged.

Ever since Vietnam, U.S. policymakers have underestimated Third World guerilla movements. Although the Salvadoran military twice detected concrete evidence of planned rebel attacks the week before they occurred, both the army and their U.S. advisors preferred to believe their own propaganda. For years, U.S. officials had said the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was losing this war. They never expected the FMLN to launch the most spectacular military offensive in the history of the 10-year civil war.

IN HINDSIGHT, it’s hard to see how anyone could have missed it. The grassroots guerilla activity amounted to a national conspiracy; tens of thousands of people participated in preparations for the offensive. Truckloads of rice, beans, bullets, and medicine were stockpiled in poor barrios.

The night before the offensive, U.S. Embassy personnel indulged in their annual Marine Corps ball. Most U.S. officials rarely get out of Escalon and the other affluent suburbs on the western side of the capital. Most of the staff press corps live out there as well. On the night the offensive began, the resident correspondents for Newsweek, Associated Press, and The New York Times were out of the country.

“They were caught with their pants down,” said one Western diplomat. Considering the level of U.S. commitment here–after 10 years and nearly $4 billion in aid–the failure to even remotely estimate the rebel strength amounts to the worst intelligence blunder since the fall of the Shah.

And then there’s President Alfredo Cristiani’s startled, unglued eyes after the reverberating crump of several bombs exploding outside his headquarters disrupting his press conference last week. They normally unflappable squash champion had just finished telling the cameras that the Salvadoran army had regained control of the capital.

The rebel offensive has forever changed the face of Salvadoran politics. On one hand, the FMLN has demonstrated that it can stand up to the greatest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort since Vietnam. On the other, the rebel drive has generated a rightist backlash of killing and repression not seen since the slaughter of the Archbishop Oscar Romero, four American nuns, and thousands of others in the early 1980s.

Thousands more are now likely to be killed. A military-impose, dusk-to-dawn curfew will provide cover for dragging targeted victims out of their homes. Trade unions, student, and other popular organizations have already become inactive or gone underground. But it’s the above-ground church activists, especially those who work with the poor, who have the most to fear.

Once more, the same old policy debate in Washington has also begun to round up the usual suspects. Critics are pointing to the slaying of six Jesuit priests by uniformed men (nearly every non-U.S. Western diplomat in town will tell you that the Salvadoran military was, at the very least, complicit in the crime) to argue against military and economic assistant. The State Department, on the other hand, is rattling its sabers after a plane loaded with sophisticated, Russian-made surface-to-air missiles was discovered apparently en route to the rebels from Managua.

The cold choice between human rights and “national security” was what both Reagan and Bush administration officials had long tried to avoid. But rather than admit that U.S. policy has run aground, American officials continue to engage in spin-control diplomacy, blaming the press and not the policy. During a press conference, Ambassador Walker tried to argue that the fighting in El Salvador is not a war. When I pointed out that was just what U.S. officials had said in Vietnam, U.S. Information Officer Barry Jacobs stepped forward, pointed his index finger and them at me as if it were a pistol, and jerked it upward in imaginary recoil.

“WE’RE ALL SCARED,” said a young heavyset Salvadoran woman, “because we’ve never seen anything like this before.” She was standing with about a dozen local residents at a recently built rebel barricade. Most said they had never seen a real guerilla before.

Like many other poor barrios around the country, popular organization in Santa Marta is a strong but mostly clandestine. Both rebel operatives and government oreja–informants–live close together here; on one street; unbeknownst to the oreja, the guerillas even live next door.

The FMLN tried to judge potential support when choosing areas to occupy. Once the offensive began, thousands of rebels too fixed positions in the east, south, and north of the capital city. When the muchachos appeared, some civilians joined the struggle. But depending on whom you talked to and when, the rebels’ presence brought a mixture of hope, resentment, and fear.

“What we’re afraid of is the plans will come and massacre everyone,” said a mother standing at a barricade of bricks and overturned cars in the street.

“A fear we have,” explained an older woman in an apron. “It’s natural. But for me, more than anything, I have hope that there will be change.”

The 28-year-old urban commando in charge of the barricade, Izabel, represents a second generation of committed guerillas. She sat cross-legged on the floor, and asked a group of journalists for identification.
Izabel looked slightly surreal in the shell-pocked barrio wearing a bright turquoise bandanna and a dark blue polo shirt, cradling her AK-47. Her red nail polish was fading, like the bruises between her cheekbones and eyes.

She explained she had been captured by the Treasury Police the week before. “But I didn’t give information– not a thing,” she said, smiling. “So they beat me.”

Izabel directed the rebel occupation from a second-story window while other rebels prepared homemade contact bombs on the floor below. Barricades were being erected on nearly every street. The guerillas had about 10 square blocks under their control. Other guerilla unites were positioned a few miles away.

In these northern sectors, the rebels moved among apartment buildings and shantytowns. Taking cover in a cement stairway during a firefight, I encountered someone I recognized from the national university. His day pack was filled with ammunition. Like hundreds of students, trade unionists, and other activists, he had abandoned his legal life for the FMLN.

In this new urban context, the revels intentionally mixed experienced fighters with new recruits. Roberto, a commander and a veteran fighter from the countryside, climbed up the stairs. Moises, a 16-year-old recruit, held a position in the corner balcony on the upper floor. The sound of the gunfire was deafening; we both took cover as bullets ricocheted off the walls. Cringing slightly with each blast, Moises told me this was his first time in combat.

