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Chapter 1 – Pre-war & Origins of War

El Salvador’s civil war has its roots in the deeply unequal social structures established during the 16th century Spanish colonization of Central America. Through warfare with the indigenous Lenca, Pipil, and Maya people, the Spanish colonizers established a feudal society, in which a few families of European descendants owned the majority of land while the majority of indigenous people were peasants owning little or no land and living in poverty. Independence from Spain in 1821 did not alter this highly unequal system; El Salvador’s agricultural economy continued to rely on cheap labor to produce cash crops such as indigo and coffee. A peasant uprising in 1932 was brutally suppressed by the government, with as many as 30,000 people killed in a period of days. People of indigenous dress and language were specifically targeted in the violence. Military governments ruled El Salvador through most of the 20th century, enforcing the political and economic status quo through violent repression, coups, and fraudulent elections. In this chapter, residents reflect on these long-term roots of the conflict and pre-war life in rural Chalatenango, an area that experienced recurring tensions between landless workers and the powerful landowners on whose estates they labored.

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