David Passage, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, would have us believe that El Salvador's disappearance from the front pages of our nation's newspapers ''is testament . . . to the changed situation in El Salvador'' "El Salvador: Why Distort the Reality?'' Free for All, July 5 . Having recently returned from an 11-day visit to El Salvador, I cannot account for the lack of press coverage on that war-torn country. Perhaps events in Nicaragua, Libya and the Philippines have temporarily taken priority. But one thing is certain: it is not because the situation in El Salvador has calmed.
Despite what Passage implies, many thousands of Salvadorans continue to be plagued by the effects of the war -- including death-squad killings, disappearances, forced government relocation of the population and bombing by government forces. Though, as the U.S. Embassy quickly points out, the number of political killings by the government has decreased, it is still at an unacceptably high rate. In 1985 alone, according to the human rights office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador, there were some 1,913 civilian victims of killings and disappearances: 1,740 at the hands of armed forces and death squads and 173 at the hands of guerrillas. This level of political violence, in a country the size of Massachusetts, can hardly be characterized as an improvement in human rights.
During my brief stay in El Salvador, at least 10 human rights workers were abducted by security forces -- including a woman who was picked up less than one hour after I met her. She, along with many of her colleagues, was detained for several days incommunicado (in accordance with Salvadoran law) and was tortured. Remember, too, that these human rights workers cannot turn to the protection of due process; a judicial system does not currently exist in El Salvador.
I am puzzled by Passage's efforts to excuse and condone the ongoing atrocities of the Salvadoran government. As the recent Americas Watchju report on El Salvador states, ''There are few places elsewhere in the world where some 1,900 political killings and disappearances in a year . . . would be considered routine.'' Violence should never be deemed routine -- a lesson yet to be learned by certain embassy personnel in San Salvador.
People who visit El Salvador and criticize the Salvadoran government and U.S. tolerance of the current situation are not trying to advance some sort of leftist ''political agenda,'' as Passage would have readers believe. It is not leftist or somehow anti-United States to express outrage over denials of human rights.
To suggest, as does Passage, that conditions in El Salvador have reached an acceptable level is, in my opinion, a distortion of the truth.