The FMLN’s success in switching from rural to urban warfare surprised even themselves. They demonstrated more military capability in seven days than Nicaraguan contras had demonstrated in that many years. Their immediate objective was to take hold parts of the city in a vivid demonstration of strength: they held most urban areas for about a week.

But some guerilla commanders I talked to said their ultimate goal was to take power. “Here we are and we will defend [our position] until freedom has arrived,” predicted Izabel. She and the 40 rebels under her command successfully repelled three government advances that week.

Later that day, a photographer saw Izabel’s body among the pile of 13 dead guerillas. She still wore her bright turquoise bandanna. Her pants were ripped, leaving the business card I had given her exposed in her leg. Several years ago, a similar mistake resulted in the assassinations of four Dutch journalists. By the time I arrived to retrieve it, soldiers had doused the corpse with gasoline. Izabel and her companions were left burning in the street.

THE HELICOPTER CIRCLED slowly overhead. I was in the northern sector of Zacamil, interviewing a woman in a shantytown among several thousand mud-and-split bamboo shacks. On the third approach, the pilot fired a single rocket in my direction, exploding about a hundred yards away.

There was gunfire on two sides, but none coming from the ridge where the rocket had landed. I approached a man whose face and arm were covered in blood. “They’ve just killed my family,” he said. The rocket had hit his home; his wife and two daughters were inside.

The severe reaction of the Salvadoran military to the rebel offensive surprised even its most ardent critics. The strafing, rocketing, and later bombing of heavily populated civilian areas was more than indiscriminate. Unlike in wealthy suburbs to the west, the Salvadoran military demonstrated a total disregard for the safety and well-being of its indigent residents.

Señor periodista, señor periodista [Mr. journalist], please tell them to stop firing on our home,” said one many fleeing with about 50 others. “This isn’t the countryside. We live here.” Scores of families, carrying bundles of belongings and white flags, fled en masse from San Salvador’s poorer neighborhoods. At least a thousand people are known to have been killed since the fighting began; countless others have been wounded.

“Look at the beds,” said one elderly woman pointing to a pile of ashes. Following government airstrikes, row upon row of makeshift shacks were either demolished or burned. In Soyapango, entire blocks were destroyed. Reporters saw massive craters from what appear to have been 500-pound bombs.

“We don’t have anything left,” said a mother surveying the rubble that was once her home. “They just fired and fired.”

Military attitudes notwithstanding, the political cost to the government for the air war on the city will be tremendous. “Why don’t they negotiate” with the rebels, screamed one woman after her family in Zacamil was rocketed and killed.

They’re destroying the country,” said another woman fleeing from bombing raids in Soyapango.

“Who?” I asked.

“The same people who did that,” she said, referring to the brutal slaying of six Jesuit priests and academics.

FATHERS IGNACIO ELLACURIA, Ignacio Martin-Baro, and Segundo Montes were the country’s leading intellectuals, as well as El Salvador’s most articulate and compelling critics of both the Salvadoran government and U.S. policy. Their killings were only the beginning.

Religious activities across the country have been targeted. More than 41 church volunteers, including 20 foreigners, have been captured. U.S.-born Catholic priest Jim Barnet and Lutheran minister Bill Dexheimer received death threats and left the country.

U.S. volunteer Jennifer Casolo also received a death threat by telephone. At 10:30 Saturday night, soldiers entered her home. They claimed to have found one of the largest guerilla arms caches since the offensive began buried in her backyard.

Casolo organized visiting religious and congressional delegations. Anyone who knows her would say the accusation is preposterous. But privately U.S. officials say they expect her to be tried, convicted and send to a Salvadoran jail.

Casolo, like the Jesuits, is being made an example. Independent criticism is no longer acceptable. And meddling by foreigners in Salvadoran affairs will no longer be tolerated.

AFTER THE AIRSTRIKES here first started, Ambassador Walker said he had “no knowledge” of government bombing. But other U.S. officials had already admitted the government was bombing urban areas of the city. Once religious volunteer who lives in a targeted area was told the situation was out of the embassy’s control.

But that hardly meant that Americans were not involved in the terror bombing of San Salvador’s people. On November 15 at approximately 10:15 in the morning, a conversation between a U.S. military advisor in a “Blackhawk” observation helicopter and “retelo,” the U.S. military command center in San Salvador, was intercepted by radio. The observer told retelo the Salvadoran air force needed to “hit” an area several blocks “north of the church.”

U.S. advisors in El Salvador are prohibited from participating in or directing government raids. Shortly after this transmission, a senior U.S. military official monitoring the conversation broke in ordering all such communications to be done “on push 5”–-a scrambling system installed last February after U.S. military advisors became aware that journalists were monitoring their communications.

After years of self-deception, American policy had finally been unveiled. “That’s why they’re here” said a diplomat from a U.S.-allied country, “to keep the place in order–-to keep the place from turning commie.”

“Why would they kill Jesuits?” asked the diplomat, referring to the army. “It’s another Romero,” he said. “It’s starting again.”

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.

Mysterious Influx of Soviet & Chinese Arms for Salvador Rebels

Title: A Mysterious Influx of Soviet and Chinese Arms for Salvador Rebels
Source: The Sacramento Bee
Date: June 4, 1989

Morazan, El Salvador — Seventeen-year-old Odilia playfully pushed her tongue through her teeth as she recalled how she shot seven Salvadoran army soldiers in an ambush a few days before.

