Wave of Violence Threatens Salvadoran Vote

UNITED Nations officials and human rights advocates are concerned that a spate of recent killings in El Salvador may threaten both the fairness of the March 20 elections there and the peace process itself.

The upcoming presidential, legislative, and mayoral vote is billed as the first fully democratic election in El Salvador's history. The vote caps a peace process set in motion two years ago by a UN-brokered accord. El Salvador has long been considered one of the UN's most exemplary peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts.

Yet over the last three months, more than 50 Salvadorans have been killed. Several high-ranking leaders of the left-wing Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), taking part in elections for the first time as a political party this March, are among the dead. On Dec. 13, masked men with assault rifles killed six peasants in a style reminiscent of right-wing death squads charged with killing thousands of Salvadorans in the early 1980s.

Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, from the rightist National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, admits crime is up, but says he doubts the violence is political or that there is a revival of death squad activity. After weeks of negotiations with UN officials, he agreed this month to set up a joint UN-government panel to investigate the killings.

``I believe the evidence is overwhelming that at least some of the killings were political assassinations,'' says Bill Goodfellow, director of the Center for International Policy in Washington, a research group focusing on United States and developing-world ties.

Whatever the outcome of the probe, no one is expecting the 12-year-old civil war to resume. Elections are expected to take place as scheduled with 800 UN monitors on hand. But the UN is concerned that the recent violence could intimidate voters and further delay peace reforms.

``I think the violence is a major blow to the peace process.... The whole thing could still be reversed,'' warns George Vickers, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a rights group.

Major strides have been made toward national reconciliation. FMLN guerrillas have been disarmed and the size of the Army has been cut back. Yet promised land reforms and plans to replace the Army-controlled national police with a civilian force have lagged behind schedule. Units from the old force have been transferred into the new one without screening those accused of past rights abuse. The government's national police force is expanding rather than contracting.

``The problem is finishing the job,'' admits a UN official who monitors El Salvador. ``The process is running out of steam.''

The government says the delays are due to lack of resources. Skeptics say the primary cause is lack of political will. ``There are clearly many segments of Salvadoran society committed to preventing the FMLN from ever having any serious role in political or economic life,'' insists Cynthia Arnson, associate director of Americas Watch in Washington.

Recent results of a December poll by the Jesuit-run Central American University show the ruling ARENA party has been losing followers (now at 20 percent, down seven points since October) while the FMLN, at 12 percent, has been gaining slightly. Some left-wing candidates view the recent violence as a sign of their growing political power.

Mr. Goodfellow says that on his trips to El Salvador, he has been impressed by the enthusiasm with which FMLN members are playing a new political and economic role. ``Many are really becoming little capitalists,'' he says.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the Security Council have issued frequent criticisms and warnings on El Salvador's moves toward peace. In a report to the Council last month, the secretary-general said reforms have been only partially implemented and that ``some ugly features of El Salvador's past'' have reappeared. This week the UN General Assembly is expected to ask the government and the FMLN to work to complete the land transfer program for ex-combatants, speed up the national police phaseout, and hasten creation of a new civilian police force.

Yet Goodfellow says he thinks the US, because of its historic relationship and influence with the Salvadoran military, must be ``the real force'' in prodding El Salvador.

``The missing element is strong condemnation by the US and an effort to put a little pressure on Cristiani,'' he says. ``The killings are a reminder that we need to keep up the pressure.''

The next three months are viewed as critical in determining whether or not a free environment for elections can be restored. The new joint panel is widely seen as a needed first step.

``This is not just another election,'' Goodfellow says. ``This is a turning point in Salvadoran society and a real test of the entire peace process.... The results will in many ways determine whether there will be a peaceful, democratic Salvador.''

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