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Next Step: Central America : In El Salvador, It's the Army That Seems to Be in Trouble : A lull in the guerrilla war appears to be coming to an end. And recent examples of government effectiveness against a smaller rebel force indicate the insurgents may have the upper hand.

September 11, 1990|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador — Each morning the residents of this ramshackle hill town are rattled from their beds by the clatter of men preparing for war. First the bugle, then the rhythmic stomping of marching boots followed by the shouts of officers calling out commands.

The dawn call to arms is for the 4th Detachment of the Salvadoran army's 3rd Brigade, one of the government's front-line units in the decade-long civil war against the Marxist rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

As the newly risen sun begins to throw shadows across the valley to the east, the troopers form up in front of their fortress headquarters, armed and dressed for battle. Standing beneath a sign decorated by four-foot-tall letters proclaiming "Welcome to the 4th Detachment," they sing the national anthem and repeatedly shout their unit's slogan: "Commando! There is no mission impossible!"

That may be so on television, but the anxious twitches of widened eyes, the clenched jaws, the suspicious glares directed at peasants gathering for the opening of the marketplace and the 4th Detachment's inability to defeat a smaller enemy force all betray the bravado of the 2,000 government troopers based in this rebel-infested area of northern Morazan province.

There is much to be nervous about. In the last three months, the 4th Detachment commandos have fought the FMLN guerrillas at least 60 times, most of the clashes the result of rebel ambushes and attacks. Casualties were high.

Yet the war is considered to be in a lull after last November's FMLN offensive--a lull nearly everyone feels will soon end, someplace, in another guerrilla attack.

The drop-off in the conflict coincided with a round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire--talks that have so far floundered on FMLN demands for a cut in government security forces and a restructuring of the military command.

The government high command ordered all of its 57,000 men on full alert two months ago as a mixture of rumors, intelligence reports and the failure of peace talks reinforced the fear of another massive FMLN action.

"The terrorists," said Lt. Col. Oscar Alberto Leon Linares, the 4th Detachment commander, referring to the FMLN, "are preparing for another offensive. It could come any time until the end of December. We are waiting for it."

What they are waiting for is less than 20 miles to the north in the war-scarred village of Perquin.

Guerrilla forces, many dressed in the same uniforms as their army enemies and carrying the same arms, also prepare to fight, assembling under a street wide banner proclaiming "Welcome to Morazan, an Expression of Emerging Power."

Although fewer in numbers and equipment, the guerrillas appear far more relaxed than their army counterparts, knowing they have the strategic advantage of determing when and where the next battle will be fought. They also benefit from dedicated support from the local population, all of which led the rebel troops to take time out to play soccer on a recent Sunday even as government troops ventured nervously into the countryside.

"There will be another offensive," said a local FMLN leader who goes by the pseudonym Fito, "and we will pay back the army for all they have done to us."

The Morazan scenario is repeated throughout this edgy country.

In the narrow valleys and up the rutted and craggy sides of the Cerro el Tigre mountain in the eastern province of Usulutan, the occupying army belongs to the FMLN.

The guerrillas own the area. They patrol the roads, run civil services, organize the population and carry out extensive training exercises, all within a 30-minute drive of government troops who leave their garrisons only for short-range patrols.

On a recent day when journalists reached the area, the government army had tried to venture into the countryside only to be ambushed in three different locations. Neither side's casualty reports can be believed, but there were many government dead and wounded and the patrols have been halted.

"We are ready," said one guerrilla militia member guarding a rebel headquarters near Santiago de Maria, a village where the walls are festooned with pro-FMLN graffiti. "We have been resupplied and our logistics are in place. We can go at any time."

In the capital of San Salvador, where the guerrillas staged their largest attack last autumn and where they were able to control large sections--including some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods--for several days, darkened tanks patrol the streets at night.

Soldiers have set up outposts throughout the city, leaving a litter of ration tins and other trash in front of luxury houses. In spite of these precautions, and even though many analysts doubt that the next offensive will be in the capital, residents are nervous.

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