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Salvador Army polishes its image. Gaining civilian trust is part of Army strategy to win civil war

Several times a week soldiers roll into a town, line up the people, and give them food, medicines, and a brief talk about how the Army is their friend. This is the new image that the Salvadorean Army, once noted for its human rights violations, is trying to present to civilians.

The Army is increasingly realizing the necessity of winning over the civilian population. Its tactics to make gains in the nearly seven-year-old war include civic action, as the handouts are called, and propaganda operations aimed at demoralizing the leftist insurgents and convincing Army recruits and the population that the Army is winning.

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``In this war you don't try to conquer territory but rather to win the minds and good will of the people,'' says Gen. Adolfo Onec'ifero Blandon, the chief of staff.

``They [the Army] have learned that if they don't have a good image they'll have problems,'' says a Roman Catholic priest. ``There's more clarity [by the Army] about how their behavior plays an important part in the war.''

But analysts say that creating a new image may be difficult for the armed forces, given their history of repression in the interests of the oligarchy -- the country's small elite. The Army's status as a privileged caste and its traditional role of defending the social order belies its claims to be on the side of the people, some academics and foreign political analysts say.

Local religious sources and foreign development workers in different parts of the country report that Army abuses, although fewer than in the past, are still frequent enough to prevent the Army from convincing many that it has really changed. The Army denies that abuses are continuing, and it highlights its improved treatment of the population.

Even government critics acknowledge that the main Army abuses against the civilian population - large-scale massacres and indiscriminate bombing - have been significantly reduced in recent years. The last alleged massacre occurred in September 1984.

The general feeling though, among most Salvadorean and foreign analysts spoken to, is that the Army's new tactics have yet to convince most Salvadoreans.

Part of the Army's problem, says one academic analyst, is that military imperatives still take precedence over the Army's new emphasis on political warfare. But the more fundamental problem, he says, is that the Army is accustomed to total power and has trouble dealing with civilians in any but the most paternal form.

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Although the Army presents itself as a reformist force, diplomats and local political analysts see the military, in alliance with the oligarchy, as severely limiting any change that would fundamentally affect upper-class interests or those of the high-ranking officers. These analysts say although the Army reluctantly supported the land reform of the early 1980s, it generally cooperated with the upper classes in limiting its effectiveness.

For much of Salvadorean history, the military has been ``a class above.'' It ruled for 50 years, the longest period in Latin America. Although El Salvador has had a civilian, elected President since 1984 and an Assembly since 1985, many analysts say the Army is the power behind the throne, the institution with veto power over any important decision that affects its interests.

But US aid, say critics, has ``bought'' the military's acceptance of President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte -- initially distrusted by the Army -- and of the overall US counterinsurgency plan to defeat the rebels militarily.

``The Army realizes that Duarte has been responsible for attracting the massive US aid. They know that they have been the chief beneficiaries, and they don't want to jeopardize that,'' one diplomat here says.

US military aid of more than $100 million a year has allowed the armed forces to quadruple in size over the last six years to more than 52,000 men.

The modern Army emerged in the late 19th century as the liberal coffee oligarchy was consolidating its control over the country. The coffee growers needed the Army to function as an internal police force to quell the unrest and periodic peasant rebellions spurred by the coffee grower's theft of Indian communal lands in the 1880s.

In 1932, with the urging of the oligarchy, the military government bloodily supressed a peasant insurrection and ushered in 50 years of military rule.

But by the end of the 1970s, a strong leftist mass movement had emerged, which the government countered with repression. On Oct. 15, 1979, young, liberal officers fearing the same sort of revolution that swept Nicaragua only months before, staged a coup. They promised badly needed reforms and an end to the repression. But hard-line conservative officers seized control. Within a year most of the reformers were in exile. The coup had for the most part failed. Right-wing repression increased as the left continued to strengthen.

The military, under pressure from the Christian Democrats who had only agreed to join the government if land reform were enacted, reluctantly enforced the measure. This weakened the military's former close alliance with the landed oligarchy, analysts say.

The Army denies any involvement in the killings of the early 1980s, aside from some references to ``excesses'' and ``mistakes'' committed.

``The death squads were part of the counterinsurgency plan of the Armed Forces,'' says a rightist politician. ``There were many mistakes, but militarily speaking, ethics and morals aside, it was successful. It stopped the subversion.''

No officers have been convicted in a death-squad killing, despite widespread documentation, including by the US, that several of the principal death squads operated directly out of the intelligence sections of the three security forces.

Widespread corruption, long considered a tradition in the Army and now reportedly expanding because of the influx of US aid, robs the Army of the moral authority it needs to combat the insurgency, analysts say.

Yet despite its weaknesses the military remains the country's strongest institution and has become even more powerful over the course of the war, say analysts.

Now, with Duarte losing popularity and his former bases of support, the military is stepping into the breach, trying to unite the Salvadorean society around its counterinsurgency plan, United To Reconstruct.

``Increasingly the military feels it is winning the war militarily but losing it politically,'' says one foreign political analyst.

Analysts note that the military as an institution is trying to establish direct links with labor, the business sector, the political parties, and the Catholic Church, independent of the Duarte government.

``What is impeding a military victory is the political polarization in the country,'' says General Blandon. He criticizes the politicians for ``thinking in a sectarian way, instead of thinking nationalistically.... This attitude only favors the subversion.''

Many Salvadoreans are concerned that United To Reconstruct will increasingly militarize their society, says one Christian Democrat in touch with grass roots groups.

Instead of democracy, some see a stronger military as the result of US aid. ``The Reagan adminstration has been successful in El Salvador -- not in building a democracy, but rather in creating a powerful military establishment,'' says one Salvadorean professional.

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