Hope for peace totters amid Salvador violence


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Almost a year after El Salvador's decade-old civil war ended with fanfare and high hopes, a U.N.-brokered peace is in danger of crumbling amid mounting political violence, deepening fear and delays in promised reforms.

With this country's most important elections ever looming on the horizon, a resurgence of death squad-style killings has sent a chill of tension and anger throughout much of Salvadoran society.

Two senior leaders of the former guerrilla group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, were killed in one week. A right-wing city official was slain days later.

A total of 25 leftists and three rightists have been killed this year -- nine in the last several weeks -- and numerous people from both sides have been threatened with death.

Adding to the climate of mistrust, key elements of the U.N.-sponsored peace accords -- an ambitious land-distribution program and the creation of a civilian police force -- have been crippled by government resistance, diplomats say.

For most of the last year, El Salvador had been hailed as the United Nations' brightest success in a troubled world.

Now, tensions have soared to such extremes that leftist leaders are publicly accusing prominent business people of financing death squads; the United Nations and the Clinton administration dispatched emergency missions to El Salvador; foreign embassies broke their customary silence to complain openly about a new round of alleged government phone-tapping.

And a march by angry FMLN supporters last week honoring six Jesuit priests slain by the army four years ago only narrowly missed becoming a rampage through San Salvador's wealthiest neighborhoods, sources say.

At the last minute, leaders called off the planned protest, but they warn that they are not sure how much longer they can control their ranks.

"There is so much rage on our side and so much rancor on the other side," said a dispirited Ana Guadalupe Martinez, an FMLN leader who helped negotiate the war's end. Under U.N. guidance, a cease-fire held for a full year in El Salvador until the final accords were signed last Dec. 15, bringing peace to the Cold War's bloodiest Central American battleground after 12 years of fratricide.

War between the Marxist FMLN and a series of U.S.-backed governments claimed about 75,000 lives, the majority of them civilians.

The accords required the government to institute major military and political reforms, while the FMLN was required to disarm and become a political party.

In the last year, this country saw remarkable change.

Former guerrilla commanders opened headquarters in central San Salvador and entered campaigns for public office. The army was cut in half, while residents began to move about freely, enjoy a night life after years of curfew and engage openly in political debate.

But many are now wondering if the changes were superficial.

Suddenly, in the wake of the killings and threats, former rebel leaders have added bodyguards and are changing their routines to avoid being followed.

Fresh graffiti appear daily, demanding "elections without death squads" and warning of more violence.

The peace process has hit crises before, most notably when it was revealed in May that the former rebels had secretly retained a stockpile of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles. But that scandal, which devastated the FMLN's credibility, did not lead to the kind of uneasiness that now fills the air.

"I am struck -- let us not mince words -- by the amount of fear present, which is something that was not present 11 months ago," said a senior diplomat involved in the peace process.

U.N. officials, knowledgeable sources say, have concluded that there appears to be an "organized campaign" against FMLN supporters and some of their leaders, possibly aimed at discouraging participation in the presidential and National Assembly elections March 20.

These will be the first elections in Salvadoran history in which the left will have a significant role, and the left has been showing strength recently in attracting members and support.

About two dozen FMLN members have been killed this year. Many in the opposition, recalling El Salvador's history of unpunished political crime, have little faith that the violence will be adequately investigated.

The United Nations and church officials have denounced what they call an alarming resurgence of apparent death squad killings, reviving memories of a brutal past.

Right-wing death squads terrorized El Salvador for much of the 1980s, eliminating tens of thousands of people suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas.

Diplomats, politicians and some people on the right agree that, if the crimes are not solved in a way that the public finds believable, a spiral of violence and revenge is likely to follow.

Yet a weeklong emergency visit by U.N. Undersecretary General Marrack Goulding has failed to persuade the government and FMLN to agree on an investigative commission, further casting doubt that the cases will be fully aired.

A national debate on death squads was further stirred when the U.S. government released about 12,000 documents that, among other things, implicated current government officials and members of President Alfredo Cristiani's party, the National Republican Alliance, in assassinations, bombings and other death-squad activities.

Insisting that they were the victims of an American conspiracy, government officials denied the allegations and dismissed the documents as rumors and gossip.

While many people see the killings as a message of intimidation intended for the left, some analysts say the violence may also reflect a power struggle between moderate and hard-line factions of the right, each determined to hold on to power.

The far-right elements, analysts say, probably felt a new sense of power and immunity after they escaped being named in March by a U.N.-appointed Truth Commission assigned to examine war crimes.

The commission failed to name prominent civilians believed to have financed the death squads of the 1980s.

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