Seemingly inured to the inevitability of a civil war here, the people of this Central American country are finding that its almost daily political violence no longer shocks.
The new mood in El Salvador arises from mounting despair over reconciling the rightist and leftist groups that have been waging a terrorist war, each side bent on ousting the moderate government that took power nine months ago in a coup. So far this year, the fighting has claimed between 2,000 and 3,000 lives.
It is true that there are fewer lefist marches now like the ones blasted away by soldiers and rightists earlier in the year. And there are fewer kidnapings and takeovers of embassies and government buildings -- a fact that leads to some optimism in the government and the U.S Embassy that backs it.
But there is at least as much killing, and blood is flowing more freely, more unpredictably than ever. Among the people on the streets of this city there is no optimism, only a strange, resigned mood of terror.
"It's different now. There aren't so many demonstrations but there are other things that are more shocking," says a Salvadoran secretary who works in one of the Latin American embassies here. "You see bodies in the road. I went to the airport the other day and saw four bodies. I visited my parents in Sonsonate [about 50 miles west of the capital] and while I was there, around the corner there was a shootout that lasted an hour. It started at 4 in the afternoon.
"But people are beginning to get used to it," she says. "You see them out on the streets at night -- sometimes. It's terrible that we're getting used to it."
A cab driver, smiling incredulously, tells of spending an afternoon with a gun in his ribs chauffeuring members of the leftist Popular Revolutionary Bloc in pursuit of some illusory enemy.
"I thought they were going to kill me," he says. "But, well, they didn't."
He was back on the job the next day.
Other cab drivers stay tuned to a local radio station that regularly reports where the dozen or so cars seized at gunpoint each day have been found abandoned.
Reporters sitting in a hotel bar casually strike up a conversation with a local businessman who tells them, as the U.S. Embassy and some members of the government have been telling them, that the situation here is actually improving. ("It looks worse but it is really better," as the defense minister put it). The businessman blames it all on bad publicity. "It's the reporters who are destroying this country," he says.
The bartender, meanwhile, is whispering to the journalists, "Don't talk to strangers here.You can get killed. You never know what is going to happen."
What is happening, as one member of the governing military-civilian junta made clear recently, is the gradual destruction of Salvadoran society.
"In El Salvador the bonds of human relationships have been broken," said Col. Adolfo Arnoldo Majano.
"Recent acts such as the threats against citizens who are honestly working in the government or in private enterprise, armed clashes, disrespect of authority, arms trafficking, the forced emigration of Salvadorans and the immoderate quantity of innocent people killed, are leading slowly to the demoralization of all the people."
The extremists of the left and the right, including some apparently within the government itself, have brought on this crisis.
Each side talks of justice: the revolutionary or people's justice of the left assassinates anyone suspected of being an informer; the justice of government troops whose prisoners die or disappear more often than they go to jail; the justice of the right that ends with the murder of anyone who might concede an inch of power or influence to the left.
In the end, there is little or no justice.
In such an environment a new factor has taken over that is out of anyone's control. It is what one high school student called "the climate of vengeance."
It is no longer possible to tell with any certainty who is killing, or being killed, for what reasons. People who may never have had any visible political connections are murdered, and "EM," the Spanish intitials for the right-wing Squadron of Death group, are carved on their chests.
"Anybody can do that," said the student. "Maybe the man was killed for politics, or maybe his wife's lover killed him or maybe someone who owed him money. No one will know."
A Salvadoran who lives and works in Mexico City is asked casually at the San Salvador airport why he has come back just now.
At first he said, with the circumspection Salvadorans have grown accustomed to using, "business." But then, as if he needed to tell somebody: "Actually I've come back to find out who killed my brother. My company gave me a month off, and that's what I'm going to do. He was just a kid, in his last year of high school. I visited him in February, and if he was involved in anything political I never knew about it. I want to find out why he was killed and who did it."
And if he finds the murderer, what will he do?
He paused for a moment with an ironic smile. "Call the police? . . . Maybe the police killed him," he said. Then he shrugged and walked off into the evening to find a cab.
The answer of the government to this situation has been increasing shows of force. Military patrols regularly stop buses on the streets and search all the occupants for arms. Troops roll through the city in convoys of trucks and armored cars.
A prudent Salvadoran does not drive anywhere near them if he can help it. The atmosphere is so charged that a backfire or any loud noise can lead to disaster.
A truck full of soldiers passing in front of the luxurious Camino Real Hotel here a few months ago blew a tire. The hotel has since replaced the windows, but guests on the fifth floor can still mark the trajectory of the heavy-caliber bullets through the perforations in the curtains and the holes in the walls.
The people here are left with the sense that there is nowhere to turn. To be shot and survive to be taken to a hospital is no respite. At least 11 times in the past year assassins believed to be rightists, have broken into operating rooms to kidnap or finish off their victims on the spot.