Odilia’s under five feet tall, and her high-powered, Soviet-made Dragunov rifle is almost as big as she is. No matter. The bashful Salvadoran teenager is a highly trained sharpshooter for the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Over the past several months, eastern-bloc and Chinese-made weapons have been distributed to FMLN guerrilla forces nationwide. The rebels say they bought the majority of the new arms, most of which are AK-47 assault rifles, from the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua, who are now in decline. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador say the arms and ammunition have been supplied by the leftist governments of Nicaragua and Cuba, a charge those countries deny.

Regardless of the weapons’ origins, they have bolstered rebel morale in the nine-year civil war. I have just spent two weeks travelling with FMLN guerrillas in northern Morazán province. In dozens of interviews, rebel combatants were confident they could defeat the government led by President Alfredo Cristiani of the ultra-conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. Cristiani began his five-year term on Thursday.

Cristiani’s victory in elections last March was widely seen as a backlash against Christian Democrat President Jose Napoleon Duarte. During their campaign, ARENA party leaders blamed the Christian Democrats for failing to defeat the rebels. But most Western diplomats and military analysts agree that the FMLN guerrillas represent the most difficult challenge the Cristiani government will face.

It appears that Cristiani will take a tough line with the rebels. Prior to his inauguration, he announced the appointment of General Rafael Larios and two other hard-line army officers as minister and vice-ministers of defense. U.S. officials had lobbied for the more moderate choice of Chief of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce for the posts.

U.S. officials still defend Cristiani. But most non-American Western diplomats expect human rights abuses to increase as the government escalates the war effort against the FMLN.

“We are ready to talk to them,” said rebel sharpshooter Odilia. “But if they don’t want to talk, we’ll hit them hard.”

On Monday, the FMLN offered to implement a cease-fire and begin negotiations with the new government. But as part of the plan, the rebels demanded that the government prosecute those implicated in the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, including cashiered army major and leading ARENA deputy Roberto D’Aubuisson.

ARENA leaders rejected the rebel offer. “They are asking for something that is not negotiable, nor subject to discussion,” said Ricardo Alvarenga, president of the ARENA-controlled Legislative Assembly.

Rebel leaders promised to “back up” their offer of negotiations with military force. “Both roads are integrated into our strategy,” said Gustavo, a nom de guerre for a senior FMLN official in Morazán. “If the [peace] proposal is not accepted, the people will defend the situation in another way.

There is still the possibility of insurrection,” he added, “and an increase in the war.”

The introduction of Soviet and Chinese arms has already produced a tactical change in the conflict. Both AK-47 and Dragunov rifles use a heavier bullet and have a greater range than American-made M-16 rifles traditionally used by both the Salvadoran army and the FMLN. On Election Day, March 19, for instance, rebel forces used their new weapons in attacks nationwide. According to Salvadoran military sources, following a day of combat many of the helicopters in the government’s fleet returned damaged from rebel rounds.

During a guerrilla ambush last week against about 40 army soldiers between the villages of San Isidro and San Simon in northern Morazán, I watched as an army helicopter arrived to provide air support. But to avoid being hit by rebel fire, the pilot flew extremely high, neutralizing his own ability to fire effectively at the attacking rebel force.

According to Lucio, a veteran rebel fighter in charge of arms distribution in Morazán, 30 percent of the FMLN’s regular forces and five to 10 percent of its special assault forces are equipped with AK-47 rifles. With an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 full-time FMLN fighters, which means upwards of 1,000 AK-47 rifles have entered the country from foreign sources over the past year.

The regular force in rebel rearguard areas such as northern Morazán, Lucio said, benefit more from the AKs’ greater range. The Salvadoran army does not use AKs.

On Wednesday, Salvadoran authorities showed reporters more than 300 Soviet- and Chinese-made weapons captured from FMLN forces. It is the largest arms cache recovered by the government in the war. Weapons were of diverse origin, including AK-47s with Soviet, Chinese, and Yugoslavian markings. But authorities offered no evidence as to how the arms entered the country.

According to FMLN official Gustavo, most of the weapons were bought from the Nicaraguan Contras. But he conceded that some of the weapons were obtained from “other channels.” Asked to elaborate on those channels, the guerrilla leader refused, saying they were secrets of war.

U.S. officials, on the other hand, deny that rebels bought the AKs from the Contras. In a seven-page document which journalists were allowed to read but not copy, embassy officials claimed that Cuba and Nicaragua are the “bulk suppliers” of the new arms.

According to the embassy document, which is labeled “For Official Use Only,” Salvadoran authorities have captured documents indicating arms and ammunition shipments. The embassy document also states that weapons shipments by boat along El Salvador’s Pacific coast have been detected. But when asked to produce further evidence, a U.S. official said he could not because the information was classified.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Wayne Smith of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies doubted the embassy’s claim. “My yardstick, based on past experience, is to accept nothing that the embassy says, nothing the U.S. government says on this subject without seeing the hard evidence and the data to back it.” An ex-career diplomat and the former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, Smith added, “They’ve said this so many times that their credibility is gone.”

Despite the presence of the AK-47s, FMLN rebels maintained that they capture or make most of their weapons inside the country. At a secret FMLN bomb factory, about 20 rebels worked at making explosives from land mines to homemade anti-personnel rockets.

