Although there are large militia groups, as well as regular guerrilla units, in the San Salvador area, a major part of the rebel strength is in the countryside, especially in the so-called "repopulated areas" along the border with Honduras.
Because the government sees these regions as important centers of rebel support by the civilian population, the Salvadoran military, using U.S.-provided planes, helicopters and artillery, "depopulated" the areas.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 4, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
An article published Wednesday about rebel militiamen in El Salvador's civil conflict understated the amount of U.S. aid given that country. In fiscal year 1988, El Salvador received a total of $541.9 million in direct economic and military aid, military education and training, and credits and loan guarantees.
However, under an amnesty declared by the government and in accordance with provisions of a Central American peace plan, many of the refugees from the depopulated areas have been returning from camps in Honduras. Zepeda of the 1st Brigade and Vargas, the operations chief, say that among them are thousands of former guerrilla fighters and other sympathizers who make up the militias.
This assessment is shared by diplomats. One official of a European embassy here said in an interview that the "growth of the militias is in the repopulation zones and includes the amnestied people. Many are ex-guerrillas. There are even some in the army--infiltrators."
Without saying so directly, the army tacitly acknowledges that infiltration is a problem. "We don't recruit here," said Lt. Col. Roman Alfonso Barrera, commander of the San Franciso Gotera garrison in Morazan. "We only take people from the east."
Movement of Refugees
Another problem for the army in fighting the new rebel strategy has been the movement of refugees within the country. The army presumes that large numbers of rebels and militia move with the uninvolved civilians.
Army officers say, for instance, that thousands of refugees have moved from Chalatenango and Morazan provinces westward and southward into San Vicente, San Salvador and Santa Ana provinces. Those areas recently have all seen serious increases in anti-government violence. Yet, the militia strength is such that part-time forces have been able to fill the gap in Morazan left by the shift of guerrilla regulars to areas near the capital and south of it, the army says.
"Clearly, this type of war has a negative impact on us, " Zepeda said. "They present incremental efforts to ignite the \o7 masas \f7 to uprisings, to cause social disorder. The guerrillas can't mount an offensive, but they can set off an uprising."
The army sees itself as hamstrung in handling the militia.
Wants 'Total War'
"Fighting the organizing efforts and the terrorism is the hardest," said Zepeda, who is described by diplomats as wanting to fight "a total war" against the guerrillas.
"What we need is a state of emergency," he said, one that would allow the army to arrest suspects without having to take them before civilian judges quickly, as current law requires. It would also allow house searches without warrants and permit the army to try suspects before military courts.
This sort of thinking alarms human rights groups and even some U.S. officials, who otherwise argue that the military is conducting a relatively clean war against the guerrillas.
There have been some scattered signs that the military is dropping its previous self-restraint. In September, army troops killed 10 peasants suspected of helping the guerrillas in San Vicente province. Under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the government acknowledged that the army had been involved and ordered the arrest of several soldiers.
More recently, the FMLN and some human rights groups charged the military with invading a repopulated village in Chalatenango and then using heavy machine guns fitted to a C-47 cargo plane to destroy the town.
Vargas, who is regarded by the U.S. Embassy and other diplomats as one of the best and most thoughtful leaders in the army, also wants more freedom to fight the militia threat.
But he says that creation of a state of emergency "is a political decision" and will not be unilaterally imposed by the army.
"This is not a war that has a military solution," he said. "With the militia living in their midst, the people won't fully accept us.
"The real problem is a lack of work, the poor economic situation and the breakdown of the political system. That is our most serious threat.
"We have to attack that."