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Duarte: Cannons Left and Right

November 26, 1987

The threatening, ominous, murderous atmosphere of past years again envelops El Salvador as a critical test is made of the fragile democratic institutions that have been put in place and of the ability of President Jose Napoleon Duarte to implement the five-nation regional peace accord that he signed on Aug. 7.

Duarte is caught between an uncompromising extreme right, that he has now identified as the sponsor of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980, and an equally rigid extreme left, whose political leaders have now returned to San Salvador from seven years in exile.

The president took a bold but risky step on Monday when he said he had compelling evidence that Roberto D'Aubuisson ordered the killing of Romero. The U.S. government moved promptly to arrest Alvaro Rafael Saravia, an alleged accomplice in the murder who had taken refuge in Miami. D'Aubuisson had long been suspected of close connections with rightist death-squad activities. He remains a favorite of some of Duarte's most dangerous opponents, including people in the military, in the business community and among some of the major landowners. Inevitably, the announcement, and D'Aubuisson's strong denial, have inspired fears of more killings.

Two of the most vulnerable targets of possible violence are Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora, president and vice president of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, the civilian arm of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla movement that is at war with the government of El Salvador. Their decision to return uninvited to their homeland to test the authenticity of the new democracy and the terms of the peace agreement poses complex problems for Duarte. But it may also provide an opportunity. The guerrillas have obstructed efforts to renew negotiations with the government following the Oct. 26 murder of Herbert Ernesto Anaya, a human-rights activist. His killing, and subsequent murders, have indicated a resumption of the kind of death-squad activity that claimed close to 1,000 lives in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It will not be easy for Duarte to refuse to negotiate with Ungo and Zamora after widespread criticism of President Daniel Ortega of neighboring Nicaragua for his moves to block the return of two leaders of the Contra guerrilla organization in that nation. They had sought to deliver their response to government cease-fire proposals directly to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua and the designated cease-fire mediator, in Managua. Ortega's intransigence forced them to send the response through a church courier instead.

Clearly, a cease-fire is urgently required in El Salvador. The warfare, which already has claimed an estimated 65,000 lives, cannot be won by either the government forces or the leftist guerrillas. But the basis for peace is elusive, with the guerrillas demanding an immediate role in government and the government, correctly enough, arguing that the opposition must win a place in government through ballots, not bullets. In the background, however, the threats of the rightist death squads suggest that ballots may have limited value.

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