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Success of Salvadoran land reform plan is paid for with bullets

The blatant killings is el Salvador of three land reform officials -- two United States advisers and a Salvadoran -- tell much about the status of land reform efforts in the Central american country.

Both the salvadoran right and left have come to view those efforts and their relative success with dismay.

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For rightist groups, el Salvador's traditional oligarchs who have most to lose from the land reform program, the whole reform program amounts to the end of one of their key privileges. They held most of the land to the virtual exclusion of the country's peasantry.

For the left, including the country's guerrilla forces, which have long made agrarian reform a cardinal objective, government efforts in this field clearly have begun to undercut one of their basic appeals.

But it is unclear which group was responsible fo the Jan. 3 killings.

According to eyewitnesses, the three were shot by unknown gunmen who walked into the coffeeshop of the el Salvador Sheraton Hotel just before midnight as the trio finished a late dinner. Those killed were Jose Rodolfo Viera, head of the Instituto Salvadoreno de Transformacion Agraria (ISTA), the land reform agency, and US advisers Michael P. Hammer and Mark David Pearlman.

The initial presumption is that Mr. Viera was the prime target and that the US advisers were killed because they were in his company. He had frequently been targeted by rightist and leftist groups -- and was slightly wounded in one assassination attempt a month ago.

Although the reforms initiated by his agency are still in their infancy, they have begun to show at least some effectiveness. About 90 percent of the expropriated land, some one-third of all arable land in the country, has been turned over to nearly 200,000 peasant families in the past nine months. Productivity on this land has been relatively high, in some cases increasing over its previous levels, and harvests are reportedly good.

Moreover, the Inter-American Development Bank has just granted a $45.5 million loan to the program -- to provide credit for small farmers and low-interest loans to pay for the import of machinery, fertilizer, and other farm needs to produce coffee, cotton, and sugar -- Es Salvador's main crops.

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Both the right and left could find reason to be unhappy with such a program and its potential of transforming society, and therefore to want the charismatic Mr. Viera out of the way.

But conventional wisdom would suggest that Salvadoran rightists probably had more reason to get rid of Mr. Viera. They have watched their time-honored hold on the land evaporate first by government decree and then by implementation of that decree through Mr. Viera's agency.

However, Jose antonio Morales Ehrlich, a leading Christian Democrat and a member of the four-man junta, had a different view. He saw the hand of the left in the killings. "They want to radicalize the peasants," he said "and destabilize the country's relations with the united States."

Mr. Morales Ehrlich, who was given overall responsibility for agrarian policy during a pre-Christmas government reshuffle, is not alone. A number of Salvadoran and foreign observers agree with his view that the left was probably responsible.

Other sources disagree. Some, for example, see the location of the killings as reason to suspect the right. The Sheraton is located in an upper-middle-class part of town, and the hotel frequently is used by San Salvador's wealthier people. The assassins, it is argued, were perfectly at home in the hotel and, indeed, walked out of the hotel through the lobby after killing the trio.

It is also noted that the Sheraton is the most secure hotel in town -- and that the assassins would have passed the numerous hotel guards on both entering and leaving the hotel.

On the other hand, the left has operated in the neighborhood with virtual impunity for about three years. They have been responsible for numerous attacks on homes in the area.

Whichever group was responsible, however, the killings certainly complicate government efforts to activate a viable land reform program.

In addition to Mr. Viera and the two US citizens, five other land reform officials have been killed since July, and more than 200 peasants involved in running cooperatives have lost thei r lives.

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