Trying, Against Odds, for National Reconciliation Pursuit of Past Can Jeopardize Peaceful Future EL SALVADOR By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tuesday, El Salvador's Marxist rebels are to surrender the last of their arms bringing to a close a 12-year civil war that cost more than 70,000 lives and more than $4 billion in American taxpayers' money.

In the days before the historic moment, Dr. Robert Kirschner, the deputy Cooke Country medical examiner, was putting together a puzzle of skull and bone.

Dr. Kirschner and a colleague, Clyde Snow, a medical anthropologist from Oklahoma, had assembled similar puzzles in Argentina, Guatemala and South Korea.

In the early 1980s, the pieces of this Salvadoran puzzle would have struck a powerful blow against the Reagan administration's policy in El Salvador.

Had the puzzle been assembled and made public, it would have created an uproar in Congress and seriously eroded -- if not ended -- support for the Salvadoran anti-guerrilla campaign. But now with signing of peace accords in January, El Salvador was determined to at least document terrible past atrocities, including whatever Dr. Kirschner might turn up.

Yet it found itself in the delicate quandary of countries like Chile and Argentina. If it was too zealous in its pursuit of human rights violators in the still powerful military, it risked a coup and the hard-won peace.

The pieces of Dr. Kirschner's puzzle had been treated like a state secret for more than a decade.

It was not until this year, with the signing of a United Nations-brokered peace accord, that Drs. Kirshner and Snow and an Argentine forensic team finally got their hands on the pieces and began to re-assemble them.

The pieces had been lying around since 1981, the year that Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. The president had become alarmed at the Central American landscape. Nicaragua had fallen into the hands of the Marxist Sandinistas, Guatemala was beset by a Marxist-led insurgency and El Salvador had just )) shrugged off a "final" offensive from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

In the Manichean world of Ronald Reagan -- abetted by anti-Castro Cuban advisers -- the map of Central America was becoming pink, if not red. Vital interests were at stake requiring drastic measures. A hysterical CIA report concluded that Mexico might be next.

Although the administration advocated economic reforms and the ballot box as part of its strategy, the tiny nation of 5 million was, after all, in the midst of a civil war, and that meant the Salvadoran military establishment would be the major actor in the Reagan strategy.

To be sure, the Salvadoran security forces were a little rough around the edges (having been linked to the killing of an archbishop, the rape and murder of American church women and the slaying of two U.S. labor advisers), but with a little training the men would become more civilized.

They would, in effect, become like American soldiers; they would be trained on American bases and get imbued with American values. Clean-cut G.I. Jose would save the day. The Pentagon's post-Vietnam thinking held that wars of liberation of the El Salvador sort could be won by well-trained troops able to win the hearts and minds of the people.

That the Salvadoran military had not changed and still held genocidal views at variance with American humanitarian values was tangential to the central aim of the administration -- the defeat of Communist aggression.

And so, within a few days of taking office, the Reagan administration launched the first of four American-trained "rapid action" battalions. It bore the name of Atlacatl, a legendary Indian hero of Salvador history.

Yet within a few weeks of the Atlacatl's existence, Dr. Kirschner found in the pieces of his puzzle, in the skulls and femurs, in the rib cages and chalky pelvis bones, that the battalion had done something monstrous.

After being in the field a few months, this win-the-hearts-and-minds, U.S.-trained battalion had killed 134 people in a hamlet called El Mozote.

Nearly all of them were children under the age of 6. Many of the tiny skulls had a single bullet hole.

The children and a few adults apparently had taken refuge in a parish house as the Atlacatl battalion swept an area in control of the FMLN. The parish house was burned after the killings.

Shell casings unearthed by the forensic team belonged exclusively to weapons used by the Salvadoran military. "There was no evidence of battle. These people had been murdered," said Dr. Kirschner, who returned to Chicago last week to write a report on the massacre.

At the time of the massacre, the Salvadoran government said the people were innocent victims caught in a cross-fire or were family members of FMLN fighters. Contemporary eyewitness accounts of the bodies by Ray Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post were belittled by administration officials.

