El Salvador Civil War

David Smith

Geographically, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but it is also the most densely populated. With a population of over six million people in a country the size of the state of Massachusetts, El Salvador has been notorious in recent years for the high levels of murder and violence in the its capital city of San Salvador. About 20% of El Salvadorans live abroad, many of whom reside in the United States, and a significant portion of the El Salvadoran economy relies on remittances from these citizens (CIA World Factbook). Why El Salvadorans immigrate to the United  and why the country experiences such violence in the present can be directly traced to the Civil War in the 1980s.

El Salvador’s Civil War has roots in the conflict in La Matanza (The
Massacre) of 1932 when the military regime of General Maximiliano Martinez repressed a rebellion led by indigenous peasants and communists. Half of the communist party was killed or exiled in the aftermath while tens of thousands of indigenous people were murdered. While the military maintained control of the government for the next 50 years, the historical memory of 1932 would play a decisive role in the Civil war that ravaged the nation in 1980’s.

In addition to La Matanza, the context of the Cold War and the larger regional conflicts is important to understand. While El Salvador is a unique case study with its specific context, the descent into Civil War fits into a larger Central American framework in which the United States funded and trained ethically abhorrent military regimes in an attempt to combat communist insurgents who recruited indigenous people to support a people’s revolution. When the Reagan administration assumed power and took an extremely hard-line stance against communism in Central America, the US increased military aid to a repressive El Salvador regime that ordered and carried out devastating human rights abuses throughout the 1980s, such as executing a thousand unarmed peasants at El Mozote.

The Civil War began in 1980 with the formation of the communist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). Previously, there had been a dirty war in which right-wing death squads and the military were fighting the communists. Events that sparked the official Civil War was a right-wing death squad’s assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a figure associated with Catholic Liberation Theology. Military forces assassinated Romero, a popular bishop of the poorer people in El Salvador, while he was saying mass in 1980. From a domestic point of view, this assassination was one of the events that sparked widespread participation in the Civil War. Also of import to this period was the rape and murder of four American churchwomen by the Salvadoran military in late 1980. The FMLN launched their first military offensive in 1981. Realizing they could not out-gun a well-organized, well-armed army in an open war, the guerrillas employed non-traditional tactics that kept the government chasing them into the mountains and across the countryside. In an unexpectedly successful campaign, the guerrillas used hit-and-run attacks to capture and consolidate control over about 1/3 of El Salvador’s territory. The US increased aid in the form of air support that forced the FMLN to go on the run again. A stalemate ensued in which the FMLN could not penetrate further into government territory while the military could not dislodge the FMLN from the regions they controlled. The FMLN launched one last national offensive in 1989, temporarily claiming territories in Salvadoran cities. The government responded to this offensive with panic and murdered six Jesuit priests, drawing heavy international criticism and devastating the military’s image in the eyes of the Salvadoran people. With no clear end in sight and the Cold War now at an end, both sides sat down for a peace agreement.

The violence was staggering. 75,000 civilians died at the hands of
the military, with many more thousand people killed in battle or by FMLN
perpetrators (it is important to note that the UN Truth Commission found the government responsible for 85% of war-time atrocities and the FMLN accounted for 5%). Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, many ending up in the United States. In the peace process, the UN formed a truth commission that detailed the human rights crimes of the government. The Atlacatl brigade, a counterinsurgency force of the military that had been directly trained by the United States at Fort Bragg, had been found responsible for numerous massacres of unarmed peasants, as well as the murder of the six Jesuit priests.

Justice, peace, and democracy is post-war El Salvador have been challenging to achieve. The FMLN transitioned from a guerrilla army to a political party and has won elections in 2009 and 2014. While the UN Truth Commission outlines the crimes committed by the military, the prosecution of people responsible has been impeded by the politics and the courts of El Salvador. Immunity for soldiers following orders was established for people in the military who had been mass executing peoples. When considering the today’s violence and the prevalence of gangs in El Salvador, the legacy of the Salvadoran Civil War cannot be untangled from the present.

Source: Erik Ching, Stories of Civil War: A Battle over Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Further Reading:

  1. For an overall introduction to El Salvador’s economics, politics, and demographics, see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/es.html
  2. For more on Oscar Romero’s assassination of Oscar Romero and the profound impact this had on El Salvador’s collective conscience from the Civil War into today, see https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/archbishop-oscar-romero-becomes-a-saint-but-his-death-still-haunts-el-salvador
  3. To read more about the UN Truth commission and the peace process that took place in El Salvador during the mid 1990s and brought the Civil War to an end, see https://www.usip.org/publications/1992/07/truth-commission-el-salvador
  4. To read more about the brutality of the Atlacatl brigade, the death squad that was trained by the CIA and carried out atrocities such as El Mozote and the murder of the Jesuit priests, see https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-12-09-mn-1714-story.html
  5. To read more about US involvement and complicity in the El Salvadoran Civil War, see https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/trump-and-el-salvador/550955/ and https://medium.com/s/story/timeline-us-intervention-central-america-a9bea9ebc148

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