San Salvador — A reporter returning to El Salvador after an absence of two years finds that several of the people he once interviewed have been driven underground or into exile.
But all of those people -- among them a newspaperman and a Roman Catholic vicar -- must have known trouble was coming.
They had opposed and criticized the government. They seemed ready to face the consequences. Two of them had received death threats. They were fortunate to have escaped with their lives.
What is sadder to see after a two-year absence is the increase in violence directed at more innocent people -- people who have been less directly involved in the conflict.
"You don't have to be important these days to get killed or arrested," said one foreigner in San Salvador. "People who are marginal to everything feel threatened."
More than 12,000 persons have been killed over the past year or so. Assassinations of civilians reached a high point last November, when, according to some accounts, death, squads were shooting 30 to 40 persons a day, often after torturing them.
A check of judicial center records indicates that in the capital city of San Salvador the number of assassinations has decreased to perhaps half those during last year's high point. The drop is attributed by some observers to pressure from the US on the Salvadoran military command and to the attention that the foreign press, particularly the US press, has given to the killings.
US Embassy officials claim that the killings have also dropped by as much as half outside the capital city. roman Catholic Church sources say that is not the case, although they acknowledge the number of killings inside the capital have decreased. With some categories of victims, teachers for example, church sources say the killings have actually increased this year.
Whatever the truth may be about the numbers killed, it is clear from just a glance at the newspapers here that killings continue at an intolerable rate (not that any rate at all would be tolerable). The papers almost never give explanations for the killings. Assassins are never arrested.
The former US ambassador to El Salvador, Robert E. White, who was recently dismissed from the Foreign Service following his criticism of the Reagan administration's policy toward Central America, believed that members of the Salvadoran military were participating in the right-wing violence and were responsible for more killings than any other group. The United States is supplying those forces with military assistance. Mr. White believed that unless violence could be controlled, the entire society would move leftward.
The US Catholic Conference, representing US Catholic bishops, has also blamed the Salvadoran militay and other government security forces for most of the killings.
The American Institute for Free Labor Development, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has obtained what it considers to be good evidence that most of the killings of landreform workers and beneficiaries have been carried out by the government security forces or rightist groups allied with some elements of those forces.
But the State Department under President Reagan has publicly disagreed with former Ambassador White's allegations. President Reagan has drawn attention instead to left-wing terrorism.
During curfew hours recently in the town of Tonacatepeque, 15 miles northeast of San Salvador, armed men dragged three married couples from their homes and killed all of them. The government's security forces were reported by persons who knew the victims to have been in complete control of the neighborhood where the incidents occurred.
The right wing has also been killing members of the Christian Democratic Party, according to party members. Eduardo Molina Olivares, director of the Salvadoran institute for municipal administration and a member of the party's political committee, says he has lost a number of colleagues. There is little doubt in Molina's mind that some of the killers have been in league with high-ranking military men.
"It's absurd, stupid killing," Molina says. "But 50 years of militarization is difficuilt to eliminate overnight."
Molina said that a leading member of Venezuela's Christian Democratic Party suggested Venezuela might end up cutting its support for the Salvadoran government unless an effective investigation was conducted concerning the killing last December of three American nuns and a lay worker in which government security forces are widely believed to have been implicated.
One of the conditions that El Salvador President Jose Napeleon Duarte, a christian Democrat, was reported to have set for accepting his post was that the military. command put an end to assassinations.
The United States hoped to instill a greater respect for human rights among the Salvadoran military through training programs, such as one begun last summer for Salvadorans at US military schools in Panama. But Us military men also share Molina's view that you can't change the military's way of doing things overnight.
Do the continuing assassinations intimidate people to the point where they are afraid to join the left? Or do they create more leftists by driving people who are somewhere in the middle closer to the left?
Some Salvadorans seem to be fatalistic about the killings. But a priest whose sympathies have moved from right of center to left of center contends that the killings are creating more leftists by driving some people to seek protection from the left. He says the assassinations have changed his views more than anything else.