Eight persons disappeared from this hill town in Morazan province last July, according to residents here, who said the eight were taken away by a local guerrilla unit that later returned to say the captives had been executed in the name of revolutionary justice.
No bodies were found, and some townspeople say some of the eight, who included the mayor and two policemen, were widely believed to be government informants.
But the story told here of their fate is similar to reports of relief workers in other towns -- such as Corinto, Nueva Sparta, San Luis de la Reina -- in the largely guerrilla-held northern part of the province. The relief workers say they point to a new tactic of at least some guerrilla groups that have modified their previous policy of trying to ingratiate themselves with civilians, a policy that included tolerating even some nonsympathizers.
During the five years of El Salvador's civil war, attention has focused on the Salvadoran armed forces as the principal violator of the human rights of noncombatants. There is little question among diplomats and other observers here that military abuses still are responsible for the bulk of the approximately 50,000 lives that have been lost since the war began.
Increasingly, however, there are reports of "revolutionary justice" being carried out against selected civilians in zones controlled by the leftist guerrillas seeking to overthrow the government.
"There seems to be little doubt that they have changed their approach to the civilian populations," said one relief worker, who asked to remain anonymous. "It is something new."
It is a policy that seems to have backfired on the guerrillas, at least here in Cacaopera. By and large, villagers who talked with a visitor in the marketplace and in their homes along the hilly, cobbled streets, said that they now fear the guerrillas as much as they used to fear the Army. In that regard, they also charged that only a month ago, soldiers beheaded a 7-year-old boy in the town square after his parents, suspected of being guerrilla collaborators, had escaped.
Long before the events of last summer, the residents of the town said, the guerrillas had told them that if anyone knocked on their doors at night they should not open them.
"They said that anyone who came knocking at night would be the Army and that we should always keep our doors locked," recalled Rita Eli Rivera de Flores. "The muchachos boys said that they never would bother anyone in their homes at night and to keep our doors locked."
That was in the early days of the guerrillas' occupation of this rugged mountainous area just south of the Torola River that separates the guerrilla-dominated northern part of Morazan province from the south, where government troops still maintain some control.
In those days after government forces had been chased out of town in 1982, the guerrillas of the Popular Revolutionary Army were assiduously seeking the sympathy of the civilian population.
Then the guerrillas came into town June 10, called everyone to a political meeting in the square, and culled out about 150 men. The rebels marched them off into the hills for forced service. About 100 were later returned, deemed too old or not fit to fight.
On the night of July 23, despite the guerrillas' promises to the countrary, it was they, not the Army, who came knocking at doors.
Rita Flores and her husband, Francisco, who was the mayor, refused to open the door when, she said, the men outside shouted that they were from the Army.
Their refusal was to no avail. As Flores recalled to a visitor recently, the men just forced the door open. She and others here said they knew it was the guerrillas because they recognized several from their past visits to town.
The mayor was ordered to lie on his face and put his hands behind him. His thumbs were then tied together and one of his two sons was ordered to untie a hammock so there would be more rope to tie around the mayor's waist so he could be led off into the night.
Eight persons were rounded up that night -- the mayor, a former mayor, two policemen, the town secretary, a municipal clerk, a local truck driver and a shopkeeper.
The guerrilla prisoners were kept tied up all night in the central square while their families were forced to stay in their houses. After dawn, the men were led out of town with no explanations beyond promises that they would be released after certain "investigations" were made.
On Oct. 8, the guerrillas came back to town and after rounding up the immediate relatives of the captives, as well as those of another captive who had been taken away in June. The rebels told them not to ask any more questions about their missing loved ones. As Flores said, "They told us only that they had been executed, but for what they would not say."
Flores' sister, whose husband, Rufino Argueta Ramos, a truck driver, was also taken away and apparently executed, insisted that all nine men reported killed had never been involved in El Salvador's political struggles.
"They were never bad, never did anything," she said.
She said the only reply she got from the guerrillas was, "This is war, and that is how it had to be."
A source who knows the village well said all those taken had been suspected of being collaborators with the government; informers or orejas (ears), as they are called here, or were involved in questionable land deals.
"Cacaopera," the source said, asking that he not be identified, "has not been known for its support for the guerrillas, and in the past when they have come to town, informers have told government troops about it down in San Francisco Gotera," the provincial capital.
"We used to trust the muchachos more than the government soldiers," said one villager here, "but if they don't respect human rights either, they have become as bad as the Army."