FOR nearly a week, the nationwide offensive that El Salvador's leftist guerrillas launched on Nov. 11 seemed a grave misjudgment. Although the fighters of the Faribundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) seized neighborhoods in the capital, San Salvador, and other cities, their assault bogged down. The offensive, in which hundreds of civilians have died, produced no popular uprising among the war-weary populace. Indeed, as it became evident that the well-coordinated assault had been in planning for months - even during the peace talks that commenced in Mexico City in September - the offensive cost the FMLN credibility. The guerrillas seemed ever more isolated in a region whose leaders have emphatically called for negotiated settlements of political disputes.
Then came the brutal murders last week of six Jesuit priests and two servants. Evidence points to the security forces or a right-wing paramilitary group. At the same time, the security forces cracked down on churches and religious groups. At least 40 church workers have been arrested, including 17 lay workers in a dawn raid on an Episcopal church. Salvador's oligarchic right regards churches as seedbeds of social unrest.
Abruptly public attention and condemnation shifted from the guerrillas to the human rights violations of Salvador's hard right. The religious murders and arrests revived memories of the death squads that in the mid-'80s slaughtered priests, nuns, labor leaders, teachers, and political opponents with impunity. And they raised anew questions about conservative President Alfredo Cristiani's ability to control rabid elements in the military and his ARENA Party.
Mr. Cristiani must swiftly arrest and prosecute the killers of the priests if he wants to be perceived in Washington as the leader of a government capable of winning popular support, instituting needed reforms, and getting peace talks back on track. This may lead to a showdown with Roberto D'Aubuisson, the powerful ARENA leader who has been linked to death squads.
Congress this week rightly rebuffed an attempt to suspend US aid to El Salvador. Cristiani, who was elected in what most international observers agreed was a free and fair election, deserves a chance to assert his authority and prove that Salvador's justice system is not hopelessly compromised. If he fails in this test, however, the US must seriously ask if there's a government in El Salvador that represents its people and with which Washington can legitimately do business.