Nineteen-year-old Oscar L'opez was on his way home from his job in a car-body shop when his bus was stopped by soldiers. He soon found himself at the San Carlos Barracks, running laps in his civilian clothes and having his head shaved by Army barbers. Three days later, he was shipped off for 15 weeks of basic training in the eastern city of La Uni'on.
His mother, a plump woman who sells fruit in the street, dressed in the plastic sandals and apron that is part of the uniform of the urban poor, was crying in front of the barracks gates when she found out he had already been sent out. ``It's like taking out a piece of your heart,'' she sobbed, dabbing her eyes. ``I only have two children and he's my only boy.'' Although she had come to the large barracks every day, she hadn't been allowed to speak to or see her son.
Once again, El Salvador's Army is replacing the soldiers who have completed their two-year terms fighting the leftist guerrillas by forcibly recruiting young men from poor communities in the cities and countryside. Each barracks conducts its own roundups and although many recruit four times a year, the drive that began just before the new year is the biggest of the past year.
One colonel denied the Army conducted forced recruitment. He said a formal procedure is used. The local military office draws up a list of eligible men and notifies them to report. But others familiar with Army practices say this procedure is rarely followed.
An Army major here acknowledged that the Army uses forcible recruitment but justified it by saying that the local Army offices had not been able to meet their quotas by the formal method. Government officials also say the Army uses forced recruitment.
Forced recruitment is widely resented by parents of poor families, because it is their sons that risk death or mutilation in the Army while the rich are exempt.
``You never see a rich one here,'' says one mother, waiting at the barracks gates in vain to see her son. ``If the sons of the rich get picked up, the parents come by and they get out. Ours stay in.''
One shopkeeper in the poor, working-class district of Mejicanos says she kept her 18-year-old son inside for the entire week to avoid the frequent Army recruiting teams. The boy's father adds, ``You sacrifice 15 years to raise a boy, to feed and clothe him, and with the way prices are now it isn't cheap, and then they take him away from you and return him in a coffin or a wheelchair. It isn't right.''
Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Ch'avez, criticized the forced recruiting in a recent Sunday homily: ``I am sure that wealthy people, who defend a military solution with such vehemence, would think differently if their own sons, who now peacefully study, or work, or simply waste their youth in a frivolous and superficial life, had to go to the battlefields.''
In the fashionable sidewalk caf'es and restaraunts of the capital's Zona Rosa, wealthy young Salvadoreans sporting the latest styles from the United States drink or eat with friends. ``The Army never takes people here. They only take the peasants or the people in the slums,'' says a young man making pizza, who himself fears recruitment when he returns to the poor part of the capital in which he lives. ``A year ago, the Army came [to the Zona Rosa area] and took some people but it was a sham. They took them around the corner and let them go.''
Army spokesman Colonel Mauricio Hern'andez admits that ``the form, the manner of the recruitment hasn't been just.'' He says a proposed new law of compulsory military service, now being prepared by the Defense Ministry, will make selection more fair.
Informed sources say the Army is divided over the need for a new law and some members have dragged their feet.
On Oct. 2, President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte announced the proposed new law of obligatory military service for all men and women over 18 years of age. The Roman Catholic Church said that although it wanted a peaceful solution to the war, the burden should be shared equally while the war continued. But it criticized the drafting of women.
Although sources in the National Assembly say they expect to receive the proposed law this week, even top government leaders say it will be almost impossible to carry out. ``They will just take their kids out of the country,'' says one Christian Democrat about the wealthy.
Sources close to the ruling party say the government hopes to use the law to discredit the rightist political parties and business sector, which are attacking the government's new war taxes and have never sent their sons to the war. Other analysts say the new draft law will enhance the government's image among lower income groups at a time when the party has lost popularity because of the war and economic deterioration.
But skepticism about the law is high in poor districts. ``They'll never recruit in the rich areas, only in places like this where the people are poor,'' says a woman selling watermelon at a bus stop in Mejicanos, which has been the scene of frequent forced recruiting. ``Thank God I have a girl. The poor little ones,'' she murmurs about the young recruits.