ANOTHER brutal war crime has taken place in El Salvador, and this time the victims are Americans. Two American military advisers who survived a guerrilla shootdown of their helicopter were murdered in cold blood on the ground. In Central America this shocking incident is being seen as "the FMLN's Jesuit case," counterpart to the Salvadoran army's hugely publicized and still unpunished murder of six Jesuit priests a year ago. Instantly it brought to a boil in Washington the already-simmering question of whether to restore the military aid that Congress cut last fall to punish the Salvadoran armed forces for their bloodiness and intransigence. In cutting this aid (in half) by $42 million, Congress allowed for restoration if FMLN guerrillas crossed a similar line.
From the FMLN's recent military activities as well as from this atrocity, enough evidence is no doubt available to justify restoration under any fair reading of the law. Before President Bush makes a formal determination, however, people ought to be clear on what it would mean. In a large strategic context, it would unquestionably mean that a civil war that is now in its second decade, if not its sixth -- a war that has proven unwinnable in the battlefield by either side -- will go on. In an immediate political context, it would likely mean a boost on the eve of legislative elections to the ruling party faction headed by Roberto d'Aubuisson, who represents the link between the death squads and the armed forces, and a corresponding blow to the faction, headed by President Alfredo Cristiani, which represents the distant possibility of peace.
Despite the helicopter incident last Wednesday, talks between the two Salvadoran parties continued in Mexico City over the weekend. These talks are being run out of the United Nations by Alvaro deSoto, a Peruvian diplomat who is sensitive to the pushes and pulls inside each camp. A pause by the United States to give the parties a chance to work harder on the priority goal of a cease-fire would be a reasonable temporary alternative to a decision to resume the war at full speed. In this pause, the Cristiani government would have available a potentially useful new lever: the assurance that if the FMLN evaded a cease-fire, full aid would be turned back on. This could be a way to convert an American tragedy and a Salvadoran propaganda bonanza into a real contribution to political accommodation.