El Salvador's military has been forcing youths into the Army here for the past four weeks, according to officials and residents of this eastern provincial capital.
The forced recruitment is unprecedented in size or scope and is directed at boys with high-school educations, these sources say claim.
''The Army has been taking heavy loses,'' says Mayor Manuel Guzman, ''and we suppose they need more boys to fill their ranks.'' The mayor, a former truck driver who has been in office for one month, claims that most families who have petitioned for release of their abducted sons have not been able to get in to see local military authorities.
''The Army won't say anything to anyone,'' Guzman says, ''Families line up in front of the garrison and the guards tell them the officials are not in.''
Guzman estimates some 600 youths have been taken from the town and surrounding villages. There have been a few cases where youths were released, but only when high-ranking Salvadorean officials interceded.
One result is that young men and boys in this town seldom venture out on the streets for fear of abduction by soldiers stationed around town in groups.
Salvadorean Army Maj. Nelson Rivas counters that the armed forces are not taking youths who do not want to perform military service. ''Those people we have picked up in the recruitment drive are happy to enter the Army,'' he says. ''Many wanted to enter before but we had no room for them.''
Major Rivas says, ''The recruitment here is not different from any of the recruitment drives going on in the country now. We have not singled people out, but pick up those on the streets who are unemployed or have nothing to do.''
He concedes that illiterate peasants have been difficult to train. ''We would like to get recruits who are better prepared,'' he said, ''and this is not a problem because all Salvadoreans want to fight to defend their country.''
Among the youths who were picked up but then released are five Roman Catholic seminarians. These youths were turned over to church officials recently after the Bishop of San Miguel, Jose Eduardo Alvarez, who serves as the military chaplain for the armed forces and holds the rank of colonel, made a trip to the garrison here and demanded their freedom. Former President Jose Napoleon Duarte, who is running in the March presidential election,also reportedly called to secure the release of two campaign workers. Those released were given small white cards signed by the local commander, Col. Jorge Adalberto Cruz, exempting them from service.
The majority of the residents here, however, have not had contact with their abducted sons since they were taken by the military authorities.
Only 15 boys, 10 percent of the normal enrollment have registered for classes at the local high school, say local employees of the Ministry of Education. These employees say students fear military authorities will abduct them as they come to register or that soldiers will enter the school when classes begin next week and force students into the service.
''We are worried,'' says an instructor at the school, ''because classes start on Feb. 6 and we wonder what we will do if we are missing 150 students.''
Local residents and school officials say the recruitment drive is directed at the best-educated youths.
''They have forced boys into the military before,'' this instructor says. ''But never on a scale like this, and they have never singled out teachers, professionals, and boys with an education.''
Schools in the town of Yamabal and Sensembra will not open next week because teachers fear they, too, will be abducted if they travel to their classrooms.
''We have heard,'' says one local official, ''that the US instructors in Honduras want soldiers who can read and write instead of poor peasants, who the US intructors claim they cannot teach.''
Local military officials says the recruits will be trained by US instructors in Honduras. But a US official says: ''I have no knowledge of a request by US military advisers for better educated recruits, and seriously doubt any request was made by us.''
Several youths interviewed say they have not left their homes since the forced recruitment began.
''I was standing in the doorway of my house,'' says one boy who was one of the few to be released, ''when a group of soldiers came by and grabbed me.''
''We live in a society where one cannot make complaints,'' the boy's father says.''I guess my children will not be able to study this year. We had planned to have our two oldest boys enrolled at the university next week, but how can we get them there? They may be taken off a bus, or out of a car by the Army.'' The mother of another boy says: ''People here are very angry and very scared. We cannot speak against this because we can be disappeared and later turn up dead along a road.''