Rising Salvador violence offers scant hope of peace


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Rising starkly off this capital's South Highway, a 20-story glass office tower stands idle, shattered and occupied by soldiers.

It is known as the Tower of Democracy, and its war-torn ruin mirrors that of the dream of three successive U.S. governments in this small, violent nation. Today, there is growing suspicion here and in Washington that the dream, like the tower, is bankrupt -- overtaken by rebel extremists and armed forces operating with even less restraint than usual.

A year-old criminal probe of the massacre by soldiers of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter is near its end, with scant hopes of its leading to justice. A recent Gallup-affiliate poll found only 19 percent of Salvadorans believe that the guilty will be punished.

Meanwhile, death squads linked to the army are on the rise again, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. A report released in late October documented 45 death-squad killings from January to August of this year -- five more victims than all of last year.

Also in October, the U.S. Congress, disgusted with the military's stalling on the Jesuits' case, voted an unprecedented 50 percent cut in aid to El Salvador's 55,000-member armed forces. It was a drastic move, after a decade of support and more than $1 billion in aid to the war against the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a conflict that has cost 70,000 lives.

"The tower is a clear image of the misery of our supposed democracy," said leftist opposition leader Ruben Zamora. "Not only is it empty and controlled by soldiers, but it's also embargoed by the banks, which won't give it more loans."

It is a mystery why the tower -- which cost $8 million and is taller than any building in this nation or its neighbors -- was built in the first place. Completed in June 1989, it was bombed by FMLN guerrillas one month later.

Now no one will buy it, and the armed forces have taken it over for its strategic location, within a few blocks of their headquarters.

The top of the tower offers a panorama of the city, including an unobstructed view of lawn at the University of Central America, where, in the moonlit hours before dawn last Nov. 16, soldiers forced five of the Jesuit priests to lie down before shooting each in the head. The sixth priest was killed nearby.

The killings took place during a major rebel offensive, when military sentries were likely to have been stationed on top of the tower, the Jesuits' colleagues contend. This circumstance is one of many leading them to insist that the military brass had to have known immediately, if not beforehand, of the soldiers' role in the killings.

Instead, the government waited six weeks to acknowledge the armed forces' guilt. Today, as the anniversary of the Jesuits' death approaches, the round-the-clock presence of troops with M-16s reminds passers-by of the military's grip on the nation.

The Tower of Democracy was tarnished even while it was under construction. Cynics charged its name implied links with the Christian Democrats, thrown out in elections last year for ineptness and corruption.

Such charges were simply jealous slander, says the tower's architect and owner, Ricardo Castillo Jimenez. Instead, Mr. Castillo, a courtly man in a gray wool suit and a silk tie, says he named the tower to be "an inspiration -- one that everyone should deeply identify with."

But the violence that has wrecked Mr. Castillo's gleaming building is once again rising, with most predictions that it will get worse rather than better.

Recently, for instance, a girl, 8, and a boy of 18 were killed by crude mortar fire that destroyed a large suburban home. The deputy chief of the armed forces' High Command, Col. Mauricio Vargas, declared it was a failed FMLN attempt to hit the military headquarters several hundred feet away.

The guerrillas didn't deny it. Yet so deep is the mistrust of the military, the leading institution of this nation, that some relatives of the dead children immediately blamed the armed forces.

"They wanted to hurt the image of the guerrillas," claimed one man, clutching his arms to his chest in grief at the children's wake. He asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. "The army works to protect the rich," he said, "just like a dog that protects his master."

Hearing the anti-army rumor, Colonel Vargas protested: "We have norms, values. . . . Our ways aren't like this."

When questioned about the Jesuits' deaths, he said the tragedy was an "isolated case." Yet that case included a clumsy attempt to blame the murders on the guerrillas.

Not only Salvadorans, but also increasingly Washington officials, have begun to assume the worst of the country's armed forces. A U.S. congressional study in May, for instance, revealed that 14 out of 15 members of El Salvador's primary commands had attained their positions despite documented abuses of human rights by their troops. The list included Colonel Vargas, as well as the defense minister, Col. Rene Emilio Ponce Torres. And in none of the more than 50 cases listed had even junior officers been brought to trial.

There was also a scathing report last summer by the Jesuit-run Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, charging the ruling Arena party with deepening the nation's crisis, suspending land reform, unleashing inflation and prolonging the war.

For some U.S. officials, the dream of creating democracy here does not die easily. "It saddens me that all of a sudden El Salvador is seen as this albatross," said one longtime U.S. military observer.

"The Jesuit case made it an albatross, but that's not fair. This country is moving toward democracy. There were, last year, free elections. There is more of a free press. There is progress."

But violence on both sides of the war keep getting in the way. Salvadorans are living on edge these days, awaiting a general FMLN urban offensive rumored for the past eight weeks.

So far, the armed forces have not struck back in force. Yet many believe that two recent rebel attacks, in the context of the stalled peace talks, could strengthen military hard-liners.

Colonel Vargas said he had seen no sign of increasing hard-line influence but didn't rule it out in the future. "The delays in the peace process could strengthen such positions," he said. "Violence and frustration leads to aggression."

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