Las Hojas, El Salvador — The rolling hills of the Las Hojas Indian farm cooperative are covered with corn and beans ready for harvest. The 42 laborers who work here will soon rustle through the fields snapping the ripe crop off the stalks and vines, as their families have for generations.
This area - and these Indians - may soon give Salvadorean President Jose Napoleon Duarte one of the toughest tests of his new presidency.
Mr. Duarte has promised the Indians justice, and they are demanding that he deliver on the promise.
Last year 74 Indians from this cooperative farm and nearby villages were massacred. Leaders of the National Association of Salvadorean Indians (ANIS), which runs this farm, think a dispute between cooperative members and a neighboring white landowner over the building of a road had something to do with the killings.
Some 200 soldiers from the US-trained Jaguar Battalion walked into the cooperative at 6 a.m. on Feb. 22, 1983. With them were 10 members of the local civil defense patrol, all wearing green hoods.
The soldiers had lists of names, and it was the job of the masked civil defense members to identify the Indian farm workers on the list. The thumbs of the men were tied behind their backs and they were beaten with rifle butts, according to witnesses here.
The Indians were then marched about a mile to the Cuayaba River, where they were, according to those who discovered the bodies, shot dead or killed with machetes.
The murders touched off a wave of protests from officials in the United States Embassy, who sometimes cited Las Hojas as an example of a successful effort to integrate disenfranchised farmworkers into society, and the Salvadorean government's Human Rights Commission.
The day after the massacre, Salvador's defense minister at that time, Jose Guillermo Garcia, publicly promised to investigate the murders and bring the killers to justice. US Ambassador Thomas Pickering went to Las Hojas to visit the widows and workers on the farm.
Former President Alvaro Alfredo Magana met with Indian leaders and promised to pay half of a $25,000 indemnity before leaving office. And Duarte, while campaigning for office last spring, said that resolution of this case would be a priority if he was elected.
But little progress has been made in the case in 11/2 years. And the Indians, who provided Duarte with perhaps his strongest base of support in the elections, are getting angry.
Three of the 10 civil defense members have been incarcerated. But no effort has been made to prosecute the military officers who led the unit or the soldiers who actually did the executions, according to ANIS and other officials close to the case. No indemnity has been paid. ANIS leaders contend that the civil defense members were not actually responsible for the murders, but acted as informers.
''We want justice,'' says ANIS leader Alfredo Marquez, ''from the top to the bottom.'' Mr. Marquez's father was one of those killed.
The ANIS leaders are calling for an investigation of high-ranking officers who now reportedly hold desk jobs in the office of the Salvadorean joint chiefs of staff.
But no Salvadorean military officer has ever been tried or prosecuted for human rights violations.
The only trial and convictions of military personnel here came this May when five low-ranking national guardsmen were found guilty of killing four US churchwomen in December 1980. (The families of the women claim military higher-ups were also involved.)
If President Duarte moves against the military in this case, he is likely to unleash an ugly confrontation between his civilian administration and the armed forces, which have traditionally held most of the military power in El Salvador.
The officers who could be charged here include the colonel who headed the Sonsonate barracks at that time, Elmer Gonzalez Araujo, and the captain who led the unit of 200 soldiers into the cooperative, Salvador Figueroa Morales.
If Duarte does not attempt to prosecute these officers or for some reason is unable to do so, his credibility as civilian president may be seriously eroded.
ANIS and the Salvadoran Communal Union (UCS) - the labor union that represents most of the farm cooperative members - have at once pushed vigorously for resolution of this case and provided the President with a strong political base.
''If Duarte doesn't want, or can't, or is deaf to what the Indians say, to what he promised us, then what we must do is cry out in a loud voice,'' said ANIS leader Marquez, ''that President Jose Napoleon Duarte does nothing in the presidential house ... he is not complying with what he promised.''
Las Hojas cooperative members and Indian leaders say that in the past few months, three death threats have been delivered at night to the farm.
''When we go into town,'' says Francisca Jimenez Dimatir, whose husband was one of those killed, ''the civil defense members who remain free push us off the side of the road with their horses or taunt us in the street, calling us subversives.
''They tell us they will come back to kill us if we continue to protest.''
The cooperative members and Indian leaders say they will not be intimidated.
''The armed forces says it protects the people,'' says ANIS president Adrian Esquino, ''but in truth it does not. There are still abuses of authority, such as the threats we receive.''
He alleges that the threats are sent by ''the same colonel who ordered the massacre.''