Salvador's Army moves civilians in effort to oust rebels
Guazapa volcano, El Salvador
The Salvadorean Army has targeted civilians, not guerrillas, in a massive effort to dominate the rebel-held Guazapa volcano, political analysts say. ``The Army is trying to surround and encircle the mountain but seems to be allowing the guerrilla combatants to filter out without pursuing them,'' one analyst says. ``Instead the Army is focusing on capturing the civilians. Their aim seems to be to depopulate the zone.''
Since the operation began in the first week of January, the Army has captured more than 350 of the estimated 1,000 rebel sympathizers -- mostly dirt-poor peasants -- living on or near the volcano. The rest are assumed to be hiding from the troops in caves and ravines in the rugged countryside. Rebel claims that 30 civilians have been killed by the Army cannot be confirmed.
Despite more than 20 major military operations within the last five years and almost daily bombing, the Army has been unable to dislodge the guerrillas from the mountain fortress of the volcano.
Located 15 miles north of the capital, Guazapa is symbolically and strategically important. The Army considers it key to the rebels' capability to launch operations in the capital and in the western part of the country, which has been relatively untouched by the war.
In Guazapa, as in other rebel-held zones, the rebels prove an elusive target, and their civilian supporters are more vulnerable to Army attacks. The Army has systematically tried to force the civilians out of the zones with the following tactics:
Massacres. The largest occurred in 1980 and 1981 but continued through the first months following Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's inauguration in June 1984. The massacres had diminished by the fall of 1984.
Indiscriminate bombing of civilians living in the rebel zones. This has been consistently denied by the Duarte government but continues today, according to eyewitness accounts, human rights groups, and civilians in rebel areas.
Army control over the entrance of food and medicine into rebel zones, including frequent restrictions of the access of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations.
Forcible removal of civilians by ground troops as is now occurring on Guazapa. The first large-scale removal was last April during another Army operation on Guazapa. About 250 people were removed, many of whom later returned to the volcano.
Analysts say that the Army's new tactics -- removing the civilians instead of killing them -- reflect the Army's concern with improving its human rights image. Still, human rights experts are concerned about the treatment of the civilians.
The Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners and war, written after World War II, allow the displacement of the civilian population ``if the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.'' America's Watch report of September 1985 points out that justifying forced removal because of concern for the civilians' safety is inconsistent with the Army's indiscriminate bombing of the volcano.
The report concludes, ``It is evident that the political sympathies and not the safety of these Guazapa residents was the primary reason for relocating them.''
Over 230 peasants were being held by the Army at a sugar mill between the capital and Guazapa. But they were turned over to the Red Cross last Saturday, after some had been held as long as three weeks. The Red Cross took the peasants to refugee camps. While the peasants said they were being fed and looked after medically by the Army, they emphasized that they had not wanted to leave their homes on the volcano and that they had not been ``rescued'' as the Army propaganda statements were declaring.
``We were captured,'' said an elderly peasant. ``They have militarized the place where we lived.''
One group of 73 men, women, and children were washing in a ravine near the village of Mirandilla when troops of the United States-trained Atlacatl Batallion heard the sounds and fired a mortar round, slightly wounding several civilians. Some of the group surrendered. The soldiers threatened to toss a grenade into the ravine if the rest didn't come out, at which point the civilians left the ravine, say refugees and military sources.
The peasants were forced to leave their belongings, being assured they could get them later. They were put on helicoptors and flown to a detention center at the mill. Their meager belongings were then burned by the soldiers, according to journalists in the area.
The peasants say the soldiers burned their corn fields and destroyed their graneries. Last week, smoke could be seen rising from the sides of the volcano.
The peasants will be taken to Roman Catholic Church refugee camps but the peasants say they want to be settled near Guazapa. The Army claims it will maintain control of the volcano, open a key road which cuts across the rich farmland north of Guazapa, repopulate the area, and start up agricultural production.
However, large landowners approached about returning, declined. Most observers doubt the Army will be able to prevent the guerrillas from returning to the volcano and say that without that the rest of the Army's plan won't work.
The operation has been costly for the Army. They have suffered many casualties, primarily from mines. Although the Army has been able to disrupt the guerrillas' operations and capture many peasants, they have had little effect on the actual guerrilla combatants.
The Army named the operation Phoenix. Their plan was to burn away the guerrilla zone. A new Army-controlled society would then emerge from the ashes. But many observers say that unless the Army is willing to commit large numbers of troops to the area, it is likely that the guerrillas will rise from the ashes on Guazapa.