SAN SALVADOR — THE nine-month-old Salvadoran peace process is emerging from the shadows of yet another crisis.
Amid rumors of Army coups, talk of treason, and death threats, top United Nations officials managed to rescue the process last weekend. The government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation front (FMLN) have agreed to a new final deadline for completion of the accords: Dec 15.
"This is it. There will be no more excuses," says UN spokesman Mario Zamorano. He notes that the UN secretary-general will be making weekly progress reports to the UN Security Council. While the latest pact is "confidential," details have been leaking out in recent days.
For its part, the FMLN will deliver to UN officials a full inventory of weapons by Nov. 30 and begin their destruction on Dec. 1, according to sources close to the negotiations. They will demobilize the last 40 percent of their 8,000-member force in two stages: 20 percent will return to civilian life on Nov. 20; the rest, on Dec. 15. And the FMLN will accelerate the restoration of elected officials to their posts in former zones of conflict.
Lack of a timely and credible inventory of FMLN weapons has been a key complaint of the government. In a televised address Oct. 28, President Alfredo Cristiani issued an ultimatum calling a halt to the reduction and restructuring of the armed forces until the FMLN began destroying its weapons.
Indeed, in a press conference Tuesday, Mr. Cristiani suggested that new weapons being used in recent months by leftist insurgents in Guatemala's civil war came either from the FMLN or from the rebels' supplier.
"The fact that the [UN] secretary-general has not been able to evaluate the arms inventory of the FMLN leaves open doubts about what has happened," he said.
The government has more than 40 tasks left to complete under the peace accords, including dissolving the Army intelligence agency (by Nov. 30); demobilizing three rapid reaction battalions; reforming the police, judicial, and electoral systems; delivering land to ex-combatants; and legalization of the FMLN as a political party (by Nov. 27). Some programs will not be completed by the end of this year.
But the key issue, the purge of military officers, which sparked the latest crisis, appears to be settled.
LAST month the three-member Ad-Hoc Commission selected to investigate the 2,300 member officers corps of the armed forces sent Cristiani a list of 110 officers to be transferred or dismissed.
When it was reported that Defense Minister Rene Emilio Ponce and Deputy Defense Minister Juan Orlando Zepeda were on the list, Cristiani came under heavy pressure from the military and right wing of his party to protect them.
The members of the Ad Hoc Commission left the country fearing retribution. One claimed knowledge of three separate military coup plans. General Zepeda publicly questioned Cristiani's authority and a New York Times interview quoted him as saying: "What am I going to do if I am on the list? I am going to defend myself."
Cristiani and top Army officials deny knowledge of any coup plans. The military also released a statement affirming its allegiance to the president.
It was reported that Cristiani sought to delay the officer purge until the middle of next year. The delay might have saved some officers from the public disgrace of dismissal. The bulk of the "Tandona," a close knit group of military officers who ran most of the 12-year civil war, are expected to retire in March.
But such a long delay was unacceptable to the UN and the FMLN. "A timely and public [purification] is very important. It signifies the end of impunity for the Army," says Roberto Canas, a member of the FMLN team that negotiated the peace accords in January.
Cristiani says he will notify the UN how he will complete the purge "one week before Dec. 15." Other sources say this administrative step will occur Nov. 29. In either case, the actual purge must begin within 30 days of the notification, according to the peace accords. It is expected to be completed before the end of January but Cristiani says these dates are "confidential."
But Cristiani does say that if the FMLN begins destruction its weapons on Dec. 1, the Atlacatl rapid-reaction battalion will be demobilized Dec. 8. The final two rapid-reaction battalions would be dissolved 30 day intervals. This is in accord with the UN rescheduling proposal of late October.
"The question now is: Will the military buy the purge agreements?," a diplomat based here says. "Or will we see another crisis develop in December?"
The FMLN, which has used demobilization of its forces to counter government foot dragging on the accord, will not have that card to play after Dec 15. Its weapons will be destroyed, its troops dispersed. What guarantees did the FMLN get that the purge will take place on time?
"We've got the promise of Cristiani before the UN and the world that he will comply with the accords," says Mr. Canas.
Apart from Salvadorans not wanting to return to war, he adds, there are other pressures likely to produce compliance. Younger officers within the military, for example, have been waiting for the top echelon to retire so that they can move up. The election of Democrat Bill Clinton as United States president means that the military is likely to lose the staunch support it received during Republican administrations.
"The US is a critical influence on the Army and both of our countries are in period of change," Canas says.
Lionel Gonzalez, a member of the FMLN general command, says there are sound business reasons for Salvadoran conservatives to support compliance with the accords.
"If there is no purge, they have broken the accords and created another crisis. That would jeopardize international aid, postwar reconstruction, and a lot of business plans in El Salvador."