Santa Clara, El Salvador — Here in San Vicente Province, purportedly a model for the Salvadorean government's pacification program, the guerrillas seem as much involved in applying American aid as do local officials.
''We determine what roads get worked on and what do not,'' says one guerrilla leader outside the town of Santa Clara.
''We make sure each project operates the way we want it to,'' he says. ''For this reason we support the US pacification program in El Salvador. The program helps children learn, gives people work, and provides us with weapons. My M-16, my fatigues, my pack, all come from President Reagan. We hope he sends more aid soon. And we would like to thank him for what he has sent us already.''
Local officials find this puzzling.
''I wrote the government officials in charge of the (pacification) program three weeks ago,'' says the mayor of Santa Clara, Guadalupe Montano Choto, ''and I informed them of the situation. My only conclusion is that they know what is happening and have decided that a program with guerrilla participation is better than no program at all.''
Mayor Montano is sitting at a desk in his temporary office. ''This is not my real office,'' he says. ''My real office is over there.'' He points across the small town square to the charred remains of the town hall.
On Sept. 25 the guerrillas overran this village of 4,000. They stole the office supplies from the town hall and then set it aflame. They also burned the telephone exchange.
In a show of force the Army moved the United States-trained Atlacatl Battalion into Santa Clara last week. According to local residents, the Army had not conducted maneuvers in the area since August. Those who expected to see the guerrillas routed from the area were disappointed.
''This morning,'' Mayor Montano says, ''the Atlacatl left after seven days of encampment. They did not find one guerrilla or fire one shot. Four hours after they pulled out, a guerrilla patrol moved back in. Why does everyone in El Salvador see the guerrillas except the Army?''
Unable to count on security from the Army, Montano does what most local officials in this province do. He negotiates with the guerrillas for protection of government projects. Most of these projects are US-sponsored and funded. The projects, most of which began in June, have always needed guerrilla cooperation to function in the province.
Lack of motivation to confront the guerrillas plagues the Army nationwide. According to observers here, the Army does not lack military equipment. They charge that the low morale reflects the mercenary character of the armed forces. ''These troops,'' says a high-ranking military official, ''have nothing to fight for and subsequently do not fight.''
''To keep our schools open and our AID (US Agency for International Development) work projects functional,'' Montano says, ''we have to accept the terms the guerrillas set.''
In San Vicente Province, local officials as well as US officials involved in the pacification effort say these terms include:
* Asking guerrilla approval before starting new projects.
* Payment of protection money to the guerrillas to save project equipment from guerrilla sabotage.
* Acceptance of guerrilla-imposed regulations and conditions for each project.
''The US government provided the money to reopen the schools and send in teachers, but the Army never has any presence here,'' Montano says. ''So we asked the guerrillas if we could run the schools. They agreed - as long as we reserve one hour a day for them to come in and teach revolutionary propaganda.''
The guerrillas, local officials here say, also exact payment from US work projects. Road construction crews in the province must bring reams of paper to work each day for the guerrillas. The paper is then used to print rebel literature.
The US contractor, D.L. Harrison, now working with heavy road construction equipment on the Pan American Highway in San Vicente Province, is reportedly paying large amounts of money to the guerrillas to safeguard his vehicles.
The failure of the Salvadorean Army to secure the countryside and the payment of protection money to guerrilla forces is commonplace in most of El Salvador.
What is ominous about conditions in San Vicente is that the pacification program here, which has been in operation six months, is touted as a pilot project for the country as a whole. Known as Operation Well-Being, the project was designed to combine military and developmental objectives. It is sponsored by the Salvadorean government, but is orchestrated and largely funded by the US.
The first phase of the program required troops to make sweeps through the province to eradicate guerrillas from the area. The sweeps, which took place last summer, drove more than 1,500 refugees into Honduras, relief officials here say.
The second phase calls for rebuilding local civil defense organizations and a restoration of the infrastructure.
''The problem,'' says one official close to the project, ''is that the Salvadorean Army has never secured the department. Our attempts at restoration began before our military objectives were achieved.''
Local leaders report that civil defense groups are being trained but not armed.
''The reason,'' says this official, ''is that civil defense patrols in El Salvador have no logistical support. They are stuck out in their towns alone with little or no chance against the guerrillas.''
After six months of the pacification program, government control of the region is confined to the main highways and the larger towns and villages.