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El Salvador Program

Country Background Information


From 1980-1992, El Salvador suffered a civil war that left over 75,000 people dead, thousands more wounded, and caused hundreds of thousands to flee the country.  These years of instability and violence have given rise to many of the problems faced in Salvadoran society today, including widespread poverty, gross social inequity, urban violence, and violence against women. 


When El Salvador declared independence from Spanish colonial rule in 1821, the emerging republic already suffered from deeply entrenched economic inequity and extreme social stratification.  From the time of colonialism until very recently, El Salvador was notoriously controlled politically and economically by 14 powerful landowning families that had accumulated the lion’s share of the wealth generated by the country’s agricultural exports, mostly notably coffee.  Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the landowning elite allied with the military to maintain political control and ensure their economic dominance, commonly through electoral fraud and coups de état.


Throughout this period, popular uprisings continually challenged elite rule. One of the most celebrated uprisings was led by Farabundo Martí, who was killed in 1932 along with up to 30,000 other Salvadorans in the military’s brutal repression of the insurrection.  In response to centuries of exploitation and oppressive rule, the 1970s saw a growth in the emergence of leftist organizations, both civilian-political organizations and underground guerilla groups, which ultimately led to the formation of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), named for the hero of the 1932 uprising.


In 1972, the military intervened to prevent the democratically-elected reformist José Napoleón Duarte from assuming the presidency.  Following this takeover, violence and repression escalated to unprecedented levels as thousands were killed by military-backed death squads.  A military-civilian junta ousted this government in 1979 but violations of human rights continued unabated and anti-government guerilla activities intensified as a result.  One of the most profiled catalysts to the onset of the civil war was the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, who was known for publicly urging an end to the military’s violence against the Salvadoran people.  This same year, four American women—three Catholic nuns and one lay missionary—were kidnapped, raped, and murdered, tragedies that brought widespread international attention to the brutality of the Salvadoran military.  


In response, the FMLN began a major counteroffensive in 1981.  Fearing the spread of communism within Central America, the Reagan administration increased U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government.  During the 1980s, the U.S also concentrated vast resources toward a massive restructuring of the Salvadoran economy, transforming it from primarily agricultural to industrially-based.  Years of political instability, economic devastation, and violence ensued, including the infamous massacre of 900 civilians in El Mozote by military death squads and the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  


Read a GYC Program Report

from El Salvador HERE

The assassination of the Jesuits and a failed FLMN offensive in San Salvador in 1989 were significant events that prompted both the government and rebels to begin peace negotiations under UN mediation. Influenced partly by international pressure and largely by the will of the Salvadoran people to see an end to the violence and devastation, the government and the FMLN signed Peace Accords on January 16, 1992, legitimizing the FMLN as a political party and initiating a downscaling of military forces.  


Even though the civil war has ended, perpetrators of the violence on both sides of the conflict have largely enjoyed impunity.  A UN-sponsored Truth Commission published a report in 1993 detailing human rights violations during the war, but rather than holding perpetrators accountable for these violations, the Salvadoran legislature declared amnesty for those implicated in human rights atrocities.  

Since the signing of the Peace Accords, El Salvador has struggled with ongoing social unrest, economic devastation resulting from the war, and growing gang violence (fueled by deportations of Salvadoran gang members from major U.S. cities).  El Salvador has also been hard-hit recently by natural disasters, including Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and two successive earthquakes in early 2001.  As agriculture was severely affected by the war and economic restructuring, one of the largest issues has been rural unemployment which has caused increased migration to the cities as well as to the U.S.  Current estimates say approximately one out of six Salvadorans lives in the U.S. and remittances sent back to El Salvador exceed $2.5 billion a year.  


The current president, Tony Saca of the ARENA party, enjoys a close relationship with the U.S. government.  El Salvador became the first country to ratify CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, despite widespread popular protest.  Many believe that CAFTA will exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor in El Salvador (where 50% of the population lives in poverty), create further unemployment and underemployment in agricultural, industrial, and informal economic sectors, and negatively affect labor conditions.


Since the signing of the Peace Accords, the government has been largely dominated by the right-wing ARENA party, although the FMLN has made progress in gaining seats in the National Assembly, as well as in local municipal elections.  Most notably, FMLN candidate Violeta Menjívar was recently elected as mayor of San Salvador, the most influential political office in the nation second only to the presidency.  Furthermore, the recent death of FLMN leader Schafik Hándel inspired one of largest public gatherings since the death of Monseñor Romero in 1980, bringing upwards of 100,000 people into the Plaza Cívica in San Salvador to honor his legacy.

However, the electoral area is but one sphere in which Salvadorans are grappling with the difficult issues of the day.  The current momentum of the FMLN bears a direct relationship to a surge in popular mobilizations related to CAFTA, health care reform, and resistance to the privatization of public services and of the country’s natural resource—most notably water.  A burgeoning civil society, and the proliferation of non-governmental organizations, has had a significant impact in shaping the human rights movement in El Salvador.  After so many years of conflict, many Salvadorans—especially youth—remain hopeful and actively involved in working toward building a more equitable and just society.

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