El Salvador’s brutal civil war: What we still don’t know

Twenty years after peace accords were signed, many aspects of El Salvador’s long civil war remain murky.

El Salvador government militia
The northern regions of El Salvador were hit hardest by the country's lengthy civil war [GALLO/GETTY]

Scranton, PA – From 1980 to 1992, civil war ravaged the Central American state of El Salvador, claiming the lives of approximately 75,000 Salvadorans.

For three days this February, scholars from around the world gathered in El Salvador to assess the state of our knowledge of that country’s civil war, 20 years after peace accords were signed that ended the conflict.

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The seminar – “History, Society and Memories: the armed conflict on the 20th anniversary of the Peace Accords” – was organised by the Unit of Investigations about the Salvadoran Civil War (UIGCS) of the Universidad de El Salvador. In the largest meeting of researchers on the civil war in El Salvador, participants from Spain, Costa Rica, Mexico, France, Germany, Holland and the United States joined local academics in sharing what we have learned about the 12-year-long war.

According to Jorge Juárez of UIGCS, the seminar’s goal was to “make known to the public a version [of the war’s history] without passions, without ideology, that presents the simple truth of the facts”.

What happened?

The two primary actors in the El Salvador civil war were a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and the government of El Salvador. However, like most civil wars, the conflict was much more complicated than this.

The FMLN was supported by the Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Soviet governments. Most people who have studied the conflict in El Salvador would argue that the Soviets did not provide much direct support to the guerrillas. I agree – but Nicaragua and Cuba would not have been able to provide support to the guerrillas had the Soviets not been supporting them. It’s also true that the FMLN did not get as much military and financial support from these two governments as the Salvadoran government received from the United States.

However, the FMLN benefited tremendously from the opportunity to use Managua and Havana for meetings of its General Command. The FMLN was able to move weapons and personnel in and out of the country undetected via the Gulf of Fonseca and Nicaragua. Soldiers trained and received medical care in Nicaragua and Cuba. Many family members sought sanctuary abroad for the duration of the conflict to avoid falling victim to the government’s death squads.

Members of the ERP making grenades [GALLO/GETTY]

The FMLN also received support from individuals in Costa Rica and Mexico. The FMLN and its political wing, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), were recognised as a belligerent force by France and Mexico in 1981. Several panelists lamented the fact that we do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of the international support that came from these governments and their citizens during the war. To my knowledge, no one has estimated the value of such support.

Other aspects of the FMLN’s history are similarly murky. In October 1980, several groups – the Popular Forces of Liberation Farabundo Marti (FPL), the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN), and the Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL) – officially joined together to create the FMLN, with the addition of the Revolutionary Workers Party of Central America (PRTC) in December of that year.

However, the first guerrilla cells appeared a decade earlier. We know much less about the individual groups that operated during these years. Alberto Martín Álvarez of Mexico’s Universidad de Colima shared his research on the origins of the FPL and the ERP. According to another speaker, Jorge Cáceres Prendes of the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, many radicalised students at the Universidad de El Salvador eventually founded or found their way into the guerrillas.

A history of violence

The FMLN’s use of violence has also been insufficiently studied. While the majority of human rights violations was committed by the government and its security forces, the guerrillas carried out kidnappings, bombings and bank robberies during the 1970s to support their revolutionary dreams.

During the 1980s, the FMLN killed several mayors, informants and traitors, all crimes under the rules of war. There are also strong indications that the guerrillas began to rely more on terrorist tactics during the late 1980s.

There are also strong indications that the guerrillas used terrorist tactics more frequently during the later years of the war, alienating many Salvadorans and causing rifts with the democratic Left. Panelists also spoke about the systematic use of repression by the FPL in San Vicente. Violence against civilians perpetrated by the FMLN has often been dismissed as the actions of drunken commanders, or with the not-so-convincing argument that “the other side was worse”. My impression is that most academics are also sympathetic towards the FMLN, and are not as interested in studying how the organisation used repressive tactics. As a result, we know much less about the FMLN’s use of violence and its effect on postwar support for the party.

The government’s role

The other main actor in the country’s civil war was El Salvador’s government, which was backed politically, economically and militarily by the United States.

Internationally, many people look to the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 and the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in November 1989 as the unofficial start and end dates of the war. However, to really understand why war erupted in 1980, one must analyse the failed October 15, 1979 coup.

In El Salvador, many people describe the coup as an element of the US-backed counter-insurgency effort. However, French sociologist Guilles Bataillon described the coup as a truly Salvadoran effort to avoid war. The coup was led by moderate elements within the military, but it was backed by Archbishop Romero, priests from the Jesuit-run Universidad de Centroamericana, as well as other civilian pro-democratic forces. The moderate military that led the coup was eventually pushed aside by the older, more hardline faction, and its civilian members quit following the military’s escalating repression.

Those of us who study El Salvador typically see the coup in the way that Bataillon described it, but it was interesting to learn that how we understand the 1979 coup was not the dominant narrative in El Salvador. There, the US was seen as the primary mover.

