Restless, tense anticipation pervades this nation where at least a score of people die every 24 hours and 9,000 have been killed this year in a political violence; guerrillas constantly prepare for a "final offensive" and the extreme right wing is gearing up to seize control of the U.S.-backed government.
Wednesday is the funeral of five major leftist political leaders abducted and slain last week by a right-wing death squad. The left has called for a major demonstration of support, and the far right is rumored to be ready to supply a massacre at least as large as that carried out at the funeral of assassinated archbishop Oscar Romero last spring, whem more than 30 persons died.
Spokesmen for the Army and security forces have said they will maintain a low profile, but have not ruled out the possibility that they will appear at Wednesday's activities, increasing the chance of a major confrontation.
It is a crucial moment for El Salvador's left. If its mass organizations do not muster a big turnout Wednesday, it will be suggested -- with considerable credence -- that they no longer have major support here. If they do, and bloodshed follows, the chances of rapid and bloody polarization -- not only within El Salvador, but among Western countries with different allegiances here -- increases geometrically.
No one is immune from the violence here. Within the last few days another priest has disappeared. If he is dead, as many people expect, then 11 members of the clergy including the archbishop will have been slain here in the last two years.
Cars are being stolen at gunpoint once again on El Salvador's streets. Buses are being burned by terrorists -- seven of them yesterday. Such incidents are typical of the violence that occurs here before a major event such as Wednesday's.
The international press, sensing blood and a major political shift here, have descended on the capital en masse. Yet there is a curious mixture of war and a kind of fatalistic peace still evident here.
While masked children occupy the San Salvador Cathedral, where the bodies of the slain leftists lie in state -- guards 13 and 14 years old playing the deadly game of guerrillas and revolution and ready to die or kill for their cause -- other children, the same age with the same features, celebrate first communions and birthdays around swimming pools of San Salvador's more opulent hotels.
Cab drivers have learned to make fast U-turns when they see the national police or the National Guard stopping and searching people in the streets. In some middle-class neighborhoods, and certainly in the poorer quarters, residents have grown almost accustomed to encountering the bodies of three or four murdered youths in the gutter each morning.
In the wealthier parts of town the growth of 20-foot walls topped with concertina wire can be read like the rings of a tree tracing the convulsions of terror to which El Salvador has been subjected. Concrete block is topped with fresher bricks, then more block, then the barbed wire.
Yet during the day the streets of San Salvador are busy. Shoppers stroll the sidewalks or the aisles of modern shopping malls. It is in the night that terror holds sway, but even then, many Salvadorans venture out to restaurants, bars, even discotheques. This is a city where, after all the killing, people have learned to endure horror as best they can by ignoring it. Tomorrow, many fear, it may confront them all.