US Aid to El Salvador Hangs on Outcome of Trial Priests' Killings Remain Potent Symbol Testing Nation's Democratic Aims

Article excerpt

IN a small, hot room behind the campus chapel, people solemnly shuffle past a macabre collection of memorabilia: photos of corpses lying on the university lawn, ripped Bible study books, and six jars containing soil soaked with blood.

There is also a photo of a footprint made by a United States Army-issue boot.

One year after the murders of six priests, their cook, and her daughter here at the Jesuit-run Jose Simeon Canas University of Central America (UCA), the killings not only remain a powerful symbol for Salvadorans, but are also pivotal to US policy here.

Eight Salvadoran Army soldiers and one officer, members of a crack US-trained team, are awaiting trial, expected within a month or two. Hanging on the outcome of this trial - and on the perception of whether or not justice has been done - is a 10-year, $4 billion investment by the US in El Salvador.

This case, coinciding as it does with the ebbing of the cold war and of Soviet backing for leftist insurgencies, may mark the start of a US withdrawal from the region, US officials admit.

"This case is a litmus test of El Salvador's pretensions to democracy and claim on US aid," says Jim McGovern, an aide to US Rep. Joe Moakley (D) of Massachusetts.

Mr. Moakley was a key player in the 50 percent cut in US military aid signed into law earlier this month. The high command of the Salvadoran military has been accused in a US House of Representatives' task force report of "a conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Jesuit case." Restoration of the aid is conditioned upon a thorough investigation of the killings, as well as good faith peace negotiations between the Army and Marxist rebels.

Leftist rebels claimed Friday to have killed 14 soldiers in fighting in eastern El Salvador on the anniversary of the murders.

The rebels acknowledged that one of their local commanders died during "fierce fighting" that started Wednesday and lasted until late Thursday near San Agustin, 46 miles east of the capital in the province of Usulatan. A spokesman for the Armed Forces Press Committee confirmed there was fighting in the area but said he had no casualty figures.

Meanwhile, in San Salvador, several thousand people and 150 priests attended Friday ceremonies commemorating the slayings. "We can't have democracy if we don't have justice," says Jose Raul Rivas, a unionist participating in a torchlight commemoration march through the capital. …


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