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On the trail of human rights in El Salvador

The writer has traveled to El Salvador several times during the past few years.

Organizing labor unions in El Salvador is a risky business. This is a nation in which many labor leaders have been killed, imprisoned, or driven into exile.

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But the Salvadoreans on all sides are tough people, and that includes those caught in the middle. Take, for example, Jose Luis Grande Presa, secretary-general of El Salvador's General Confederation of Labor (CGT). He's survived an assassination attempt, death threats, and pressure from both the left and right.

Mr. Grande Presa says he's an optimist. He's optimistic in part, one presumes , because he's been able to rise from the position of garbage truck driver to labor leader. But he's optimistic mostly, he says, because he thinks there is still a chance to reform the Salvadorean system of government and, through elections, defeat extremists of both the left and right.

The latest reports from human rights organizations would seem to argue that Grande Presa is wrong. The US State Department, which attempts to put the best face on the situation, recently issued a report to the US Congress on human rights and reforms in El Salvador which was far from upbeat.

An American trade union delegation which visited El Salvador in June concluded that there is simply no labor union freedom in El Salvador. A state of siege still exists, and strikes are for the most part prohibited. Grande Presa and colleagues in the Christian Democratic Party, with which the labor leader has ties, are concerned that provisions in El Salvador's draft constitution will reverse the country's land-reform program.

But despite all this, Grande Presa contends that a middle way can be found between the solutions offered by the guerrillas on the left and the conservatives on the right. In order for those who want nonviolent reform to succeed, however, he insists that a way must be found to control the right-wing death squads, some of which appear to be linked to elements of the Army and security forces. The death squads, he says, polarize the situation and help to keep the guerrilla movement alive.

Grande Presa said that an acquaintance who had contacts with the guerrillas once approached him and asked him to join one of the nonviolent organizations on the left. He said that he refused because he did not share the guerrillas' principles. Grande Presa, a short fireplug of a man with a round, leathery face, is an admirer of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland. He does not agree with what has happened to workers in communist countries. He says that in 1982, guerrillas killed a number of farmers in a cooperative movement in San Vicente Province which has links with his labor group.

But the threats against Grande Presa himself have come from the right and not from the left. He said that in 1981, a right-wing death squad, apparently searching for Grande Presa, shot and killed one of his brothers. A year later, he received an anonymous threat in the mail. It said that he was to be ''eliminated.'' In July of 1983, two men driving a taxi smashed into his car, and then dragged him out and beat him, leaving him incapacitated for two months. In early May of this year he received a telephone call from a person who did not identify himself. The caller accused Grande Presa of being a Communist and said he had 48 hours to leave the country.

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The latest incident occurred on May 16, when two men carrying weapons appeared at night outside Grande Presa's home. Grande Presa is certain that they were right-wing assassins looking for him and a nephew. The labor leader takes some comfort in the fact that the two men were later arrested by the national police, an organization which does not have a reputation for protecting innocent civilians. The two men turned out to be a former agent and a former sergeant in the police, Grande Presa said. They were released by the police because they lacked evidence against them, he said. But he added that their arrest showed that the performance of the police was improving. He said that just a few years ago, the police might have been working with the would-be assassins rather than against them.

Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, director of the US State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, argues that the performance of the national police has ''significantly'' improved, particularly when it is compared with the performance of the other two Salvadorean security forces, the National Guard and the notorious treasury police.

Members of several independent human rights organizations in the United States would disagree with Mr. Abrams, however. They argue that while members of the national police may have grown more selective in the targets they pick, they are nonetheless responsible for numerous cases of abduction and torture.

The most heavily publicized case in recent months was that of Angel Ibarra, a Salvadorean physician working with the Lutheran Church's refugee program in El Salvador. The national police abducted Dr. Ibarra together with a Lutheran minister on April 26.

The police did not acknowledge they were holding the two until several days later, following protests both from the Lutheran Church and the US government. The pastor was released, but Ibarra remained in custody and was reportedly tortured at a private home maintained by the police not far from El Salvador's main airport.

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