Forty years on, El Salvador’s war is still not over

Forty years after Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination, neoliberal violence is still wreaking havoc in El Salvador.

Oscar Romero El Salvador Reuters
Nuns participate in a procession to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 23, 2019 [File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

Forty years ago, on March 24, 1980, iconic Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by a sniper while saying mass. 

The assassination, which was orchestrated in part by notorious right-wing extremist and death squad leader Roberto d’Aubuisson, helped definitively plunge El Salvador into a 12-year civil war that killed more than 75,000 people. 

A post-war United Nations truth commission attributed the blame for approximately 85 percent of serious acts of violence committed during this war to “agents of the State” and allied paramilitary groups and death squads.

But the blame hardly stops there.

Shortly before his death, Romero – who had become a champion of the poor and a staunch critic of capitalism, arguing that “the root of all violence is institutional violence” – penned a letter to then-US President Jimmy Carter. In it, he urged Carter to withhold military aid to the Salvadoran junta in light of the rampant killings, forced disappearances, and other atrocities that were already taking place in the country.

‘Right-wing terrorism’ 

And yet, despite all of Carter’s purported concern for “human rights”, the aid went through – as it would during the subsequent administrations of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, ultimately adding up to billions of dollars worth of lethal encouragement for a maniacally trigger-happy right-wing.

But, hey, this was the Cold War, and the very future of capitalist tyranny – pardon, freedom and democracy – was at stake. 

As it so happens, Romero was not the only one to have given Carter a heads-up about the lay of the land in El Salvador.

In his book Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War, former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner notes that, just days before Romero’s assassination, Carter’s very own ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, wrote in a classified cable: “The daily total of dead, many among them teenagers bearing marks of brutal torture, result from right-wing terrorism.”

White’s analysis did not succumb to the anti-communist hysteria that was so in vogue in Washington either. In El Salvador, “the rich and powerful have systematically defrauded the poor and denied eighty percent of the people any voice in the affairs of their country,” the diplomat explained, adding that the incipient conflict was not the fault of the good old communist menace but rather of “decades of oppression and a studied refusal on the part of the elite to make any concessions to the masses.”

Floodgates of aid

White’s reference to “terrorism” was not the only time the t-word was used in the context of El Salvador, by US officials themselves. 

A 1993 New York Times article quotes then-US Representative Robert G Torricelli (D-NJ) as saying how it was “now clear that while the Reagan Administration was certifying human rights progress in El Salvador they knew the terrible truth that the Salvadoran military was engaged in a widespread campaign of terror and torture.”

Granted, this had already been clear for about 12 or so years. In one horrifyingly shameless episode, Reagan certified El Salvador’s allegedly improved human rights performance – a condition for yet again opening the floodgates of US aid – right after the 1981 massacre of some 1,000 civilians in the town of El Mozote by the US-trained and equipped Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army. 

Moreover, the same NYT article mentions that the Reagan team “withheld its own evidence” of the death squad activities of the coconspirator of Romero’s assassination, Roberto d’Aubuisson, “from members of Congress who argued that Washington should have no dealings with terrorists.”

Neoliberal violence 

The late d’Aubuisson, it bears mentioning, was so excessively right-wing that he perceived even certain US policies to be communist in nature. He was also the founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which governed the country from 1989-2009 and continues to be a major political force.

Anyway, who said terrorists cannot be mainstream?

Meanwhile, US blame for the violent landscape in El Salvador extends far beyond the civil war.

During the conflict, countless Salvadorans fled north to the US, many of them to Los Angeles, where gangs formed as a means of communal self-defence. When the war ended, the US undertook mass deportations of gang members back to a country whose infrastructure and social fabric had already been torn apart. 

Now, El Salvador ranks among the world’s most violent homicide capitals. But while there is a prevailing tendency to reduce the arrangement to one of gang violence, period, the reality is far more complex.

As California State University’s Dr Steven Osuna points out in a recent paper on the “transnational moral panic” surrounding the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, the violence perpetrated by such marginalised populations will “never equal the viciousness of what neoliberalism and transnational capital have produced for the majority of the country – alienation, domestic uncertainty and desperation.”

War without end? 

Noting that El Salvador began the twenty-first century with even greater inequality, poverty, and migration levels than at the end of the civil war in 1992 – indicating, of course, that the very socioeconomic causes of the conflict were anything but resolved – Osuna posits that the “violence of poverty … is rooted in past and present capitalist relations of exploitation, all of which are exacerbated by neoliberalism and punitive populism.”

In other words, kind of what Romero said.

And what do you know: The party responsible for dragging El Salvador into the post-war neoliberal abyss was none other than d’Aubuisson’s ARENA – with plenty of moral support, to be sure, from that neoliberal behemoth known as the United States. 

Nowadays, the US charmingly persists in backing Salvadoran state security forces known for extrajudicial executions and other grave human rights abuses – while Salvadorans fleeing the violent milieu find themselves up against an ever more fanatically militarised US border.

Indeed, a February Human Rights Watch report documented how the US has literally been deporting Salvadoran migrants to their deaths. 

And as the US continues to back institutional violence in a country long terrorised, one can safely say that – 40 years after the launch of the civil war in El Salvador – the war rages on.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.