Last Friday Jose Santos Amaya arrived at Mariona prison.Mr. Santos, a migrant worker, says he was picked up a week earlier by five men who tortured him before he was sent to Mariona.
''I was taken by heavily armed men dressed in civilian clothes,'' the soft-spoken peasant says. ''They drove me to the Army Third Brigade Headquarters in San Miguel, and for six days I was tortured inside the garrison with electric shocks and beatings.''
What Mr. Santos has to say is significant because, if true, it seems to link the clandestine paramilitary death squads here with El Salvador's armed forces.
Mr. Santos is just one of thousands of Salvadoreans who are part of the often-abstract category known here as ''human rights violations.''
The United States Embassy and Salvadorean government officials concede that death squads probably have ties to the Army and three internal security forces - but they say they do not believe the death squads are linked to top military officials. Others disagree.
Santos claims his torturers in the Third Brigade headquarters wore Salvadorean Army uniforms. He says he was transferred to the National Guard jail in San Miguel for a day and then to Mariona.
Jorge Alfredo Canizales, a director of the Committee of Political Prisoners of El Salvador, says, ''The Army isn't supposed to abduct civilians, so when the Army decides to let a prisoner live, they pass them on to the security forces before they are transferred to the prison.'' Mr. Canizales himself has been jailed.
Santos' quarters consist of a cramped cinder-block cell. He has two bandages on his hands. His thumbs were broken, he says, when he was tortured by the Sal-vadorean soldiers. His face is bruised.
''My family,'' he says, ''does not know if I am dead or alive.''
The US government recently has attempted to remove some death squad leaders from their positions in the internal security forces. President Alvaro Magana said in an interview Jan. 19 that two suspected death squad leaders would be sent to diplomatic posts abroad. One suspected leader, Maj. Jose Ricardo Pozo, has already assumed his position in the Salvadorean Embassy in Paraguay. And Lt. Col. Aristedes Alfonso Marquez reportedly will soon leave for a diplomatic post abroad.
''The problem,'' alleges a member of the Roman Catholic archbishop's office in San Salvador, ''is that the people running the death squads are also running the country. Removing a few infamous offenders does nothing to dismantle the structure.''
Many observers of death squad activity here, including former US Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, have charged that the high command within the military and the heads of the National Police and Treasury Police are involved in the direction of these terrorist groups.
''When I was there, we didn't find out for sure who was running the death squads until just before I left,'' Mr. White said in a telephone interview Jan. 22. ''Obviously (right-wing political leader and National Assembly President Roberto) d'Aubuisson has been intimately involved, and we learned that the director of the Treasury Police, Nicolas Carranza, loaned some of his paramilitary people to d'Aubuisson for his activities, which included death squad work.
''I'm disgusted by this attempt,'' White said, ''to portray the director of the National Police, Lopez Nuila, as a man who respects human rights. They have even put him on the government's Human Rights Commission. The National Police have one of the worst records of torture and human rights violations. How can you remove the second in command at the National Police . . . and believe Nuila is uninvolved?''
The US Embassy and Salvadorean government claim the death squads are made up of fringe elements of the military and security forces.
''The death squads involve about 15 or 20 people who operate secretly and apart from the government,'' National Police director Lopez Reynaldo Nuila, says. He says he has set up a unit to track down suspected death squad members. ''I have been very careful,'' he says, ''to respect human rights.''
There is no independent judicial system or public forum to bring charges against death squads. News about their activity is available only from those who find the courage to testify to the legal staff at the archbishop's office. Many suspect that these testimonies are only a fraction of actual violations.
In the corner of Santos's cell is a silent reminder of the terror these groups inflict. His name is Daniel Antonio Hernandez Cortez. Last year his throat was slit and he was left on the roadside to die. But he survived and is fitted with a crude metal voice box.
He speculates that he is in jail now because military officials ''did not want me around as a reminder of their activities.''
Hernandez speculates that he was placed in Mariona to show prisoners what could await them. Lifting his shirt, he exposes two letters cut with a razor blade in his chest - E. M. These letters stand for escuadron de la muerte - death squad.