United States Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger helicoptered into one of the regions of heaviest fighting in El Salvador this week - and proclaimed a campaign to clean guerrillas out of that region a ''success.''
His visit to San Vicente Province marks the first visit by a US defense secretary to El Salvador. It underscores the importance US officials have put on the new Army tactic of sweeping rebels out of a region and then rebuilding its infrastructure.
''Operation Well Being'' is the most ambitious operation of the four-year old Salvadorean war.
''I am impressed by the morale, state of training, and the good relations between the Army and civilian authorities here,'' said Secretary Weinberger, standing outside the mobile field headquarters.
US military personnel accompanying the secretary were equally complimentary about the program, claiming guerrilla strength has decreased as a result.
But a visit to the area raises some questions about how long-lasting this ''success'' will be, and whether the US claims are all that they appear. If the operation does indeed prove successful, the intention is to use it as a pilot project for similar programs elsewhere in the country.
The operation, guided by US military advisers, is the first to attempt to combine military and developmental objectives in El Salvador. It is broadly based on the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support program (CORDS) tried by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s - but has been redesigned to suit the Salvador war. Some of the US advisers involved here had experience with the CORDS effort in Vietnam.
When Salvadorean Army troops first made their sweeps through the province, they encountered minimal resistance from the guerrilla forces. Most of the guerrillas fled in advance of the Army units, following their normal practice of avoiding unit-to-unit confrontations with the Army.
Since securing the province, Army troops have remained in the area. Night patrols and constant vigilance of the countryside with small groups of soldiers have made the restoration of roads, waterworks, and telephones possible.
A few miles outside of Tecoluca, six electrical workers this week were connecting lines on new cement poles.
''These lines have been down for three years,'' said Pedro Chavez, one of the workmen. ''We've been working here for two weeks and on Friday, for the first time since 1980, Tecoluca will have electric power.''
Manuel de J. Montalvo, the superintendent of the Rafael Suarez School, was equally optimistic. ''We have opened 58 new schools in San Vicente,'' he said. He directed me to one of the new schools outside of the town on an abandoned plantation.
The Alchichilco plantation, once one of the largest around Tecoluca, is now in ruins. The main house was pillaged and blown up by the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the nation's five guerrilla groups, in 1980. The FPL base of operations is in Chalatenango Province to the north and the majestic Chichontepec Volcano, a heavily forested, twin-peaked mountain rising to 7,157 feet just south of San Vicente. Since 1979 guerrillas have launched over 30 attacks on the town of Tecoluca.
The gardens and fields of the estate are overgrown. The swimming pool is bone dry and nothing remains but the shell of the once stately plantation house. Inside, under a sagging roof, are two rows of desks and a chalk board. Two teachers arrive each day to teach 17 children.
There are five families camped out in the adjacent buildings. Several of them have spent several generations as peasants attached to the estate.
Andre Martinez Flores stands under the arching shade trees and looks at the remains of the plantation.
''We farmed all this land,'' he said, pointing to a series of rolling hills. ''Now we cannot even walk there. We do not leave the estate.''
''All of this country was once covered with small settlements and tiny houses ,'' Antonio Melendez said, ''but since the war it is empty. Half of the people went to the government side and the other half with the guerrillas. You could not live in those hills and continue to be neutral.''
To walk even a half mile off the plantation is to enter a war zone according to the peasants on the estate.
''We do not see the guerrillas like we used to because they are hiding in the mountains waiting for the troops to leave here. We hear small bursts of fire between soldiers and guerrillas every day in the distance,'' Melendez said.
cl11 The Alchichilco plantation, according to Pedro Alfonso Flores, who works with CARITAS and the Catholic Relief Agency in San Vicente, is soon to play a key role in the development program in the province.
''Fifty families will be relocated from our refugee camps to the plantation, '' he said, ''and under government protection it is hoped the peasants can reclaim the land. The military plans to again make Alchichilco operational.''
The continual presence of the Army in San Vicente has enabled the government to begin to rebuild the decimated province. What worries observers here is that the Army, after three months, has still not had major confrontations with the guerrilla forces in the area.
Soldiers on the main road said they could not go to the Alchichilco plantation, only a mile away, in groups of less than 20 for fear of an ambush.
''The guerrillas are still here, and they are still strong,'' said one sergeant. ''They stay in small groups and are hard to pin down.''
The Chichontepec Volcano is still estimated by military sources here to harbor over 1,000 guerrillas.
Col. Rinaldo Golcher, the overall commander of the government operation here and in neighboring Usulutan Province, recently conceded that guerrilla forces had only shifted their bases. He speculated that the guerrillas are probably encamped on the southwest slopes of the volcano and will have to be dispersed if the pacification plan is to succeed.
''The program is working but in order to keep it alive we must stay here,'' one major with the Immediate Reaction Battalion said. ''If we pull out, the guerrillas will return.''