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Media : Salvadoran Paper's Comeback From Fire Is a Sign of the Times : The arson case is unsolved. But leftist Diario Latino has risen from the ashes, inspiring some hope for a cease-fire in the country's civil war.

April 09, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN SALVADOR — Just before dawn on Feb. 9, in the heat of a guerrilla war and an election campaign, arsonists set fire to the offices of El Salvador's only leftist opposition newspaper and crippled its presses.

Standing amid the ruins of Diario Latino that day, Editor Francisco Valencia blamed the attack on "the armed forces, the government and their death squads, the same ones who massacre the people and murder priests." The same ones, he added, whose bombs put two other leftist papers out of business in the early years of the Salvadoran conflict a decade ago.

The fire at Diario Latino, the editor declared, proves that "the climate of terror has not changed."

Two days later, El Salvador's oldest newspaper was publishing again on a borrowed university press. The paper continues to appear six afternoons a week, uninhibited by the right-wing government and U.S.-backed armed forces at war with the guerrillas whose leftist causes it supports. The government, army and Chamber of Commerce joined in condemning the attack, and U.S. Ambassador William Walker visited the burned-out plant to show support for a free press.

Diario Latino's Phoenix-like comeback is a sign that times here have indeed changed, giving the political left an accepted voice in Salvadoran politics and inspiring some hope for a negotiated cease-fire. That shift was reinforced March 10 when guerrilla-backed parties gained their first wartime seats in the National Assembly, gathering a respectable 15% of the vote.

Nearly two months after the attack, however, the arsonists have not been identified. The case seems destined for the growing file of unsolved terrorist crimes that mark El Salvador's old politics and weigh heavily on the new.

Despite a history of right-wing harassment of the paper, the government's investigation has focused on a theory that the editors burned their own plant to tarnish the government's image and attract donations that would more than offset the damage to their equipment.

Valencia denies this, saying that some official offended by the paper sent an arson squad to silence it for good. But some journalists opposing Valencia in a feud over their newspaper's editorial line say the self-immolation theory might be true, and one former reporter claims to have overheard Valencia and a photographer discussing such a scheme six months ago. No witness has come forward to offer evidence for either scenario.

"It's the kind of murky case that is so typical of El Salvador and makes the place so difficult," a Western diplomat said. "Each side has its own truth, but usually the real story never comes out. So many incidents like this remain open sores and keep the country extremely polarized."

Physical evidence from the blaze offers few clues. Fire officials say the arsonists, apparently wearing yellow rubber gloves that they left behind, laid a network of twisted, gasoline-soaked newspapers throughout the building and set them ablaze. The paper had no night watchman. How the intruders entered is unclear, but they easily could have done so through a loose-fitting panel on one wall. The lock to the cage-like press room was forced open.

Today the blackened remains of computers, typesetting machines, desks and filing cabinets form a junk heap at one end of the plant--a bizarre memorial to the fire. As reporters type their stories on one side of the huge room, engineering professors and students from the University of San Salvador work on the other side at no charge to revive the paper's four aging Goss presses.

"These ashes are the mother of all battles," declares a combative wall poem destined for the paper's literary supplement. A newsroom poster attacks the governing Nationalist Republican Alliance: "Arena is terror, Arena is war. Everyone against Arena."

Arson fires have destroyed Diario Latino twice before in its 101-year history--by anonymous hands in 1928 when liberal owners opposed the ruling oligarchy, then by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas in 1981 when conservative owners backed an army-dominated junta.

The paper's birth as the worker-owned gadfly of modern Salvadoran journalism stems from its failure as a traditional newspaper. The previous management, led by Christian Democratic politician Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, abandoned Diario Latino to its 90 employees in 1989 after running up $1 million in unpayable debts and collecting insurance for earthquake damage that caused the plant to be condemned as unsafe.

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