Rebels tell Salvadoreans to 'join up or leave'
Cacaopera, El Salvador
The strongest group in the Salvadorean guerrilla movement, in a severe policy shift, is pressuring civilians in northern Morazan Province either to join the rebels or leave this region.
This change in strategy - which occurred after a shakeup in the overall rebel command about 21/2 months ago - has spurred some 2,000 people to flee northern Morazan over several weeks, police officials say. It has also provoked intense resentment among residents who remain here.
Specifically, the rebels of the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) are pressuring Morazan residents to:
* Collectivize individual plots of land in order to feed the rebel army better.
* Send their children (some as young as age 7) to guerrilla schools, where they will learn rebel ideology and how to use weapons.
* Join labor gangs to do road work, carry wounded rebel soldiers, and contribute to the guerrilla infrastructure. Residents who refuse to help voluntarily are forced to assist the rebels.
* Join the insurgent army. If young men do not join voluntarily, they are forced into rebel ranks.
Rebels here contend that these procedures are justified because of what they call an increasing possibility of United States intervention in the Salvadorean civil war. The ERP guerrillas say the first steps of US intervention will consist of air strikes on rebel-held territories.
''We have to prepare the population for intervention,'' says an unshaven ERP rebel, ''and this requires the organization of the people to move rapidly when the massive air strikes begin. If we do not incorporate the people into our structure, we won't know what to do with them or their bones.''
The ERP also admits that the new procedures dovetail with its political objectives.
''If people continue to feel they can be neutral in this war, they will be killed,'' says a guerrilla. He adds, ''They must now take sides in the conflict. The dynamics of the war have changed.''
That the ERP is able to pressure civilians this way signals that it is growing even stronger. The official government is less and less able to maintain control in the province. The rebels are in effect creating their own government. Some observers think the strategy shift in Morazan shows that ERP leader Joaquin Villalobos, commander in chief of all Salvadorean rebel forces, is consolidating his own power, too.