First, there was an ominous tip from a factory guard on the northern edge of San Salvador: Peasants in civilian clothing and military boots were asking directions into the city.
Fighting had all but ceased in rural Chalatenango and Morazan provinces, the traditional theaters of the civil war. Then, rebel radios fell silent, a sure sign that the long-expected urban guerrilla offensive was about to begin.
By the time 1,500 to 2,000 guerrillas had infiltrated the city, the government thought it was ready. Military units had been placed on alert, and President Alfredo Cristiani had abandoned his residence. The rebels had lost the advantage of surprise.
Yet, the intensity and duration of the offensive, which started the night of Nov. 11, has mocked all official predictions and sent Cristiani’s elected right-wing government reeling.
After 2 1/2 weeks of fighting, the armed forces hold a tenuous advantage against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). But the rebels have slipped in and out of the city several times, striking again Wednesday at a number of neighborhoods and occupying mansions of the rich. Few here are willing to bet that the offensive, or the fierce right-wing backlash it has provoked, will soon end.
“The crisis is just beginning,” San Salvador Mayor Armando Calderon Sol said. “The country has entered a very violent stage.”
A right-wing businessman close to the government said: “Things are returning to normal. But I’m afraid it will be a normalcy a lot like Beirut’s.”
For 10 years, the Marxist-led FMLN has fought a series of U.S.-backed governments to a military standoff in the steamy coastal lowlands and forested volcano slopes of this tiny agrarian nation. About 70,000 people have died.
The November offensive has produced neither a decisive popular uprising nor an outright military victory. But it has advanced at least two rebel aims: It has brought the chaos of the deadlocked peasant war into a city that has more than one-third of El Salvador’s 5.8 million people--a situation that, if prolonged, could make the country ungovernable; and it has unleashed a murderous crackdown that swiftly undermined a decade of U.S. counterinsurgency policy and $4 billion in aid aimed at building a political center.
State of Siege
El Salvador today is under a formal stage of siege, dominated by militarists on the far left and the far right.
Both armies issued analyses this week boasting of military and political gains. Interviews with diplomats and Salvadorans across the spectrum leave the impression that the conflict has become even more intractable, with little hope for a peaceful solution.
“The army and the guerrillas can both claim victory,” leftist politician Ruben Zamora said. “And a winner does not negotiate.”
The rebels’ offensive, their biggest of the war, appears to be part of a two-track strategy to end the fighting through negotiation or outright military victory.
While issuing a flurry of peace proposals throughout the year--and starting negotiations with the government in September--the FMLN was stockpiling thousands of weapons in urban hide-outs.
According to several sources, the stalling of the peace talks and the increase of paramilitary attacks on pro-FMLN groups in the capital last month sparked the battle plan to action.
The guerrillas attacked Cristiani’s house as the offensive started. Rather than focus on military targets, they entrenched themselves in working-class suburbs north and east of downtown, handing weapons to anyone who would fight on their side. In doing so, they trapped tens of thousands of people in those barrios.
“We knew the robber was going to enter the house, but we didn’t know how,” a senior Salvadoran army officer admitted. “He didn’t catch us asleep, but we didn’t know where he would be coming from.”
The army appears to have underestimated the guerrillas’ strength. It tried to defend the capital with 3,000 soldiers, but they were spread thin. Gradually, as simultaneous rebel raids on four other cities bogged down, the government brought another 7,000 soldiers to the capital.
It was not until the air force began rocketing and strafing the occupied neighborhoods--on the fifth night of the offensive, after what one diplomat called “days of massive confusion"--that the government gained the advantage.
Yet, the government’s relative ineffectiveness on the ground allowed most of the rebels to slip out of the capital after nine days of hard fighting and return with a startling siege of the wealthy Escalon neighborhood and the Sheraton Hotel two days later. Rebel columns have been moving in and out of the capital ever since.
“The army is reacting, not attacking,” a Western diplomat said. “The FMLN throughout this has dictated the when, the where, the how.”
The army has admitted that more than 400 of its soldiers have been killed, while it claims to have inflicted heavier casualties on the guerrillas. The rebels do not report their losses. Hundreds of civilians have died in the cross-fire and air raids.
In its analysis of the fighting, the army said the FMLN has “suffered a military defeat . . . the greatest losses of its history.” But it conceded that “there are still possibilities that (the rebels) can initiate limited offensives in the near future.”
The rebels broadcast a long evaluation claiming that the offensive has brought “accelerated political decomposition” to the capital, threatening the future of U.S. aid and proving that there can be no peace without serious negotiations. “The battle of San Salvador,” it concluded, has barely begun.
The war’s most important political battles are being fought in Washington. Every turn of events in El Salvador is closely watched by an Administration and Congress that provide roughly $1.4 million per day in aid to the Cristiani government.
American public opinion was shocked by the slayings of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter on the fifth night of the rebel offensive--an attack widely viewed as retaliation by a rightist paramilitary death squad.
An army officer said the massacre was more damaging to the government than the rebel offensive--a view repeated by civilians close to Cristiani. It was followed by a police crackdown on churches and leftist organizations and by legislative approval of a sweeping anti-terrorist law that, among other things, would make it a crime to speak in favor of FMLN peace proposals.
Skeptical of Salvadoran pledges to investigate the slayings, Democrats in Congress tried to withhold 30% of El Salvador’s current $85-million package of military aid until next April. The attempt failed by a narrow margin.
