El Salvador’s armed conflict had deep roots in the country’s economic and political history; understanding its origins is an important part of confronting its legacy today.
El Salvador’s economic activities have produced great wealth. Yet for centuries, a tiny fraction of the population controlled virtually all the country’s resources, while the vast majority of the Salvadoran people endured grinding poverty. Throughout the country’s history, there have been attempts to contest this exclusionary system, yet many efforts at reform have been greeted by violent repression.
Such was the case in 1932, when a peasant uprising erupted in western El Salvador. The response was swift and bloody: within weeks, an estimated 30,000 peasants lay dead at the hands of the Salvadoran military and militias called in to put down the unrest. Many of the victims had nothing to do with the initial uprising. But the state’s reaction was not about finding the rebels so much as terrorizing the peasants, particularly the indigenous, into submission.
This pattern—of mass protests and crushing violence in response—persisted throughout the decades that followed. While some reforms were offered to forestall the spread of leftist sympathies, these alternated with ruthless repression against those who dared speak out against injustice. Amid a climate of military coups and fraudulent elections, in which people were labeled “subversive” simply for speaking their mind, some became convinced the only avenue to change was through revolution.
Leftist guerrilla movements took root in the early 1970s, some of them financing their activities through kidnappings for ransom. An increasingly assertive network of right-wing death squads also emerged, working in shadowy concert with the military and security forces to “disappear,” torture, and execute those suspected of sympathizing with the left. As terror spread, so too did resistance; growing demonstrations across the country denounced state violence and demanded democratic reforms. Yet a recalcitrant elite viewed such developments as signs of the spreading “subversion,” and cracked down still further on civil liberties.
Amid escalating political tumult and deepening fear, the March 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero signaled the nation’s irreversible descent into war. A much-beloved pastor and advocate for El Salvador’s poor, Romero had become increasingly critical of state violence, famously directing himself to the military and security forces in his final sermon: “In the name of this suffering people, I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression!” He was shot while giving mass the following day; at his funeral, snipers opened fire into the crowd of thousands who filled the streets. An unprecedented violence had been unleashed.
In January 1981, five revolutionary groups, now aligned under the single banner of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) launched a major offensive in an attempt to topple the government; although the attack failed, the newly-elected US administration of President Ronald Reagan soon ramped up assistance to the embattled Salvadoran government. Reagan made this a cornerstone of his Cold War policy, defining the Central American conflicts as a threat to the United States and funneling billions of dollars to the region’s dictatorships despite evidence of their engagement in the systematic slaughter of civilians.
Nowhere was this clearer than El Salvador, where the December 1981 massacre of hundreds of noncombatants by a US-trained fighter battalion at El Mozote serves as just one example of the use of “scorched earth” tactics by Salvadoran state forces and their allies. These campaigns aimed not only at eliminating guerrillas, but at emptying entire regions of civilians who might support them; the military eliminated entire communities, burning homes, destroying crops, even killing livestock as they went. In urban areas, the targets were students, professors, union members, journalists, or anyone suspected of affiliation with groups advocating reform. Priests, nuns, and lay catechists were killed too, including the well-known cases of four American churchwomen in 1980 and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989.
The FMLN forces were responsible for the killings of noncombatants, too. When the war finally ended in 1992, a UN Truth Commission investigated the crimes committed by both sides, finding that among other things, the FMLN had executed mayors in war zones and planted land mines resulting in the deaths of civilians. Yet the overwhelming majority of the crimes committed during the war – over 90 percent, by the Truth Commission’s estimate – were committed by state forces and their aligned death squads. The Commission calculated that an estimated 75,000 civilians had perished, the vast majority of them at the hands of their own government.
Yet only five days after these conclusions were made public, the Salvadoran legislature passed an amnesty law to prevent the prosecution of those responsible. As a result, today, no one has been held accountable for ordering these atrocities. Many Salvadorans are still searching for information about the fate of lost loved ones, seeking to recover their remains for reburial, or striving to honor their memory without fear of reprisals or recrimination. Leaders on both sides of the conflict have sought to sweep crimes under the rug; officials have ordered victims to forget the past. But as the long history of El Salvador shows, attempts to achieve stability by imposing silence has never lasted long.
And now, things are beginning to change.
In September 2013 the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office announced for the first time that it will open criminal investigations into the massacre at El Mozote, as well as potentially 32 other wartime massacres. And in July 2016, the Constitutional chamber of the country’s Supreme Court repealed the amnesty law, recommending investigations of major cases of human rights abuses by both government forces and the guerrilla. These are important signs of democracy at work. Yet, in a country that has never systematically examined its past, nor sought accountability for those who carried out crimes against humanity on a massive scale, this is a contentious process.
