Lt. Col. Jorge Adalberto Cruz leaps from his helicopter wearing neatly-pressed camouflage fatigues and matching Australian bush hat. He cradles a black M16 automatic rifle that still is marked "Property of U.S. Government."
"Our policy now is not to be in the towns but to constantly pursue the guerrillas wherever they might be," he says.
Cruz's comments are music to the ears of U.S. military advisers who are trying to push the Salvadoran Army out of the barracks and into the field to find and eliminate leftist guerrillas.
"He is the epitome of what a lieutenant colonel should be in combat," a U.S. military official here says.
The baby-faced Cruz, 43, commands troops in Morazan province on the front line against the insurgents. His men control the southern half of the province and the guerrillas control the northern half along the Honduran border. Towns in the middle sometimes change hands twice in a single week.
Cruz spends his time close enough to the front lines that in early June he had a two-hour radio conversation in the field with a guerrilla commander just a few miles away. Cruz believes it was Joaquin Villalobos himself, leader of the Revolutionary Army of the People, one of five insurgent groups battling the government.
"He tried to recruit me for his army. He said the guerrillas were the real army of the people," Cruz recalled.
"I said we didn't want to be just another satellite of the Russian bear. The people of Poland and Hungary are the ones fighting for real freedom."
Residents of this provincial capital, where Cruz has been commander since March, say that he is much more active in chasing the guerrillas than previous commanders and has enforced better discipline among his troops. Alcoholic beverages are banned, and a marijuana ring was broken up.
"He's much more ruthless in carrying out the war. He's like a religious figure on a crusade," one resident said. Cruz has his detractors, however. Some residents claim that Cruz's men are not careful in aiming their mortar fire and thus endanger civilians. One farmer was killed while working in his field about two weeks ago in Cacaopera when a government plane bombed the area after guerrillas entered it.
A potentially more difficult problem, particularly for the U.S. Embassy here, lies in Cruz's political views. Like many other younger officers, his aggressiveness on the battlefield is matched by unyielding conservative views.
Cruz has said he would vote for the right-wing Arena Party, whose leader Roberto D'Aubuisson has been linked in the past to death squads.
When asked what he thinks about elections, Cruz gives his "personal" views: "In this country we're not prepared to live in a true democracy like the United States. What we need here is a leader who dictates the policies that we should follow."