San Miguel, El Salvador — The hammer and sickle superimposed over Cuba grew larger and larger until it filled the television screen. A deep male voice explained, over ominous music on the soundtrack, how international communism was trying to take over El Salvador. Fifty-two peasants, many in tattered work clothes, watched the film surrounded by armed soldiers -- a captive audience for the string of movies on the Betamax video cassette produced by the psychological operations unit of the Salvadorean Army.
The peasants' names had appeared on a list captured by the Army, reportedly a list of individuals who helped feed Salvadorean rebels. The peasants had been rounded up and ``detained for investigation'' by the crack Arce Batallion in San Miguel Province.
Troops had loaded the villagers into trucks bound for military barracks in San Miguel. They were interrogated there Jan. 16 and given political indoctrination by a psychological warfare expert. The next morning, they were shown the Army's propaganda movies. Then they were turned over to the International Red Cross, which trucked them back to the Sesori area.
Despite the ordeal the Army put the villagers through, the operation appears to have improved the Army's image in civilian eyes. It represents a new counterinsurgency strategy -- a sort of psychological warfare -- to capture the allegiance of those in the rural population not firmly committed to the guerrillas.
``I believe the Army has changed,'' says one of the villagers. ``It used to be that if you gave the guerrillas a glass of water they'd cut off your head. But now they said that if the guerrillas passed by and asked for food to go ahead and give it, that they understood.''
The Sesori area was selected for the operation because Army intelligence had detected peasant unhappiness with the guerrillas' demands for food, says a civilian counterinsurgency expert who helped plan the operation. The expert declined to be named, citing security reasons.
He noted that the Army's efforts have been aided by the lack of political work done by rebels in the area.
Complaints about the rebels appeared widespread in Santa Cruz, an hour's dusty walk from Sesori.
``The guerrillas oblige us to give them rations of food, up to three or four rations per household,'' says Antonio Esperanza, one of those picked up by the Army.
``We're poor and we have to maintain our children. They say they're fighting for the poor but we, the poor, can't take the suffering.''
The Army hopes to exploit this resentment by creating a new image of the Army as the friend and protector of the peasants. The tactic is meeting with some success.
``The doctor [the psychological warfare expert] said that in the past some Army commanders were bad . . . . They killed many people,'' Cayetano Esperanza, a villager, says. ``But now, no. He said that they don't want to kill people anymore.''
Lieutenant Menjivar of the United States-trained Arce batallion says of area civilians: ``They expected to be tortured or beaten and now they've seen contrary. They've slept, they've been fed, they've been given medicine. It isn't like what the guerrillas tell them in the hamlets -- that the armed forces want to kill them.''
The Army's new strategy was started in the east by Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, who died in a mysterious helicoptor crash in October. He often handed out food and brought along Army medics to give medical services.
``Colonel Monterrosa treated us very well,'' remembers Cayetano Esperanza. The Army seems to be implementing this strategy only in areas where it thinks it can win over the population -- usually areas where rebel presence is recent.
In areas where the peasants are guerrilla supporters, the Army been accused of massacring civilians, burning crops and homes, and bombing -- tactics designed to drive out civilians who help rebels, which deprives guerrillas of their support base.
The psychological warfare specialist is pleased. He hopes it will be the first step in bringing the Sesori area under government control.
``I've studied everything the enemy has done. When the terrorists capture a soldier, they take him back to their camp and they talk to him. They say that they are good people and that they don't kill soldiers. That they are fighting against US imperialism and that they want bread for the poor. By the time they release the soldier back to us he is a time bomb,'' he says.
``Today I'm sending them back 52 time bombs,'' he adds with a smile. ``They're going to tell all the terrorists they meet to desert, that they'll be paid $250 if they turn in their rifle.''
It may take some time before the results of the operation are fully known. The day after the men returned to their village, rebels also returned. And instead of telling rebels to desert, the villagers politely tipped their hats.