New UN Timetable for Salvadoran Reforms Could Salvage Stymied Peace Accords

SEVEN months ago, the protagonists in El Salvador's brutal civil war agreed to a daunting challenge: disarm and embark on reforms so profound that the peace pact was dubbed a "negotiated revolution."

The deadline was, and is, Oct. 31. But both sides have fallen far behind and now must scramble to salvage the accords.

"The time that remains is critical," says Iqbal Riza, chief of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador, who is charged with verifying the process. "It was a tight calendar to begin with. But with the problems, delays, and two reschedulings, there's very little time left to play catch-up."

By this time, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) should have disarmed 60 percent of its soldiers, who in turn should have received a civilian resettlement package of food, clothing, cash, and a bit of land. Instead, only 20 percent have disbanded, and the land issue remains unsettled.

For its part, the government dragged its feet on disbanding the military-run National Guard and Treasury Police. The new civilian police academy is four months late in getting started.

Every delay has a ripple effect. "Each step is interrelated. That creates an important equilibrium," says former government negotiator David Escobar Galindo. He admits it also means both sides are playing a game of "I'll comply when you comply." As one UN official puts it: "They still don't trust one another."

The bulk of the pact directs the government to make an extensive series of judicial, military, and electoral reforms. This gives it wiggle room on various fronts. But the FMLN's role is limited to disarming and becoming a political party. If a dispute arises, the FMLN's only leverage is to halt disarmament.

For example, the government tried to rename the National Guard and Treasury police instead of disbanding them, and tried to slip Army officers into the staff of the new civilian police academy. The FMLN has done its share of fudging, too. It turned in an incomplete weapons inventory and delayed verifying occupied land. But mostly it has refused to disband its troops in the hills.

Sipping coffee from a tin cup at an FMLN camp near the town of La Reina, FMLN provincial leader Hector Martinez says: "We're inactive. But with arms in hand, we remain a force of pressure in the peace process."

The latest delays are focused primarily on land distribution, starting the police academy, a resettlement package for ex-combatants, and restoring civil government in conflict zones.

The logjam got a shove with a mid-August visit by Marrack Goulding, chief of UN peacekeeping forces. Both sides have agreed to a revised timetable. On Sept. 16, the UN secretary-general will evaluate the progress and recommend "appropriate action" to the UN Security Council.

Mr. Goulding's visit seems to be having the desired effect. Last Monday, the first 622 recruits to the new civilian police academy began a six-month course. The graduates will begin to form the National Civilian Police, which is to replace the military-run security forces, widely accused of human-rights abuses. Sixty percent of the new force will have no links to either military organization; the rest will be drawn equally from a screened pool of former FMLN and government troops.

"The new police are the key to a secure future for our country," says FMLN commander Joaquin Villalobos. "We need to arrive at the 1994 elections with the police in place and the Army reduced."

Land - a root cause of the 12-year war - is proving harder to agree on. After FMLN delays in delivering a list of occupied territory, the UN last week began verifying ownership of more than 4,000 properties in war zones.

But the process is expected to take six to 15 weeks, and there is no agreement yet over how much land each ex-combatant may qualify for through a low-cost repayment program. The latest government proposal is for three to seven hectares - somewhat closer to earlier FMLN proposals.

Already, FMLN commanders have been scouting out sites for tourism and agricultural projects. Although many young FMLN soldiers show little interest in becoming farmers, land is politically important to the FMLN's future. It is seen as a tangible, possibly income-producing asset the FMLN can offer its rural backers for their decade of support.

On Monday, the government demobilized one of five counter-insurgency battalions, per the accords. Under the new timetable, the FMLN will demobilize the next 20 percent of its forces Sept. 21. The remaining 60 percent will disband at two-week intervals to meet the Oct. 31 deadline.

"The Oct. 31 date will be very difficult to achieve," Mr. Villalobos says. Though not all reforms must be complete by then, he notes, "they'll have to deliver a significant quantity of land for us to believe they will definitely comply with the accords."

Mr. Riza says the completion date "theoretically" could get bumped back, but that could endanger the peace process. "It would affect the credibility of the process and prolong a rather tense situation. We still have an armed movement, so the longer the situation lasts, the more chance of incidents occurring."

No one really expects a return to war. Both an FMLN regional commander and Mr. Escobar Galindo describe the peace process as irreversible.

"I don't see how the process can be stopped," Escobar Galindo says. "We are in a postwar stage. You can't go back. Everyone is tempted to comply less than they promised. But nobody can stop the progress."

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