War-weariness led to pact in El Salvador, but peace is far from assured Left, right express relief at accord

September 27, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

MEXICO CITY -- All these external events mattered in getting to the agreement signed at the United Na tions Wednesday toward a cease-fire in El Salvador's 11-year-old civil war:

President Bush has allowed Central America to drift off the list of American obsessions. The Sandinistas lost the 1990 election in neighboring Nicaragua. European communist regimes supportive of El Salvador's rebels collapsed. The Soviet Union -- had developed a "hands off Latin America" policy.

But what mattered most was the change in El Salvador itself: The people were simply tired of a war that couldn't be won.

The conflict has cost more than 72,000 lives in the nation of 5 million, created over a million refugees, most of them now in the United States, and set the gross national product back to the level of 1978. (The experience cost American taxpayers more than $3.5 billion.)

"Any politician who doesn't understand the people's overwhelming desire for peace is doomed to failure," said Ernesto Altschul, a top adviser to President Alfredo Cristiani.

Yesterday in El Salvador, the pact aroused unparalleled optimism.

Radio Venceremos, the voice of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), said the accord was "a triumph of civilian power over the military."

Mr. Altschul said it would "certainly lead to a cease-fire" before the end of the year.

But the peace process may yet unravel.

The agreement calls for a cease-fire, followed by a joint peace commission to oversee the dismantling of the rebel forces. It provides security for the rebels by letting them join a civilian-controlled police force.

But no timetable for the cease-fire was announced and the agreement guaranteed only that the rebels could apply for police positions, not that they would get them.

Already there are signs of trouble within the ruling National Republican Alliance, known by its Spanish acronym, ARENA.

Vice President Francisco Merino Lopez, who represents its powerful extreme right, said that the nation would never accept FMLN participation in the police. The police agreement, the key to the breakthrough, was the brainchild of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

The reduction of the extreme right's power was reflected yesterday in the start of the trial of nine military men, including a colonel, charged in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two others -- an event which helped to undo Washington's support for the government. It is the first time an officer had been put on trial before a civilian court for such human rights abuses.

But the new pact fails to address in detail the purging of the military men involved in such crimes. It also leaves to further negotiations the reduction of the 56,000-man army and a definition of its role.

"Unless there is an effort to move aggressively toward a cease-fire, the military and its allies may cripple it through delays," Robert H. White, President Jimmy Carter's ambassador El Salvador, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

Mr. Altschul downplayed such doubts, saying that the deputy defense minister participated in the talks that led to the agreement and consulted at every important stage with the defense minister, Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce.

His optimism was echoed by Rub en Zamora, leader of the leftist Democratic Convergence in the National Assembly. "Demilitarization will be an absolute fact," he said in a telephone interview. "This is the first time in my life that I have ever praised anything done by Mr. Cristi ani."

For Mr. Zamora and others the significance of the agreement was that representatives of the rebels and the four political parties will have ultimate say over what will happen to the military.

Under the agreement, the rebels will be asked to lay down their arms in "security zones" before any of the other reforms will take place.

"I believe there are enough safe guards to protect them, including U.N. observers and supervision," said Mr. Zamora, a former member of the rebels' political wing who returned from exile in 1989.

One of the main safeguards is that the rebels will be allowed to join a new police force. El Salvador now has 10,000 men in three law enforcement agencies: the Treasury Police, the National Guard and the National Police.

The agreement calls for the immediate disbanding of the Treasury Police and the National Guard, leaving the men of the National Police subject to "evaluation."

The ultimate goal of the agreement is to allow the 17,000-man rebel military force, and an estimated 100,000 sympathizers, to participate in the nation's political life for the first time since the 1970s, when the left was driven into exile by a series of occasionally brutal military governments.

El Salvador overview

Here are some key events in recent history of El Salvador:

Oct. 15, 1979 A coup led by moderate colonels deposes Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero's rightist military government.

March 9, 1980 Jose Napoleon Duarte, head of El Salvador's Christian Democrat Party, joins the junta

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