Salvadoran Cease-Fire Takes Hold

Reforms accelerate as celebrations mark end of 12-year war

SLUMBERING Salvadorans were awakened just after midnight Saturday morning, but not by gunfire, nor a saboteur's bomb, nor the angry thump of Army helicopters, nor any of the sounds of death which have haunted their dreams through 12 brutal years of civil war.

Instead, honks and hoots split the predawn darkness in proclamations of peace. On Saturday, a cease-fire went into effect here, starting a precise and painstakingly negotiated timetable for sheathing weapons and remaking the judicial, economic, political, and security institutions of El Salvador.

On Saturday morning, more than 2,000 people jammed the International Fair Pavilion to witness the inauguration of the National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ). The commission is composed of leaders from all political parties, who will set an example by working together to direct the transition to peace.

After an emotional rendition of the national anthem, members of COPAZ addressed the nation. Joaquin Villalobos, who heads the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) general command, gave a speech that was interrupted by frequent applause from all quarters but the ruling party.

"It's wrong to think that we're closing the military war to open a political war," Mr. Villalobos said. "After 12 years of war, 70,000 deaths, 1 million people displaced, and a country divided, those who think that they didn't win because they lacked the time or believe they almost won, haven't learned the lesson.... This is the hour of peace and reconciliation."

Even as Villalobos spoke, United Nations peacekeeping police were fanning out over the countryside, supervising the first stage of disengagement. The Salvadoran government's armed forces and the FMLN guerrillas will withdraw to some 150 different designated locations. Disarmament of the FMLN will take place in five steps during the next eight months. In the next two years, the size of the Army will be cut in half to about 31,000, which still leaves it almost twice as large as when the war began.

Since the peace accords were signed on Jan. 16 in Mexico City, the Salvadoran legislature has rushed to prepare for this day. A law granting limited amnesty enabled Villalobos and other FMLN leaders to legally and openly return to the country last Friday. The amnesty does not extend to any crimes committed in January, nor to those convicted by a military tribunal, nor any cases that would be investigated by the Truth Commission, a UN-appointed body set up by the accords to investigate human rights abuses .

For example, the Salvadoran Army officers recently convicted of murdering six Jesuit priests in 1989 are not likely to be eligible for amnesty. But Vice President Francisco Merino Lopez has objected to the law's "gray areas," saying it leaves the door open to anyone the Truth Commission decides to investigate.

Last week, a law to establish a national police academy was also passed. Ruben Zamora Rivas, leader of the Democratic Convergence (a coalition of leftist parties) and vice president of the Legislative Assembly, considers a new national police force "fundamental" to restoring peace. But phasing out the Army-run police forces and training a new civilian-guided force will take two years.

"It's the Achilles' heel of the peace process," says Dr. Zamora.

The coming weeks will usher in a flurry of further reforms. COPAZ will name and meet with an economic reconstruction commission. An electoral tribune will be named. A new civil intelligence agency will be created. An attorney general for the defense of human rights will be named. Political prisoners freed. Programs to enable former soldiers to retrain and settle into civilian life will get under way. Judicial reform laws will be introduced in the National Assembly.

In short, this is what many observers are calling a "revolution by negotiation." And although it failed to achieve its oft-stated goal of power-sharing, the FMLN appears exultant.

Emerging from exile, coming out of the mountains and out of hiding in the capital, thousands of FMLN members exercised their new political freedom on Saturday by parading loudly through the streets like a conquering army. In the afternoon, the former rebels threw a huge peace party, drawing about 10,000 people to the Plaza Civica in a poor downtown area.

Venders hawked FMLN T-shirts and red scarves, members of the FMLN wandered though the throng collecting signatures to fill out its party rolls.

"It's not only a triumph for us. The accords are a triumph and opportunity for the people," says Marcos Antonio Flores, a former FMLN guerrilla swaying to the beat of a salsa band in the plaza.

In stark contrast, President Alfredo Felix Cristiani presided over a solemn ceremony for the government troops. Army Chief of Staff Gilberto Rubio, declaring an official end to the war on Friday, said: "The mission against communist aggression has been completed." An Army band played resolutely as medals were bestowed on soldiers standing under a strong sun on the parade grounds of the First Infantry Brigade.

Although the public was invited, security was tight and only a small crowd was at hand.

"Politically we won," asserts Army Maj. Pedro Antonio Juarez after the ceremony. When the 20-year veteran is asked if he'll have any trouble sharing the streets with his old enemy, he shrugs: "They're brother Salvadorans. I guess I'll have to get used to it."

Growing accustomed to the change peace brings may not be so hard for others. Taxi driver Wilfredo Hernandez ticks off the names of four neighborhoods he wouldn't drive into after dark during the war. "Peace gives me a chance to work a few more hours," he says.

Maria Olinda Reyes da Zelyandia, who sells bread in the street to support her five teenage children, says, "I think there will be more opportunity for them to work." And, she laughs, "the electricity won't go out so much." Utility poles were a favorite FMLN target.

Army Pvt. Isabel Suarez wouldn't mind staying on as a soldier. But he adds quietly: "Thank God I don't have to go into the mountains to fight anymore."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Salvadoran Cease-Fire Takes Hold
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today