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Civil War in El Salvador

Since the early thirties, El Salvador had been ruled by the military – with support from the country's landed elite. Military leaders had been pro-fascist during World War II, but by the 1950s at least some of them were leaning more toward the values of those who won that war. Some younger officers had reformist views, and, beginning in 1956, a military-civilian coalition took power, led by a reform-minded lieutenant colonel, José Maria Lemus. El Salvador’s agricultural elite and more conservative military officers said the government was influenced by Communism. Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, and, in January, 1961, these more conservative officers took power in a coup and announced their anti-Communist and anti-Castro convictions. The new regime promised elections, and in 1962 the junta’s candidate, Lieutenant Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera, was elected president, and he was succeeded in 1967 by Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez.

El Salvador was known as a coffee republic, coffee being one half of the country's export trade. Two percent of the population owned sixty percent of the land, and fourteen families were said to own the country. El Salvador's elite were economically progressive but politically conservative, opposed to any threat to their power, opposed to reform that hurt them while benefiting others connected with farming. Various owners of small plots of land had been dislocated by the expansion of holdings devoted to the growing of crops for export. Some of them had become seasonal laborers, while some others worked smaller plots. And some had drifted into the cities.

El Salvador was about 140 miles long and 60 miles wide. It was the most densely populated Central American nation, with a population of over 3.5 million and was gaining around 157,000 persons per year. People were spilling over into Honduras. And there, in late 1967, violence erupted over a soccer competition between Honduras and El Salvador. The angry Hondurans expelled various El Salvadorans from their country, including several thousand migrants. A border dispute erupted. Trade was disrupted, and, in 1969, a four-day war called the Football War erupted. The relative prosperity that El Salvador had been enjoying came to an end. Passions intensified within El Salvador and temporarily the country became more united. Peasants armed with machetes were ready to defend their country’s honor. El Salvador invaded Honduras but withdrew without accomplishing anything. The war ended, but no peace agreement was established concerning the border between Honduras and El Salvador. And El Salvador was developing more economic stress.

In the 1970s, political unrest increased. The people of El Salvador were mostly Catholic, and a Christian Democrat Party was formed, modeled after the Christian Democratic Party that had arisen in Chile in the 1960s – a party consisting mainly of middle and upper class supporters who favored economic progress, moderation and political stability. In 1972, the military suppressed an election in which the Christian Democrats appeared to be heading for victory. The Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte protested, was jailed, tortured and sent into exile. Against dissent, secretive death squads appeared, consisting of people with military and law-enforcement backgrounds, and apparently bankrolled by rich conservatives. Political assassination was on the rise, and, as in Chile and Argentina, people were disappearing. Intolerance for dissent was also expressed in July, 1975, when the army fired on demonstrators that had gathered in the capital, San Salvador.

Violence was not enough to quell dissent, and the military government tried appeasing the unrest with minor land reforms – the forced rental or possible expropriation of lands not being used by big landowners – but the law was not enforced. Reform-minded priests – also called liberation priests – were busy organizing the rural poor, as were secular revolutionaries. The largest organization was the Revolutionary Popular Bloc (the BPR) with a membership estimated at 60,000. The strategy of the priests was largely peaceful protest. A few, however, had turned to guerrilla warfare. And trade unions joined in the hostility toward the military government. Street demonstrations, propaganda campaigns, work stoppages and seizures of buildings frightened conservatives.

Fraudulent elections in February, 1977, resulted in General Carlos Humbert Romero Mena becoming President of El Salvador. People protested the results in the streets and were fired upon, leaving as many as fifty protesters dead. In October, a "Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order" was created, which eliminated almost all legal restrictions on violence against civilians. Between 1977 and 1980, eleven priests were murdered and many more beaten, tortured and exiled. El Salvador's archbishop, Oscar Romero, acknowledged that the state had a right to strike against violence, but he spoke also of the right of people to defend themselves against violence, the right of peasants and others to organize, and he called for an end to state repression.

In July, 1979, the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. An increased fear of revolution arose in Washington and in El Salvador. Some in El Salvador were afraid that what happened to Somoza and to members of Somoza's military might happen to them. Some younger officers, some Christian Democrats and landowners decided that a political middle course was needed, away from the polarization that suited revolution. The Carter administration agreed, and so did some in the CIA, where it was feared that the extreme left had a better than even chance of seizing and holding power. A conspiracy was hatched to oust El Salvador's hard-line president, General Carlos Romero, and the governments of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Panama were talked into approving the coup.

The coup took place on October 15, 1979, and the Carter administration sent the new regime an aid package of considerable size. Death Squad activity, however, continued. In March, 1980, Archbishop Romero was murdered. And, within the country's security forces old habits prevailed. At Romero's funeral, on March 30, security forces attacked the crowds, and news footage of unarmed demonstrators being gunned down on the steps of the National Cathedral had a strong impact abroad, including the United States.