Sand Diggers and the Strongman

Vista Hermosa, El Salvador — A powerful torrent during the high rains, Rio Las Canas is a trickle of muddy water from October to May. It begins ten kilometers from the city center, carving its way north past volcanic slopes, eventually feeding into the large, man-made reservoir that separates government-held terrain from contested zones. But there is no fighting between government and guerrilla forces where the river begins-only the taking of sand from its shores.

Homes made of dried mud and bamboo shafts dot Las Canas’s western bank. Inside the riverbed, barefoot workers with rolled-up pants load sand into waiting trucks. Farther downstream the riverbed is demarcated by a barbed-wire fence. Beyond the fence bulldozers load sand into trucks watched by heavily armed men.

Used primarily to make concrete, sand in El Salvador sold on site for $25 a truckload. In an export-oriented economy dominated by more valuable cash crops, even the country’s prolific Marxists have failed to designate such a cheap commodity as a vehicle of class struggle. But, for the riverbank community of Vista Hermosa, sand, not coffee, is king.

Vista Hermosa is located far from the large agricultural plantations in the western region of the country that offer seasonal labor. With a combined under- and unemployment rate in El Salvador of well over 50 percent, few if any of the community’s residents have access to better paying jobs in the capital city of San Salvador. Like most of El Salvador’s marginal population, they also receive no external assistance. A hodgepodge of peasants from various parts of the country, the people living along the river fall neither into official categories of earthquake victims nor war refugees that would make them eligible for U.S. targeted aid.

Most of the river dwellers front Vista Hermosa live in constant fear of failing beyond the edge of survival. Prices of food staples have more than quadrupled in the past three years. A typical “food basket” for a family consists primarily of corn tortillas with salt, and perhaps an occasional plate of higher priced rice and beans.

But unlike the less fortunate who pick their meals from refuse piles in San Salvador’s central market, the 350-odd people from Vista Hermosa and two other nearby communities have had regular work. Breadwinners earn their living standing knee-deep in mud, shoveling sand into twenty-foot trucks for $3 a load. Depending upon demand, a strong young man might make up to $15 on a good summer day. But lesser-abled bodies usually earn about $3, provided that rain doesn’t wash the sand downstream.

Even with cheap labor abundant, entrepreneur Jose Rene Mendoza finds it more advantageous to employ modern machinery to excavate the river. He could further maximize profits if he could monopolize the sale of sand and charge a higher price for every load. But first he would have to eliminate the competition; aII digging by independents would have to stop. Mendoza plans to make himself master of Rio Las Canas.

Before the rainy season came, Mendoza expropriated an extension of the riverbed and brought in bulldozers to replace the work of men. Mendoza says he owns the area encircled by the barbed-wire fence, and adds that the rest of the riverbed is the property of other landowners like himself. Pointing to the workers loading sand by spade he says, “Those people have no property titles, they are trespassers on private land.”

The people from Vista Hermosa claim that the river is in the public domain. They avoid the part watched over by Mendoza’s armed guards. Dependent on their daily earnings, workers (about a third of whom are women and preadolescent children) walk the trail every morning to the water’s edge. The private truckers, who don’t seem to mind whose land they are on, buy from both the independents and Mendoza. The latter’s conflict is not with those who take from the river, but only those who dig.

An association of agricultural workers is trying to organize the sand diggers and their community. A number of workers from Vista Hermosa, including Jose Arnoldo Cerritos and Arturo Navarro Garcia, decided to join. But the peasant association belongs to a larger trade union coalition, which Salvadoran and U.S. government officials say is a front group for the country’s leftist guerrillas.

The issue appears to be about property rights and the question of public versus private domain. In El Salvador, such matters are rarely if ever settled before a formal court. Rather, from the perspective of the authorities, the dispute here is between a respected landowner and businessman and three base-wage sand diggers who are members of a known subversive organization.

Leaving aside strictly legal questions, I will let the reader decide whether this case is a political or civil dispute. I will also leave it to the reader to decide if the way in which it was (partially) resolved should be characterized as a political or a common crime. But let me forewarn, your decision is moot. Either way, the story that follows is endemic in a society and social structure that seven years and $3.3 billion in U.S. aid failed to change.

Nineteen-year-old Maria Luisa Leiva was in her mud-walled home with her husband, uncle, and two children the evening of April 14, 1988. Three armed men in olive green uniforms came to the door and told her to put out the light. They asked for her husband by name and said, “Tell Arnoldo Cerritos to come out.” The men bound his wrists and then took both Arnoldo and the uncle away. Maria Luisa was told that she would be taken too if she tried to follow. One of the uniformed men remained five minutes to make sure she stayed behind.

Arturo Navarro and his eighteen-year-old helper were intercepted by armed men near the same house about fifteen minutes later. They were ordered to lie face down and were asked their names. One of the uniformed men left for a few minutes and then returned. He said, “Are you Arturo Navarro? Then you’re coming with us.” The men led Arturo away in the direction of the river. The younger captive was searched and set free.

The next day both Maria Luisa and Arturo’s wife went to the air force base at Ilopango to inquire about their husbands and the uncle. The communities along the river are patrolled regularly by the air force, who were present in Vista Hermosa under daylight on April 14. The air force patrols are elite U.S.-trained paratroopers, distinguished from the other military services by their maroonish red berets. The uniformed men who came the night before were hatless, although one was carrying a “red beret” in the same hand as his black-barreled gun.

