Not Just Good Guys vs. Bad : U.S. indictment of El Salvadoran rebel leader would be no quick fix

The anger Americans feel over the recent murder of U.S. servicemen by guerrillas in El Salvador is understandable and justified. Most of the available evidence indicates that two injured soldiers were shot in cold blood after their helicopter was downed. But Washington’s most recent response to the killings is unlikely to contribute much to settling a long and most likely unwinnable civil war.

The Times’ Washington Bureau reported Monday that State Department officials have asked the FBI to investigate not only the rebel fighters who actually executed the two U.S. servicemen, but also leaders of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which is fighting the U.S.-backed government in El Salvador. They want to seek an indictment for murder against Joaquin Villalobos, the man most U.S. officials regard as the single most effective field commander the rebels have.

U.S. officials claim an indictment against Villalobos would be a psychological blow against the rebels. It might keep Villalobos from traveling to Mexico, Nicaragua and other nations where the FMLN has offices, out of fear he might be “snatched” by U.S. agents, like a Mexican doctor who helped kill U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena was.

But that rather odd idea has problems. To begin with, no Latin America country is going to like U.S. agents coming onto its territory to grab a criminal. The Mexicans are still seething about the Camarena case kidnaping.


And how about the precedent it would set? How could the State Department protest if, say, the radical government of Iran were to indict a U.S. citizen for breaking its laws and tried to “snatch” him away to Teheran for trial?

The State Department must know it’s pointless to indict a guerrilla leader in a faraway land. What U.S. officials may really want is to undermine the claim of moral superiority the FMLN has vis-a-vis the Salvadoran armed forces. FMLN spokesmen portray the rebels as simple peasants fighting an oppressive government. And the often brutish Salvadoran military, and the rightist death-squads allied with it, have played right into the FMLN’s hands by killing priests, nuns, U.S. land reform experts and even an archbishop during this war.

But anyone who has watched the bloody tragedy in El Salvador unfold for the last decade knows there are no good guys or bad guys down there, only a deeply divided society where terrible social problems have exploded into bitter factional warfare. In such a situation, the most constructive course is not to try and exploit tragedies like the murder of Americans for temporary political gain. The constructive course is to find common ground on which peace--or at least a cease- fire--can be negotiated. Then the mindless killing that has claimed more than 70,000 other victims might be stopped.