The Sheraton Siege

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For 28 hours, the drama played out on the world's television screens, and for a while it seemed as if it would provoke direct U.S. military intervention in El Salvador's ugly, decade-old civil war. Twelve Green Berets from Fort Bragg, N.C., part of a U.S. advisory team in El Salvador, were holed up on the fourth floor of the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador's wealthy Escalon district, while about 20 heavily armed young guerrillas, who had seemingly blundered into the hotel, roamed the floors above and below them.

But there was no shoot-out. Instead, as part of an agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church, the guerrillas slipped away, and the U.S. soldiers, using journalists as a shield, ran from the hotel to waiting military vehicles. But so alarming was the event that President George Bush, acutely mindful that he had been seen to be dithering during October's aborted coup in Panama, quickly convened a meeting of a National Security Council emergency group and ordered a small contingent of the supersecret Delta Force into San Salvador. At one point Bush even made the embarrassing claim that the U.S. commandos had "liberated" the Green Berets.

The incident pointed up yet again that guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.) continue to have the ability to paralyze the government of President Alfredo Cristiani and outwit the Salvadoran army. Just as the 1968 Tet offensive in Viet Nam forced Washington and the American public to question the U.S. position in Southeast Asia, the F.M.L.N.'s latest attacks have raised fundamental doubts about the whole U.S. approach to El Salvador.

The slaying on Nov. 16 in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests has caused such outrage in Washington that Congress is suddenly talking about reducing U.S. aid if the Cristiani regime does not conduct a thorough investigation. Last week the House of Representatives narrowly blocked a Democratic proposal to hold back 30% of the $85 million in U.S. military aid to El Salvador this year. The events of the past two weeks also underscore U.S. intelligence failures, most notably the now apparent undercounting of the F.M.L.N. forces. Judging by the scope of the rebel push, Washington officials concede that there are considerably more than the estimated total of 6,000 rebel soldiers.

The Sheraton siege brought the U.S. the closest it has ever been to exchanging fire with the Salvadoran guerrillas. It occurred just as the rebels' ten-day-old offensive, which had been fought in some of the capital's poorest neighborhoods, Soyapango, Cuidad Delgado and Mejicanos, seemed to be winding down. In the early hours of Sunday morning, hundreds of guerrillas were streaming out of Mejicanos' streets, badly battered by days of intensive government firepower. Where the rebels went, or how they managed to elude the government troops, no one seemed to know. But two days later, they re-emerged from the gullies and ravines that border the city's exclusive Escalon district and took control of several blocks of the neighborhood, which is filled with luxurious ranch-style homes set off by manicured lawns. As the government sent in its helicopters and light tanks, it became clear that the rebels had switched tactics and were showing the rich that the war could come to their elegant front doors. Some demonstrated their support for the government troops by sending servants out with cookies and milk.

One group of rebels was apparently trapped by the army as it moved along a ravine behind the Sheraton, and fled into the shelter of the lobby. The guerrillas probably did not know that among the guests were the Green Berets and Joao Baena Soares, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, who was trying to work out a cease-fire. As the rebels took up residence in the Sheraton's VIP Tower, Salvadoran commandos hurriedly escorted Soares out of the hotel and drove him away in an armored car. The Green Berets were not so fortunate. Armed with M-16 rifles and grenade launchers, they barricaded themselves behind furniture and waited out the siege. "We're here against our will because we don't feel we can leave safely," growled one. "Do we look like hostages?" another asked defiantly.

Despite the tension, the scene became like something from a TV situation comedy, with the rebels enjoying a feast of hotel food and the U.S. soldiers resolutely glowering from behind their barricades. Neither side made an attempt to threaten the other. It was, said one of the advisers, a "Mexican standoff," during which they talked to the rebels periodically. "At times it was friendly, at times tense," said another American. Finally, the Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, mediated the release of the occupants of the hotel and the escape of the rebels. The U.S. soldiers, though, refused to leave until the Salvadoran army had checked for booby traps and mines.

The entire operation was conducted by Salvadoran soldiers. Only at the end, when the Green Berets ran out, did the U.S. forces become involved. The actual number of U.S. commandos sent to El Salvador was thought to be small, although a much larger force was positioned outside the country.

After the guerrillas vanished once again, an exhausted President Cristiani rejected a rebel request for a United Nations-supervised cease-fire and declared that "the offensive is totally defeated." But as he was making that announcement at an army officers' country club, his words were drowned out by a bomb explosion. Although the President was not in any danger, the blast demonstrated that even he could not take his personal safety for granted.

Cristiani's top officers appear to have convinced him that the F.M.L.N. must be decimated before it will return to the negotiating table. That is probably a forlorn hope, even though the rebels' losses in the offensive may exceed 1,000. If nothing else, the rebels proved they can disrupt life in El Salvador whenever they choose. They have also shown that the government is all too willing to use its heavy firepower when the war is being fought in poor neighborhoods but is reluctant to strafe and bomb a rich enclave like Escalon, where support for the governing ARENA party is high.

The rebels also embarrassed the army with their ability to disappear, then re-emerge at will, often using sewer pipes to leave areas or exchanging battle fatigues for civilian clothes and merging into the population. Equally unsettling to the Cristiani government, as well as to Washington, is that thousands of Salvadoran residents have collaborated with the rebels. A U.S. Administration official admitted last week that "there was a torrent of arms and ammunition" into San Salvador. Said he: "That couldn't have taken place had not a lot of people helped, or at the minimum, kept quiet."

Future U.S. relations with El Salvador will be strongly influenced by how the Cristiani government handles the investigation into the killing of the six Jesuits. It has become harder to avoid the conclusion that only the army or the police could have carried out the murders. Witnesses have told of seeing as many as 30 men in olive-drab uniforms enter the priests' residence, and one woman said she heard a voice over a shortwave radio say, "We've done it." At week's end the woman had been escorted out of the country by embassy officials and flown to the U.S. The murders were also carried out during the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, when only the military is on the streets of the capital. "This was done by the military or by people closely allied to the military," says Arturo Rivera Damas, the Archbishop of San Salvador.

The FBI has been asked to help study fingerprints found at the scene, and since all Salvadorans are fingerprinted when they receive a driver's license, the murderers should not be hard to track down -- if the Cristiani government cooperates. If it does not, the rebels could have achieved a major goal: to provoke a crisis in U.S.-Salvadoran relations.