An air force sergeant spoke to the wives, and then made a phone call asking for the three disappeared men by name. He told the women to wait a moment, as he thought that the men were, in custody on the base. Three young men appeared, heavily armed and in civilian clothes. They spoke to the sergeant, and then told the women that the people they were looking for were not there.

The base at llopango is just a few kilometers from the scene of the abduction. But the men’s bodies were found two days later in a ravine near the airport some thirty kilometers away. When asked about the murders two weeks later, Mendoza said, “We didn’t kill them.” No doubt a truthful retort. The murders had been denounced as the work of the armed forces based at Ilopango by Auxiliary Archbishop Rosa Chavez in his Sunday homily a few days before.

The killings are not particularly surprising for El Salvador. Nor, despite at least two adult eyewitnesses to the abduction, that they will go uninvestigated, unpunished, and officially unsolved. But what is unusual is that the attempt to intimidate the community didn’t work. At the time of this writing, twenty to thirty sand diggers can still be seen within eyesight of the fenced-off property claimed by Mendoza on any given day; more than a hundred others can be found further on — either up- or down-stream. Unable to support themselves and their families any other way, the motley assembly of workers (who include one or two pregnant women) will continue to dig as long as they need to or can.

That survival could be the flip side of subversion is something that both the paratroopers and Jose Rene Mendoza fail to grasp. Jose Santana, for instance, begs a journalist to help him, as he has heard rumors that he will be next. His voice shrill and cracking, the terrified man stutters as he explains that he is not so much worried about himself but for his family and how they would support themselves if he should disappear. Jose Santana is the cousin of one of the victims and knew the other two. But despite the danger, a month after the murders he is still digging as before.

The nine-year-old son of Arturo says he doesn’t understand why his father was killed. But now that he is the breadwinner, Oscar carries his father’s shovel to the river every morning to dig. But the boy earns only about a dollar working a half day, as his mother, who also digs, wants him to stay in school.

Oscar is too young to be a member of the peasant association to which his father belonged. But there is no doubt that in the eyes of Jose Rene Mendoza, the son following his father to the river is an outlaw. In a country where property and power remain the rule of law, a beleaguered landlord can phone the armed forces’ twenty-four-hour hotline to report a subversive act. There is no number to call, however, if armed men in olive green uniforms take a relative away in the night.

Waiting for Tet: Salvadoran Rebels Have a Plan for Sunday’s Elections

SAN SALVADOR – THE BRIGHT LIGHTS of San Salvador cut the cool night air. Large spotlights beamed from military bases along the perimeter. Closer to the center, more lights glowed atop the heavily fortified walls of the U.S. embassy.

Dressed in black and armed with an M-16, one of my guerilla guides stopped along the rugged mountain trail. From the eastern slope of the San Salvador volcano, I could see the entire city below.

The overlook is less than two miles from the capital. “We are in the heart of the enemy,” says Elsa, the nom de guerre of a guerilla comandante.

In the past year, the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has moved the front line of the war to El Salvador’s central region. Along with a cameraman for West 57th of CBS News, I spent five days with the revels on the volcano, which towers several thousand feet about San Salvador.

The trip came amid a watershed in Salvador’s nine-year civil war. The FMLN made an unprecedented offer to participate in the upcoming presidential elections on the condition that they be delayed at least four months. But the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government plans to go ahead with March 19 elections as scheduled. In response, the guerillas have promised to increase attacks. “We will concentrate,” said Elsa, “on the capital city.”

The FMLN has been fighting since 1980. Many rebels and their civilian supporters say that victory is just around the corner, yet an FMLN takeover now seems doubtful. Nonetheless, a new rebel drive is expected. According to some, it may have the same relative impact on El Salvador’s civil war as the Tet offensive had in Vietnam 21 years ago.

A report on El Salvador by four U.S. Army lieutenant colonels a year ago described U.S. intervention here as “this country’s most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.” And despite nine years and more than $3.3 billion in U.S. aid, the Salvadoran government, they say, has won neither popular support nor the war.

For at least 14 months, the rebels have held the military initiative. The numbers for the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency don’t look good. According to Salvadoran Army colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, FMLN assaults have forced the government to deploy 85 per cent of its troops in defensive positions. Since 1987, El Salvador has been more dependent on U.S. aid than any country since the former Republic of South Vietnam.

U.S. military advisers are frustrated. “This isn’t like World War II,” said one. “There are no population centers to control and industrial centers to attack.” Looking out over the country’s rugged terrain, he said: “Out here, how to you eliminate the enemy’s ability to fight?”

U.S. advisers asked that the same question in Vietnam; FMLN rebels look to that insurgency as a model.

SITTING WITH HER legs crossed, a camouflage hat on her head, and an Ak-47 on her lap, Comandante Elsa explained the difference between the army and the FMLN. “One can’t underestimate the enemy’s potential. They know how to defend themselves,” she says. But “the interests that drive the army are not the just interests of the people.”

Behind her, a young woman transcribed numbered radio codes, while another rebel tended the campfire. The guerillas said it was the same type used by the Vietcong; it burns in a dugout hold to avoid detection.

“Our army,” says Elsa, “did not grow based upon forced recruitment. We are rooted within the population.”

