Central America's bitter wars spread

Largely obscured by events elsewhere in the past six months, Central America's political, social, and economic malaise refuses to go away.

Indeed, the bitter struggle between rival forces in the countries of the region has, if anything, escalated during these months. The prospect that fighting will engulf the whole region looms large.

''Fighting is at an all-time high,'' says a senior United States official recently on the scene. ''The region has become the vortex of a drama that is playing itself out in an escalating confrontation between guerrillas and governments, between nations and peoples.

''It is a battle of words and bullets.

''And it is being fought out in the rugged hill country of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, in the swampy rain forests of Nicaragua, in the major urban areas of all these countries, and at the conference table as well.''

Most observers agree with this assessment.

While the Falklands crisis, Lebanon's traumas, Mexico's economic difficulties , and other issues swept world attention away from Central America, contending forces in El Salvador have been locked in bitter battles. More than 1,000 Salvadorans have lost their lives in the past six months.

El Salvador remains the center of the Central American storm. Leftist guerrillas, after some months of lessened activity, are stepping up their operations. Their current 14-day-old offensive caught government forces off guard. They penetrated the capital city, SanSalvador, cut the Pan American Highway in several spots, and have seized a number of towns along the border with Honduras.

But government forces - or right-wing paramilitary groups allied with the government - appear to have struck back. Last week, as guerrillas moved into several towns near the Honduran border, six top leftist politicians were kidnapped in San Salvador. The six were the leading members of the unarmed, political sector of the opposition still living in El Salvador. Their whereabouts are unknown, and their loss would leave a political vacuum for government opponents in the country.

Recent battles between government forces and guerrillas has been intense, with scores killed on both sides. The Salvadoran Army is better equipped and trained than it was a year ago. Several thousand Salvadorans have received training in counterinsurgency in the United States, others have been trained by US advisers on the scene. The Army is also adopting some tactics used by the guerrillas.

''The night is no longer in the hands of the guerrillas,'' says one colonel. While this may be true in some areas, it is not true in others, due to widely varying abilities and aggressiveness of Army commanders.

So far it appears that neither government forces nor leftist guerrillas have an edge. It is not quite a stalemate, but as the struggle sways back and forth across the countryside, it appears to be threatening to engulf neighboring countries.

Guatemala is potentially as volatile, perhaps even more volatile, than its southeastern neighbor, El Salvador. Government troops and leftist guerrillas are stepping up warfare. Some Indians are joining forces with leftists. Battles in the past two months have been the most violent in a decade.

Government forces have been pursuing leftist guerrillas with a relentlessness reminiscent of 1960s engagements that decimated guerrilla ranks. Now, however, the guerrillas are stronger, more sophisticated, and stealthier. They are fighting with a resolve that has ''frankly surprised us,'' says Army Col. Hector Ramirez Soler.

''It is nip and tuck,'' says a US adviser on the scene, ''whether the Army will win or the guerrillas will gain the edge.''

That uncertainty is augmented by charges of ''criminal'' human rights violations by the Army under the President, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power in March. After offering amnesty to guerrillas who would surrender, some 300 of whom did, the government launched an offensive against suspected guerrillas. In June alone, 300 suspected guerrillas were killed or captured. Amnesty International claims that 2,600 peasants, including Indians, have been massacred since March. Thousands of refugees have fled across the border into Mexico.

Over the weekend Guatemalan military police are reported to have detained 24 persons, including a former agriculture minister, for plotting to overthrow Rios Montt.

Next door in newly independent Belize, there is worry about being drawn into the struggle - concern that is heightened by Guatemalan troop maneuvers along the border. Belizeans fear Guatemala will attempt to seize their country - and Guatemalans have long claimed the territory should belong to Guatemala. Several hundred British marines guard Belize. A weakening economy could lead to internal dissent, also a major concern of the government.

To the south, Honduras, which was the tranquil oasis of the region, has suddenly become home base for civilian and some guerrilla opponents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. It claims to be neutral - but with thinly disguised support for government forces in El Salvador and Guatemala and for Nicaraguan exiles within its borders, Honduras can no longer honestly be called uncommitted.

Its Army beefed up with US weaponry and training, as well as tactical support from Argentina, Honduras is ''every bit as much a part of the struggle as the other countries,'' says a Mexico City-based spokesman for the Frente Revolucionario Democratica, political arm of Salvadoran guerrillas. The Salvadoran guerrillas claim that the Honduran Army is actively supporting El Salvador's Army ''in a clear violation of its professed neutrality.''

A recent hostage drama in San Pedro Sula, in which more than 100 businessmen and two Cabinet members were held by Honduran guerrillas for a week, suggests the way in which Central America's malaise is thrusting into Honduras's own political scene. Guerrillas sought the release of political prisoners and an end to support of the Salvadoran government.

The US counts on Honduras to serve as ''the fulcrum,'' to quote a US official on the scene, of leverage against the leftist guerrillas and as a counterweight to left-leaning Nicaragua. But there is some evidence now that Hondurans are beginning to resent the growing US presence in their country.

Nicaragua appears to be drifting further left. Its war of words with the US and numerous Latin American countries is intensifying. Its Sandinista leadership , which styles itself as Marxist, came to power three years ago promising political pluralism. But that promise looks increasingly hollow.

Many original supporters of the Sandinistas, including some of the heroes of the war that toppled the archtypal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, have fled Nicaragua. Many of those early-supporters-turned-opponents are in Costa Rica. Others are rightists, or ''Somocistas,'' exiled in Honduras. Sandinistas feel increasingly hemmed in. Fighting between Nicaraguan troops and Honduras-based exiles in the Zelaya swamps of eastern Nicaragua has been intense.

Bitterly attacking the US for ''provocations,'' the Sandinistas are struggling to keep a sagging economy afloat while pushing ahead with domestic programs such as literacy and better housing. There has been progress on those two fronts. But public support for the once acclaimed Sandinistas is flagging. Some of this falloff clearly stems from growing unemployment, shortages of consumer goods, and inflation.

Economies across Central America are in trouble. Even Costa Rica - once regarded as the region's most affluent - is now in a deep recession. Urban guerrilla activities recently erupted in the Costa Rica's capital, and help explain why this traditionally antimilitary country has stepped up patrols in the Nicaraguan border region and signed an agreement with Washington for $2 million in US military aid and training.

Looming over Central America is concern that troubles here could escalate into a larger contest - like the famous domino theory in the 1960s about Southeast Asia. Mexico, whose border area has been invaded by Guatemalan forces looking for guerrillas, is clearly the most worried. Other Latin American countries are worried, too.

For Washington, the threat that the crisis could engulf the whole region, affecting operation of the Panama Canal, for example, is chilling - helping to explain why the Reagan administration has increasingly involved itself in the region.

Next: Can Central America find a political solution to its problem?

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