A Return Of Terror Death Squads Again Threaten El Salvador

Posted: November 12, 1993

It seemed in 1992 that it was time to close the books on El Salvador. A peace accord was signed, ending 12 years of war. U.N. observers sawed the barrels off guerrilla guns. The army pledged reform. Gingerly, leftists tried something that had gotten them killed in the past - above-ground campaigning, aimed at changing the system peaceably in what Salvadorans are calling the ''Elections of the Century." They are set for March.

But conflicts rarely end so tidily. And though Washington breathed a sigh of relief that, unlike Haiti and Bosnia, El Salvador was "over," it was not. Nor is it today. Indeed, there are ominous signs that instead of joining the battle at the ballot box, the country's ultra-rightists are again unleashing the death squads that - in league with the military - once murdered activists, priests, even an archbishop, with impunity.

In the last 18 days, three leftists have been gunned down, including Francisco Velis, a young, political comer in the FMLN, the guerrilla-front- turned-political-party. Mr. Velis was a candidate for El Salvador's Congress. He was shot in the head with a silencer-equipped pistol as he dropped off his 2-year-old daughter at a day-care center.

His killing preceded by only a few days the release of documents confirming that the Reagan and Bush administrations knew far more about right-wing terror activities - including reputed death-squad organizing by El Salvador's current vice president - than it acknowledged when Congress asked about the human- rights record of the regime it was being lobbied to fund.

Washington's silence then was unforgivably complicit; its silence now, with that record exposed, can only embolden those who see peace and fair elections as a threat to their inordinate wealth and power.

Two days ago, the Clinton administration belatedly dispatched an envoy to San Salvador to convey official dismay. Yet unless the message goes beyond the lip-service of the 1980s, little will change.

U.S. help in catching the killers might help. Or holding up El Salvador's coveted trade-preference status. Or, to telegraph that times have changed, further publicizing the dirty secrets of the death squads - past and present.

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