Just when it appeared that El Salvador's embattled military-civilian junta was establishing a semblance of order in the civil-war-wracked country, the brutal deaths of four US women missionaries have upset all such estimates.
Indeed, El Salvador's political situation is much more fluid at the moment than at any time in recent months. The three civilians on the junta, two of whom are members of El Salvador's centrist Christian Democratic Party, are threatening to resign from the government -- a step that would likely be a death blow to the junta.
While it is nt at all clear who is responsible for the slayings, there are persistent, but unconfirmed reports that Salvadorean military units were in some way involved.
So serious was the situation viewed in Washington that the United States over the weekend:
* Suspended all economic and military aid to the Central American country -- which amounts to about $25 million.
* Sent a top-level, bipartisan fact-finding mission to El Salvador to determine if the junta was involved in the killings Dec. 2 of the four Roman Catholic women missionaries.
* Began a broad review of policy not only in El Salvador, but throughout Central America, with particular focus on human rights.
The US response was a joint Carter-Reagan effort, not simply one by a lame-duck president. State Department sources note that William D. Rogers, a Washington lawyer with long Latin American experience and an adviser on the area to President-elect Ronald Reagan, is co-leader of the fact-finding mission.
Actually, the outgoing Carter administration and representatives of the incoming Reagan team have been working together on the whole Central American issue for the past several weeks.When the El Salvador fact-finding mission returns to Washington, scheduled for Dec. 10, it will report not only to President Carter, but also to Richard V. Allen, Mr. Reagan's senior foreign-policy adviser.
The choice of Mr. Rogers to co-lead the investigating team is regarded as a message to the El Salvador government and to all Salvadoreans that Washington speaks with one voice on the issue of respect for human rights. The group will try to assess blame for the deaths of the Roman Catholic nuns, but its mandate goes beyond that incident and allows it to probe deeply into the Salvadoreans situation.
The other official heading the Salvadorean mission is William G. Bowdler, the Argentine-born assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
Mr. Rogers held the assistant secretary's post during the Ford administration in the mid-1970s, but his interest in Latin America antedates that era.