Behind Salvador's military shake-up: drive to do better in battle, shore up rightists

This past week's major shake-up of El Salvador's military command is the first public sign of efforts to rectify the Army's political and military failures, diplomatic and military sources here say.

Many of the 20 transfers in the top command appear to consolidate the power of the ultra-right. Other changes are apparently due simply to poor military performance in the field. And still others may be a concession to the United States, which has been dissatisfied with El Salvador's actions to curb right-wing death squads.

The diplomatic and military sources say these command transfers have occurred because of:

* A reaction to maneuverings by reformist military officers to regain power.

* Poor performance by the Salvadorean Army in the field, which has contributed to the guerrilla campaign's recent successes in its fall offensive.

* Recently stepped-up pressure by the US Embassy, including the first officially authorized public criticism by the US ambassador of the failure to stop right-wing political killings.

Defense Minister Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova has refused to comment on the changes, which are the most sweeping since he assumed command of the armed forces last April. A spokesperson for the Salvadorean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the transfers were made solely for military reasons. He denied that US pressure or differences within the military played any part in the changes.

There have been persistent rumors in recent weeks of a possible coup led by Gen. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez, who was a leader in the 1979 reformist coup here. A European diplomat said Wednesday that a coup attempt by Gutierrez and Col. Nicolas Carranza, the director of the Treasury Police, was ''imminent.''

Gutierrez has repeatedly denied involvement in coup activity, although he remains publicly critical of the government. Right-wingers have never forgiven him for the seizure of 276 large private farms or for his attempt to purge the officer corps of ultra-rightist commanders.

In the shake-up announced last weekend, troop commands were given to some officers who have close ties with ultra-rightist leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, who is president of the Constituent Assembly.

Some of the new commanders, such as Lt. Col. Roberto Mauricio Staben, were among a group of officers arrested with D'Aubuisson in 1980, accused of plotting to overthrow the reformist junta.

Promotions were given to three officials who were openly sympathetic to a mutiny last January against the previous defense minister, Jose Guillermo Garcia. The mutiny was led by Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, in response to his planned transfer out of the country. His action is largely credited with forcing General Garcia out of office in April and helping D'Aubuisson consolidate power.

The officials who supported Ochoa and acted as intermediaries in the mutiny are Col. Adolfo Blandon, Col. Jaime Flores, and Lt. Col. Roberto Rodriguez Murcia.

Colonel Blandon has become the new chief of staff. He is said to have good organizational skills and supports the idea of small, rapid-reaction teams.

Colonel Flores has replaced Blandon as the commander of the First Infantry Brigade in the capital. The command is probably one of the most sensitive political positions. The brigade is always a pivotal command in any coup attempt.

Lt. Col. Rodriguez Murcia will assume command of the Fifth Infantry Brigade in San Vicente, where a beleaguered US-sponsored and -funded pacification program is attempting to make headway.

Among the changes that appear to have occurred due to poor military showing is Lt. Col. Orlando Montano's transfer from the Arce Brigade to the Transportation Ministry. The colonel commanded the brigade for three months. He has been replaced by Lt. Col. Roberto Mauricio Staben, the former head of the cavalry.

Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, a widely respected field commander, will move from the Atlactal Battalion (the first US-trained rapid-reaction unit) to command the country's third-largest military base in San Miguel. His unit was accused last month of massacring dozens of civilians in an antiguerrilla sweep. Monterrosa denied the charges but said civilians had been killed in cross fire.

Monterrosa will replace Flores, who has been plagued by guerrilla advances.

Nine officials in the internal security forces, who reportedly were linked to death-squad activity, appear to have been transferred to appease the US. Some of these officials have been put into positions where they no longer command troops. Others have been given battlefield positions, often for the first time.

''The sending of the officers from the internal security forces into (other positions) is an effort to strip them of the power they had,'' says a Salvadorean military man. ''Removing them from intelligence, taking away their access to cash, and occupying them with a battlefield situation is about the best the military can do to curb death-squad activity.''

More definitive results of transfers are not expected for several weeks.

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