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.