CENTRAL America's military establishment is in the throes of retreat.
In El Salvador, the changes are startling. Police forces long controlled by the military are now in civilian hands. Leftist rebels and former Army officers who were enemies through 12 years of civil war have started to work side by side in that new civilian-run police force. The intelligence service is no longer an Army agency. And in the next year, the Army is to be cut to about half of the 62,000 troops in uniform when the cease-fire was signed in January 1992.
No Latin American military has yet allowed civilians to clean and reorganize it so extensively.
But as the Salvadoran changes also reveal, the military in Central America - replaced by civilian rule only in recent years - remains a powerful political and economic institution that is not
ready to raise a white flag and quietly limp off to the barracks.
"An institution so powerful, for so long, does not do this willingly or with full support of all its members," notes a United Nations official in El Salvador. Indeed, the process has been marked by delays, rumors of coup attempts, and the revival of right-wing death squads.
Under the UN peace accords, President Alfredo Cristiani agreed to purge in December 112 high-ranking military officers accused by a civilian commission of corruption and human rights abuses. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali rebuked Mr. Cristiani Jan. 1 for failing to comply with the agreement on time. Cristiani has reportedly been trying to negotiate a less public dismissal of his top brass in the interest of stability. At least two generals have publicly said they will contest their ouster or transfer. Changing attitudes
But military officers interviewed are aware not only that peace in the region requires force reductions, but that other change agents are at work. Here and in Nicaragua, Honduras, and even Guatemala - where the 32-year civil war continues - public attitudes are changing.
Democracy, at least in theory, is being embraced. Local human rights activists are being recognized at home and abroad. The awarding of the 1992 Nobel Prize to Guatemalan Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu is part of this trend. And fear of the military is slowly ebbing. Even in Guatemala, where forces are not shrinking, officers are privately discussing restructuring the armed forces, and clandestine mass graves are being dug up, exposing Army atrocities.
One of the most significant changes is that, with the end of the cold war, outside military funding is drying up. To stop the "communist scourge" in the 1980s, the United States pumped billions of dollars in economic and military aid into the region, building up local forces like a weightlifter on steroids. Today US injections have fallen to a trickle.
In Honduras, for example, US military aid has dropped from a peak of $80 million in the mid-1980s to $21 million last year and just $5 million this year. As yet, the Honduran military has not shrunk as have some of its neighbors, but officers admit major cuts are only a matter of time.
The US is withdrawing its forces from the region as well. Under the Panama Canal Treaty, the US is slated to close its 10 military bases and send home some 10,000 US troops stationed there by the year 2000. Indeed, to reduce costs, the phase-out has already begun. Abolition of armies?
Encouraged by the trend, some leaders in the region seek to completely abolish the military forces, as Costa Rica did in 1949.
"The greatest challenge to democracy in Latin America - not just in Central America - is to prove democracy works," says Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
"We don't want to arrive at the end of this century with new dictators," he says. "But democracy must deliver the goods. For democracy to deliver the goods we need to eliminate economic distortions and the Army is one of the greatest distortions and obstacles to economic growth."
Mr. Arias now heads a San Jose-based foundation dedicated to peaceful conflict resolution. In November, he helped promote a referendum in Panama that included an indefinite ban on armed forces. Polls showed support for the ban, but it was only one of 57 constitutional reforms and voters rejected the package, expressing their overall disapproval of the government of Panamanian President Guillermo Endara Galimany.
Still, Arias argues the defense cuts are one of the few savings options developing nations have. "They can't cut back on health care, on housing, on potable water, or on education," he says.
The military is well aware of such arguments. And while it may be in retreat, there is no contemplation of surrender.
Take Nicaragua, where one of the fiercest debates on military cutbacks is taking place. Already the Army, still controlled by the leftist Sandinistas, has been deflated from a high of about 90,000 troops consuming about 35 percent of the budget to a total of 16,500 today. The 1992 military budget (including police forces) is about 15 percent of total government outlays.
That's still too much, according to Francisco Mayorga, former president of Nicaragua's Central Bank and head of the Civil Movement, a citizens' group advocating abolishment of the Army.
"We're spending money on guns that are only fired at Nicaraguans. The country would be better off converting barracks into schools," he says. "We have no enemies outside the country." Mr. Mayorga would like Nicaragua to adopt the army-less model of southern neighbor Costa Rica.
What about the 24,000-strong Honduran Army to the north of Nicaragua?
"Why do Costa Ricans sleep well at night with a large Army at their border? Because they know it's absurd that Nicaragua would invade," Mayorga says. "If Nicaragua invades, the whole international community would intervene to protect Costa Rica. If they can have a happy life without an army, why can't we?" `Transition period'
Nicaraguan political scientist Oscar Rene Vargas argues that the rising crime rate requires a continued military presence. "In a postwar country where everyone is still armed, if we get rid of the Army, we'll end up like Lebanon. We're in a transition period where we need the Army."
On Oct. 27, in a remarkably overt political act, Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, head of Nicaragua's armed forces, waded into the debate. He called a press conference and issued a position statement, signed by top officers, defending the Army's role and flatly rejecting a budget cut.
"Our institution will not permit by way of budget reductions or revengeful reforms the annihilation of a Nicaraguan state institution which has spent so much blood building and defending independence, liberty, and democracy," General Ortega said.
In more down-to-earth terms, Ortega defends the military's existence as a frontier policeman against narcotraffickers, natural resource pirates, and illegal fishing in coastal waters.
Central America has a regional security commission set up by regional heads of state in 1990. It has met intermittently to discuss equivalence in arms inventories and troop sizes. As a regional forum for these issues it has some value, analysts say, but reductions so far have been unilateral moves based on domestic politics with little if any coordination between nations.
So it is with some confidence that Nicaraguan Army spokesman Capt. Julio Medina can say: "We're not inflexible. If the Central American commission agrees all armies in the region will reduce their forces, we will reduce in accordance." He adds, "We don't want to take resources from health or education. But the Constitution says the Army is a permanent institution so the government should guarantee its existence and development."
Though some are down-sizing, Central America's military institutions are generally in little danger of extinction. Due to deep economic and political tap roots, many "civilian governments are still subordinated to military forces," Arias says. Guatemala and Honduras are most often mentioned as examples of weak democracies that often fearfully defer to military wishes. Honduran Army's wealth
For example, the Honduran Army officers corps, widely accused of having skimmed US aid money for years, has built up holdings in a wide variety of commercial enterprises. Top brass individually and the military as an institution own a wide range of businesses, including firms in banking, real estate, insurance, credit, shipping, and tourism. The military also operates the telephone company, immigration, national police, ports, airports, and customs. The Army pension fund bought the state-run cement facto ry - the largest in the country - when it was privatized last year.
In addition to revenue from various business interests, many Central American armies are free from oversight of their budgets or spending. The legislatures approve a lump sum each year.
The debate about military reduction, Mayorga says, "isn't simply about money. It's about power for a few."
Quoting Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow, Arias says: "Military power doesn't lead to economic power, quite the opposite." While that may be true when applied to nations, the corrupt military officers of Central America have found military power and huge sums of outside aid a valuable stepping stone to personal wealth. This is the economic-social elite that is under some pressure now.