SAN SALVADOR — After signing the Central American peace plan last August, President Jose Napoleon Duarte called a meeting of commanders of the powerful Salvadoran armed forces to seek their backing for the accord.
"Duarte said the panorama was political now, not military," a high-ranking army officer recalled last week. "He said, 'I want to make political war.' "
Now, four months into that political war against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas, the officer is grim.
"Duarte is losing," he said flatly.
The officer expressed frustration with Duarte and the Central American peace plan, and his feelings are echoed by other conservative military men who believe peace talks, an amnesty and a two-week unilateral cease-fire have benefited the guerrillas they are fighting and demoralized their troops.
Members of the armed forces have criticized Duarte for allowing leftist political leaders Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora to return from exile without breaking their alliance with the guerrillas.
"It was an abuse of democracy," said an influential colonel.
Military commanders also are angered by the government's inability to invigorate the economy, the alleged corruption and the bitter fighting within the ruling Christian Democratic Party. Adding to their discontent is the fact that Duarte recently reopened an investigation into the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador, which could implicate active-duty military men in so-called death squad killings.
The army and security forces are believed to have been involved in massive political killings carried out by clandestine death squads in the early 1980s. The recent amnesty pardoned all political crimes except for the murder of Romero, but diplomats say the case may open a Pandora's Box, linking together many of the unresolved political killings.
Military officials deny the armed forces had any connection to the death squads. U.S. officials say they believe there is no institutional connection between the military and a current rash of political killings and disappearances.
At the same time, however, some military officials acknowledge that mounting frustration among the security forces could lead to an upsurge in political violence in the capital. Diplomats also note an apparent willingness on the part of some officers to look the other way to allow political violence.
Asked about death squads, an army officer said: "I'm afraid they will re-emerge. How many police have been killed?"
Guerrillas have targeted police patrols in the capital this year, while union and student groups sympathetic to the rebels have grown increasingly confrontational during protests. They commandeer buses for barricades at their marches, burn government-owned vehicles and taunt riot police.
The police have followed orders to show restraint in the face of such tactics, but an official said that they were frustrated and felt their hands were tied.
"They feel conflict between the fulfillment of their orders as police and the fulfillment of their honor as men," the official said. "There could be some irresponsibility in carrying out their duties, or groups that take justice into their own hands."
Diplomats and sources close to the military say that disquiet among the armed forces is deeper and more widespread than it has been in recent years. They said they would not predict a military coup at present, but neither would they rule out the possibility as they have during other tense periods of Salvadoran politics.
The analysts suggest the military could begin to pressure Duarte for more direct power in the government, without resorting to a coup. They fear, however, that a large guerrilla attack or some other military embarrassment now could push the military toward a coup.
Army officers headed most of El Salvador's modern governments until Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero was ousted as president in 1979 by dissident younger officers and replaced by the first of several civilian-military juntas. Duarte headed a junta from December, 1980, to April, 1982, and was elected president in 1984.
Since Duarte took office, Washington has frequently made the point that U.S. aid would be cut off in the event of a coup. The U.S. Administration's goal has been to convince the military to respect civilian rule and human rights. Meanwhile, the United States has fortified the armed forces by supplying aircraft and other major hardware for use against the guerrillas and helped quadruple armed forces manpower to about 52,000.
Duarte is popular in the U.S. Congress, and the political cost of ousting him would be high, but some military officials calculate that the United States will support the Salvadoran armed forces as long as they face a strong insurgency--particularly if the Marxist-led Sandinista government remains in power in neighboring Nicaragua.