Soft-spoken, pleasant, and always smiling, Elsa doesn’t fit the image of a hardened guerilla leader. But she sits on the FMLN’s Joint Command for the “Central Front,” which includes both San Salvador and Guazapa volcanoes as well as the capital city. “If we say that Guazapa is the arrow in the heart of the enemy,” she said, “on [San Salvador] volcano we are the point of the arrow.”

Unlike in more secured areas under FMLN control, here the location of the army is always in some doubt. An unexpected encounter with a government patrol is a rare but real possibility, For us, getting past army checkpoints near the volcano’s base was the most dangerous exercise, but a clandestine network of civilians facilitated in our entry. Further on, two guerillas walking “point” provided cover as our patrol marched by moonlight through fields of recently harvested coffee.

The close proximity of the volcano to both the city and the army also makes conditions difficult. Base camps, for example, must move every few days. And life as a compa – a companero, or FMLN combatant – is essentially one of the perpetual camping out. A bed consists of two pieces of heavy plastic – one for above and one for below the body. Meals are the same tin cup of rice and beans every day. And to avoid detection, conversation must be kept to a near whisper.

Nonetheless, morale is exceptionally high. “Vergon!” – Salvadoran slang for the greatest – is the way most compass answer ‘How’s it going?” Among scores of combatants I’ve interviewed in the last several months, all but one were convinced or an eventual rebel victory. If morale is an indication, the odds are heavily weighed against the army.

And morale doesn’t fall from the sky. It is the rebels who define the terms of the conflict. They initiate most engagements, and government casualties are disproportionately high. In contrast to the guerillas, army soldiers usually say “A saber, va” – Who knows? – when asked which side is winning the war.

Literally dragged from movie theaters, bus stops, and high schools into military service, most army soldiers seem more interested in getting a visa to the United States than fighting guerillas. According to FMLN rebels, soldiers are notorious for firing their weapons in the air to give away their location – and thereby avoid a confrontation.

But according to Comandante Elsa, the key to the rebel’s success on San Salvador volcano is the civilian population.

IT IS DIFFICULT to determine popular support in any guerilla war. Most upper- and middle-class Salvadorans reject the rebels and their cause. But the FMLN is predominantly a rural-based insurgency.

“The masses are the ones who provide supplies,” said Elsa. “They also, up to a certain point, go out on scouting explorations to inform us about the location of the enemy.”
We met with a group of peasants working in a field. A rebel sent two men out to keep watch for the army; they trimmed coffee trees as a cover. Other peasants, mostly women, dropped about two handfuls of fresh tortillas each in a straw basket, which we later carried back to camp.

“To struggle you don’t need a weapon,” said Aristides, the guerilla leading our patrol. “Just to make tortillas is enough.”

Most of the people living on the volcano pick coffee. El Salvador’s leading export, coffee earns more than 60 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. These pickers and others like them constitute the primary work force of the country.

Aristides emphasized class divisions. “Those who work a lot,” he told them, “earn a little. But those who hardly work have millions of colones [worth five to the dollar].”

El Salvador’s U.S.-backed land reform affected about 18 per cent of the country’s peasants. Most of them are organized in cooperatives, many of which remain strapped for access to credit, equipment, and seed. A land-to-the-tiller program had less success. Out of a potential 117,000 beneficiaries, only 18,000 received definitive land titles. And eight years after it was conceived, the breakup of the large coffee farms – on paper, the meat of the reform – is still blocked by landowners.

The rebels’ simple Marxist message made sense to the pickers. Landless and illiterate, they don’t understand the material dialectics, but they do know the different between rich and poor. For them, the guerillas have not only brought a sense of hope for their future, but an immediate material gain in their lives.

“Thanks to them, we make more now,” said one weather-beaten man. Before, the pickers received the equivalent of 65 cents for picking 25 pounds of beans; now they receive about $1.10.

“We sent letters to the owners of these farms asking them to raise the workers’ salaries,” said Aristides. And now, he said, “the majority of the owners on this volcano are paying what we ask.”
“And what happens to the growers who don’t want to pay more?” I said.

“Well… there are laws, laws of war that have their limits. If a grower doesn’t pay what we say, then we sabotage his property,” he said. “We’ll burn his farm or destroy his property in San Salvador.”

A shy wrinkled old woman sat on the ground eating a tortilla. I asked her what she thought of the rebels’ coercive tactics.

Está bien.” – It’s good, she said.


“Because we eat more,” she said laughing, crumbs falling from her mouth. “Because we eat more.”

The army, on the other hang, protects the growers. Washington pundits may look to Sunday’s presidential elections as proof of democracy, but the drama being played out around San Salvador and Guazapa volcanoes, Usulutan, San Miguel, Santa Ana, and the other agro-export regions remains a class-based war.

“I became aware that they were paying more,” said army colonel Zepeda. The government’s counterpart to Comandante Elsa, Zepeda is responsible for the same territory as the Central Front.

Zepeda said that one Guazapa the rebels also demand a war tax from the growers. He met with growers from both volcanoes. Nobody, he told them, has to pay a tax or give workers more than the government’s set minimum wage. Thus, the minimum wage becomes a maximum wage; anyone demanding more – guerilla or peasant – is a subversive.

Zepeda also denies that the rebels have a legitimate social base. They only survive because of outside assistance, he says. “If Nicaragua were to stop providing aid to this Marxist movement, we could finish the conflict in a short time.”

