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Rebels tell Salvadoreans to 'join up or leave'

By Chris HedgesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 1984

Cacaopera, El Salvador

The strongest group in the Salvadorean guerrilla movement, in a severe policy shift, is pressuring civilians in northern Morazan Province either to join the rebels or leave this region.

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This change in strategy - which occurred after a shakeup in the overall rebel command about 21/2 months ago - has spurred some 2,000 people to flee northern Morazan over several weeks, police officials say. It has also provoked intense resentment among residents who remain here.

Specifically, the rebels of the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) are pressuring Morazan residents to:

* Collectivize individual plots of land in order to feed the rebel army better.

* Send their children (some as young as age 7) to guerrilla schools, where they will learn rebel ideology and how to use weapons.

* Join labor gangs to do road work, carry wounded rebel soldiers, and contribute to the guerrilla infrastructure. Residents who refuse to help voluntarily are forced to assist the rebels.

* Join the insurgent army. If young men do not join voluntarily, they are forced into rebel ranks.

Rebels here contend that these procedures are justified because of what they call an increasing possibility of United States intervention in the Salvadorean civil war. The ERP guerrillas say the first steps of US intervention will consist of air strikes on rebel-held territories.

''We have to prepare the population for intervention,'' says an unshaven ERP rebel, ''and this requires the organization of the people to move rapidly when the massive air strikes begin. If we do not incorporate the people into our structure, we won't know what to do with them or their bones.''

The ERP also admits that the new procedures dovetail with its political objectives.

''If people continue to feel they can be neutral in this war, they will be killed,'' says a guerrilla. He adds, ''They must now take sides in the conflict. The dynamics of the war have changed.''

That the ERP is able to pressure civilians this way signals that it is growing even stronger. The official government is less and less able to maintain control in the province. The rebels are in effect creating their own government. Some observers think the strategy shift in Morazan shows that ERP leader Joaquin Villalobos, commander in chief of all Salvadorean rebel forces, is consolidating his own power, too.

Civilians who have been confronted with the guerrillas' pressure to enter the rebel infrastructure are embittered.

''Suddenly we are being told what to grow,'' says Juan Jose Espinales, a peasant farmer who abandoned his plot of land last month and now lives with his family in a tiny cardboard shack on a dirt lane outside the provincial capital of San Francisco Gotera. ''We must work for them, and if we do not we are taken prisoner. Our women are taken to cook in their camps and our children are taken to fight. Many people have now turned against the guerrillas.''

''One reason we left is because the guerrillas want to take our children, and that's bad if you are a widow,'' says Caterina Argueta Dias. Like many other people who have fled the zone, she said that increased aerial attacks by the government's air force also were a factor in her departure. ''They take the children far away, it is far from Cacaopera. I don't know what they want to do with these children. They want to have them there studying, and for what?''