A longstanding clash of personalities and policy at the highest levels of El Salvador's military threatens the country's U.S-nurtured government from within just as it appears to be making progress against the leftist revolutionaries trying to destroy it from without.
The confrontation, between two colonels on the five-man civilian-military junta, erupted into crisis Monday with the publication of the monthly "order of battle" listing military command assignments. Virtually all of the strongest supporters of one of the junta members, Col. Adolfo Arnoldo Majano, had been removed from their posts.
The battle order, which amounted to an official undermining of Majano, who is widely considered to be the most progressive of the country's top military leaders, came after an unsuccessful move last week by a small group of military commanders to have Majano tried for "treason to the armed forces." o
The junta also has three civilian members, including two important Christian Democratic politicians, but the Army officers and the troops loyal to them are the structural core of the 11-month-old Salvadoran government, which has become the cornerstone of U.S. hopes for controlled social change in Central America.
Col. Majano is defined as much by his personal and political enemies on the right as by his actions. He and his supporters within the Army, known collectively as "the military youth," initiated or provided key support for the attempts at major social reforms that have taken place in the tiny violence-wracked nation.
Majano's opposite number on the junta is Col. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez. Since an earlier confrontation in May he has effectively been commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is closely associated with the powerful conservative Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia.
Majano claims that the new order of battle, signed by Garcia, was issued without consulting him or any of the civilians in the junta. Majano questioned the legality of the document and sent word to various military units telling them Gutierrez had not gotten his approval for its contents.
There were repeated rumors that either Majano or the Christian Democratic members of the government would resign, but these, at least for the moment, have been categorically denied.
Some supporters of the government feared an armed confrontation might break out between the Army fractions. Rumors that Majano had fled the country or sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy were dispelled however, when all junta members appeared on Salvadoran television yesterday afternoon to proclaim that their differences had been resolved.
At a press conference in El Salvador today, however, Majano suggested there may be no solution short of either his or Gutierrez' resignation. "Those of us who are involved directly in this crisis, which is getting worse hour by hour as no just or realistic solutions are taken, ought to be disposed to step aside voluntarily on behalf of military unity," he told reporters.
Majano refused to answer questions, but it was clear that despite yesterday's attempts to smooth over the differences there remained a serious chance of the collapse of the junta.
But dissension within the ranks of the Salvadoran military has been a persistent obstacle in attempts to find a way out of the bloody civil conflict that has cost more than 5,000 lives since the beginning of the year.
The current government came to power last Oct. 15 through an officer's revolt led by Majano and Gutierrez against the authoritarian government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero.
The new government promised an end to human rights abuses. Civilian politicans, including socialists, and some communists were brought into the junta and the Cabinet.
But while some elements of the armed forces had supported the coup out of sincere wishes for a major restructuring of the economically repressive Salvadoran society, others were primarily interested in ending the corruption in their top ranks and, perhaps, in advancing their personal careers.
"Preserving the integrity of the armed forces" was considered an essential and, by many officers, the essential goal of the coup.
The Army discharged, with pay, its most conspicuously reactionary officers but refused to fire others or to investigate those believed to be involved in the repressive practices of the Romero regime.
The Salvaddoran guerrilla movement, with no interest in the official Army's integrity, kept up its offensive, and the Army retaliated with a vengenance.
By the end of December, as the level of violence throughout the country rose dramatically, the military high command forced the first civilian members of the coalition government to resign. They were replaced by the Christian Democrats.
In late April and early May a right-wing leader, retired major Robert d'Aubuisson, attempted to persuade the Army rank and file to oust Majano and the Christian Democrats in favor of himself and his supporters.
Majano had D'Aubuisson arrested along with several of his military and civilian backers. But a majority of the country's commanders released them.
At the same time, Gutierrez was given supreme command of the armed forces ostensibly as a measure of bureaucratic streamlining, but in fact depriving Majano of considerable personal power.
As the leftist revolutionary movement became more unified and its offensive-mounted during the summer, the military seemed to draw together as well. Then last month a nationwide strike called by the revolutionaries failed to gain widespread support, and the junta proclaimed a major victory.
But in the wake of the success the strains within the government began to show once again, and although U.S. policymakers continue to hope the current crisis may yet be patched over, few serious observers in El Salvador beleive that the chronic problem of divisions within the military will be resolved for some time.