“Yes, we receive some support,” said Noe, another FMLN comandante within the Central Front, when asked about foreign backing. “It comes from other countries in the world that support our cause.” But they get most out of their material, he added, from inside the country.

MASKING TAPE, coiled wire, flashlight batteries, PVC pipe, fuses, plastic bags, and containers with a variety of powdered chemicals were laid out on a plastic tarp.

“At first we weren’t sure about it,” said a scraggly looking guerilla, as he presided over his collection of homemade bombs. “But later…” He broke into a smile.

Homemade land minds are the rebels’ most common and effective weapon; they cause at least 60 per cent of army casualties. The rebels said they started experimenting with them to repel the army’s counterinsurgency sweep, “Operation Phoenix,” on Guazapa volcano.

A contact bomb, the mine is housed in the closed end of a three-inch piece of plastic PVC water pipe. It can be filled with almost any type of explosive or homemade gunpowder. The most essential ingredient is potassium nitrate, or saltpeter – available, said a rebel, from the local pharmacy.

PVC is used because it doesn’t conduct electricity, but other containers, even shampoo bottles, he says, will work as well. Two AA batteries are places inside the container and connected to an electrical detonator. Stepping on the buried mine from above completes the circuit.

Of all the materials required, only the detonator must be secured from the outside. For larger bombs, the rebels sometimes use TNT, which also must come from outside. But most often they use a highly explosive homemade mixture of ammonia and aluminum powder. This mixture is also used for rampas – a projectile that looks like a small soccer ball wrapped in masking tape. The rampa is hurled by an exploding charge set beneath a crude-looking wooden catapult.

The rebels have also converted car bombs into a more powerful catapult-like device. These have been effective against military bases throughout the capital city. But the two-charge bombs often misfire. In the latest attacks, they have killed more civilians than soldiers. The FMLN announced it was suspending their use late last month.

On the volcano, the rebels plant land mines around their perimeter and remove them whenever they change their camp. I learned the location of both the mines and the latrine – and made sure not confuse the two.

Later that day, I watched music videos with a guerilla on his handheld Sony Watchman. The beat was interrupted by the sound of machine guns. A firefight had broken out between the army and another rebel unit less than one mile away.

“What was that?” I asked, hearing an explosion.

“A mine.” Apparently an army soldier had discovered the perimeter of the other rebel camp.

A new U2 video came on, with images of Times Square and Richard Nixon. By the time the screen had changed to Madonna, the battle was just about over.


On February 21, FMLN guerillas attacked a Salvadoran army base in Zacatecoluca, 27 miles southeast of the capital. U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Jacobs confirmed that it was a U.S. Special Forces adviser was present at the base. During the attack, the adviser – Commander Two Zero – reported his situation by radio to the U.S. Military Group command – Retelo – in San Salvador. A tape recording of that transmission indicates that the adviser – one of the 55 officially posted in the country – felt his life to be in immediate danger.


The transmission took place from 4:00 to 4:30 a.m. The adviser originally referred to the rebel action as an exploratory “probe.”


Later that day, a Salvadoran military officer at the scene said that four soldiers were killed and another 13 were wounded. A Salvadoran army major was among the dead. It appears that the U.S. adviser suffered no injury.


U.S. officials admit to only three occasions of U.S. military personnel engaging in combat in El Salvador – once in 1987 and twice last year. But U.S. advisers are widely believed to have found themselves in conflict situations more frequently than is reported. Advisers are posted at even minor military bases throughout the country. Said a Western diplomat after the Zacatecoluca attack, “I would presume that every time a military base is attacked, a U.S. soldier comes under attack.”

Nine years after the American advisers were first deployed here, Vice-President Dan Quayle said that the congressionally imposed 55-man ceiling should be lifted. Including the U.S. Embassy’s 13-man Military Group command and the Special Forces advisers rotated into the country on 90-day temporary duty assignment, there is already an average of 150 U.S. military personnel in El Salvador at any given time. Many of these advisers are experienced in counterinsurgency. One Special Forces adviser with three years here, for instance, did four years of duty leading ARVN reconnaissance patrols in Vietnam.

CHARRING KERNELS over a hot stone slab, a woman looks up and says hello. She uses roast corn, she explained, to make a cheap substitute for coffee.

A displaced peasant, she lives in one of the many poor barrios on the fringe of the city. The woman said she remembered me from my last visit two months ago.

I asked her if she thought the rebels would win. “I don’t know,” she said. “I hope so. What do you think?”

U.S. adviser comes under fire in El Salvador

Original article can be found here.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – A U.S. military advisor at a Salvadoran army base came under fire yesterday in an early morning rebel attack that killed three Salvadoran soldiers, but he apparently managed to escape unharmed.

It is at least the fourth reported attack involving U.S. advisers since they were deployed in El Salvador in 1980.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Jacobs confirmed that a U.S. operations, planning and training officers was present at the army engineering base in Zacatecoluca, 35 miles southeast of the capital. But Jacobs denied that the adviser came under fire or was in any immediate danger.

A tape-recording of the advisor’s radio report to military superiors in San Salvador paints a different picture, however. The report indicates that the advisor considered himself to be in immediate danger. A tape of the transmission was obtained by a correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The unidentified adviser, using the code name Commando Two Zero, contacted a U.S. Special Forces officer identified at Rotelo at headquarters in San Salvador about 4:30 a.m.

