SAN SALVADOR — WITH full levels of United States military aid to El Salvador restored and international attention riveted on the Persian Gulf, church leaders and human rights monitors here say extreme rightists here could seize an opportunity to carry out atrocities reminiscent of the early 1980s. Results of a preliminary investigation released last week by Salvadoran Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas implicate the country's US-backed Armed Forces in the murders two weeks ago of 15 civilians in the rural hamlet of El Zapote.
``All the evidence collected in the case leads us to point exclusively to members of the [military's] First Infantry Brigade'' the capital city's main military garrison, said the report of Tutela Legal, the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office.
Armed Forces officials deny any role in the deaths of an extended family whose members were beaten, then shot. Defense Minister Gen. Ren'e Emilio Ponce said the killings appeared to be the result of a personal feud, and characterized individuals who have accused the military of the crime as ``irresponsible.''
Killings may be revenge against rebel supporters
But Eleuteria Ortiz, who discovered the assailants at the scene of the slaying, told reporters ``it was the soldiers'' who executed her relatives. ``They had razor haircuts'' in the style of the Armed Forces and wore insignias on their uniforms, Ms. Ortiz said. Also, the murders occurred in a zone controlled by the First Brigade.
During the November 1989 Salvadoran rebel offensive, there was heavy fighting in the area surrounding El Zapote. With El Salvador out of the international limelight, church investigators suggest soldiers or their associates may be seeking revenge against civilians who helped guerrillas during the military blitz.
The slaying occurred within weeks after the Bush administration set a timetable for the release of $42.5 million in US military aid, unfrozen after leftist rebels shot down a helicopter carrying three US soldiers, then assassinated the two survivors.
Church officials say the recent surge in human rights abuses here has shrunk the political space for El Salvador's March legislative elections. Assailants threw grenades into the election headquarters of a leftist party in the province of Usulut'an last week, and an opposition candidate's house was recently ransacked by members of the Armed Forces in Ahuachap'an.
Peace talks reach critical stage, develop momentum
The growing tensions have arisen as peace negotiations between rebels and the US-backed Salvadoran military reach a critical stage. Still, sources close to the talks say progress toward a negotiated settlement has developed its own momentum.
``The fundamental plan for the future of this country is being played out in the negotiations, and is not greatly dependent on the war, or the elections, or in the other developments,'' says Ant'onio Canas, an analyst at the Jesuit-run University of Central America. A US Embassy official says that since the international outcry over the murders of six Jesuit priests in 1989, ``although El Salvador isn't commanding headlines, ... a precedent has been set and there's a greater degree of accountability on both sides.''
In an overture, described by guerrilla leaders as proof of their ``political maturity,'' rebels on Saturday turned over to Mexican and Nicaraguan authorities 17 surface-to-air missiles they received in an illegal transaction with Nicaragua's Sandinista Army.
Leftist politician Rub'en Zamora says a decade of international attention on this war-torn country has had a cumulative effect that has encouraged flexibility among warring parties.
Still, he warns that ``if in the next six or eight months we disappear altogether from the headlines, positions will harden and you can be sure the results will be very negative.''