The assassination of Archbishop Romero and the killing of mourners at his funeral swung many away from the regime into an alliance with those who were in armed rebellion against the government. It was now that the guerrilla war would take off as a significant challenge to the government. The guerrillas were a coalition called the Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), Martí having been the leader of the 1932 peasant rising. The coalition included frustrated former Christian Democrats, among them Rubín Zomora, who had originally been opposed to armed struggle. He was educated, with a degree in political science. He had joined the 1979 coup against General Carlos Romero in hopes of change. His brother had been assassinated after having complained about assassinations. Joining the FMLN, Zomora became its civilian chief of staff, and he took many disillusioned Christian Democrats with him. As they saw it, without honest elections as a means of political expression, armed opposition was the only course open to them other than just weeping and doing nothing.

In December, 1980, four churchwomen from the United States were murdered, which angered President Carter and led to the suspension of military aid. An attempt to investigate the assassinations made high-ranking military officers in El Salvador appear to be orchestrating a cover-up of the affair. The "middle course" government, meanwhile, had named the moderate Christian Democrat, Jose Napoleon Duarte, back from exile, as provisional president.

The FMLN began a major offensive on January 10, 1981, hoping to take power before Ronald Reagan took office on January 20. Their offensive surprised government forces but failed to overwhelm them. The countrywide rising that they expected had not materialized. They emerged dominant in various places, especially in the Chalatenango area. The governments of Mexico and France recognized the FMLN as a "representative political force" in El Salvador. These governments called for a negotiated settlement of the war. And arms to the FMLN began arriving, mainly from the Soviet Union, through Cuba and Nicaragua.

On September 15, 1981, President Duarte announced that elections for a Constituent Assembly would be held in March 1982 – an assembly to lay the groundwork for a presidential election, and an assembly, it was hoped, that would include the reforms that his government had decreed. In the elections for this assembly, an atmosphere of violence prevailed, and a political party, ARENA, emerged that was led by Roberto D'Aubuisson, a former intelligence officer known for his participation in death squads and believed to have instigated the assassination of Archbishop Romero. D'Aubuisson tried to create an image of respectability and moderation for the sake of appealing to the average voter, and he became president of the Constituent Assembly.

The FMLN wanted to be involved in the democratic process and was pressing for a negotiated "power-sharing" agreement that would grant it a role in a revamped governmental structure. The Reagan administration was opposed to any agreement with the FMLN. Reagan had accused the Carter administration of weakness in face of the rise of Communist revolution in Central America and had decided on taking a tough stand against the FMLN. "El Salvador," he said, "is the front line in a battle that is really aimed at the very heart of the Western Hemisphere, and eventually us." note33  The Reagan administration was thinking about Vietnam and did not want another "successful" Communist insurgency. Reagan wanted to substantially increase military and economic aid to El Salvador. Congress had voted in January 1982 to require certification by the Reagan administration of El Salvador's progress in curbing abuses by the military and of implementation of economic and political reforms every six months. Reluctantly, the Reagan administration had accepted the certification requirement and had proceeded with its policy of a military buildup against the FMLN, while urging upon El Salvador's government and its security forces an end to death squad activity.

The war in El Salvador escalated, government forces there now using helicopter gunships extensively, and punishing communities hostile to the government forces by bombing. U.S. military advisors abounded, while the FMLN held strongholds in the mountainous north and were expanding toward the Pacific Coast.

Jose Napoleon Duarte won the presidential elections of 1984. The fighting dragged on into 1986. Abuses against civilians by government forces continued, with the courts in the hands of those unwilling to take legal action against the abuses, while Duarte favored a negotiated settlement with the FMLN.

By 1988, FMLN leaders believed that international support for their cause was waning. In January, 1989, Reagan left office, and the new administration of George Bush Sr. joined with other American countries supporting a negotiated end to the war in El Salvador – as was happening in Nicaragua. In March, 1989, a member of the ARENA party, Alfredo Cristiani, was elected President of El Salvador. He, too, favored a negotiated end to the war, and because he was a member of the nation's conservative political party he was able to take many conservatives with him.

On November 9, the Berlin Wall was torn down. Negotiations between Cristiani's government and the FMLN broke down, and the FMLN launched a military offensive, attacking military centers in major cities. The military bombed residential neighborhoods believed to be supporting the FMLN. Nonessential U.S. personnel were shipped out of San Salvador. On November 15 at a secret meeting, senior Salvadoran military officers gave orders to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses. On November 16, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were rousted from their beds and shot.

The FMLN offensive failed again to ignite a popular insurrection. And in January, President Cristiani announced detention of military men accused of the assassinations of the Jesuit priests. In February, 1990, leaders of the FMLN were dismayed by the Sandinista's losing power in their elections. In negotiations with Cristiani's government, however, they were able to win concessions that they could accept. El Salvador, it was agreed, would have a new civilian police force that included people from the FMLN; constitutional amendments were to strictly limit the role of the military to the defense of the country's borders; and the FMLN was to be allowed to function as a political party in the nation's democratic process. The accords ending the civil war in El Salvador were signed in Mexico City in January, 1992.


Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean, by Peter Winn, 1999 

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, pp 626~31,1973

Encyclopedias Britannica and Wikipedia

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.