The Salvadoran army is engaged in its second major military operation this year to gain control of areas long held by leftist guerrillas, and is routing hundreds of the rebels’ civilian supporters from their homes in the northern province of Chalatenango.
As part of the operation, it is restricting the delivery of food, batteries and other necessities into the northern towns and villages, apparently to prevent supplies from reaching the guerrillas. But civilians still in the disputed areas who say they are neutral complain that they are being prevented from bringing in enough food for their families or to stock small stores.
“Since they began the operation, they’re hardly letting anything through, and we are all suffering,” said Amparo Calles, a store-owner in La Laguna, a town about five miles from the Honduran border, where rebels and government troops both pass through.
Civilians on the Run
Civilian supporters of the rebels interviewed in the hamlet of El Ocotal, about five miles northwest of La Laguna through rugged mountains, said they fled their villages March 6 when the operation began and have been on the run ever since. While being questioned, 65 civilians, many of them elderly men and women and young children, ran off again to hide in the dry hills as three UH-1 helicopters began strafing nearby guerrilla positions with machine guns and an O-2 observation plane began firing rockets.
In January, the army launched Operation Phoenix to clear civilians and guerrillas out of the Guazapa volcano area, about 15 miles north of the capital and just south of Chalatenango province.
In that drive, the army moved about 500 civilians out of the guerrilla stronghold, turning them over to refugee camps run by the Roman Catholic Church. Many civilians hid in underground shelters until soldiers found them or hunger forced them out; others fled the area on their own. Most have not returned.
If the army is able to stay in Guazapa and northern Chalatenango, it would represent a major setback for the guerrillas. During most of the six-year-old civil war, they have held those areas and in some towns have even set up their own civilian governments, called Local Popular Powers.
Destroying ‘Our Social Base’
“They are trying to destroy our social base,” said a guerrilla leader who identified herself by the nom de guerre Susana. “It is a battle for power. But our armed forces are there. Every night, the enemy goes to bed and every day they wake up surrounded by mines. It is not true that they are recapturing territory.”
Army spokesman Col. Mauricio Hernandez acknowledged that the army has suffered “tremendous casualties” from guerrilla-laid mines, a weapon that the rebels began emphasizing last year. He did not have exact figure for army casualties during the current operation, but said, for example, that on April 2, 20 soldiers were killed or wounded by mines throughout the country. According to official figures for March, 23 soldiers died and 71 were wounded throughout the country. Guerrillas claim that the figure is higher.
Hernandez said the operation in Chalatenango, dubbed Ricardo Chavez Carreno after a soldier who died in battle, was launched on the heels of Operation Phoenix because many guerrillas from Guazapa had moved into Chalatenango. He said officials also acted because they had information that the rebels were planning to attack the November 5 Hydroelectric Plant, one of the country’s major energy sources.
End of Dry Season
March and April mark the end of the dry season in El Salvador, and it is a preferred time for the army to launch offensives because the hills are barren of protective foliage for the guerrillas. But the Phoenix and the Chalatenango drives are different in that they have lasted longer than most military operations in recent years and have been aimed more explicitly at removing civilians.
During Phoenix, army officials said one of the objectives was to clear out the guerrillas’ civilian supporters to deprive the rebels of food and other assistance. Hernandez said the Chalatenango operation “is basically the same.”
Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas said the army has “captured” 424 civilians during the operation in Chalatenango. Army spokesmen said they do not know exactly how many civilians have been removed from Chalatenango but that 622 were “rescued” throughout the country during March.
For Their Own Protection
Army officials say they take the civilians out of areas of fighting for their own protection and because they believe guerrillas lie to the civilians about how the army will treat them.
“When people live there they feel obligated to help the guerrillas. They have guns--what are the people going to do?” Hernandez said.
But civilians in a church-run refugee camp said they believe that the army was removing only those who did not have their required national identity cards while letting “legal” residents stay in the zones. Salvadorans who do not have national identity cards are suspected of being guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers afraid to approach government offices.
Many of the civilians said they had family members killed by soldiers in the early 1980s and they still fear the army, despite reports that it has improved its human rights record.
