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A 'driven' colonel commands his Salvadorean troops to fight like guerrillas

By Chris HedgesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 1983



San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador

Col. Jorge Adalberto Cruz sits at his cluttered desk holding up a green organizational chart. He holds a pointer in his right hand and taps the top box on the chart, which reads ''operations secretary.''

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''This,'' he says, ''will be my position.''

The military commander for El Salvador's northern province of Morazan has, by his own admission, ambitious plans. He has formulated a pacification program similar to that in San Vicente Province. The purpose of the program is to wipe guerrillas out of the province, and then to repair economic damage in the region.

But there is a crucial difference in the war in San Vicente and Morazan: Cruz's troops are engaged in some of the fiercest combat in the country, while those in San Vicente have not been quite so challenged.

So Cruz, who has been described as a ''driven'' man, is anxious to move very hard, very fast. His desire grew even stronger after an effective guerrilla attack on the capital of San Miguel Province last week, which took the Army by surprise.

''We are in the first (pacification) phase of the plan,'' Colonel Cruz says, ''which is to return the department (province) to military control and provide security. We have changed our tactics to fight the war like the guerrillas and are now able to inflict severe losses to the subversives.''

Colonel Cruz has broken his men into small units, sending them out on night patrols and prolonged treks through the countryside - something United States military advisers here have long been advocating.

Helicopters, which a year ago rarely flew into the department, now use the three landing pads all day, ferrying troops and supplies into the hills. Small towns that had not seen Salvadorean troops for several months suddenly found Army patrols appearing from out of the forest.

''I call my plan 'the committee for the restoration of Morazan,' '' Colonel Cruz said. ''It will restore the roads, electricity, transportation, education, health, and agricultural sectors, which have been destroyed by the terrorists. I hope to begin to implement the plan in another month, but as of yet the department is not secure and we have no money.''

Colonel Cruz presented his plan - which he says is not modeled after the San Vicente pacification project, orchestrated and funded by the US government - to Salvadorean President Alvaro Alfredo Magana and Defense Secretary Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova only last week.

''This plan,'' Colonel Cruz says, ''is not like any other plan. We need preferential treatment because everything here has been destroyed by the subversives. This is not San Vicente or Santa Ana.''

The northern section of this department is the base of operations for the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) one of the five guerrilla groups that make up the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. It has long been considered the most effective military force among the rebels. It was the ERP that spearheaded the attack on San Miguel 11 days ago, destroying several bridges, a coffee warehouse, and a communications station.

Colonel Cruz viewed the raid on San Miguel, which shares a border with Morazan, as a ''great blow'' - one that Cruz does not want to see repeated in his region, says a source close to the military operations here.

''The ability of the guerrillas to slip past him and launch a surprise attack on San Miguel to the south has tormented him. You can only expect to see his campaign reach new levels of intensity.''

He added that Cruz is ''driven, a self-proclaimed religious fanatic who sees himself on a crusade.''

Cruz admits that his effort to rid San Miguel Province of guerrillas has been difficult.

''We have lost 604 men, and had 603 wounded since I began here seven months ago, but we are more and more successful.''

Cruz then brings into his office four nervous youths who he claims are ERP defectors to the Army. They tell this reporter aboutforced recruitment by the guerrillas, lack of supplies, and hunger.

''When they arrived,'' Colonel Cruz said, ''they were very malnourished.''

The effects of the campaign to crush the guerrilla movement here are evident in the squalid refugee camps that surround this provincial capital. The Army claims there are 65,000 refugees who have fled the combat.

Some blame the Army, under Colonel Cruz, for killing innocent civilians outside of the course of combat.

The Roman Catholic archbishop's office, for one, claims that five church leaders were abducted and killed by Colonel Cruz's forces last week.

''There has been so much fighting and bombing that we could not live in the north,'' says one provincial resident. ''The Army considers us sympathizers with the guerrillas and we must either leave or be killed.''

Refugees here complain of increased repression by the Army, constant arrests, detentions, and disappearances. In the town of Yamabal, just outside San Francisco Gotera, residents claim that three women, a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter were recently shoved into the back of an Army truck and have since disappeared.

''Any community leaders, catechists, or young men are seen as part of the opposition and have been harassed and killed by the Army,'' says a refugee whose husband has disappeared. ''This is why most of the refugees are women and children and old men.''