A SPASM of vicious violence in El Salvador over the past week has created a chilling sense of d'ej`a vu. The execution-style murders of six prominent Jesuit priests last Thursday, coming as they did during the fiercest urban offensive ever by the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN), turned back El Salvador's political clocks to the ugly days of the early 1980s, according to diplomats and political analysts here.
Like those years of rampant right-wing death squads and a growing leftist revolutionary movement, the escalation of violence and repression last week has bolstered extremists on the left and right - and crippled the country's democratic process, these sources say.
Moreover, as opposition politicians flee the country and others receive threats of expulsion or death, some analysts are sounding the death knell for the United States' eight-year, $3.5 billion project to win the war and build a more democratic nation.
Soon after the FMLN's failed ``final offensive'' in January 1981, massive amounts of US aid began flowing into El Salvador to build a democratic middle ground that could stave off radical extremists on either side.
But the center would not hold.
``The US wanted to achieve three things: a measure of peace, the respect for human rights, and the institutionalization of democratic processses,'' says one former high Salvadoran official. ``All three objectives have failed ... so we are back to 1981.''
The FMLN offensive, in which rebel troops held several neighborhoods in the country's two largest cities for nearly a week, has proven more damaging than the 1981 ``final offensive.'' Over the past seven days, more than 1,000 deaths have been added to the 70,000 already registered during the decade-long war. Some are civilian victims of the Army's aerial bombings into populated zones.
But Salvadoran analysts say that no single act over the past eight years has shaken the country's political foundations as much as the gruesome murders of six priests outside the rector's quarters at the Central American University Thursday.
The six leftist intellectuals were the most prominent victims of violence here since 1980, when government critic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was gunned down during a mass.
Among the victims was Ignacio Ellacur'ia, the University's soft-spoken rector. He was a harsh critic of human-rights violations and a strong advocate of a negotiated settlement of the war. Though denounced by the extreme right as the intellectual ``father'' of the FMLN, Father Ellacur'ia recently became more critical of FMLN strategy, urging it to negotiate more flexibly.
Ellacur'ia was murdered just days after receiving a special human-rights award in Barcelona, Spain.
Observers only hope that the Army and the US Embassy dig deeper into this case than they did on the Romero assassination, which has never been officially solved despite the abundance of evidence pointing to right-wing death squads. If this case is solved promptly, some analysts say it could help staunch the flow of further violence.
Few people - not even the US government officials - doubt the extreme right is responsible for the massacre. According to a priest who talked to a witness, it was carried out by about 30 uniformed men Thursday morning during a curfew.
President Alfredo Cristiani refuses to speculate about the murder, but his vice president, Francisco Merino, says ``logic'' suggests it was the rebels because they benefit from the polarization it has produced.
But the FMLN offensive has helped the extreme right justify its harsh treatment of left-leaning organizations, diplomats say. That raises the spectre of right-wing death squads cruising again in their vehicles of choice - Jeep Cherokees with tinted windows.
``There are disturbing signs that the Cherokees are back on the road and the far right is flexing its muscles,'' says one European envoy. ``That leaves little room for the moderate course that [President Cristiani] was trying to follow.''
Here are some of those signs:
On the national radio station, former Army Major Roberto D'Aubuisson and his followers have made threats against leftist politicians Rub'en Zamora and Guillermo Ungo as well as Father Ellacur'ia and Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas. The return of Mr. Ungo and Mr. Zamora two years ago symbolized the gradual political opening in El Salvador. But on Saturday, two days after Ellacur'ia was assassinated, the two fled the country.
Last Wednesday morning nine members of the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared - including two Americans - were arrested by Treasury Police and subjected to physical abuse in jail. The Americans were released Friday, but seven Salvadorans are still in detention.
On Thursday afternoon, 15 Lutheran church workers helping some of the 30,000 displaced by the recent fighting were also arrested by the Treasury Police while their offices were ransacked. The 12 foreigners in the group - including four Americans - were released the next day, but a prominent Salvadoran lawyer, Salvador Ibarra, previously tortured by the military, remains in custody.
On Friday, a vehicle circled the Archbishop's office with a loudspeaker blasting: ``Ignacio Ellacur'ia ... already has been shut up. Let's continue killing communists.'' It was read as a none-too-veiled threat against Archbishop Rivera y Damas.
Attorney General Mauricio Eduardo Colorado suggested Saturday night that the Cristiani government should expel leaders of the ``popular church'' - a message thought to be aimed at both the Lutheran and Catholic church leaderships.
While some of these measures are widely condoned in the armed forces, several officers have called the killing of the priests a blunder - one that jeopardizes US military aid and also signals a new spiral of violence.
Col. Mauricio Ernesto Vargas says: ``If we are going to take justice into our own hands, taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we are all going to end up blind and toothless.''