Say Army Burned Crops
As in Phoenix, civilians sympathetic to the guerrillas accused the army of burning their crops and houses in the current operation, but reporters were unable to reach the areas in question. The civilians also said that they have had to flee aerial attacks, although they said they did not know of any casualties from the bombings.
Refugees at the church’s Calle Real camp and the civilian guerrilla-supporters said they have had to flee fighting and bombings around their villages many times over the last six years, although never for so long. By now, they are used to the sudden need for flight and move out with ease, carrying small packs of food and clothing on their backs. Even the elderly, supported by walking sticks, seem accustomed to the displacement.
The Chalatenango operation encompasses the northeastern portion of the province from Arcatao to El Carrizal to Concepcion Quezaltepeque to San Antonio Los Ranchos. It includes about 2,000 troops from two elite battalions and a regular battalion at its peak, although some have been withdrawn, Hernandez said. He said he did not know when the now month-old operation would be completed.
Change in Tactics
The duration of operations Phoenix and Chavez reflect a change in army tactics.
“In the areas of major conflict, we see that more permanent operations are more effective,” Col. Hernandez said. “In irregular warfare, when the army just arrives (for a short time), it is easy for the guerrillas to avoid combat. But in operations that last longer, are semi-permanent, we try to control the area and prevent them from returning.”
Susana, one of the top rebel leaders in Chalatenango, acknowledged that the removal of civilians and limits on supplies made it difficult for the guerrillas to find food. Many guerrilla supporters work on collective fields, often dedicating a “red Sunday” to cultivate for the guerrillas, one rebel said.
But Susana insisted that the rebels will continue to eat. “The FMLN depends on the Salvadoran people, and we receive help from everywhere. The population is not an instrument of production for us, but they are the fathers and mothers of our combatants.”
No Facilities for Them
Hernandez admitted that although the army is removing hundreds of civilians from the combat zones, the army and government currently have no facilities to take care of them and no on-going program to win their support.
“It’s true. It is a worry that I have, that if you don’t do any work with them, if they return to the areas where they came from, they are going to do the same thing they were doing before"--support the guerrillas, he said.
The army turns the refugees over to the Catholic church, which currently is supporting 1,800 refugees in camps. Church officials said they do not have the space or resources to continue supporting the flow of refugees.
Hernandez said he was not aware of the practice of limiting food--and, according to civilians, some clothing supplies--to northern Chalatenango. It is practice that the commander of 4th Military Detachment, Col. Mauricio Vargas, has admitted using in the eastern province of Morazan, where guerrillas also are strong.
‘A Delicate Situation’
“It is a delicate situation. The people are hungry, yet if the guerrillas arrive and there is food, they are going to take it. But if there is no food, there can be bad feelings and the people suffer,” Hernandez said.
In northern Chalatenango, resentment already is widespread. The 12 shelves in Amparo Calles’s grocery store in La Laguna are virtually empty, and much of what little she had sold one recent day she had sneaked into town. “See that,” she said, pointing to a 24-pack of Ray-O-Vac batteries. “You could say that’s contraband.”
One by one, residents of the town came to the window of Calles’s store.
“Is there bread, Dona Amparo?” they asked.
“No. There isn’t any,” she repeated time and again.
Some store owners in La Laguna and nearby Dulce Nombre de Maria admitted selling to guerrillas, saying they don’t discriminate between soldiers and rebels.
Will ‘Sell to Anyone’
“I’ll sell to anyone, black, white, yellow or red,” said a shopkeeper in Dulce Nombre.
Guerrillas found buying eggs, crackers and candy, the only food available, in La Laguna said they realized that they were making it difficult for civilians to find food on the shelves. But they argued that the civilians could go south to shop for food in the provincial capital, while they could not.
One housewife, a mother of five, said she could not afford the bus ride to buy the small amounts of food authorities allow to pass. She said her family was living off corn and beans, doing without other staples such as salt, sugar and fruit. But she seemed to blame the army rather than guerrillas.
“Life is hard here. They don’t want the guerrillas to eat. But we are all brothers, and we all are hungry,” she said.