CONVICTION of five Salvadorean former national guardsmen on charges of having killed four American churchwomen constitutes a strong warning to the Salvadorean military and other elements of that nation's right wing. They are now on notice that incidents of death-squad terrorism may be prosecuted, and that those who participate can be convicted - a result new to troubled El Salvador.
Some may question the timing of the trial. It came just as the Reagan administration and Salvadorean President-elect Jose Napoleon Duarte - in Washington this week - were seeking to obtain additional funding for El Salvador from a reluctant US House of Representatives. In any case, the guilty verdict can be expected to increase Congress's short-term willingness, and the American people's, to provide more economic and military aid.
Thus the conviction constitutes the second major boost this week for the incoming Duarte government. The first was the favorable impression the President-elect made on Congress during his Washington visit.
The bringing to justice of the five men is important for its symbolism, and as a beginning. Given the particularly revulsive nature of a crime against US churchwomen, for many Americans the case became a litmus test of the willingness and ability of the Salvadorean government, and of its fragile judicial system, to accuse formally and then convict the responsible parties. Thus the symbolic importance of the conviction, 31/2 years after the crime. To reach a guilty verdict took much courage on the part of the five-member jury.
It should be noted, however, that most death-squad terrorist acts are believed to be approved by high-level officials in the Salvadorean military or other law-enforcement departments. In this case no such high-ranking person was accused.
Now Salvadorean peasants, American congressmen, and US residents generally will be watching to see what comes next. If President-elect Duarte, who takes office June 1, can dramatically curtail terrorist activity, the effects both in his country and in the United States will be substantial.
Salvadoreans then might begin to believe that after 50 years their elected government has finally gained control of the military and its excesses.
And the now-skeptical American Congress, which has been doling out money a little at a time like a fisherman playing out his line, would be more likely to vote substantial additional funding.
Duarte has a challenging array of tasks ahead of him - not only curbing right-wing terrorism, but also reenergizing land reform and rebuilding the economy, to name two of the more important. His success is important to the United States, to his region, and to his own country. Even before he officially takes office, he is off to a good start.