A WEEK ago, Blanca Mirna Benavides Mendoza was with a group putting up posters along 49 Avenue North, a major road running through San Salvador. Spirits were high. It was the last night of the campaign for the 25-year-old professor and National Assembly candidate for the leftist Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN) party.
But at about 9:15 p.m., a caravan of cars with supporters of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) pulled up. Shouts and taunts were exchanged. Then, according to several UDN members and an independent witness, shots were fired from the ARENA cars.
"We ran toward our cars for cover. But Mirna didn't understand right away what was happening," recalls Alma Hayde 142&gt; Ruinos, standing outside Ms. Benavides's hospital room. A bullet hit Benavides, severely wounding her.
"This isn't a real democracy," says Ms. Ruinos angrily. "If you express yourself freely, you're shot at."
On Feb. 21, another UDN candidate, Herberto Ar 146&gt;stides Robles and his pregnant wife were assassinated.
The human rights group Americas Watch issued a report on El Salvador last Friday. It notes a "discouraging upsurge" in political violence prior to Sunday's election. The jump in violence follows a drop in human rights abuses in the second half of 1990.
The report ties the decline to three factors. First, as United Nations peace talks began, neither side wished to be accused of trying to sabotage them. Second, the government and Farabundo Mart 146&gt; National Liberation Front signed a human rights accord last July. Third, a temporary 50 percent cut in United States aid to Salvadoran security forces had a sobering effect.
The US Congress cut the aid in October because of the slow investigation into the murders of six Jesuit priests by Army troops in November 1989. The Jesuit case remains stalled. But the January murders of two US servicemen by rebels was followed by restored US aid.
The history of human rights abuses on both sides is one of near impunity, the report says: "Hopes that the trends of late 1990 could be sustained are diminished by the ongoing incapacity of the judicial system to provide justice even in those major human rights cases which have received international attention."
Indeed, President Alfredo Cristiani said last week that rights violations are one of the "obstacles to the consolidation of democracy."