The elaborate political and diplomatic minuet that surrounds the carnage in El Salvador took a new turn last week when the Mexican Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador.
The move coincided with a concerted offensive on political, diplomatic and military fronts that was supposed to have begun the end of the often repressive, U.S.-supported government in the Central American nation. Yet the 10-month-old military-civilian junta there now seems stronger than ever and the long-anticipated allout insurrection appears, once again, to have been forestalled.
Mexico's withdrawal of Ambassador Hector Perez Gallardo was announced on the second day of a nationwide strike called by the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Front. An earlier strike, whether through popular-support or intimidation, had largely shut down the volatile country, and it was expected that this one would do the same.
Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda suggested that his government might recognize a state of belligerency and a rebel government in El Salvador, presumably the Revolutionary Front, if it demonstrated "certain control over territory and were habitually obeyed by a substantial part of the population."
Given Mexico's growing influence in the region, such a move would deal a severe blow to El Salvadore's current rulers. But at the conclusion of the three-day strike on Friday night it was clear that the effort was largely a failure.
Intended to demonstrate the power and following of the left, the strike suggested instead that Salvodorans are more interested in keeping their jobs, or more afraid of the junta's guns, than they are interested in revolution.
The country did not grind to a stop. Where the guerrillas attempted to mount military actions, security forces replied with massive firepower, including helicopter gunships and heavy-caliber machine guns. The death toll rose will above 40 per day.
To counter passive opposition to the government, Salvadoran businessmen -- who have recently begun to work with rather than against the junta -- make it clear that strikers would lose their jobs. In a vastly overpopulated country of 4.6 million people, with steadily rising unemployment, such threats are a major weapon.
By some accounts, only 10 to 20 percent of the workers stayed off the job and the left's claim of active support, and not just sympathy, is greatly diminished.
Yet for all these twists and turns and apparent defeats of the left, the months-long guerrilla offensive against the junta goes on. And despite some reforms, the junta has yet to take positive steps toward ending the repressive practices that have made it an embarrassment to the Carter administration and pushed moderate opponents into the camp of the revolutionaries.
Although U.S. diplomats in San Salvadore have encouraged the government to attempt to reintegrate the moderate left, the junta -- now flushed with success -- has not indicated willingness to negotiate.
The intransigence of both sides has kept El Salvadore in a state of turmoil that has cost nearly 4,000 lives this year and that threatens the stability of the entire region.
The north of the country is in virtual civil war as progovernment villages and groups are pitted against revolutionaries and the population at large faces food shortages.
Tensions are so high that anyone carrying arms is likely to use them at the slightest provocation. On Wednesday night, U.S. Vice Consul Brian Woo was slightly wounded when Salvadoran national guardsmen pumped nine rounds into his armored car in an apparent case of misidentification.
Although the junta has talked of elections, there are no plans for them in the immediate future, and until they are held it is unlikely that anyone will know, despite the claims of each side, who the Salvadoran majority supports. At present, the pervasive fear reduces the issue of political support to the question which side has the greatest power of intimidation.
Given such an enviroment it appears unlikely that Mexico will take any more major diplomatic initivatives in the immediate future. But it is equally unlikely that El Salvadore soon will find peace. As one observer put it, "There are too many people with too many guns."