It is also one that requires the support of the international community. After all, the wounds of war were inflicted in El Salvador through a profoundly international process. US tax dollars bought the bullets, fueled the planes, and taught the trainers. Now, it’s time for the international community to stand on the side of justice, and support courageous Salvadorans as they demand human rights in the wake of human tragedy.
The Role of the U.S.
Throughout most of the 20th century, El Salvador received little attention from the United States government. However, in the 1980’s, this changed rapidly. In 1979, the leftist Sandinistas overthrew the U.S. supported dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. As rebel groups grew strong in El Salvador, the United States began to fear a similar turn of events in that country. Throughout the 12-year civil war, the U.S. channeled over $5 billion in aid to Salvadoran government in the fight against the rebels and provided training to Salvadoran troops.
The Carter administration sought to keep rebel groups out of power by supporting a moderate Salvadoran government. After the overthrow of longtime dictator General Carlos Romero, the United States increased aid to the newly formed ruling junta, composed of civilian politicians and military officers.
Soon, repression on the part of the new government increased and widespread human rights abuses were reported. In February of 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero penned an open letter to President Carter, requesting that he suspend all military aid to El Salvador. In spite of this, 1980 marked the beginning of a period of vastly increased military aid to El Salvador.
At times, the position of the Carter administration was contradictory. On the one hand, Carter strove to promote human rights. However, out of concern for a rebel victory, the administration continued to support the new junta in the face of clear human rights abuses. After the killing of four American churchwomen in El Salvador in December 1980, Carter promptly suspended all aid to El Salvador. When the junta agreed to appoint a new civilian head, Carter restored all aid. The very next month, his last in office, Carter granted $5.5 million in emergency military aid to the Salvadoran government in the face of a rebel offensive, even though little progress had been made on the case of the murdered churchwomen.
President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration marked a shift in policy towards El Salvador. Reagan and his staff were vocal critics of Carter’s Latin American policy, arguing that it did not do enough to stop the spread of communism. To the Reagan administration, El Salvador was a battleground of the Cold War, and a military victory over the guerillas had to be achieved at all costs. In his first months in office, Reagan gave $20 million in emergency military aid, and increased the amount of American military personnel working in El Salvador.
At the beginning of Reagan’s first term, congress passed a bill requiring the president to submit biyearly certifications of the Salvadoran government’s human rights progress as a condition of continued aid. Reagan’s evaluations often minimized human rights abuses or ignored the government’s’ role in them entirely. Reagan’s first certification came the day after reports of the El Mozote massacre were published in the U.S. press. When congress reacted angrily, Reagan sent Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders to speak before various congressional subcommittees. Enders testified that after investigation, the U.S. embassy in El Salvador had determined that there was insufficient evidence of a massacre. In reality, government cables show that embassy officials never even made it to El Mozote; they had only flown over the area in a helicopter.
At times, the Reagan administration was able successfully pressure the Salvadoran government to improve its human rights record to some degree. In December 1983, after prodding by congress, Reagan sent Vice President Bush to El Salvador to address the problem of growing violence on the part of death squads. Bush met with senior Salvadoran military officials, requesting the removal of several key death squad leaders. As a result, three officials were transferred to diplomatic posts and some removed altogether. For the months following Bush’s visit, El Salvador seemed to be experiencing a lull in death squad violence. However, killings soon began to increase once again.
President George H. W. Bush took office just as the Cold War was drawing to a close. Perhaps as a result of this, Bush’s Latin American policy was much less ideologically driven than that of Reagan’s administration. Unlike his predecessor, Bush was open to resolving the El Salvador crisis through political rather than military means.
The killing of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper, early on in the Bush presidency, was a key turning point in U.S. policy in El Salvador. Congress appointed a task force, led by Representative Joe Moakley, to travel to El Salvador and investigate the killings. Although they did not immediately restrict aid, congress notified the Salvadorans that future U.S. support was at risk if proper steps were not taken to hold the perpetrators accountable.
As the Jesuit investigations lagged, congress began imposing stricter conditions on aid and mandating participation in peace talks with rebels. Although at first reluctant, the U.S. government became a strong supporter of U.N. facilitated peace talks. Finally in 1992, an agreement was signed.
After the end of the civil war, El Salvador once again became only a minor foreign policy concern. Nevertheless, questions around U.S. role in supporting human rights violations remain. In 1993, President Clinton released 12,000 declassified documents relating to U.S. involvement in El Salvador. These documents indicate that in many instances the U.S. government knew more about human rights abuses than it had previously admitted.