Media : Salvadoran Paper's Comeback From Fire Is a Sign of the Times : The arson case is unsolved. But leftist Diario Latino has risen from the ashes, inspiring some hope for a cease-fire in the country's civil war.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just before dawn on Feb. 9, in the heat of a guerrilla war and an election campaign, arsonists set fire to the offices of El Salvador's only leftist opposition newspaper and crippled its presses.

Standing amid the ruins of Diario Latino that day, Editor Francisco Valencia blamed the attack on "the armed forces, the government and their death squads, the same ones who massacre the people and murder priests." The same ones, he added, whose bombs put two other leftist papers out of business in the early years of the Salvadoran conflict a decade ago.

The fire at Diario Latino, the editor declared, proves that "the climate of terror has not changed."

Two days later, El Salvador's oldest newspaper was publishing again on a borrowed university press. The paper continues to appear six afternoons a week, uninhibited by the right-wing government and U.S.-backed armed forces at war with the guerrillas whose leftist causes it supports. The government, army and Chamber of Commerce joined in condemning the attack, and U.S. Ambassador William Walker visited the burned-out plant to show support for a free press.

Diario Latino's Phoenix-like comeback is a sign that times here have indeed changed, giving the political left an accepted voice in Salvadoran politics and inspiring some hope for a negotiated cease-fire. That shift was reinforced March 10 when guerrilla-backed parties gained their first wartime seats in the National Assembly, gathering a respectable 15% of the vote.

Nearly two months after the attack, however, the arsonists have not been identified. The case seems destined for the growing file of unsolved terrorist crimes that mark El Salvador's old politics and weigh heavily on the new.

Despite a history of right-wing harassment of the paper, the government's investigation has focused on a theory that the editors burned their own plant to tarnish the government's image and attract donations that would more than offset the damage to their equipment.

Valencia denies this, saying that some official offended by the paper sent an arson squad to silence it for good. But some journalists opposing Valencia in a feud over their newspaper's editorial line say the self-immolation theory might be true, and one former reporter claims to have overheard Valencia and a photographer discussing such a scheme six months ago. No witness has come forward to offer evidence for either scenario.

"It's the kind of murky case that is so typical of El Salvador and makes the place so difficult," a Western diplomat said. "Each side has its own truth, but usually the real story never comes out. So many incidents like this remain open sores and keep the country extremely polarized."

Physical evidence from the blaze offers few clues. Fire officials say the arsonists, apparently wearing yellow rubber gloves that they left behind, laid a network of twisted, gasoline-soaked newspapers throughout the building and set them ablaze. The paper had no night watchman. How the intruders entered is unclear, but they easily could have done so through a loose-fitting panel on one wall. The lock to the cage-like press room was forced open.

Today the blackened remains of computers, typesetting machines, desks and filing cabinets form a junk heap at one end of the plant--a bizarre memorial to the fire. As reporters type their stories on one side of the huge room, engineering professors and students from the University of San Salvador work on the other side at no charge to revive the paper's four aging Goss presses.

"These ashes are the mother of all battles," declares a combative wall poem destined for the paper's literary supplement. A newsroom poster attacks the governing Nationalist Republican Alliance: "Arena is terror, Arena is war. Everyone against Arena."

Arson fires have destroyed Diario Latino twice before in its 101-year history--by anonymous hands in 1928 when liberal owners opposed the ruling oligarchy, then by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas in 1981 when conservative owners backed an army-dominated junta.

The paper's birth as the worker-owned gadfly of modern Salvadoran journalism stems from its failure as a traditional newspaper. The previous management, led by Christian Democratic politician Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, abandoned Diario Latino to its 90 employees in 1989 after running up $1 million in unpayable debts and collecting insurance for earthquake damage that caused the plant to be condemned as unsafe.

The new editors breached traditional limits on criticism and found a new audience, boosting the paper's circulation from 1,200 under the previous owners to an average of 9,000 a day before the fire. Last year, for example, the paper published a report by U.S. congressional investigators asserting that 14 of El Salvador's 15 highest-ranking officers had commanded troops responsible for killing hundreds of civilians. While giving heavy coverage to the FMLN guerrillas and their civilian support groups, it also reports government statements and has criticized the FMLN's practice of executing some of its prisoners.

The paper has been denounced by the defense minister as an "FMLN pamphlet," kept under paramilitary surveillance and boycotted by most of the business establishment, forcing it to rely on guerrilla-backed organizations for 90% of its advertising. Last May, a paramilitary squad entered the plant and tried to capture an employee but was run off by her co-workers.

Over the two days before the fire, the paper ran a two-part series that accused the armed forces of committing several crimes, such as burning buses on the highway and attributing the fires to the FMLN.

The series caused a dispute within the paper's 12-member editorial staff. It was published despite objections by Jorge Armando Contreras, the 50-year-old managing editor and senior staff member, to the lack of attribution for many of the writer's assertions.

"This (series) could have provoked the extreme right to try to destroy the paper," said Contreras, one staffer willing to speculate that the fire was an inside job. "Or it could have been part of an elaborate setup to make (the fire) look like a right-wing attack."

The fire has prompted more than $100,000 in private cash donations from the United States, Sweden, Belgium and Canada, plus the free local assistance to repair the presses. But it has aggravated tensions between an openly pro-FMLN faction of the staff led by Valencia, a 31-year-old former radio reporter and union activist, and a group led by Contreras that insists on publishing all viewpoints.

"If Valencia turns this into an FMLN rag, we'll lose our credibility," Contreras said. "I'm not going to risk my life for such a rag. I'd just tell him good luck and goodby."

Mario Baires, an administrative director, was fired last month after Valencia accused him of diverting relief funds to pay partial severances to reporters seeking to resign since the fire. Baires counter-charged that Valencia used some of the donations to pay bonuses to employees loyal to him.

Government officials have seized on this internal feud to deflect suspicion from thepaper's rightist critics. The president's Criminal Investigation Commission has spent most of its time interrogating Diario Latino employees and tried to submit Valencia to a lie detector test. He refused.

"I'm not accusing anybody yet, but the possibility that (the arsonist) could have been somebody on the inside cannot be ruled out," President Alfredo Cristiani said in an interview. Noting the paper's default to state-owned banks and continued use of a condemned building, he said: "If we had wanted to silence Diario Latino, we could have done so in 1,001 ways."

Valencia denied that the paper had any incentive to destroy itself. He said it was turning a small profit before the fire and, without the university's offer to print it, would likely have folded. So far, the donations have not offset the damages, which he estimated at $375,000.

Seeking to establish the truth, the Inter American Press Assn. urged the government last month to conduct a more thorough investigation. It said the Criminal Investigations Commission had failed to look into the most intriguing mystery--the disappearance of a Diario Latino employee who was in charge of delivering gasoline to clean the printing presses and is rumored to have died in a traffic accident since the fire.

"The investigation has been truly disappointing," said Robert J. Cox, an IAPA official who is managing editor of the News and Courier of Charleston, S.C. "The purpose of the commission seems to be to give the impression that it is actually conducting an investigation. The only thing that impressed me was the extraordinary amount of time it has wasted."

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