Salvador tries to 'pacify' key province - with mixed results

The record so far on El Salvador's ''pacification'' program - the drive to clean guerrillas out of a critical agricultural province and then to repair economic damage there - is cloudy.

El Salvador and its United States military advisers claim the Salvadorean military is scoring great successes in San Vicente Province - cutting off guerrilla food supplies, forcing most guerrillas out of the region, and restoring electricity supplies.

But the rebels themselves say the government's gains are illusory. They say guerrilla forces have dispersed somewhat in San Vicente, and that there are plans to modify rebel operations in the area. But the government's claims are nowhere near accurate, a rebel spokesman says. He also charges that the army is not rebuilding the economy.

If the pacification program, which resembles that mounted in Vietnam during the war there, proves successful, the operation will serve as a pilot project for pacification programs throughout the country, says Colonel Golcher, the commander in charge of the pacification program.

The program, called ''Operation Peace and Well-Being,'' was begun June 10 with some 3,000 troops and is considered a major test of new Salvadorean army tactics. Besides being a top agricultural region, San Vicente contains a key hydroelectric dam and sugar refinery. Guerrilla disruption of San Vicente has seriously hurt the economy of the country.

''This program is different from previous ones,'' Colonel Golcher says. ''The objectives are not mainly military. We want to secure the area for development programs. We intend to permanently deploy our peace forces in the area.''

He described the first phase as securing the province militarily so that food and medical attention can be given to the population. Phase 2, which has begun to some degree, consists of reconstructing public services, schools, and roads. Colonel Golcher says the government also plans to extend loans to agricultural cooperatives.

Colonel Golcher said the pacification program was not started by the US. When the writer asked the colonel whether it was US-inspired, given its similarity to the pacification plans used in Vietnam, the head US military adviser in the area , who was present during the interview, looked at Golcher and shook his head.

Golcher then said, ''No, this plan was not initiated by the US.'' He continued: ''Naturally we use the experience of Vietnam. This is a new field for us and it makes sense to use their experience.

''But there is a difference. In Vietnam, the Americans had to create an infrastructure and develop it. Here it already exists and it is directed by Salvadoreans.''

By the government's assessment, there are encouraging signs of success in their 90-day-old campaign. The main road to San Vicente is no longer littered with power poles downed by the guerrillas, and electricity has been restored to parts of the province.

Instead of concentrating large numbers of troops in garrisons, the armed forces have sent out small, night patrols to ambush the guerrillas. Colonel Golcher says that before the operation began, there were about 1,200 guerrillas. Today there are ''probably 300,'' he says.

''San Vicente is under control of the armed forces,'' Colonel Golcher says confidently.

There are indications, however, that the military's assessment may be overstated. On Aug. 26, guerrillas blew out power lines that blacked out San Salvador, San Vicente, and three other eastern provinces.

Further, the government itself has reported no major battles with the guerrillas. The largest number of guerrillas killed in any one San Vicente encounter was 10 according to Colonel Golcher.

''We did capture five wounded guerrillas in another battle,'' he added, appearing somewhat apologetic.

The military also has not succeeded in its attempt to split the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or its political counterpart, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), although they consist of numerous separate groups. Both Golcher and another colonel, Domingo Monterrosa of the quick-reaction Atlacatl Battalion, admitted no success in this realm.

''Considering their internal differences,'' Golcher said, ''they have worked as a united front since 1980 as the FMLN.''

Guerrillas, however, scoff at the government's claims of success in San Vicente. A representative of the FMLN-FDR in Mexico City says the operation is mainly military.

The government, he says, is not aiding the people or rebuilding the economy. He charges that the government is using military force to terrorize the population. ''The army hasn't been killing guerrillas, but only our mass supporters among the peasants,'' he stated.

''There has been a dispersal in San Vicente, but the guerrillas will come back,'' said the representative.

He confirmed that before the offensive there were approximately 1,200 guerrillas in San Vicente, but laughed when told of government claims that today there are only 300.

''While some may have left for neighboring provinces, there are about the same number of guerrillas in the province as before,'' he said.

''It is normal for there to be food shortages, even without army offensive,'' he adds.

The guerrillas are apparently playing a waiting game. They say that the army cannot keep up the pressure in San Vicente.

The rebel spokesman said, ''The army doesn't have the numbers or the strength to maintain its offensive. To maintain the offensive, the army must double or more its forces. That's why they have a military draft and are speeding up training by the US.

''We don't have liberated zones,'' he explained, referring to the guerrilla strategy of holding certain areas against any government attack. ''We have zones of control,'' areas in which the army can enter but cannot effectively control politically or militarily.

The FMLN-FDR did admit that it plans some modification in tactics to deal with the San Vicente operation. The spokesman says the government is sending in peasant supporters of ORDEN, a group often associated with right-wing death squads, with plans to kill guerrilla supporters. The FMLN-FDR plans to arm its own supporters.

The guerrillas seem quite confident the government's current offensive will fail. He claims that as a result of their own offensive last fall, guerrilla troop strength increased from 6,000 last summer to 7,000 to 8,000 today.

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