Insurgent guerrillas have begun a forced recruitment drive in the small northern towns in this department. The forced recruitment, which has brought dozens of young men into the guerrilla ranks, may be the prelude to increased military assaults within the San Vicente department, some observers here speculate.
Three towns in San Vicente have been overrun by the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas in the past week and several towns have been the scene of press-ganging by the rebel forces.
The insurgents publicly targeted the San Vicente department last fall. Many observers here feel the Salvadorean guerrillas hope to deliver a major blow to the faltering United States-sponsored pacification program currently under way in the department.
''The guerrillas surrounded San Esteban Catarina at 4:30 in the morning on Thursday,'' says town clerk Angel Garcia Aragon sitting in the small town office. ''They entered the town, pounded on the doors of the houses, and ordered everyone into the town square.''
Once in the square, according to Garcia and other town residents, guerrilla leaders spoke to the crowd. The Salvadorean guerrillas, town residents contend, numbered several hundred and were well equipped.
''During the meeting,'' Garcia says, looking toward the charred remains of a stack of papers, ''they threw a bomb in the room where they keep the town records and everything caught fire. They also stole the sacks of (US) AID food we had in the office.''
Government officials in the capital contend that the guerrillas, in addition to carrying off office equipment, walked away with 1,400 blank state identification cards from the town hall.
''The guerrillas condemned the election as a farce and said that the elections would not resolve the conflict,'' says Jose Albino Duarte. ''They told us they would win a military victory and were fighting for the interests of the poor.''
''After the meeting,'' says Manuel Vicente Montano, whose son was abducted, ''the guerrillas ordered the men to separate from the group and form a line. I started to walk toward the other men when they told me to go back because I was too old.''
Town residents say the guerrillas took 49 young men. Two of the men were reserve Army members, two were former soldiers, and six were former members of the town's now defunct civil defense unit, according to residents.
''First the Army takes them away to serve in the military, and then the guerrillas take them away to serve with them,'' a man says. ''I guess it completes the cycle.''
''At first we watched our boys being lead away in silence,'' a mother says. ''We began to cry and followed the column out of town.
''We pleaded with the guerrillas to let our sons, who were now crying with us , to remain. When we got to the cemetery, we were told we could go no further.''
Two hours after the early morning abduction six of the youngest boys, all under 16, returned to the village.
Around the central square in San Esteban Catarina are small hand-made white flags. Each flag has the word ''peace'' artfully written on it.
''The 42 Treasury Police assigned to protect the town left on Dec. 10,'' Garcia says. ''Since that time there has been no military presence here. The priest had the flags made and put up in the hopes that it could help us.
''On Friday, the Roman Catholic priest and mothers of the abducted boys went to the capital to file testimonies at the Roman Catholic human rights office.
''We are sad because we have lost many of the youth from our town,'' Hilda del Carmen Serrano says, ''and we are scared because at any moment the guerrillas can come back and take more of us, or perhaps if they come into the town angry, they will shoot.''
''I do not believe the guerrillas are fighting for us,'' Montano says, ''because what they promise is absurd. A man cannot be poor as I am, and then rich in a year or two years.''