In all, about 794 people -- mostly women and children -- were murdered by the Atlacatl battalion in El Mozote and five nearby towns in November and December, 1981.

It was the biggest massacre of the war.

Human rights investigators and journalists have linked the battalion to five other massacres between 1981 and 1984. But its most famous case occurred in November 16, 1989, when members of an Atlacatl commando unit invaded the San Salvador campus of the Central American University during the height of the FMLN's last major offensive.

The battalion's tough target this time were six Jesuit priests and two women. All were murdered in cold blood.

The university killings and the rebel offensive proved two things: the FMLN was not strong enough to shoot its way into power, and the disgraced military was convincingly unmasked as a moral pariah even to its strongest supporters in the ruling elite.

The U.N. peace accords established a Commission on the Truth to delve into war crimes of both sides. And while the commission report is expected to recommend criminal prosecutions in the El Mozote massacre, the Jesuit case and other prominent human rights violations, it remains to be seen if nearly 50 other commission cases will be acted on by Salvador's timid judiciary and National Assembly.

Such is the urgency for peace that the assembly may give blanket amnesty to many violators in the interest of binding the nation's wounds. Another commission created by the peace accords reportedly has recommended the purging of 110 human rights violators in the military, including several senior officers, such as the current defense minister and his deputy.

The situation in Salvador is similar to those of Argentina and Chile in confronting the human rights violations of previous regimes. In Argentina's case, a few officers were found guilty but later pardoned for the "disappearances" and torture of thousands of alleged leftists. Prosecutions of officers involved in the deaths of hundreds of leftist Chileans are unlikely because the military remains in the hands of the perpetrators.

In short, the two countries seemed to make a deal with the past so that the present and future can endure.

The assignment of blame and the upholding of morality is always difficult when the overriding goal is peace and the re-establishment of national consensus. But in explicating the El Mozote case and others, many senior U.N. officials feel the shame of exposure will take its toll.

An ad hoc human rights commission has begun publishing newspaper advertisements detailing the excesses of military officers. Until recently the officers would have responded by having the human rights officials kidnapped and killed by a death squad.

Now the military men are suing the commission in court. Death squads, even though they still exist as units, are no longer acceptable to a ruling elite bent on attracting foreign investors to a peaceful country, says William Stanley, a University of New Mexico expert on the Salvadoran military.

Moreover, Dr. Stanley finds that the greatest proponents of peace are the military veterans of both sides who have formed alliances to push for rehabilitation and job-training programs. "They share their experiences in the war and are getting along quite well," he says.

And so it is possible to say that the military hard-liners of the past have become eclipsed and that the emerging military RTC leaders now holding the rank of major will be less likely to resort to the gun. (Senior military men about to be purged from the army have tried to float the idea of a coup, but the younger officers would not hear of it. Like death squads, coups are out, too.)

The U.N. accords have cut the size of the security forces in half (to 30,000) and are creating a civilian police force dominated by members who had little, if any, stake in the civil war.

Now the FMLN is preparing to create its own political party aimed at participating in the 1994 presidential, legislative and municipal elections. Its most likely presidential candidate is Shafik Handal, a hard-line communist, who in previous years would have been killed on the spot.

Last Tuesday the Atlacatl battalion, down to a third of its wartime strength of 1,200, was disbanded as dictated by the U.N. accords for all the "rapid reaction" battalions. The military brass in their Ray Bans praised the unit for its heroism and valor before lowering the unit's standard.

Its officers are likely to come under the scrutiny of the courts. But the people who advised them, the American military men who trained them, will probably not be on the witness stand or give evidence against their former comrades in arms. Unlike other U.S. agencies, such as the State Department, the Pentagon has been reluctant to let former advisers talk to investigators for the Commission on the Truth.

Although the children of El Mozote are dead, they remain very much awake for the unpunished evil done to them. Meanwhile, Dr. Kirshner and Dr. Snow are hard at work on a another puzzle.

Until a few months ago, few people had ever heard of the country.

/# Its name is Bosnia-Herzegovina.

John McClintock, a copy editor for The Sun, was The Sun's Latin American correspondent from 1987 until June.

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