Following the 1979 coup, José Napoleon Duarte became the most important civilian political figure in El Salvador. He joined the junta in March 1980 and became head of state that December. Here we could use more research on the relationships between Duarte and his Christian Democratic Party (PDC), El Salvador’s military, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, and the United States government.

The US sought to prop up a moderate civilian government led by Duarte, to isolate the far-right, and to defeat the FMLN. The US hoped that a moderate PDC, backed by a land reform programme, would undermine support for extremists on both the left and the right. However, the US’ support political and economic reform led directly to the creation of ARENA. ARENA’s founders did not support the PDC, a party that they characterised as a “watermelon” – green on the outside and communist-red on the inside. They also felt threatened by the proposed land reform programme which, if implemented, would strike directly at the source of the oligarchy’s economic power.

Therefore, Roberto D’Aubuisson created ARENA because he rejected the reforms supported by the US. It is true that prominent US politicians like Senator Jesse Helms (Republican-North Carolina) supported D’Aubuisson, who had trained at the infamous US School of the Americas in the early 1970s.

But it is also true that the US prevented his selection as interim president in 1982. When D’Aubuisson ran for president in 1984, the US funded his opponent. The US also would not permit D’Aubuisson, who allegedly threatened to kill the US ambassador in El Salvador, to enter the United States. We could use better details on D’Aubuisson and ARENA’s relationship with the White House, members of the US Congress, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA. Our knowledge of ARENA’s death-squad origins and its subsequent activity as a political party often starts and stops with D’Aubuisson. To say that the US supported or did not support the man sometimes known as “Blowtorch Bob” – for his tendency to torture political prisoners with blowtorches during interrogation sessions – obscures as much information as it conveys. History is, obviously, more complicated.

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, recently apologised for one well-known massacre involving several hundred civilians.”

How the Salvadoran armed forces thought and operated is also under-researched – even though they were responsible for the majority of human rights violations committed during the conflict, including a number of terrible massacres during the early 1980s.

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, recently apologised for one well-known massacre involving several hundred civilians – primarily children, women and elderly – that the military carried out in El Mozote in December 1981. The details of the massacre are told in Mark Danner’s terrific book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The book paints the US and the Salvadoran military in a horrible light, but it also leaves many questions unanswered.

According to Danner’s reporting, Domingo Monterrosa, the military commander of the Atlacatl Battalion that conducted the operation at El Mozote, was killed in 1984 by the FMLN because they wanted revenge, and because he seemed to have changed his approach to counterinsurgency. He allegedly had started to promote a policy based upon winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population, rather than exterminating it.

Hopefully, with President Funes’ recent creation of a military commission to investigate the history of the armed forces, we will have a better idea as to how the Salvadoran military’s mindset changed during the conflict – or whether it changed at all. We might also gain a better appreciation of its relationship with the US, the PDC government, and the military in neighbouring Honduras. Unfortunately, since the commission looks like it will be comprised of military officers, I am not optimistic.

Eduardo Rey Tristán from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain explained that there are major knowledge gaps surrounding the extreme right and the army during the war, the political evolution of ARENA during and after the war, and many issues concerning human rights violations, perpetrated both by the government armed forces as well as those committed by the guerrillas. I would also add that there has been no systematic study on what I would characterise as the pro-democracy forces. These nonviolent pro-democratic forces were dispersed among parties on the left, the center and the right – as well as among those people who didn’t support any political party.

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Why was the conference important? Well, it was the largest meeting of its kind, bringing local and international scholars together to discuss the war. We not only learned from each other, but we learned from the non-academics in the audience. We believe that it was important for Salvadorans to hear what we have learned about the war. During the 1980s, most Salvadorans received their information through propaganda put forth by the military and the rebels, or by a biassed media.

Most postwar discourse has been driven by elites who participated in the conflict either on the part of the guerrillas or the government. It’s not that these individuals’ perspectives are wrong; it is just healthier if they are challenged or supplemented by outside views. Those could come from more objective academics or from non-elite testimonies such as those provided by Lotti Silber in Everyday Revolutionaries: Gender, Violence and Disillusionment in Postwar El Salvador and by Carlos Enrique Consalvi and Jeffrey Gould in La Palabra en El Bosque. These two works let the people of Chalatenango and Morazán, the two departments most affected by the war, tell their own stories.

Another reason why the conference was important was that El Salvador’s Armed Forces participated. Those in attendance sincerely hoped that the military’s participation marked the beginning of a greater openness towards its participation in the war. Colonel Adalberto Ernesto Garcia Rivera explained to the audience what material of theirs was available to the public and to academics for their personal and scholarly use. Remarkably, he was sitting next to the director of the Museum of the Word and Image, Carlos Enrique Consalvi, who was the voice of the FMLN’s wartime radio station, Radio Venceremos. The two men even joked about the possibility of collaborating at some future date.

Former Tendencias editor Roberto Turcios said he hopes that the Unit of Investigations about the Salvadoran Civil War (UIGCS) will eventually become the premiere institution for the study of the civil war and that the knowledge produced there will be accessible to all Salvadorans. I hope that UIGCS’ work will help to ensure that people do not forget what happened during the 1970s and 1980s – and that today’s youth will have a place to learn more about their not-so-distant past.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American politics here.