BEFORE and during the 12 years of El Salvador's civil war, Father Jon Cortina saw most of his closest friends killed. Among them were the six Jesuit priests murdered in 1989; they had been his housemates for many years until he moved from the capital to a war zone in rural Chalatenango Province.
Fr. Cortina had hoped the peace accords signed in January 1992 would mean the beginning of a genuine peace process. But he feels it has not worked out that way, and now he worries that what has been accomplished could easily come unstuck.
In protest, he and three others began a fast on Nov. 1 in a Chalatenango parish church. The group - which has grown to about 30 people and sparked sympathy fasts in other cities - includes catechists, community leaders, unionists, ex-guerrilla comandantes, and even a deputy from the National Assembly.
They say that provisions of the peace accords have been neglected, and that the recommendations of a United Nations commission on human rights abuses in El Salvador have not been carried out.
They are not alone in feeling that the peace process is imperiled. Other Salvadorans, including some who have no sympathy for left-of-center political views, are equally alarmed.
As recently as a few months ago, this kind of thinking was less common. While there were some serious problems in implementing the accords, especially in the area of land transfers to civilians and ex-combatants, almost no one spoke of the possibility that the peace process would unravel.
El Salvador's was seen as an exemplary peace process. There had been no major outbreaks of fighting, and there had been relatively few killings of former guerrillas; a total of three were murdered in 1992.
But already this year, 23 have been killed, including two top-ranking ex-comandantes, Francisco Velis and Eleno Castro.
Human rights observers say that in some cases the death squads that have plagued El Salvador try to disguise their killings by carrying them out in ways that leave the incident open to interpretation as a common crime.
But these same observers, speculating on the total absence of such circumstances in the Velis murder, say the killers' aim in that case may have been to declare that they can do whatever they want. Velis was shot at almost point-blank range before several witnesses and with police stationed nearby.
``There's no doubt,'' says a businessman who is a political moderate, ``that the peace process is on the brink of a crisis. There are people who don't want the process to stabilize, who don't want free elections.
``The president has to launch an investigation and have people captured in these cases.... If he doesn't do that, I'm afraid there'll be reprisals from the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a political party derived from the former guerrilla army of the same name]. It will mean a dirty war, and once that begins, you don't know where it will end.''
FMLN leader Joaquin Villalobos reflected the former rebels' anger when, speaking after the burial mass for Castro, he said ``I'm not going to tell people what to do, but neither am I going to tell them what not to do in the face of these events.''
Asked if the response to the killings would be strictly political, Mr. Villalobos said, ``the response will be on every level that's necessary.... The circumstances will have to convince people that everybody can live in this country.... If the [peace] process begins to lose credibility, I think people are free to do what they feel is just and necessary to defend themselves.''
Even before the new spate of killings, an increase in violence had been noted in the periodic reports of ONUSAL, the UN observer mission in El Salvador.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Marrack Goulding arrived here last week to oversee the establishment of a mechanism for investigating killings by what are usually called death squads, but what the UN calls illegal, armed groups.
The day he arrived President Alfredo Cristiani said, ``We will tell Mr. Goulding that we are equally interested in analyzing whether or not there are organized groups carrying out acts of political violence, and that whoever they are and wherever they come from, we're ready to get to the bottom of the question.''
A diplomatic source acknowledged the seriousness of the problem presented by the recent killings. ``I find it difficult to disagree with the FMLN when it says there appears to be an organized campaign against its supporters and some of its leaders.
``Let's not mince words,'' he adds. ``The amount of fear here now is something that wasn't present a year ago.''
The hope had been that fear would diminish with the implementation of two provisions of the peace accords: the abolition of the country's paramilitary security forces and their replacement by a new entity called the National Civilian Police.
But ``the essential civilianization of the police is not being implemented,'' the diplomat says. ``It's worrying that, 22 months after the signing of the accords, CETIPOL [the academy of the National Police, a paramilitary security force slated to be abolished] is still training officers for the National Police.''
The problems with the police and with land transfers are two of the issues specifically mentioned by the group of people fasting in Chalatenango. In response to a letter from Cortina explaining the reasons for the fast, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali wrote back, assuring him that the ``peace process in El Salvador continues to be a very high priority for the secretary-general and the Security Council.''