“Hello, Commando Two Zero” reporting.

“Go ahead, over.”

“Listen in. The —- hitting the fan pretty bad out here. I’m getting out of here…I’m… I’m bailing out of here. I’m getting out of here…I’m breaking through. So if I can make… Don’t worry about it. I’ll get out of here… and, ah… I’ll rendezvous with whoever comes out tomorrow, over.”

“Roger, I understand… S.D.O. (staff duty officer) is on the way. Stand by.”

The U.S. adviser said the rebels were using automatic weapons, rampas, or homemade catapult bombs, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The adviser initially referred to the rebel action as an exploratory “probe” but said it later turned into an attack.

“Commando Two Zero, Rotelo. Go ahead, over.”

“Yeah, the probe has turned into a… an attack from the northeast. We got, ah… three wounded already. We have one blindado (armor-plated vehicle) in ambush… and we got one kid-–he’s in pretty bad shape… he’s probably going to go away. And we got two wounded, over.”

“This is Rotelo. Roger, I understand, anything else? Over.”

“Commando Two Zero out.”

The guerillas and soldiers battled for three hours, according to officials there, including base commander Col. Benjamin Canjura.

Canjura said three soldiers were killed, including a major. Two soldiers died when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the truck in which they were traveling; 13 others were wounded in the fighting, Canjura said.

There is no indication that the U.S. adviser sustained injury.

The guerillas also attacked an important army base in the capital, killing two civilians who lived nearby, officials said.

The early morning attack on the 4,000-member 1st Brigade’s headquarters was the fifth on a major military installation in San Salvador since November. With jurisdiction over the capital and its environs, the brigade headquarters is considered the country’s most important military installation.

Col. Orlando Zepeda, commander of the 1st Army Brigade, said there were not casualties inside the downtown base and that damage was negligible, but he refused to allow journalists inside.

The rebels used two pickups fitted with catapults. The detonation of one explosive charge launches the bombs and simultaneously blows up the vehicle.

The explosion of one of the vehicles killed Pedro Martinez, about 70 years old, and his wife, Maria Teresa, about 65, who lived in a house near the headquarters.

A Western official said he knew of only three occasions when U.S. advisers have engaged in combat in El Salvador.

In March 1987, Army Sgt. Gregory Fronius was killed during the rebel assaults against the Army’s 4th Bridgade at El Paraiso.

U.S. advisers also came under attack during rebel assaults against Salvadoran military bases at Usulután in February 1988 and again at El Paraiso in September.

A U.S. official said that any time U.S. military personnel engage in combat it must be reported to Congress. After the latest attack at El Paraiso, the Defense Department waited two weeks before announcing that U.S. military personnel had come under fire.

U.S. military advisors are widely believed to have found themselves in combat situations more frequently than has been reported.

One Western diplomat said, “I would presume that every time a military base is attacked, a U.S. adviser come under attack.”

In recent weeks, rebel attacks have become more frequent. Yesterday, the rebels attacked two other military installations at the same time they assaulted the Zacatecoluca based and on the base of the 1st Brigade in San Salvador, they said.

The Rebels’ Dirty Hands

Certain guerrilla tactics are reprehensible. In the last year, the rebels have taken to placing car bombs in front of movie theaters and restaurants in the wealthier sections of San Salvador. In October, a group identifying itself as Manuel Jose Arce Commandos detonated two such car bombs outside a shopping center and a fast-food restaurant. In a communiqué on Radio Venceremos, the rebels’ clandestine station, the FMLN indirectly endorsed the action.

In each of these cases, no one was seriously injured. But that seems more luck than intent. One bomb next to a movie theater exploded while patrons were inside. The one outside the fast-food restaurant went off during regular evening hours. Rebel commanders say such tactics are designed to make the upper classes share the burden of the war.

Summary execution of locally elected village mayors is another deplorable tactic. In El Salvador’s eastern provinces, eight mayors have been executed by the rebels since April. This underscores divisions within the rebel alliance, even after nine years of struggle. FMLN guerrillas in Chalatenango, for example, do not have a policy of assassinating mayors; guerrillas active in the eastern provinces do.

During my trip in Chalatenango, a rebel tried to explain to me why they kill civilians. The rebels assassinate people for committing rape, he said, for using a gun against the people as in a personal dispute, and for providing information to the enemy.

But the rebels do not seem to be limiting their violence to these selected targets. In October, four peasants in Apopa, about seven miles north of San Salvador, were dragged from their homes and killed at point-blank range. The killers identified themselves as members of the army’s First Brigade. But according to Tutela Legal, El Salvador’s Roman Catholic human-rights office, the massacre was carried out by FMLN guerrillas posing as army soldiers. Tutela has consistently reported abuse by government troops against civilians. Its reports are used by such organizations as Americas Watch and are considered to be the most reliable in the country.

If the Tutela report is true, it marks an ominous shift in guerrilla tactics. A few weeks after the incident, rebel leaders promised to investigate the case and said that if FMLN members were involved, the perpetrators would be punished.

Nonetheless, human-rights abuses by the government here have consistently outstripped those by the rebels. Using Catholic Church figures, for instance, the comparison of noncombatant killings by the army versus such killings by the rebels is well over ten-to-one since the beginning of the war, though in recent months it has dropped closer to two-to-one.