Salvador Mines Taking Higher Army Toll : Rebel Blasts, as Opposed to Direct Combat, Cause 42% of 1985 Losses

Times Staff Writer

It was almost sunset one evening last September when a 25-year-old soldier, Juan Anastasio Marquez, climbed a hill in Morazan province to make camp for the night. As he opened a tripod for his .50-caliber machine gun, its metal foot touched off a land mine, blowing off Marquez's legs and blinding him in one eye.

In November, 16-year-old soldier Jose Torribio Gomez slipped off a rock during a guerrilla ambush in Usulutan province. Gomez landed on a buried mine, losing one leg and suffering wounds to the other.

In San Miguel last month, Cpl. Victoriano Mendez, 25, walked into a trench ahead of his patrol, stepping on a mine that blew off part of his right foot.

In El Salvador's civil war, Marquez, Gomez, and Mendez, all patients in the San Miguel Military Hospital, are among the increasing numbers of army casualties caused by land mines and booby traps, rather than in direct combat with guerrilla forces.

42% From Mines

According to official figures, 42% of the army's dead and wounded so far this year were hit by exploding mines, but officers in the field and a military observer say the figure may be as high as 80%.

"The way I am now, I don't think I'll be serving in any combat," said Marquez, confined to a wheelchair. He said he had intended to make a career out of the army.

A military observer close to the Salvadoran army said the mines have created "a serious problem" for the government forces, who despite better combat training and equipment continue to step on the simple explosives.

He added, however, that the mines have had a political cost for the guerrillas because there are a growing number of civilian accidents. In the countryside, farmers tell of neighbors who have been hurt, particularly after chasing their cows and horses into mined fields. The guerrillas use the mines, which maim more often than they kill, for their psychological effect on soldiers' morale as well as for their explosive impact. Soldiers, both the wounded and those still on patrol, say that they are more afraid of mines than of rifles.

"We are more skilled with a rifle than we are at detecting mines," said Lt. Vladimir Bayres, a soldier on duty at the military hospital. "If we detect a mine, it's usually because someone stepped on it. . . . For us, it is worse to see a person without arms and legs than dead."

A Change in Tactics

The mine-inflicted casualties reflect a change in tactics announced by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front earlier this year. Confronted with increases in the size of the government armed forces, their mobility, and U.S.-supplied air power, the guerrillas said that they were moving away from large-scale engagements with the army to increased economic sabotage, ambushes, and the use of what they call "popular armaments"--explosives.

The Farabundo Marti front, an alliance of five rebel armies, vowed a war of attrition to wear down the government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte and the will of the United States to continue economic and military support, which has amounted to about $1.8 billion in the last five years. But U.S. resolve in the country has not wavered, and both sides acknowledge that the war is likely to go on for a long time.

On the rebel Radio Venceremos, the guerrillas recently boasted that the mines, most of which are homemade, cause more casualties than "the enemy with all of its Yankee war machinery . . . launching dozens of bombs on Guazapa (volcano, a guerrilla stronghold)."

According to government figures, the guerrillas have inflicted about the same number of casualties on the army this year as last, although only about half as many soldiers have been killed and more have been wounded, according to army figures. It is not known how many of the wounded recover to return to battle.

Mines Killed 193

Armed forces spokesman Lt. Col. Carlos Aviles said that 193 of the 496 soldiers killed this year died from mine or booby trap explosions, and among the 1,982 wounded, 847 were from mines--a mine casualty rate of 42%.

But in conflict areas such as the northern province of Chalatenango and in San Miguel, officials say that the ratio of mine victims has been much higher recently.

"Perhaps 70% to 80% of our casualties are from mines," said Lt. Col. Ivan Diaz from Military Detachment No. 1 in Chalatenango.

Rebel leaders say the army's casualty figures are low. They say 6,070 government troops were killed or wounded this year through Nov. 30. They say they get their numbers by listening to army radio communications, but admit they do not know how many are dead, seriously wounded or very mildly wounded and able to return to the field.

Guerrilla leaders have said that the mines are intended to deplete the government forces, but a military observer said that the government has no difficulty replacing current losses from among El Salvador's 5 million people. There are about 50,000 troops in the army and security forces.

