The Salvadorean Army appears to be improving its performance against left-wing guerrillas here in the strategic province of Usulut'an. But President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's government's major aim -- an aim backed by the United States -- of clearing this province and neighboring San Vincente of guerrillas has so far failed. Victory for either the government or the guerrillas is still far away.
Usulut'an has long been identified as one of the key provinces that the Salvadorean government needs to control in order to win its war against left-wing guerrillas.
Although the Salvadorean Army has been credited by political analysts with having improved its performance against the guerrillas, the Army hasn't shown any major successes in Usulut'an.
The guerrillas of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front, an umbrella group of five rebel organizations, are still active throughout Usulut'an. In many parts of eastern El Salvador, they are the de facto government.
The guerrillas operate through most of the province: along the mosquito-infested salt marshes, in the rugged coastal highlands, the lowlands, and on the eastern slopes of the volcano. Only in the capital, along the main government-patrolled highways, and in a small coffee-producing zone on the volcanic highlands in the center of the province, does the government have control. Even that area is not secure.
``Sabotaging the economy is part of the guerrillas' strategy,'' says Usulut'an's governor, Luis Angel Lazo. ``We have an average of three days of electricity a week because of guerrilla sabotage.''
Usulut'an once grew more cotton than any other province. Now much of the rich bottom land is idle or in other crops, since the guerrillas warn the growers not to plant cotton. They say that cotton -- El Salvador's No. 2 export earner -- helps the government to finance the war. Cotton production has dropped 40 percent.
The coffee crop has not been so badly affected, since most coffee growers pay sizable ``war taxes'' to the guerrillas to ensure that their crops are left alone. But that is something the growers and the Army don't like to admit.
A military expert familiar with the Salvadorean Army says that ``the track record is not as good [in Usulut'an] as other areas.'' He notes that the guerrillas have a well-established infrastructure that is difficult to root out. Many guerrillas work during the day and fight by night, caching their weapons when they're done.
Colonel Mauricio Vargas, commander of the US-trained Atonal battalion, says that despite the Army's increased mobility, ``it's still difficult to control the terrorists. But they can't develop large operations as they did in the past.''
Vargas recognizes the need for social reform. But local residents say his troops have been brutal to civilians suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas.
Guided by informers, soldiers of the Atonal battalion pulled 40 villagers from their homes in several small towns on the edges of the coastal mangrove swamps last April. They allegedly tortured four men and raped three women, according to local residents.
The following day the villagers were flown by helicoptor to the six brigade barracks in the city of Usulut'an, where they were held for a week. They were warned not to return to their homes.
``Ernesto,'' a leader of one of the guerrilla units operating in the swamps, claims that the more frequent Army operations have had little effect on the guerrilla forces. Instead, they focus more and more on the civilian population.
He predicts that the Army's new tactics will fail because they have not addressed the problem of the poor landless agricultural laborers. ``All the land is still in the hands of a few landlords,'' he added.
Throughout the eastern part of El Salvador the dominant guerrilla organization, the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), has tried to prevent the mayors elected in the government's March 31 elections from taking office. According to local press reports, ERP has killed one mayor and abducted 17. Almost all the mayors have fled to the provincial capitals. And the government's presence in the countryside has been blocked.
Many local residents think the mayors were foolish in trying to assume office, in trying to defy the de facto government -- the ERP. ``The ERP is attempting to have an effect on the local level and they have achieved it,'' one academic analyst says. ``Almost all the mayors have been forced to move to the departmental capitals and they're showing that the the Army really doesn't have control there. Although it doesn't play well internationally, locally the people understand it.''