Guerrillas push Central American countries into military cooperation

Three Central American countries, alarmed by their continuing turmoil, are discussing military coordination, with encouragement from the United States. The three countries - El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras - have often argued among themselves, and El Salvador and Honduras have maintained an uneasy peace since their two-week war in 1969. But the threat posed by leftist guerrilla movements is sparking efforts at regional military cooperation.

Whether such cooperation actually gets under way or, in the long run, proves effective remains to be seen. But there can be no mistaking the activity in this direction.

In recent weeks talks between military leaders of the three nations have taken place. This flurry of contact includes a visit to El Salvador by Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia, Guatemala's President, and Honduran Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mario Chincilla. The communique at the end of the visit did not mention joint military strategy, but military sources in Guatemala say it was discussed.

Such cooperation would fit well with US strategy for the region. Washington remains deeply worried about leftist guerrillas, and sees regional cooperation as a means of countering them.

With stiff congressional and public opposition to any large US military involvement in El Salvador, the Reagan administration hopes the regional military cooperation will serve as an alternative to a US role in the civil-war-wracked country.

Washington wants to keep US soldiers out of Salvadoran combat. But a mid-October incident in which US military advisers were flying in a helicopter that opened fire on a group of Salvadoran peasants suggests how hard it is to keep advisers out of combat.

The incident took place Oct. 17 as two majors of the US Army Corps of Engineers, one US military adviser, and a US civilian engineer attached to the Agency for International Development were being flown to inspect the main bridge over the Lempa River, which had been severely damaged a few days earlier by guerrillas.

Salvadoran military officials say the helicopter was fired on from the ground , and this prompted the pilot to order the return fire.

It was the first time US advisers in El Salvador have been involved in any such incident. Although none of the US personnel had anything to do with the shooting, the incident causes deep concern in Washington and suggests why the US is encouraging the Central Americans to cooperate militarily.

El Salvador has 20,000 troops under arms, while Guatemala has about 15,000 and Honduras, 12,000. All three get US support. Thousands of Guatemalan and Honduran troops are stationed along their borders with El Salvador. There are signs that both Guatemala and Honduras in recent months have offered limited tactical assistance to the Salvadorans.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.