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El Salvador: fewer murders, but death squads roam freely

Thomas R. Pickering, President Reagan's newly appointed ambassador to El Salvador, may face more than a diplomat's usual problems when he takes over here.

One of Mr. Pickering's main jobs will be to nudge the Salvadorean government toward internal reforms, particularly in the judicial field, where progress has been slow.

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Death-squad killers believed to have ties with some elements of the Salvadorean government's military and security forces still roam freely here, albeit at a lower level of activity than in the past. American officials cite the reduced number of assassinations of unarmed civilians as a sign of progress. They see progress, too, in reports that the Army, the police, and the National Guard have ousted several hundred men accused of abusing civilians.

But critics of the Salvadorean government note that there is no evidence of a single conviction being handed down against a death-squad member or a member of the armed forces or security forces linked with the death squads even though thousands of killings - some estimate as many as 30,000 - have occurred since 1979.

Quite a few of the killings have been conducted by uniformed men in areas controlled for the most part by the Army and security forces. The victims include professors, students, workers, labor leaders, land-reform technicians, human rights activists, and members of political parties accused of having left-wing tendencies.

Most frustrating to many Americans has been the inability of the Salvadorean courts to bring to trial five national guardsmen accused of murdering four American churchwomen more than two years ago.

The basic problem in bringing to justice the murderers of both Americans and Salvadoreans has been what amounts to the collapse of an entire judicial system. Sources say it is difficult to get witnesses to testify because they know there may be retribution against them. Judges and lawyers fear assassination, should they make a wrong move, and judges can be bought. Most crimes are not even investigated here.

American officials hoped that change in the command of the armed forces would improve the situation. But last week's shuffle of high-ranking military officers by the new defense minister, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, did not signal any major shift in the system. It did bring the ouster of Col. Francisco Antonio Moran as head of the Treasury Police, an organization whose members are believed to have been responsible for a number of political assassinations. It is not yet clear what, if anything, Moran's successor will do to change the Treasury Police.

Next: Christian Democrats criticize death squads and the judicial system.

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