MEXICO CITY -- Peace talks between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels appear headed toward a simple cease-fire agreement rather than a broad solution to a war that has claimed 72,000 lives.
According to sources close to the negotiations, the best both sides can hope to gain from their unprecedented 20 days of talks is an agreement on a cease-fire that would permit the rebels to enter the political process under United Nations protection.
The rebel aim is to capitalize on mounting right-wing pressure within the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) to oppose any of the guerrillas' broader peace offers, thus conceivably allowing the guerrillas to present themselves as the force of peace and Arena as the party of war in 1994 elections, the sources said.
The U.N.-sponsored talks that began here April 3 are scheduled to last through Tuesday in what is billed as the last, best chance to end the 11-year-old civil war.
Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani conferred with his negotiating team over the weekend in San Salvador. He met last Friday with Bernard Aronson, assistant U.S. secretary of state for inter-American affairs, who stopped off in the capital to urge "flexibility" in the talks.
The sources say the Salvadoran government's unwillingness to make concessions indicates that Mr. Cristiani is under pressure from the military and the ultra-right not to give up anything.
Moreover, the leadership of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) is under considerable internal pressure not to surrender its key demands of purging the security forces and placing them under civilian control, with trials for human rights violators, they say.
Diplomatic sources here say that the rebels are seeking to gain a simple cease-fire that will enable them to organize politically in time for the 1994 presidential and legislative elections.
"I think that they will be trying to win a case-fire aimed at Sept. 15 [the anniversary of El Salvador's independence from Spain] and try to gain as much agreement as possible on the other issues," a Western diplomat said.
"It is a mistake to view these talks in Mexico as an all-or-nothing affair. What is clear is that the guerrillas and Cristiani both want a U.N.-supervised cease-fire. The other issues may have to tabled for a while," the diplomat said.
Under cease-fire plans under discussion, the rebels would be given virtual control in major parts of three provinces. They would have access to their left-wing political allies elsewhere in the country.
Debate has centered on the size of the actual cease-fire zones in Chalatenango, Morazan and Usulutan provinces, where the rebels have substantial support if not dominance, say the sources.
Negotiators for the FMLN had been heartened by mildly optimistic statements by Mr. Cristiani and representatives of the Bush administration, the government's chief benefactor.
The sources said the government hardened its position last week on the FMLN's proposed constitutional changes and military reforms, apparently reflecting mounting pressure on President Cristiani, who represents Arena's moderate technocratic wing.
"We are now at the stage where Mr. Cristiani and the Bush administration must show some backbone to push this process along," said a Latin American diplomat here. "Even if they only get an agreement on the cease-fire, then people won't be killing each other."
Apparently as part of that effort, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met briefly April 8 in San Salvador with Mr. Cristiani and Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, the Salvadoran military chief.
After Mr. Cristiani left the meeting, General Powell met with General Ponce and with Gen. Gilberto Rubio, the chief of staff. He later expressed hope that a cease-fire would be in place.
Washington has historically sent senior military and intelligence officials to deliver tough messages to the Salvadoran armed forces, who have been linked to death squads and civilian massacres.
Western diplomats in San Salvador say General Powell warned the armed forces that if they proved too unyielding, Congress was likely to refuse any military funds for El Salvador in next year's budget.
But within the right wing of Mr. Cristiani's ruling Arena, there exists a small but powerful group of people who believe that the FMLN has lost the war and that no agreement is necessary.
These include some military officers who might be fired or implicated in murders as a result of investigations sought by the FMLN.
On the day of General Powell's visit, the right-wing Salvadoran Feminine Front published an advertisement threatening to reveal the names of "10 traitor deputies" who endorsed an FMLN demand to streamline the cumbersome process for making constitutional changes.
The deputies were believed to be members of the small Christian Democratic Party minority in the Legislative Assembly.
Also that day, Armando Calderon Sol, mayor of San Salvador and head of Arena, seemed to reverse statements favoring the peace process by denying far-right allegations that he favored restructuring the armed forces -- a key FMLN demand.
Mr. Cristiani met two weeks ago with about 130 lieutenants and captains who vehemently protested the FMLN's plan to let a civilian commission purge the army. The Salvadoran president reportedly replied that nobody trusted the military since the killing of six Jesuit priests in 1989. Nine military men are awaiting trial in those killings.
The government side had gone into the talks with a publicly proclaimed interest in reaching an agreement after the FMLN appeared to scale back its proposals to three areas: constitutional reform, the armed forces and a cease-fire.
But in recent days, it has become clear that the government has become increasingly inflexible on two key points -- restructuring the military, and the constitutional issues -- sources say.
Because of the press of time, the FMLN has dropped a list of constitutional changes in favor of streamlining Article 248, which requires that proposals be ratified by two successive terms of the Legislative Assembly.
If the current Arena-dominated legislature fails to ratify a streamlined process -- as seems certain -- it would be up to the incoming legislature to do so. The new, more moderate legislature is to take office May 1, thus leaving final ratification to the next legislature, in 1994.
The FMLN would like to change the process so that constitutional reforms can be adopted by a two-thirds vote, dropping the requirement that they be approved by two successive legislatures, the sources say.
Some sources said that the assembly's agreement on that issue -- considered unlikely -- would almost certainly lead to a cease-fire this spring.
Others say that the military issue remains a major stumbling block, with the FMLN pressing to purge the army of alleged human rights violators while seeking to establish civilian control over the constitutionally autonomous security branches.
The government negotiating team now includes a number of military men whose specific task was to work out a reduction of the 56,000-member security forces and the details of a cease-fire. But those talks, aided by the United Nations' top military man, have also stalled, sources say.
"The government seems to be stonewalling, perhaps because there is no consensus within the military, within Arena or the Bush administration over what is acceptable," a Western diplomat said.