EL SALVADOR: Death on a Twisting Dirt Road

  • Share
  • Read Later

Four American women are victims of violence

The political turmoil in El Salvador has claimed 8,400 lives so far this year; that is roughly one death for every square mile in the tiny Central American country. Last week four Americans became victims of the mindless, increasing violence. Alongside a twisting dirt road, 30 miles east of the capital of San Salvador, peasants found the bodies of three nuns and a Catholic lay worker who had been working with the poor in the countryside. The nuns were Dorothy Kazel, 40, of Cleveland, a member of the Ursuline Order, and two Maryknoll sisters from New York City, Ita Ford, 40, and Maura Clarke, 46; the lay worker was Jean Donovan, 27, also of Cleveland. Three of the Women had been raped before being shot in the back of the head.

The U.S. reacted swiftly by suspending military and economic aid to El Salvador, $25 million in all, until circumstances of the murders are clarified. The White House also announced that it was dispatching a fact-finding mission to El Salvador; it will be headed by William D. Rogers, who served as Assistant Secretary of State in the Ford Administration. The ruling junta blamed the murders on right-wing terrorists bent on stopping any buildup of leftist sentiment.

Right-wing terrorists, it seems, were also responsible for the abduction and assassination two weeks ago of the country's six leading leftists. Perhaps because courage was the admission price, only about 2,000 people turned out for the leftists' funeral at San Salvador's huge, gray Metropolitan Cathedral. The ceremonies were marked more by anger than sorrow. Shouted the Rev. David Rodriguez, a Salvadoran priest: "We know that in the blood of the martyrs who lie here is the spirit of liberty."

The ruling junta, in power for little more than a year, seems shakier than ever. Divided between centrist reformers and military hardliners, it is unable to stop the bloodshed and appears to be increasingly vulnerable to a rightist coup. Many Salvadorans are resigned to the inevitability of civil war. At the moment, the government has about 15,000 men under arms, while the leftists have perhaps 5,000 active guerrillas; the military odds, in short, are roughly the same as the ones that the late dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle faced in Nicaragua at the start of the Sandinista rebellion.

If the left is going to mount an offensive, December would be an almost ideal month. It is harvest time for major export crops—coffee, sugar cane and cotton—and disruption in the fields could deal the shaky economy a crippling blow. Leftists are also concerned that the going may get rougher after Ronald Reagan's Inauguration in January. Reagan aides have promised that the new Administration will support the junta and the army against the leftists. In addition, a report by Reagan's State Department transition team proposed changes that would curtail the influence of social reformers throughout Latin America. In that climate, El Salvador's rightists might feel free to mount an even more intense confrontation with the left.