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El Salvador: turning teen-age recruits into effective fighters

Eduardo Rivera Flores stands in pressed fatigues outside his barracks. He has just returned from six weeks of training with US Green Beret instructors in Honduras.

He looks at his uniform and says, ''This was made in El Salvador. The hat is from your country.''

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His mother stands nearby, trying to maintain her composure. Most of her son's newly trained companions in the Arce Brigade - the first Salvadorean soldiers to receive training from US instructors at bases in Honduras - were initiated into the war when their transport trucks were ambushed on a road the Army claims to control in Usulutan Province. Two soldiers were killed, the Army says. Mr. Rivera's company will leave at dawn along the same route.

The Regional Military Training Center (RMTC) at Puerto Castilla, Honduras, is the latest effort by the US government to upgrade the quality of the Salvadorean Army. According to US military sources, the Army here has been plagued by inadequate training and poor leadership. The US is encouraging improved officer training and instruction in counterinsurgency techniques to improve the Army's performance in the war.

US military sources say they are pleased with the trainees' progress. Many of the Army's problems, military sources say, stem from its rapid growth. The armed forces have grown from 9,000 in 1979 to 24,000 at present. Additionally, there are some 9,000 persons in the security forces.

The military is hoping the increased training will break the stalemate between the guerrillas and the Army. The civil war is four years old, having lasted longer than both the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. It has cost the country anywhere from 20,000 to 46,000 civilian dead, according to tabulations by the Roman Catholic archbishop's office. The Salvadorean Army controls the main cities and the larger towns. They claim to hold most of the countryside as well.

Opposing the Army and three internal security forces are 6,000 to 8,000 guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which claims to control nine areas of the country wtih a combined population of 70,000 to 100 ,000 people. They receive some support from Nicaragua and Cuba, including training.

Areas held by the FMLN include the sparsely populated Chalatenango, Cabanas, and Morazan provinces near the Honduran border; parts of the swampy flatland of southeastern Usulutan Province and on the slopes of the Guazapa Volcano, just 25 miles north of San Salvador; and areas in San Vicente, including the Chinchontepec Volcano, and around the city of Usulutan. Anything east of the Lempa River is considered uncontrolled territory.

Lt. Col. Orlando Montano sits in a small restaurant in San Miguel. Around him are several officers. Heavy automatic pistols lie between the empty plates and coffee cups on the table.

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''The US training is important,'' Montano says, ''because it has changed the way we are fighting the war. Our goals and our tactics have shifted. For instance, we are more concerned now with eradicating the guerrillas' support systems than we are in holding a town for a few days.''

Montano will head the newly formed Arce Brigade, the fifth 1,000-man Immediate Reaction Batallion.

These batallions are special strike forces that are not permanently based in one locale. They will be supplemented by highly mobile, light infantry, 350-man counterinsurgency (CICFA) battalions.

One of these units is currently being trained at the regional training center in Hondurus. The US has plans to train 12 more there - a total of 4,200 trainees in all - bringing the number of battalions in El Salvador to 36 by the end of the year. And there are plans for training still more Immediate Reaction battalions.

Attempts to improve the Salvadorean officer corps include training last year of 477 Salvadorean officer candidates in the US. Another 287 cadets recently finished courses at Fort Benning, Ga., and 200 more will soon complete their training there. The Salvadorean Military Academy previously graduated about 15 to 20 new lieutenants per year, the rest of the command positions coming from hasty field promotions.

According to Montano, US Green Beret advisers have taught Salvadorean troops how to operate in small units and counterinsurgency methods for destroying the guerrillas' popular support. The CICFA units are designed to keep guerrillas from establishing permanent bases of operations by keeping constant pressure on them. The counterinsurgency battalions are designed to be broken down into groups of as few as five or 10 men.

''Our goal is to put so much pressure on the guerrillas with a small unit that the guerrillas will be forced to stay in larger groups for security. These larger groups will be easier to destroy.''

Montano also stressed the importance of the US presence along the Honduran-Salvadorean border.

''Because of the vigilance along the border and the internal problems, the guerrillas are not receiving the support they had in the past,'' Montano says. ''When we capture them now, they are often malnourished. This shows that the tactic of attacking their base of support is working. This tactic was one of the primary contributions from the US Army. It is the same tactic you used in Vietnam.''

Montano claims that most of the counterinsurgency specialists assigned by the US to the Salvadorean armed forces are Vietnam veterans.

''The type of war you fought in Vietnam,'' Montano says, ''and the type of war we are fighting now is not that different. It is a two-pronged war, one against the guerrillas and the other against the people who support them.''

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