WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration hopes to seek a U.S. indictment of Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos for the killing of two American airmen who fell into rebel hands in a helicopter crash on New Year's Day, officials said Monday.
In an unusual move, the State Department has asked the Justice Department to investigate not only the rebels who were directly involved in the airmen's death, but also Villalobos and other leaders of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which has been fighting to overthrow El Salvador's American-backed government for more than a decade.
A senior State Department official said one reason for seeking an indictment of Villalobos would be to strike a psychological blow against the rebel commander, who is widely viewed as the guerrillas' most effective military leader.
"Villalobos travels outside El Salvador all the time," a senior State Department official explained. "If he knew he was under indictment and could be seized like a Noriega, it could weigh heavily on his mind. It would have to be a big cloud over his head."
He was referring to Manuel A. Noriega, the Panamanian strongman who was arrested by U.S. Army officers after the American invasion of Panama in December, 1989. Noriega is awaiting trial in Miami on drug-trafficking charges.
The FBI is investigating the helicopter incident and has already gathered information from the scene--in the hills of eastern El Salvador--on who shot the two men.
But so far, the investigation has turned up no evidence of a role in the killings by higher-ups in the FMLN, according to officials familiar with the case.
If indictments are sought, the officials said, they would be brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which makes it a U.S. crime to murder American citizens on foreign soil for political reasons--and which would make it possible for U.S. law enforcement officials to attempt to arrest Villalobos or other rebels who were involved.
The U.S. and Salvadoran governments have asked the FMLN to hand over the men responsible for the killings to Salvadoran prosecutors, but the rebels have ignored that demand.
Under the extradition treaty in force between the United States and El Salvador, Salvadoran citizens cannot be extradited to the United States. But if Villalobos or the other suspects traveled to Mexico or other countries, as rebel leaders have in the past, U.S. agents could attempt to arrange their arrest there.
The Justice Department has invoked the anti-terrorism act before in several air hijacking cases, including one in which federal agents lured Lebanese hijacker Fawaz Younis onto a yacht and arrested him on the high seas; Younis was convicted in Federal Court in Washington, D.C., in 1989.
U.S. and Salvadoran officials have charged that rebel troops shot the two airmen in cold blood as they lay wounded after the crash of their Huey UH-1H helicopter near the village of Lolotique in San Miguel province. A third airman apparently died in the crash.
The FMLN said last week that it had detained two of its soldiers in connection with the killings and said it would subject them to military justice.