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  Number 90 | Enero 1989
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El Salvador

Continue the Low-Intensity Conflict Or Go for Total War?

Envío team

With the Reagan era winding down and the Bush presidency yet to gell, events in El Salvador are moving forward at a frantic pace that could well have far-reaching consequences for the entire region. The Reagan policy has failed in achieving its single overarching goal in Nicaragua—the "rollback" of the Sandinista revolution. It has also suffered serious setbacks in El Salvador and greatly exacerbated a crisis there that has all sectors of Salvadoran society jockeying for power.

The strategy of "low-intensity conflict" or "LIC" (a misnomer for the countries affected, as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has pointed out, stressing the devastating impact that a "low intensity" war can have in small countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador), implemented by the US in El Salvador in the early 1980s, had several key goals. They included converting the Salvadoran armed forces (widely known as an unsophisticated, "nine-to-five" army) into a powerful counterinsurgency force that could stem the growing popular movement in the countryside and cities; win significant civilian support through a variety of "civic action" programs designed to separate the bulk of the population from the FMLN guerrilla forces; and replace formal military rule with a so-called "third force" civilian government headed by Jose Napoleón Duarte, a favorite of US policymakers from both sides of the aisle.

Reagan's other war

Since the early 1980s, the United States has poured enormous amounts of both economic and military aid into El Salvador, and by 1987 was sending more than $2 million daily. The opposition in El Salvador—both the armed opposition and the many popular organizations—suffered serious blows as the war escalated in the 1980s. The fierce air war carried out in the Salvadoran countryside, virtually unreported in the US mainstream press, had particularly destructive effects. By and large, Duarte was able to present to the US Congress the image of a centrist, democratic politician caught between two extremes. The most obvious excesses in terms of human rights abuses seen in the late 1970s and early 1980s did subside to a degree during the first years of his presidency as more sophisticated methods of counterinsurgency were tried.

However, in the last two years, a crisis has enveloped the Duarte government. The mass movement, which suffered severe blows in the brutal repression of the early 1980s, is rapidly gaining strength—as evidenced by the dramatic growth in the union movement, committees of families of disappeared or murdered Salvadorans, student organizations and other popular groupings. The Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS), an umbrella group of hundreds of organizations, has held mass demonstrations against the Duarte government and some of its member unions have been able to paralyze whole sectors of Salvadoran industry for days at a time. A new element was added to the urban mass movement this year with the formation of the Bread, Work and Freedom group (MPTL). The MPTL is openly calling for armed insurrection within the cities, and some analysts of the Salvadoran situation see the formation of the MPTL as the last, critical piece of the mass movement puzzle falling into place.

The growing strength and militancy of the mass movement is matched by the FMLN, which is at its peak strength and began to carry out daring operations inside San Salvador in the last months of 1988. While the Salvadoran Army has not been able to significantly expand during the last three years, the FMLN forces have grown considerably. They now operate in all fourteen of the country's provinces, and are able to carry out coordinated, simultaneous attacks. On November 1, they attacked the General Command of the Salvadoran National Guard in San Salvador. Four members of the Salvadoran armed forces were killed, 29 were wounded and the complex sustained considerable damage. The attack sent shivers of panic throughout the Salvadoran Army and underscored the military's vulnerability to increasing FMLN strength.

In late 1988, several top-ranking FMLN commanders visited many Central and Latin American countries to push for continued negotiations in the country, as provided for in the Central American peace plan. As long as the government refuses to negotiate, the FMLN says it will continue to escalate its military operations in the countryside and inside the cities.
In many ways, 1988 represented a turning point for El Salvador. It brought a humiliating electoral defeat for the ruling Christian Democrats, and saw dramatic leaps in levels of organization and activity on the part of mass organizations in the cities as well as the armed guerrillas in the countryside.

In March 1988, the same month in which four US colonels released their report on US strategy in El Salvador ("American Military Policy and the Lessons Learned from El Salvador—and the Potential Challenge of the Philippines"), the far-right party ARENA won handily in the municipal elections, wresting legislative control from the Christian Democrats. The Christian Democrats are badly split over which road to take, and two warring factions have each put forth candidates for the 1989 presidential elections. President Duarte fell ill with cancer in 1988 and all but disappeared from the country's political stage for months at time.

Giving way to "total war?"

The rise of ARENA reflects one side of an ongoing debate within the Salvadoran Army and within the US policymaking establishment as well. The debate centers on the wisdom of continuing the LIC strategy, or opting for a so-called "total war" strategy. ARENA, according to FDR leader Rubén Zamora, clearly represents the total war faction. The key differences in a LIC vs. total war policy are the conception of the enemy forces and the war's duration. In a low intensity war, the only enemy is, ostensibly, the guerrilla forces; while a total war much more explicitly targets nearly everyone: the guerrillas, the population in and around guerrilla-held areas in the countryside and the mass movement in the cities. While a low intensity war could well "go on and on forever," military strategists argue that a total war is possible to win within six months.

The Salvadoran military also appears to be internally divided over the question of LIC or total war. Events in the last half of 1988 made it clear that at least part of the Salvadoran armed forces was strongly pushing for the implementation of a total war strategy. On September 21, members of the elite "Jiboa" battalion of the 5th Infantry Brigade killed 10 peasants from the village of San Francisco. San Francisco is one of the so-called "repopulated" villages—areas in which most of the population had been displaced by the war during the early 1980s. After years in refugee camps in Honduras, peasants began coming back to their villages in the last months of 1987. Many of the repopulated villages (over 30 to date) have been attacked by the army, which labels the peasants FMLN supporters. In early November, villagers attempting to return to EL Salvador were stopped at the border by Salvadoran troops who refused to allow them to cross.

Visiting US religious workers have talked with peasants in Arcatao, one of the repopulated areas. In October, peasants said the military was coming in with a different battalion every eight days or so. However, they didn't always directly attack. Instead, the military contaminated the people's water supply, mined many of the planted fields and murdered the peasants' livestock. The people felt that the clear strategy of the army was to punish the repopulated areas by "starving the villagers out."

US strategy hits roadblocks—path ahead looks grim

The 1988 report by the US colonels harshly assessed the efficacy of the overall LIC strategy in El Salvador. The report pointed to several of its key failures: 1) the lack of a clear US policy in El Salvador; 2) no long-term strategy to cope with or alleviate the very real (and mounting) social ills in the country; 3) a lack of coordination between the different US interests involved—i.e., the US military advisers and US Embassy personnel; and 4) a very problematic military structure—wrought by favoritism, low morale, lack of professionalism and riddled with infighting. Since 1985, the colonels charged, the war in El Salvador has "settled into a fixed pattern," and they said that in early 1988 "an end to the war appears nowhere in sight."

El Salvador is in the midst of a very crucial phase today. The current period—between the US elections and the Salvadoran elections—will likely be one of major escalation by everybody: the FMLN, the mass movement and also the Salvadoran military.

The March 1989 Salvadoran presidential elections are unique in that the different parties of the FDR have decided to participate, alongside other parties, under the umbrella of the Democratic Convergence. Two FDR leaders, Rubén Zamora and Guillermo Ungo, returned to Salvador in late 1987. Zamora has stated that the election itself will not solve the crisis in El Salvador and says that the participation of the Democratic Convergence in the election rests on several basic points: presenting a real alternative to the current situation and pointing the way towards a political settlement of the country's problems.
Zamora warns of the consequences of the likely ARENA victory. "You will have this combination of the extreme rightwing people inside ARENA controlling the party and the total war people gaining ground inside the army. It is a very dangerous marriage."

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