El Salvador's death squad killings have fallen to their lowest levels since human rights abuses began to be monitored in 1980. The new civilian government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte has placed great emphasis on curbing those in the state security forces and military who are believed to have been responsible for most such killings.
''We have only been in office for two months and this takes time, but from now on all abuses of authority will be dealt with immediately,'' the stocky President, standing on the balcony of the cream-colored presidential palace, declared recently.
Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Roman Catholic Church here, is widely regarded as the most respected monitor of human rights abuses. Its records show a notable reduction over recent months both in death squad murders and in the murder of civilians during military operations by the Army.
''The death squad murders have steadily declined,'' says Maria Julia Hernandez, Tutela Legal's director. ''Our records show that there are clearly fewer abuses of authority.''
Ms. Hernandez says she expects the July statistics, which are still being compiled, will show a further decline in civilian killings. But church officials , while applauding the decline in death squad murders, say more remains to be done.
''It is not enough for us that the abuses end,'' Hernandez says. ''There must be answers to the mothers whose children are missing. Those who committed the abuses must be brought to trial.''
The United States has strongly backed the Duarte administration's efforts to close down some of the most notorious centers of death squad activity. Even before Duarte assumed power June 1, the US had supported moves by the Salvador government to evict some of the more brutal military officers from their posts.
According to government sources here, the FBI has trained six Salvadoreans, including two military officers, in the US to investigate specific cases.
''Essentially,'' says a US official, ''you had a series of mafias inside the military - for instance, the intelligence unit at the Treasury Police or the security apparatus at CEL (the state electric company). When the intelligence unit at the Treasury Police was broken up, we found that even the police were scared of it.''
For five years, El Salvador has been plagued by a level of political violence that often belied description. Infamous areas outside the gritty capital city became known as ''body dumps.''
Each morning families whose relatives had disappeared searched these areas for the often mutilated remains of loved ones. More than 40,000 civilians have been victims of such death squad attacks. About 5,000 Salvadoreans remain missing.
Col. Francisco Antonio Moran, the former head of CEL and before that the head of the Treasury Police, was reputed to be one of the most renowned leaders of death squad activity. Moran was removed from his position shortly before Duarte assumed office and, at time of writing, had himself disappeared from sight.
''When we took over,'' says a high-ranking Christian Democratic official, ''we discovered that Moran was spending $3 million a year on security. He had taken the worst elements from the Treasury Police and formed his own private death squad army.''
''We used to have a large contract with CEL,'' says a local businessman, ''but we dropped it when Moran took over. We knew how he operated. We were too scared to deal with him. I know of several cases where subordinates of Moran were foolish enough to question him and were either killed or disappeared. The state electric company was one of the most frightening places in El Salvador.''
The new director of CEL, Gen. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez, refuses to comment on changes he has initiated. Christian Democratic leaders, however, insist that the general has purged the facility. Gutierrez reminds visitors he has an engineering degree, and it is this, he says, not his military rank, that qualifies him for the post.
''I expect,'' the soft-spoken Gutierrez says, dressed in a black business suit, ''that CEL will eventually be turned back over to civilian administrators.''
Although there fewer killings of civlians by death squads and the Armu, Tutela Legal worries that recently increased indiscriminate bombing by the Salvadorean Air Force may bring civilian casualties back to their former levels.