Salvadoran President Alvaro Magana announced today that Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, who led a six-day nonviolent Army mutiny in Cabanas province, has relinquished his command of its 1,200-man garrison.
Magana's announcement followed a meeting just after dawn, in the rugged mountains north of Cabanas' provincial capital of Sensuntepeque, between Ochoa and a special commission of officers acting as intermediaries.
"The whole problem of the Army mutiny is solved," Magana said. The solution, as he described it in a press conference, leaves unaddressed questions raised by Ochoa's actions and their likely consequences for the U.S.-backed Army.
The defense minister, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, whose resignation Ochoa had demanded, remains in place. But his prestige suffered during the mutiny and Magana was equivocal about how long Garcia will remain in office.
"Garcia provoked the situation," Ochoa told reporters in Sensuntepeque when he returned there this evening. "If the minister of defense continues in his position he will be responsible for the destruction of the armed forces and the republic.
"My resignation as commander will benefit the unity of the armed forces and the country," Ochoa said, adding that he planned to stay in Cabanas until a successor, as yet unnamed, arrives.
The defense minister's attempt last week to reassign Ochoa to the Salvadoran Embassy in Uruguay touched off Ochoa's mutiny. Magana, acknowledging that Ochoa will not go to Uruguay, said he had not decided where to post the officer instead.
Ochoa's shift to giving up his command was announced after a morning incident in which Ochoa's wife and two junior officers supporting him were reported seriously injured in a car crash while driving to Cabanas from the capital.
The meeting at dawn with Ochoa reportedly included National Guard commander Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, Col. Adolfo O. Blandon and Air Force chief Col. Juan Rafael Bustillo--the latter two having indicated support for Ochoa. Afterwards, Ochoa flew by helicopter to the capital.
Until today he had refused to leave Cabanas without taking along "for their own protection" a major and captain who have supported him. But this morning they remained behind in Sensuntepeque.
Ochoa visited his wife at the military hospital, then returned to his provincial headquarters. Magana had said he was free to do so, although not as commander.
Magana also said at the press conference that no punishment of the officer was being contemplated.
"I am not a leftist. I am not a rightist. I am a soldier," Ochoa said tonight.
The president had waited to issue a direct order in the case as commander in chief because "initially," he said, "I tried to let the problem be solved internally." But when the mutiny became public on Friday, he added, it provoked speculation of a broader ultra-right coup plot, perhaps inspired by Constituent Assembly president Roberto D'Aubuisson.
Ochoa himself pictured the rebellion more as a confrontation between men such as himself, who have fought with some success the nation's leftist guerrillas in the countryside and those like Garcia, whom he portrayed as ineptly directing the faltering overall war effort from the capital.
Ochoa had the support of several young officers in his garrison who previously have been associated with the liberal and leftist movement inside the Army known as the "military youth."
On Sunday, Ochoa, sensing that any sort of referendum that could deal with his conduct in the field and the broader question of the way the war is going would tend to favor him, suggested calling for a vote by a council of his fellow officers.
But such a move would have been a reversion to the kind of democracy in the command structure that many Salvadoran soldiers feel nearly destroyed their institution in the first months after the October 1979 coup that opened the most recent chapter in this country's history.
The matter of Ochoa's insubordination, in itself, finally was something that few members of the Army felt comfortable in condoning and most appear to have rejected.
It was to this problem of simple compliance that Magana found his "solution."
The president said today he had "tried by all means possible to separate the political from the military" in what he called "a truly lamentable incident." Now, said Magana, "compliance" with the order relieving Ochoa of command "has been achieved."
Magana said his personal authority as commander in chief was never in question.
Ochoa, commenting on the possible fate of Garcia, said "it is the decision of the president of the republic."