Are Salvadorean ``death squads'' operating in the United States? Concern is growing among Central American political activists about what they describe as a series of terrorist-style abductions and death threats against colleagues in the Los Angeles area.
Within the past two weeks, two Central American refugees have been kidnapped, and at least a dozen written or telephoned threats have been received by people here who are active in opposing the Reagan administration's policies in El Salvador.
At least some of the incidents are said to bear the stamp of right-wing military and paramilitary groups in El Salvador that have been accused of killing politically active church leaders in the country.
``This is the first time we've had real abductions, real torture, and wide-scale threats,'' says Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represents several Salvadorean activist organizations here. Los Angeles has the largest concentration of Salvadoreans (350,000) and Guatemalans (100,000) in the US.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation last week opened an investigation into what it called the ``possibility of terrorist activity'' in the Los Angeles area as a result of the incidents. Los Angeles police are also looking into the matter.
Yesterday, Mayor Tom Bradley joined the growing chorus of concern about the incidents. He is asking the city to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved, and said ``political violence will not be tolerated in Los Angeles.''
The series of incidents began with the kidnap and rape July 6 of a Salvadorean refugee who said she was tortured by two Salvadorean men. The woman said the men interrogated her about her activities here with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a leftist group protesting Reagan administration policy in that country. The men demanded a confession that she was a Salvadorean guerrilla, she said.
On July 17 another refugee, this one Guatemalan, was abducted by two armed men wearing face masks who drove her around Los Angeles for two hours. Although not injured, the woman was interrogated about a list of Central Americans and two US citizens active in Central American activities.
Two days earlier, the Rev. Luis Olivares, pastor of Los Angeles's largest Hispanic parish, received a letter similar to those sent to some priests killed by death squads in El Salvador. The single-page note contained the block initials ``E.M.,'' usually identified with Escuadron de la Muerte (Squadron of Death), and the number 1 below.
``They [the incidents] show a knowledge of death-squad activity,'' says Linton Joaquin, a lawyer with the Central American Refugee Center here. ``Clearly, Salvadoreans are doing this.''
The events here come on the heels of allegations by opponents of US policy on Central America that they have been the target of a campaign of politically motivated harassment and domestic surveillance. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a left-leaning lawyers' group based in New York, has documented 65 unsolved break-ins at anti-Reagan activists' homes and offices across the country since late 1983.
One, the ransacking last November of the Washington offices of the Center for International Development Policy, a group that opposes administration support for the Nicaraguan contras, helped spur a congressional inquiry.
Break-ins have occurred, too, at offices of other organizations opposed to US policy in Central America, such as CISPES, and at some churches that have declared themselves sanctuaries for Central American refugees.
The organizations victimized contend that most of the burglaries have been remarkably similar: Files have been rifled or stolen, while items of obvious street value have been left untouched. They have blamed the break-ins on either US government agencies, agents of the government of El Salvador, or right-wing extremists in the United States, operating with the tacit approval of the Reagan administration.
The incidents here, though, mark a new - and more ominous - turn, the activists claim. They say the attacks included some of the first examples of physical violence and bore the most tangible evidence yet that Salvadorean death squads, or groups trying to mimic death squads, may be involved.
``They are very bold, whoever is doing it,'' says Adelita Medina of CCR.
Local activists say threatening phone calls are continuing to come in despite the recent investigations launched by law-enforcement authorities. Meanwhile, CCR in New York reports that three other as-yet-unsubstantiated threatening letters or phone calls have been received by activists in other parts of the country in the past few days.
The incidents have made many in the Central American refugee community in Los Angeles uneasy.