Rebels Target U.S.-Aided Program in Rural El Salvador

Times Staff Writer

A guerrilla policy of terrorizing mayors and other local officials, including the assassination of eight civic leaders and the forced resignation of at least 39 others, is threatening an American-sponsored program aimed at winning rural Salvadorans to the government side.

The program, supported by millions of dollars in economic assistance, combines low-intensity fighting with efforts to provide government services in areas where the leftist guerrillas are most active.

But because of Salvadoran military inefficiency and doubts about the program, the Salvadoran army has been reluctant to implement the low-intensity tactics--search and kill patrols by small units, usually at night.

Instead, in the view of U.S. advisers, the Salvadoran army stays close to its barracks, declining to set up night ambushes and failing to pursue the guerrillas when contact is made. Also, although it has improved its human rights record, the army has still not convinced rural Salvadorans that it is any less dangerous to them than the rebels.


As a result, the 6,000 guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front--the FMLN, it is usually called, after its initials in Spanish--has been left free to roam the countryside, causing severe economic and morale damage.

Now, with the resignations of so many officials, the civic action part of the program is also in danger.

“If the government can’t protect the mayors, the guerrillas will prove that they are in control, and that means that the people, who didn’t have much faith in the capital to begin with, will have no choice but to stand by the FMLN,” a diplomatic source said.

Shortage of Volunteers

The resignations have only made a bad situation worse. Even before they began, in the middle of last month, 51 of the 262 mayor’s offices were vacant because no one could be found who was willing to serve.

Last year, eight mayors were killed by the guerrillas. In many areas, mayors will not live or work in their own towns for fear of being killed.

About 40% of the mayoral posts are now vacant. This causes difficulty on several levels, observers say. Not only is it evidence of government weakness and guerrilla strength; it also tends to deprive peasants of such needed services as drinkable water, electric power, schools, medical facilities, transportation and the means of distributing food.

Without a working mayor and council, the municipalities cannot receive the financial aid provided by the United States and administered by the Salvadoran government.

“It’s a perfect way to win hearts and minds,” a foreign expert said. “If you give them water, a good road, a school and an army that doesn’t kill them, then they will be on your side.”

This is what led the FMLN to begin threatening and killing officials. The rebels have little in the way of a substitute program, so they have chosen to terrorize rather than attempt to convert.

In November, the FMLN sent letters to a number of mayors accusing them of collaborating with the government but conceding that some were unwitting collaborators. The mayors were given a month to resign.

Then, beginning in mid-December, more letters were sent out, saying there would be no more grace time and that any mayor who did not resign would be killed.

For many, the example of the eight slain mayors, along with the lack of military protection and the low pay, about $100 a month, eliminated the incentive to serve.

Rene Emilio Ponce, the army chief of staff, would not acknowledge, in an interview, that the program is in danger of failing, but he said it was impossible to guard all the municipalities.

“We are supposed to protect the roads, the coffee plantations, the cities and the mayors and at the same time fight the terrorists,” he said. “It can’t all be done.”

And there is another dimension to all this. Half of the dead mayors and more than half of those who quit were members of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party, a rightist political party that has been accused of being involved with the death squads that were active here a few years ago.

Leaders of the party, including former Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, have charged the centrist Christian Democratic government with being soft on the guerrillas and not aggressively seeking out the rebels and their sympathizers.

Violence Predicted

Former Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, an Arena party member of the National Assembly, has said repeatedly that if the mayors are not protected “there is going to be a lot of violence” in the weeks leading up to the March 20 presidential election.

Arena party leaders charge that the threats and killings are part of an FMLN plot to scare people into voting for the leftist Democratic Convergence, a coalition of socialist and other leftist parties that has nominated a presidential candidate.

Because leaders of the convergence are allied with the FMLN, these Arena charges are seen as suggestions that Arena supporters may be targeting the coalition’s leaders, particularly presidential candidate Guillermo Ungo. Last month a right-wing death squad threatened to kill Ungo.