Sensuntepeque, El Salvador — During an interview in the summer of l982, an American journalist sat eye to eye with a brash Salvadorean military commander in his garrison in northern Cabanas Province.
Suddenly the commander's bodyguard, sitting behind him, dropped his rifle. It blasted two rounds past the legs of the officer and his visitor.
The commander didn't even blink.
Turning calmly, he said, ''That must be the Smith and Wesson we just captured from the guerrillas.'' With one gesture he unloaded it, with another he sent the soldier to the cooler for a week.
This past week the same commander, Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, has been in rebellion against the Army's most powerful officer, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the defense minister. At time of writing, the feud appeared close to resolution, after a long meeting of the high command Jan. 12.
A military source close to the events said, ''Ochoa will have to be punished, but not expelled from the Army. But the chief (Garcia) won't have much time left in his post either.''
Colonel Ochoa's rebellion is an effort, he says, ''to restore justice and professionalism to the organizations of the armed forces.'' But, typically, he chose the ultimate unprofessional act, a mutiny, to make his point.
Though he rocked the politics of El Salvador's only enduring institution of control, the military, Ochoa is not primarily a political animal. Instead, he represents a new kind of soldier in Central America.
He's a smart practitioner of modern counterinsurgency techniques. His conduct of the war in his province, where he wiped out most guerrilla camps, has combined unflinching deadly violence against guerrillas and their peasant followers with well-conceived public relations.
Many American reporters know Colonel Ochoa for tours he conducts through the hills of Cabanas in open jeeps, kissing babies and reassuring lonely patrols along the way, to show he isn't afraid of guerrillas there. Favorable press coverage from these tours in part emboldened him to launch his revolt.
On a tour with reporters this week Ochoa's il20l,0,11l,4pmen trucked a starving infant to the military hospital for care.
For Ochoa, ''pacification'' of communists comes before, and possibly without, reform. There is little sign in Cabanas of a modest land redistribution program implemented after a l979 coup that brought General Garcia and other reformists, now displaced, to power.
Colonel Ochoa's ideas of war have been the basis for his friendship with ultra-right politicians, especially former Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, president of the Constituent Assembly and head of the Nationalist Republican Alliance. It is his friendship with d'Aubuisson, a political foe of General Garcia, which many here suspect as being one reason for the decision to dispatch him to Uruguay as military attache. Garcia is known to place high value on the loyalty of his commanders, sometimes over their military effectiveness.
Though Colonel Ochoa has been praised by United States military advisers, he distrusts them. He has said that he thinks it totally inappropriate to train Salvadorean troops in the US.
''Don't forget they (US) lost the war in Vietnam,'' he says.
Ochoa credits his training in Israel, and by Israeli advisers in El Salvador, in the mid-1970s, for his military development. His personal rifle is an Israeli Galil.
He said last summer he would like the Salvadorean Army to be able to consider an ''Israeli solution'' to what he views as extensive support from Nicaragua for guerrillas in El Salvador. In his analogy, Nicaragua would become the Central American Lebanon.
What he has achieved in Cabanas is a small version of wider military successes scored using similar ideas, and with similar independence from the United States, in Guatemala.
But Colonel Ochoa retains some of the old regional ''warlord'' control, which has contributed to lack of discipline in the Salvadorean Army as a whole. In three big military sweeps in Cabanas in l981, Ochoa gained a reputation for ruthlessness.
Ochoa reached out to some reformist officers in his revolt. They have complaints against Garcia, who disrupted military hierarchy to isolate them from command posts.
The rebel doesn't want to be defense minister. But his action will certainly strengthen the rightist soldiers in the Army.
Colonel Ochoa is in the volatile position of a tough fighter who is too big for the disheveled Salvadorean Army.