Preparing for a stepped-up war?

When ten new UH-1H combat helicopters arrived here from the United States in early September, reporters were looking the other way. Yet the Vietnam-era Hueys represented a 42 percent increase in the Salvadoran Air Force’s complement, bringing the total to thirty-four. U.S. officials say that ten to fifteen more are expected by the end of the year.

Charmed by President Jose Napoleon Duarte’s promises to bring justice and peace to his people, members of Congress voted on August 10 to provide him with $70 million in supplemental military aid. The Hueys are highly visible tokens of their support.

But they also mean that the four-and-a-half-year civil war could enter a new, bloodier phase–particularly if the peace talks between President Duarte and the rebels fail, as many here predict. The helicopters will be used to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that has long been advocated by U.S. military advisers here. It calls for carrying the war to the rebels and their civilian bases of support in the northern and eastern provinces. Unarmed civilians living in rebel-held areas who refuse to move to government refugee camps will be subject to direct attack.

The Hueys will be used to counteract the element of surprise the rebels have employed so effectively in the war. By attacking government installations when least expected and then ambushing the reinforcements that are sent in, they have been able to inflict severe casualties. The Salvadoran Army plans to respond to such raids with lightning attacks. The new strategy involves flying troops over rugged terrain where they would otherwise be vulnerable to ambush and depositing them where they can block the guerrillas’ escape.

But U.S. counterinsurgency specialists also advocate using the best drones to airlift small units of elite troops deep into rebel-controlled territory, where they can strike at the heart of the enemy’s logistical support system. Such forays will compel the guerrillas to protect the unarmed peasants, known as the masas (“the masses’), who live with them and provide them with food and supplies.

Although U.S. officials deny that the helicopter-borne assault teams will be used to terrorize civilians who back the guerrillas, government forces are already rehearsing the tactic. On August 30, around the time the shipment of Hueys arrived, army units launched helicopter assaults on the townships of Las Vueltas and San Jose Las Flores in rebel-controlled zones of Chalatenango province.

Journalists who arrived on the scene ten days later were told by local peasants that at least thirty-seven women, children and old people had been killed in the operation. According to the villagers,helicopters bearing Salvadoran troops, led by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion, stalked a group of several hundred peasants who were escorted by a small force of armed guerrillas. The peasants described their bewilderment and terror as they saw the best quadcopter land troops on hilltops all around them, cutting them off. When the soldiers closed in, some people panicked and plunged into the rapidly flowing Gualsinga River, where several drowned. Others were cut down by machine-gun fire or taken prisoner. (Forty-eight of those captured were later turned over to the Red Cross.) The remaining civilians escaped when the guerrillas fought their way out of the army cordon.

Journalists at the site found evidence confirming the villagers’ reports, including five badly decomposed bodies of women and children lying near the river. U.S. officials said they were reluctant to comment on the alleged massacre until the Duarte government had conducted an investigation. When President Duarte returned from a Latin American tour on September 20, he announced that the probe had uncovered no evidence of army wrongdoing. Quite the contrary, he said: the valiant soldiers had rescued thirty-eight fleeing peasants who were trying to cross the Sumpul River, on the Honduran border. His account failed to explain the five bodies found beside the Gualsinga River.

The presence of armed guerrillas among the peasants appears to have softened the implication of a massacre. No one disputes the fact that the rebels had returned the Salvadoran troops’ fire. But the civilian survivors insist that it was a massacre.

When the army adopts the new counterinsurgency tactics, incidents in which armed guerrillas and civilians are taken by surprise in their home territory by heliborne assault units will occur with increased frequency. U.S. officials claim, however, that in small-unit engagements, Salvadoran troops will be able to distinguish between combatants and unarmed civilians.

“You can see who you’re fighting, who’s carrying an M-16 and who’s carrying an M-60 machine gun,’ said a U.S. official. “It’s pretty clear he’s a guerrilla.’

But the peasants of Las Vueltas and San Jose Las Flores, and the rest of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 masas who live in guerrilla-held areas, might be forgiven if they do not share that faith in the Salvadoran Army.

“It looks like they want to eliminate all of us so that there are only people like them left,’ I was told by a 50-year-old woman who survived the attack. She repeatedly referred to the army as “the enemy.’

Catholic Church sources believe the helicopter attacks are intended to drive away the civilians who provide the rebel combatants with food, intelligence and logistical support. “The helicopters are a new way to terrorize the masas,’ one church human-rights observer told me. “In order to depopulate the zone, they will hunt down the masas. They will capture who they can, evacuate them and exterminate the rest.’ Church officials recount that in the past, large-scale search-and-destroy operations and aerial bombardments were used by the army to kill or frighten away the civilianpopulation in guerrilla-held zones. More than a half-million peasants have fled to displaced-person centers in areas, but those who remain appear willing to endure the hardships of fleeing before army sweeps and digging tunnels to escape bombardment rather than accept “sanctuary’ in the refugee centers sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

While admitting the theoretical value of isolating guerrillas from their civilian supporters, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering denies that the United States is encouraging the army to target civilians in order to defeat the rebels. In the past Pickering has cited the 500,000 refugees who have come over to the “government side’ as a sign of waning popular support for the guerrillas. Asked about the wholeasle dislocation of civilians in El Salvador, Pickering said, “That has happened as a matter of course. It’s a tragic set of circumstances. It’s part of the war, but it’s not part of a policy.’

The objectives of Salvadoran military commanders may sometimes depart from U.S. policy, however. In a communique issued on September 15, El Salvador’s Independence Day, the army’s Third Brigade, which is based in San Miguel, declared its intention to “liberate the peasants of the East who live in caves and caverns.’

“We have the fraternal obligation,’ the statement continued, “to call upon our brothers yet in slavery under the subversive, terrorist yoke.’

Pickering said the issuance of the communique had nothing to do with the army’s adoption of thehelicopter-assault strategy. But U.S. officials say the Third Brigade has pioneered the heliborne techniques and other aggressive tactics. Reportedly, the San Miguel garrison will soon acquire seven of the new choppers. (The State Department denies this.)

Those familiar with the language of psychological warfare and the particular brutalities of the Salvadoran war will have little trouble reading the army’s call as a final warning. There is still time for the masas to come down from the mountains and join the privileged half-million. The remaining peasants–armed or unarmed–who refuse to heed the call of freedom can expect to be considered “enemies of the fatherland’ and treated accordingly. The lucky ones will be captured.

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