El Salvador: Setback in the Skies

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The government loses a top soldier in a helicopter crash

As five companies of troops and a military band fell into line outside a San Salvador funeral home, a casket the color of a polished bayonet was lifted into the hearse. Fifteen minutes later, the somber parade arrived at the Church of Perpetual Help. The pews filled quickly. President José Napoleón Duarte slipped in by a side aisle, while U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering took a seat near the back. All had come to honor Lieut. Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, a man whose title only partly explained his importance. "Domingo was a good man," said the Rev. Manuel Vega in his eulogy. "Yesterday, today and for all times, Domingo is a patriot."

Monterrosa, 44, was in charge of Salvadoran army field operations in the eastern third of the country, stretching from the department of San Miguel to the Honduran border. More important, he was regarded by colleagues and U.S. advisers as the army's most effective combat commander, a tough, personable soldier who was equally adept at battling guerrillas and winning the affection of peasants. Monterrosa was aboard a U.S.-built UH-1 military helicopter flying from Joateca to San Francisco Gotera when the aircraft went down near the Honduran border, killing all 14 passengers, including other senior army officers. Radio Venceremos, the rebel station, claimed that guerrilla forces had shot down the helicopter, but according to an army investigation, metal fatigue in the rotor shaft caused both blades to snap shortly after takeoff.

The tragedy came during a major army sweep through the mountainous department of Morazán, a rebel-infested area 115 miles southeast of San Salvador. The 400-man helicopter assault, named Operation Torola 4 and directed by Monterrosa, inaugurated the army's new strategy of "air-mobile warfare" less than a week after President Duarte's historic peace meeting with rebel leaders in La Palma. Though few rebels were found, the maneuvers yielded documents and other information about how the insurgents are organized. Monterrosa was well aware of the risks in such an operation: two days before he died, he watched a damaged chopper land and observed to TIME'S Jon Anderson "how vulnerable" the aircraft seemed.

Though Monterrosa's death is a setback for El Salvador, military officials insisted that the conduct of the war would not be affected. Two hours after the crash, Armed Forces Spokesman Ricardo Aristides Cienfuegos announced replacements for the dead officers. Meanwhile, the guerrillas also kept on fighting. They ambushed a police patrol and tried to knock out a water-pumping station last week in San Salvador. That attack failed, but it was the first extended bout of warfare in the capital in recent months. A trio of rebels also gunned down a Salvadoran guard as he walked to his job at the U.S. embassy.

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