Neither side provided guerrilla casualty figures for the year.

Civilians Killed, Too

According to the army, about 50 civilians have also been killed and 170 others wounded in accidents with mines. The rebels say that only about 20 civilians were killed or hurt during the first 10 months of the year--their latest figure--a number they contend is far lower than civilians hurt in government attacks.

The rebels say they warn civilians not to go into areas where mines have been planted without a guerrilla guide. They say they leave mine fields permanently in place only to defend areas where they maintain constant control. Otherwise, as an offensive weapon, they say, the mines are laid as part of an ambush or other specific operation and then removed.

The rebels say they pick up the unexploded mines not only for humanitarian reasons, but for practical ones: They need to reuse them.

Elena Gonzalez, 43, a farmer stopped on a dirt road in a remote area of frequent conflict in San Miguel, said the guerrillas "are very clear when they put mines. They stop whoever they meet on the road and tell them there's no passing, and then the people pass along the word."

Gonzalez, carrying a machete and accompanied by her young son as she walked from her cornfield home, said that, despite the warnings, a farmer who lives nearby had lost his right eye two weeks earlier when his horse stepped on a mine.

Dr. Rene Silva at the government health clinic in the town of Chirilagua, about 20 miles south of the capital of San Miguel, said the farmer who lost his eye was one of four civilian mine casualties he had seen this year. All four lived.

Farmers Fear Battles

In the hamlet of Guadalupe, where guerrillas often are present, farmers said they are more afraid of being caught in gun battles between the army and guerrillas than of mines.

Military officials say the army does not use mines except to protect strategic positions such as bridges, dams and garrisons. The rebels say the army does use mines in their counterinsurgency offensives, and a military observer said the army sometimes uses mines detonated by remote control but does not leave contact mines.

In San Miguel, a spokesman for the 3rd Brigade said, "the order from the commander is not to use mines. At no moment have we used mine fields." But an officer with the special Arce Battalion, based in San Miguel but not under the 3rd Brigade command, said that "from time to time" soldiers relocate the guerrilla mines they find.

Rebels from the Revolutionary Army of the Poor, a faction of the Farabundi Marti front, said in an interview that all of their combatants receive training in the use of explosives as well as in handling traditional arms.

"Everyone uses explosives. Some have more training for the more delicate operations where you may need to know how to read and write," said a rebel patrol leader who declined to be identified.

Rebels See Success

Guerrillas said they believe the mines have been a successful offensive weapon, effective not only in numbers of casualties they produce, but in restricting the mobility of the government forces.

Army officials admit that the mines have a strong negative impact on soldiers' morale and are taken into account before a major operation is launched. But they say that mines have not caused any operations to be suspended or kept soldiers from pursuing guerrillas into contested areas.

"The soldiers are conscious that a false step can mean a false leg," said armed forces spokesman Aviles. "But our units continue operating in those zones."

Military officials say that guerrillas generally lay mines under shade trees, near large rocks, alongside roads and paths, and near water in dry areas. They said they have been known to booby-trap trees, rifles and even cadavers.

Rebel mines generally are made of tin cans or bottles filled with plastic explosives and shards of metal, with alkaline flashlight batteries to make contact.

Troops Changing Tactics

The army officials said their troops are beginning to change their tactics, to stay off roads and hilltops where mines are likely to be, and are learning to detect the mines in the ground.

A military observer said the Salvadoran army has received about 25 mine detectors from the United States and is expecting about 200 more.

"However, that is marginal at best in dealing with the problem. It is not feasible to conduct an operation with every guy walking behind a mine detector. You might as well stay home," he said.

"The mines just highlight the need to surprise the guerrillas. . . . The only way to deal with mines and booby traps is to break into small units and night operations. It is impossible to use mines effectively if you don't know where you're moving, if you can't see and you're afraid of ambushes," he said.

For a couple of years, U.S. military advisers have been trying to get the Salvadoran army to break down into small night patrols with mixed success.

The military observer said most mine casualties still occur during large operations.

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