Last weekend, the Salvadoran government scored a propaganda coup, one that might neutralize any more moves to cut U.S. aid. It discovered the wreckage of a light plane that crashed with 25 anti-aircraft missiles and other arms that were apparently being sent to the rebels from Nicaragua. The missiles--the FMLN has not yet used such weapons--were an ominous sign of escalating warfare.
Because El Salvador is host to the largest U.S. counterinsurgency effort since the Vietnam War, the all-out rebel attack has invited comparisons with the 1968 Tet offensive against the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam. Tet ultimately failed militarily, but it helped turn American public opinion against U.S. involvement in the war.
Some Salvadorans prefer to compare the present situation to that of January, 1981, when the FMLN undertook its so-called final offensive in an effort to seize power before Ronald Reagan became President. Despite conditions that made El Salvador ripe for revolution then, the offensive sputtered out in a few days.
Zamora, a leftist with ties to FMLN leaders, has spent much of the last two years, since he was allowed to return from exile, trying to persuade the rebels that political conditions have improved in El Salvador since 1981.
Thus, Zamora contends, although the FMLN came far better armed this time and has sustained its offensive far longer, it failed to spark an insurrection because people had become hopeful of a peaceful solution and too weary of the war to want to take up arms.
“The offensive of the FMLN showed that it is a strong force that cannot be defeated militarily,” he said. “But at the same time, it became clear that the people are not in an insurrectional stage.”
The FMLN, which could not find enough people to use all of the weapons it had smuggled into town, admitted in its analysis that an insurrection had been thwarted. It blamed the government air strikes for intimidating potential supporters.
But the sheer intensity of the fighting has worked in the rebels’ favor by aggravating the dismal social conditions that spawned their movement in the first place. A decade of massive U.S. aid has failed to close the huge gap between rich and poor. Half of all Salvadorans in the labor force lack adequate employment.
Despite the questionable guerrilla tactic of entrenching combatants in crowded neighborhoods and daring the army to blast them out, most people in bomb-damaged homes blamed the military for their plight.
“This was not a conflict between two armies but between the airplanes and the people,” said a church worker who treated wounded civilians in the working-class suburb of Mejicanos. “For the army in El Salvador, the poor are an enemy to be combatted.”
Nearly all of the fighting occurred in poor barrios, creating new homeless and jobless people whom the state cannot care for. The government has estimated $130 million in direct damage, not to mention the loss of foreign investment it was courting.
The biggest loser in all this could be Cristiani, a wealthy businessman elected last March on a protest vote against the troubled economic record of his centrist predecessor, Jose Napoleon Duarte.
As with Duarte, U.S. policy-makers invested their hope in Cristiani not only to manage the economy but also to rein in death squads and other anti-democratic elements of the armed forces. Although founders of his Nationalist Republican Alliance ran death squads in the early 1980s, Cristiani, a 42-year-old political novice, is described by the U.S. Embassy as a decent man who means well.
That moderate image, designed to court favor with Congress, has been severely tested by the guerrilla offensive.
Cristiani has defended the harsh anti-terrorist law, rejected new peace talks with the guerrillas and taken the radical step of suspending relations with Nicaragua. In doing so, he has turned increasingly to the army high command for advice.
“This is converting him into a dictator, as the majority of the army would like,” said a businessman who has been consulted by Cristiani. “I don’t believe he agrees with death squads. In that sense, he’s a moderate. But he doesn’t believe in democracy.”
On the other hand, U.S. officials and Cristiani’s advisers credit him with freeing some foreigners arrested in the police crackdown and preventing less-discriminate military attacks on guerrilla-held barrios.
Roman Catholic Church officials say Cristiani’s biggest test, the investigation of the Jesuits’ massacre, will depend on who wins a power struggle between hard-liners and moderates in the armed forces and his party.
U.S. officials had hoped that an expected Dec. 1 shake-up of the armed forces would push out extremist officers. But Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, the army chief of staff, said Tuesday that there will be no shake-up while the fighting continues.
When changes do come, those who fought well could be rewarded. For example, Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo, the hard-line air force chief, apparently has been strengthened by his pilots’ pivotal role in the recent fighting.
Other features of El Salvador’s political landscape will not become clear until the urban war fades--if it does. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is in effect, and hundreds of opposition leaders are silenced or in hiding, waiting to see if the political center will reopen.
The biggest imponderable is the fate of the FMLN. Having endured heavy casualties and exposed its carefully constructed civilian-support networks without a clear victory, how long can Latin America’s strongest irregular army fight on?
Behind their accelerated push to end the conflict, according to diplomats in Central America, was a feeling among the rebels that the East-West thaw is quickly making an anachronism of liberation movements such as theirs. Nicaragua’s stepped-up support for the FMLN, in this view, could be part of a last-ditch effort before regional negotiations oblige a halt to such aid.
But even then, the guerrillas are not likely to disarm and join a system that so many Salvadorans consider unjust. Before the Nicaraguan connection hit the news, U.S. officials had taken a sobering lesson from the rebel offensive: A decade of counterinsurgency had made little progress.
“It’s a disaster,” a senior official in Washington said. “We knew we had problems in El Salvador, but it’s worse than we thought.”
Times staff writers Doyle McManus in Washington and Tracy Wilkinson in San Salvador contributed to this story.