Infighting between ultra-right and moderate Salvadoran military officers threatens to bring a rightist coup little more than one year after these factions agreed to form a government and to restructure the nation's economy.
Should the rightists return to power, the current junta's progress toward breaking one of the strongest oligarchical systems in Latin America could go out in the window.
One highly placed source goes as far as to predict a rightist coup attempt before Ronald Reagan's inauguration as US president. The right feels Mr. Reagan will soften the strong stand on human rights taken by the Carter administration and that this will affect the US interest in human rights in El Salvador as well.
This week Army Col. Adolfo Arnoldo Majano, the most liberal member of the junta, reinforced expectations of a coup attempt, saying the rightists "see themselves as all-powerful with Reagan's victory." He says he is not surprised there are rumors of contracts to assassinate him.
US diplomats are nervous that a rightist-run government would escalate repression in this war-wracked country, a situation that could feed into the hands of leftists seeking a fresh issue.
Ironically, the power struggle in the military is intensifying as the government appears to be winning its long battle with leftist extremists. The junta continues to attack both leftists and rightists it claims are responsible for the continuing political violence in Central America.
This year, 12,000 Salvadorans have lost their lives in skirmishes between the rival political factions, according to the El Salvador Human Rights Organization.
Moderate officers on the current junta had hoped that joint right-moderate rule would reverse the nation's slide toward civil war, and at the same time preserve the unity of the armed forces.
A ultra-rightist contingent stood fast to impede some of the government's reform moves. Despite this, far-reaching changes were made in land ownership and banking.
The junta substantially broke the stranglehold of the famous "18 families" on the economy by nationalizing many of the nation's banking institutions.
Then 263 of the largest cotton, sugar, and coffee estates were turned over to workers whose families had toiled on them for generations; 250,000 peasants suddenly became landowners.
But since last spring moderates have lost ground and land reform slowed. Repression is on the rise in the sweltering countryside, church sources report.
Colonel Majano has steadily lost influence since he failed to have rightist conspirators brought to trial after a coup plot was foiled. Fellow junta member Jaime Abdul Gutierrez and Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia ejected Majano from his post as joint commander in chief in May. When Majano's followers alienated Gutierrez and Christian Democrats in the junta by furtively making contacts with militant leftist groups, liberal officers were transferred to minor posts.
Gutierrez and Garcia are not believed to be opposed to reform, but their break with Majano could open the way for a resurgence of even more conservative officers. Observers believe Deputy Defense Minister Col. Nicolas Carranza, an opponent to sweeping reforms, is gaining strength.
Current junta members overthrew the repressive regime of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero on the heels of the Sandinistas' successful offensive in neighboring Nicaragua. They added three civilians to the junta and set about remaking the economy, but tensions took off again even as the government pushed its reforms. In January, civilian membership on the junta was reconstituted.
Only strong US diplomatic pressure averted at least two rightist coup attempts against the government.
The left, on the other hand, has been weakened by internal ideological differences as well as by government pressure. Leftists, some say, lost a lot of support following the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in March. Undisciplined rebels apparently provoked violence at his funeral; 38 people were killed.
At about the same time the government's agrarian and banking reforms began to take hold and steal the leftist banner.