What appeared to be an imminent mutiny by the Salvadoran Air Force was averted today, according to senior military sources, when President Alvaro Magana convinced the Air Force commander he would keep an earlier commitment to see Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia removed as defense minister.
Air Force chief Juan Rafael Bustillo had declared in interviews yesterday that after Friday he would no longer obey Garcia's orders. Late this afternoon, without citing any specifics, Bustillo said that "at this moment some solutions" had been found for his demands and that their extent would be evident next week.
Bustillo, whom one western military observer called "as professional as any officer in this Army," informed the U.S. Embassy weeks ago that he would carry out what one source termed a "job action" if Garcia did not go. Military sources had said this morning that Bustillo was prepared to begin that action Saturday.
Garcia has long been reputed to be the most powerful man in the country and is certainly one of its most adroit political survivors, the only senior member of the government to have maintained his position since 1979. But his administration of the war against leftist guerrillas has come under heavy criticism from many of his field commanders and, privately, from some officials in Washington fearing a debacle in the making.
U.S. officials here have insisted that they would not interfere with the "internal affairs" of the Army that Washington is training and arming. One of them, however, made clear in recent days that they would "look askance" at another mutiny, just as they are trying to get congressional approval for substantial increases in military aid, according to informed sources.
The incipient Air Force mutiny against Garcia's authority was directly tied to another rebellion in January by the then-provincial commander, Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa.
One military source close to the Air Force commander, Col. Bustillo, said, "He's fed up with the same things Ochoa is fed up with. He's convinced if changes aren't made in the high command the whole country is going to fall."
Moreover, to resolve the highly publicized split in January, Bustillo and other officers sympathetic to Ochoa's demands were instrumental in working out what several military sources have described as a specific arrangement for Garcia's departure.
As Ochoa and his allies understood it, according to these sources, Ochoa would accept diplomatic exile in Washington on the condition that the defense minister resign or be removed within 90 days. This time period for Garcia's departure was also confirmed by senior Salvadoran government officials not tied to Ochoa.
The 90 days ended Monday. As Garcia stayed on, tensions grew. Yesterday, the defense minister told reporters he had no intention of resigning but left open the possibility that if President Magana asked him to leave, he would.
The Associated Press reported that Garcia met with Bustillo during the day but neither said what transpired.
Playing up the reputation he has cultivated as the key military backer of the electoral process begun in March 1982 with Washington's enthusiastic endorsement, Garcia said, "A democracy is being born here. I fought for it. I'll continue fighting for it."
"People have said I'm the strong man, that I can fix everything. But no. I'm a member of a team. I've always acted as a member of a team and in the president's case, I've always respected and admired him, and although others say he is not , he is the head of the high command."
Magana, a civilian with lifelong ties to the military and evident skill at cajoling top Army officers, essentially was appointed by Garcia's commanders as interim president last year when the elections threatened to result in an extreme right-wing takeover by parties allied to ex-major Roberto D'Aubuisson.
Some of the rebellious officers, including Ochoa, have been closely associated with D'Aubuisson, and their complaints have been portrayed by Garcia as an ultra-rightist plot.
But according to senior military officials, the anti-Garcia faction has offered to accept a civilian as defense minister if the prosecution of the war is left to a restructured general staff. A consistent criticism of Garcia has been that he puts his friends in command for political purposes at the price of military effectiveness.
After Bustillo's 40-minute meeting with Magana at midday, which was not publicly announced, Bustillo appeared at a ceremony honoring seven U.S. advisers who have just completed the training of an Air Force combat battalion. Bustillo told his assembled combat forces that they "can be an example not only for the citizenry but for us inside the armed forces."
Other military sources, elaborating on Bustillo's expected "solutions," said that Magana had told the colonel he "understood" the problems of the officer corps with the high command and that he would move quickly to resolve them. These sources said this was taken to mean that Garcia would leave quickly, although he may be allowed to reach that final decision on his own.
"I believe that Garcia is a bright man and he loves the Army. I think he will resign by himself," said a senior military source. If not, "it is a very difficult position for the Air Force and everybody."