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In El Salvador, It's a Battle for Hearts, Minds . . . and Survival

September 16, 1988|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

LAS GUARAS, El Salvador — For Vicente Francisco Rivera, the government's fight for his heart and mind meant a new roof over his adobe hut. For each of the three Hernandez brothers, it meant a bullet in the head.

As increased fighting between government troops and El Salvador's leftist guerrillas shifts the focus of the nine-year-old civil war to this region, only 25 miles north of San Salvador, the government is trying a combination of local self-defense forces and a civil action program to win the support of a fearful and suspicious peasantry.

In theory, at least, this is a far cry from past government efforts, which often consisted of brutalizing the local residents in areas where the guerrillas operated, merely on the suspicion that the peasants were rebel sympathizers.

Rivera, a 53-year-old sugar cane farmer, has experienced both methods. He fled Las Guaras six years ago after military forces swept through the area, killing many residents thought to have helped the guerrillas.

But under the new approach, he was talked into returning to his old home here with promises of peace and a new roof to keep the dirt floor of his house from turning to mud in the rainy season.

Juan, Pedro and David Hernandez were part of the other half of the government's new approach--members of security forces recruited from the local population to provide military protection for their fellow area residents. Their reward was to be assassinated by the guerrillas.

According to local residents, the three were sleeping in their house, an isolated structure across a river and out of sight of the other homes in the hamlet, when guerrillas crept in and shot them.

"They lived here a long time and were well liked," said Francisca Paro, a woman who lives in Rivera's long, low-slung house, which resembles a sort of Stone Age condominium, with families and various other groups of people occupying tiny, darkened apartments. "They didn't mistreat us."

Agents of the Government

According to a broadcast on Radio Venceremos, the guerrilla movement's clandestine station, the three were killed because they "served the Yankees" and were agents of the people's enemies, namely the government.

Military and diplomatic sources say the increased attacks in this and nearby areas by the guerrillas, members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), are the result of at least two factors.

The first is a general shift in their military strategy, to widen the war beyond El Salvador's north and northeast areas where they have been loosely confined for the last year and a half. Diplomatic sources say this reflects a plan by FMLN leaders to prepare for a serious offensive some time in the next six to eight months.

The second is an attempt to offset the impact of the government's hearts-and-minds program, an echo of American efforts in South Vietnam to win over the populace with economic and structural aid.

Rivera's roof is a hearts-and-minds weapon. Yet it is a small thing, and there are few signs of any other aid.

There are no schools, medical facilities, running water, electricity or other services and facilities that are considered the barest of government obligations in the Western world.

Transportation is largely by callused bare feet. Las Guaras is beyond reach even by four-wheel-drive vehicles and is a 30-minute walk from the nearest point that is accessible by car.

Food is a sometime thing. There aren't many fat men or chubby children here. Lunch is a handful of red beans and rice cooked in left-over grease.

And the people show it in ways other than in weight. An adult's smile is a display of more gum than teeth. And in a country with one of the world's highest birthrates, every girl over 12 in the region seems to be carrying a baby either in her belly or in her arms, often both.

In reality, the hearts-and-minds program is nothing more than the occasional gesture such as the roof.

"On a scale of 10, civil action rates a 2," said one expert, who asked that he not be identified. "Civil action is not effective. . . . The plan lacks national will. A decision (by the government) has not been made to implement it."

That, he added, "would require enormous resources and until the government makes that decision, the situation won't improve."

Program Worries Guerrillas

Still, even though the program is ineffective, under-funded and lacking real commitment from even the government, it worries the guerrillas who fear that, at the least, peasants might actually become neutral.

The recent guerrilla attacks, said a diplomat, serve "to convince the people around here that the government is still evil and can't be trusted to protect them or (on) carrying out their promises to make life better."

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