Jorge Rochac went underground on orders from his government. With a group of handpicked and dedicated confederates, he moved into the cavernous basement of a San Salvador hotel. Guarded by men with cold eyes and submachine guns, rarely surfacing in the daylight hours, Rochac, 43, raced the calendar on a project of the highest importance to El Salvador. And for once the precautions had no sinister undertones: He had just three months to organize the strife-torn country's presidential election.

Now, with the March 25 polling day fast approaching and vital preparations still lagging, the U.S.-trained business consultant is working flat out despite incredible pressures and frustrations. Word reaches him that his masters, the five politicians who make up the election commission, have changed their minds yet again on a major issue. Rochac dictates a new strategy while pacing around his headquarters, trailing cigarette smoke and secretaries. One more crisis overcome, he cuts the tension with his favorite catchphrase: "We'll have this election in spite of the government of El Salvador."

He may be a temporary servant of the tiny Central American republic—at $2,000 a month, less than half his usual $265-a-day consultant fees—but no one said he had to be servile. A free-thinking liberal, Rochac holds crisp and sardonic views on life in his homeland. The guerrillas took up guns five years ago because "they thought it futile to try to change this system," he says. Of the powerful military: "I have an inherited dislike of the military. I don't like corruption. I don't like their ways." He deplores the vicious language used in the current campaign by the two leading candidates for the presidency, ultra-rightist Roberto d'Aubuisson and moderate José Napoléon Duarte: "Instead of bringing issues to the voters, it's a dirty fistfight." Also given a shot at winning the election is conservative Francisco José Guerrero.

The Salvadoran government is groping for a democratic antidote to the leftist insurrection. The hope is that if Rochac succeeds in staging a reasonably fair election, more than a million campesinos might be persuaded that necessary reforms might be achieved without a violent revolution, and the U.S. Congress will be encouraged to continue economic and military aid, which totals $260 million this year. "Once you've hit bottom, there's nowhere to go but up," explains Rochac. "The country is falling apart, the economy is shot, corruption is everywhere. But we are beginning a democratic experiment, and you have to start somewhere." Even a highly placed Catholic priest, who is suspicious of the official enthusiasm for democracy, admits to an unusual feeling: "It's election eve," he says, "and for the first time in 50 years, we don't know the winner beforehand."

Everyone in government is officially committed to the election, yet Rochac has had to battle indifference and indecision to make it happen. Many of the difficulties trace back to the 1982 election, which left El Salvador wallowing under a caretaker president and a poisonously divided national assembly. The political uncertainty made officials reluctant to make decisions and resentful of professionals like Rochac. He wrote to 36 government departments requesting transportation for his election planners. The staff are still using their own cars. Another official avoided Rochac's phone calls for three months. The assembly bogged down in writing the election law. When the legislators completed their task, barely six weeks before polling day, Rochac had to seek relief from some of their requirements. "They said the ballot boxes must be hermetically sealed," he recalls. "Well, how the hell do you get the ballots in? If you cut a slot in the box, it's illegal."

As Rochac's day goes on, a new row erupts over the ballot papers. Some of the eight political parties are objecting to the design and the color tints of their party emblems. The five commissioners voted last week to approve the ballots. Now they're backing down. Rochac has no alternative and orders a reprint. "There's only one slight problem," he grins. "Half a million ballots have been printed already. Heh-he-he." The bursts of staccato laughter that explode from deep inside him with entertaining frequency work a startling transformation: The tall, professorial figure, gray of hair and manner, suddenly becomes an animated prankster, his whole body rocking with laughter.

Rochac will need all those reserves of humor and patience before this especially trying day ends. The next visitor to appear in the barely furnished neon glare of his office is all woeful face and "I'm sorry to bother you." He is the manager of the hotel, wondering in a whispered conversation with Rochac when he may expect to be paid. "Poor man," Rochac explains later. "We owe him 200,000 colones ($80,000). He's financing the election." Rochac and his staff were unpaid themselves for two months.

The day continues with no lunch and more heartburn. Rochac has five huge copying machines, a small army of people and mountains of paper on hand to run off 1.5 million copies of the electoral register. The commission cannot decide whether to give him the green light or put the job out to a commercial printer. He needs a decision. In too few days, he has to brief 162,000 polling station volunteers and educate a nation of voters by newspaper, radio and TV on how and where they vote. Rochac has lobbied unsuccessfully for a simpler voting system. "The system they came up with is too complicated," he confides. "Sixty percent of our people are illiterate. It's beyond their grasp." Aimed above all at eliminating fraud, the election plan relies on a computer purification of the voting register (it turned up 134,000 fake identities). The voter is required to turn up at a specific polling station where his name will be checked against the register, his identification card sealed and his finger stained with indelible ink. "It's overdesigned," Rochac sighs. "It's like giving a Cadillac to a man living on a half-mile island with no roads." Across town the commissioners are still unraveling the election fabric faster than Rochac can knit. He goes home to bed at 4:30 a.m.

Rochac is as all-American as his overwork ethic. His computer is by Radio Shack, cigarettes by Marlboro, the .38 pistol on his hip by Smith & Wesson. He owes his U.S. education to the military rulers who drove his politician-father into exile in five Caribbean countries before Rochac was sent to a boy's boarding school in Menlo Park, Calif. He moved to Washington, D.C., married a fellow Georgetown University student, Ana Milagro Lopez, in 1962 and graduated with a B.S. two years later. He studied part-time while working at the World Health Organization in Washington, and in 1972 was awarded a masters in industrial engineering and business administration.

Recruited to run El Salvador's port authority, Rochac returned home with his wife and children in 1972. He did superbly well and moved on to a series of high-salaried jobs in private industry. When the war soured the economy, he opened a one-man consultancy firm and started a lucrative jewelery business now run by his wife. Ana is also a leader in Democratic Action, a small, centrist political party her husband helped found. The couple share a lively bilingualism with their children, Ana Maria, 21; Fermina, 18; Mercedes, 14 (the three girls hold dual U.S.-Salvadoran citizenship), and Jorge, 10. The family home, on the same block as the U.S. Ambassador's residence, is an elegant villa owned by Rochac's father, who still lives abroad.

As has every family in El Salvador, the Rochacs have been touched by the war. Two close friends were kidnapped and killed by guerrillas. Eldest daughter Ana Maria was shot in the chest in a disco shootout that left four dead and which Rochac believes was partly caused by the wartime prevalence of weapons. "Violence is an everyday thing," he says. "Jorge's got used to seeing dead bodies on the street. It doesn't shock him anymore. You lose respect for human life that way." Rochac—no warrior, he readily admits—contrived to wound himself climbing into his car. His pistol went off and a slug ricocheted into his ankle.

The Rochacs also came perilously close to the ultimate agony of civil war, divided loyalties within the family. Listening to his eldest daughter's indignation over social ills, Rochac concluded that misguided idealism might lead her to join the rebels. He stepped up the information quotient of dinner-table political talk. Ana Maria stayed, to work within the system. Her father's argument is honest and powerful: "I don't like our government," he says, "but the only way I can change it is by working under it until I get my way. It would be inconsistent for me to take my gun and go into the hills."