SAN SALVADOR — THE killings of three United States servicemen in El Salvador, coupled with the first-ever admission of anti-aircraft missile sales to Salvadoran rebels, have undermined the strategic advantage leftist rebels had carefully constructed in recent months. The combined events will likely mute congressional opposition if the Bush administration, as expected, releases $42.5 million in frozen military aid to the Salvadoran military.
Political analysts say renewing the aid, which was suspended with the hope of spurring dialogue between warring factions, will probably deflate the prospects for ongoing secret negotiations between guerrilla leaders and the Salvadoran government.
``I fear Salvadoran military hard-liners are going to feel more confident now,'' says a politician close to the military. ``They were on the defensive.''
Earlier this month, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaraguan Army announced the arrest of four officers charged in the theft and sale of 28 anti-aircraft missiles to the Salvadoran rebels.
But the incident that virtually ensured the reinstatement of military aid, according to one US diplomat, began with the downing of a helicopter ferrying three US servicemen from San Miguel to their base in Honduras.
A Pentagon forensic team, backed by testimonies of some civilian witnesses, suggests that rebels executed two of the three servicemen who survived the crash.
Though inconsistencies remain in most official and unofficial versions of events, a rebel communiqu'e last week announced the detention of two guerrilla combatants implicated in the killings.
Both the rebels and the Salvadoran military have been known to renege on their stated policies of respecting prisoners of war. Spanish authorities last year cited the Salvadoran military in the rape and murder of a Spanish nurse who was caught in an Army ambush of a makeshift rebel hospital. In a country accustomed to daily war casualties and brutal killings, such incidents rarely cause a stir.
But the US deaths quickly became an international incident, causing Salvadorans across the political spectrum to comment on the different yardsticks used to measure the worth of North American and Latin lives.
``Seeing it from a nationalist point of view, it's quite revealing that because they were North Americans it's made global news,'' says Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, the godfather of El Salvador's extreme right. ``That's left a bad taste.''
Although Washington has sent more than $4 billion to the besieged government in the past decade, and US military officials have played a highly visible role in helping direct the war, combatants have generally not targeted US citizens and installations. In recent communiqu'es, guerrilla leaders have repeated that pledge.
``Salvadorans know you don't kill Americans, moreover you don't kill Americans in cold blood,'' says a Western diplomat.
US officials, including Rep. Joseph Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, have called on rebels to turn suspects in the killings over to judicial authorities. But guerrillas leaders have long critiqued the Salvadoran justice system and rebels have said they will punish anyone found guilty of violating established rules of war.
Citing what they call the Salvadoran judiciary's lack of legitimacy, left-of-center political leaders like Rub'en Zamora say rebels should not be expected to relinquish suspects to Salvadoran officials.
``At least in this case, there won't be impunity, and that's an advance in a country where the Jesuits' case demonstrates such clear impunity that government prosecutors are compelled to step down,'' says Mr. Zamora, in reference to last Tuesday's resignation of two key government investigators assigned to last year's murder of six priests and their two female assistants.
The priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were shot in November 1989 on the campus of the Jesuit-run Central American University during a huge offensive by leftist rebels.
The two resigning prosecutors, known for exposing the destruction of military log books relevant to the Jesuits' case, complained that their superiors had prevented them from gathering evidence and interrogating powerful witnesses relevant to the investigation.
``It didn't serve any purpose for us to be there like ornaments, if we weren't permitted to work,'' says Henry Campos, a former investigator. Though the Jesuits were executed more than a year ago, no trial date has not been set for the nine military men charged with the killings.
A new report by US congressional staff members says the Salvadoran military high command has successfully limited the investigation's scope and has protected certain officers from possible prosecution.
``The entire investigation may have been a charade calibrated to meet the minimum - and only the minimum - demands of meddlers from Congress and elsewhere,'' the report says.
The military has proven so uncooperative in the case that in retaliation, the Bush administration secretly ordered a slower delivery of US military aid last August, the congressional aides say. Now, by shooting US servicemen, it looks as though the rebels will get the Army off the hook, they say.