THE shooting down of a United States army helicopter in El Salvador last week and the deaths of the three crewman is deeply regrettable. If, as some reports suggest, the Americans were shot by leftist guerrillas after the helicopter crashed, the incident is more than regrettable: It is a human-rights violation that warrants US demands to the guerrillas that the gunmen be brought to justice. Justice is a scarce commodity in El Salvador, however, no less in areas controlled by the government than in those controlled by the opposition Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN). The failure of President Alfredo Cristiani's government to vigorously prosecute the Salvadoran soldiers who ordered and carried out the murder of six Jesuit priests in November 1989 is a major point of friction between the US and El Salvador.
Foot-dragging over the Jesuit murders is also an element in the frustration that prompted Congress last year to freeze $42.5 million in military aid to El Salvador, half of the 1991 military appropriation for that country.
Some US supporters of El Salvador are calling for the release of the withheld aid following a month-long guerrilla offensive that ended in December. The rebels widened their control in seven rural provinces and, for the first time, shot down two Salvadoran military aircraft with advanced Russian-built missiles acquired from Nicaraguan Sandinistas. The calls for release of the aid will grow louder in the wake of the US helicopter downing.
But the withheld aid should remain frozen, barring a real and imminent threat to the elected government. Besides being an attempt to improve El Salvador's faltering justice system, the aid cutoff was a spur to negotiations to end the bloody, 11-year civil war. The Salvadoran army must recognize that a military victory is unattainable, and that the US will not indefinitely bankroll the futile effort.
There is evidence, in fact, that both sides are becoming more serious in the periodic UN-mediated negotiations, notwithstanding their ongoing maneuvering for military and political advantage. Despite its successes in the recent offensive, the FMLN knows it will never march triumphantly into San Salvador. For his part, Cristiani is becoming more amenable to FMLN demands that the army be restructured so as to be more responsive to government control. The talks, though proceeding slowly, are not stalled.
In these circumstances, it would be counterproductive for the US to put more money into the hands of the generals. US policy should be carefully calculated to further peace negotiations, not to derail them.