Salvador colonel runs province as a warlord
Tejutla, El Salvador — COLONEL Sigifredo Ochoa P'erez cuts a dashing figure as he strides away from his armored car -- a green Cherokee Chief that has smoked windows. And when he begins speaking in Tejutla's town square, it is clear that the Army's best field commander can use a public address system as a weapon as well as he uses the Italian Berretta assault rifle that is always with him.
He tells Tejutla villagers, after his troops have assembled them, that the Army has changed. The people can now trust the armed forces. There have been abuses in the past, but any new abuses will be punished.
With National Assembly and local elections just 10 days away, Colonel Ochoa is careful to add that the Army doesn't support any of the political parties -- that it supports the ``democratic process.'' When his 15-minute talk is over, he asks if there are any questions. Several men step forward to mention minor problems that Ochoa says he will look into.
Ochoa -- part warlord, part politician -- gives the sort of performance the Salvadorean high command now expects of its commanders. Over the past year, the military has shifted to placing a high emphasis on psychological and political warfare, in addition to military means, to fight the nation's civil war.
So Ochoa speaks at high school graduations, rural fiestas, and other civic events, and gives a regular Sunday speech in Chalate- nango Province. He appears to be making at least minor headway with civilians, many of whom have long distrusted the military.
``In a counterinsurgency war the most important thing is organizing the civilian population,'' Ochoa said in an interview with this reporter in Chalatenango. ``The organization has to be based not on force but on persuasion.''
``I want to work here,'' he says, pointing to his head. ``The heart will follow later on.''
On the military front, Ochoa is in charge of one of the two most challenging regions. The rebels have long had a strong base of rural support here. Since September, when he was assigned to Chalatenango, Ochoa has been moving aggressively, launching operations against the edges of rebel strongholds in the eastern part of the province.
His troops usually do not engage in combat with rebels, but Roman Catholic Church sources say he dis- lodged some 1,400 civilian rebel supporters, who fled to Honduran refugee camps between September and November. Civilians say he turned mortar fire on them.
Ochoa says he has labeled 12 areas of guerrilla strength as ``red zones,'' but he denies charges that he has turned them into free fire areas. The commander remains vague about what has happened to civilians in these areas; he says the ``red zones'' are depopulated and that only guerrillas remain. Sometimes his troops remove civilians encountered during operations, he adds.
While he claims to be part of a newly professionalized and newly depoliticized armed forces, Ochoa ``runs Chalatenango like his private country,'' according to an observer with a human rights group, who echoes views fairly widely held here.
``I am the general coordinator of Codera,'' Ochoa says of the Departmental Committee for the Restoration of Areas, a military-run organization intended to generate new employment and to get the war-ravaged economy moving again. ``After me is the departmental governor, who is appointed by the minister of interior.''
Ochoa's authority as military commander of Chalate- nango surpasses that of the civilian authorities. He coordinates the political, military, and economic aspects of the government's counterinsurgency strategy.
While he avows loyalty to President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, Ochoa is considered a hard-line rightist and spoke out strongly against the guerrilla-declared Christmas truce, which Duarte initially said he supported. Ochoa is personally and politically close to Roberto d'Aubuisson, the rightist leader who opposed Duarte in the 1984 presidential election.
Ochoa is perhaps best known for defying Defense Minister Jos'e Guillermo Garc'ia in January 1983 when Mr. Garc'ia tried to transfer him abroad. Although Ochoa ended up being banished to the Inter-American Defense College in Washington for 11/2 years, his 10-day mutiny forced Garc'ia , then perhaps the most powerful man in El Salvador, to leave his post as defense minister.
The conflict between Garc'ia and Ochoa has political aspects, but it was also deeply rooted in different conceptions of how to conduct the war. US advisers had become critical of Garc'ia for launching large-scale operations in rebel zones, which they felt were ineffective.
Ochoa, in contrast, was praised by the advisers for his personal leadership of troops and his organization of civil-defense forces, which reduced guerrilla activity in Cabaas Province in 1982.
In eastern Chalatenango, the Roman Catholic Church has criticized him for blocking entry of food supplied by a church relief agency, Caritas. Ochoa also stopped the entry of International Red Cross medicine into these zones. Rights groups charge troops under his command, once here and once in Cabaas, committed massacres.
Ochoa's tactics in areas where guerrillas have not built a strong base among civilians is quite different. He has tried to win the people over with presents of food, clothing, candy, and schoolbooks. He also wants to start local self-defense committees across Chalatenango. But he says the time is not right to give arms to these groups.
The commander says he wants to create a ``mass anticommunist consciousness.''
While in the US, Ochoa spent time networking with US conservatives, fine-honing his ideology. ``I learned about free enterprise,'' he says. ``We are anticommunist, democratic, or at least aspire to that, and we believe in the market system. . . . ``We represent the Judeo-Christian Western civilization. We defend a system.''
``We aren't supermen or anything special. All we've done is to put into practice the doctrine we have learned. The first step is for the political and military leaders to have their objectives well defined and well understood.''
``We need a leader -- someone to lead us,'' says Ochoa. ``It's this way in Latin America. We want a strong man. Someone to lead us -- to guide us.''