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Chapter 2 – Rural Organizing & Repression

The 1970s saw escalating tensions and growing violence in El Salvador. Military regimes ruled throughout the decade, engineering fraudulent elections to deny civilian Napoleon Duarte the presidency in 1972 and joining briefly with civilian leaders in a 1979 coup, which failed to avert the descent into war. Throughout the decade, many poor people began to organize in religious study groups, supported by sectors of the Catholic Church that emphasized the Bible’s message of social justice. Rural workers joined unions that sought to improve wages and working conditions. These political and social movements were met with violence by the Salvadoran military, the National Guard, and government-supported paramilitaries; indeed, for many residents of rural Chalatenango, brutal repression by state forces began long before 1980, the date from which most historians mark the start of the civil war. Yet a number of events made it clear in 1980 that the country had erupted in all-out war: first, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a vocal advocate for human rights and the poor, marked a clear turning point in the conflict. Second, as violence by government forces intensified from selective killings to indiscriminate massacres, left-wing political activists increasingly turned to armed revolution; in October 1980, the largest guerrilla organizations merged as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). In this chapter, residents reflect on organizing for change within their communities and the increasingly violent response it received.

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