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.