SAN SALVADOR — THE killings of six Jesuit priests and their domestic workers nearly a year ago continue to cast long shadows over this country's powerful armed forces. In a pivotal setback for President Alfredo Cristiani and a switch for United States policy, US senators agreed by a near 3-to-1 margin Friday to withhold half of El Salvador's $85 million 1991 military aid allotment.
The eight were allegedly slain by the Salvadoran military. The US Senate's move was a rebuke to the government for its inability so far to find and convict the perpetrators.
The US Congress might still disperse the $42.5 million if the Bush administration determines that Salvadoran rebels have either launched a military offensive jeopardizing the survival of the government or scuttled peace talks. The legislation, nearly identical to a measure passed by the House, also calls for terminating the entire military-aid budget if the Salvadoran government withdraws from negotiations or fails to fully investigate the murders.
While US lawmakers are seeking signs of remorse over the killings from the Salvadoran military, officers here say the sanctions are unwarranted.
Col. Mauricio Vargas, Army deputy chief of staff and one of the few officials available for comment after the vote, criticized US lawmakers for being fooled by ``a rebel propaganda scheme'' and for ``oversimplyfying the aid debate.''
``The Congress is seeing the trees, but it's lost sight of the woods,'' Colonel Vargas laments. ``We can't lose the country, and let it fall into the hands of a Marxist-Leninist project.''
El Salvador's opposition politicians, meanwhile, heralded the congressional decision, saying the measure could soften the military's negotiating position.
``It sends a clear message to the people that need to hear it that the goose that laid the golden egg has died,'' says Rub'en Zamora, head of the Popular Social Christian Movement. ``It tells the armed forces, `Hurry up, the game is over, negotiate now while you still have US support.'''
THE congressional vote raises the stakes in monthly United Nations-mediated peace talks that began last May. Negotiations, scheduled to resume in Mexico in early November, have stagnated around the issue of military reform.
Guerrilla leaders are holding firm on a call to reduce the 56,000-man strong military and purge it of human rights violators. Government forces say they will not cut any political deals before rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front agree to a cease-fire.
The congressional decision is more symbolic than real, however, because of reserves the armed forces have accumulated during a decade of generous US aid and the military's ability to draw from other sources. The US General Accounting Office noted in August that the Salvadoran military still had not spent $54 million in previous US military aid allotments.
President Cristiani has said in recent months that his government would make up for an aid cut by diverting money from social service programs to the military budget.
Though a government statement assured Salvadorans that the aid reduction would not alter the country's social and economic programs, Vargas says defense is ``the priority'' and funding ``will have to come from somewhere.''
Though alternate sources could compensate for a short-term aid reduction, the vote solidifies for the Salvadoran armed forces the waning long-term US interest in this decade-long civil war.
``The Salvador military realizes the United States isn't picking up and going home now. But what about the following years?'' asks a military source.
The aid restrictions could ``drastically curtail El Salvador's military operations,'' particularly the use of planes and helicopters, adds a US Embassy source. Still, officials are far from voicing abandonment of their longtime ally, the source says.
``We need to keep our oar in the water here,'' says a US official. ``It wouldn't be right for us to pull up stakes and go home right now.''
MILITARY officials appear jittery about how these pressures may affect their performance during a guerrilla offensive. In recent months, the rebels have been massing in larger groups and military sources say an escalation of guerrilla activity is more a question of time than of ability.
Though the Army has been expecting rebel raids and has posted extra troops around the capital's periphery, guerrilla commandos launched a mortar attack on the country's main military airport last week.
Despite heavy Air Force strafing and rocketing, rebels retreated under the cover of night without apparently incurring any casualties.
``They demonstrate in daily skirmishes with the Army that they can launch another offensive,'' a military source says.
Though sources close to the rebels are not ruling out the prospect of an imminent offensive, they suggest the guerrillas are more likely to step up hit-and-run operations on selected military targets in coming weeks.