In the Beginning

El Salvador's earliest residents were the Paleo-Indians, whose history in the country is thought to stretch back 10,000 years and is evidenced by indigenous paintings found near the village of Morazán. The next residents to arrive were the more advanced Olmecs, Mesoamericans who moved into the region around 2000 B.C. The Olmecs held power until roughly 400 B.C., when they were largely replaced by the Maya. The Maya dynasty is responsible for the country's classic pyramid ruins, such as Tazumal and Casa Blanca -- these show evidence not only of contact with other Maya from around what is now Central America, but also point to how El Salvador acted as a vital trading center in the Maya world.

Around the 11th century, the Maya dynasty was replaced by the Nahuat-speaking Pipil, who were part of the nomadic Mexican Nahua tribe, and dominated the western part of the country. At the same time, the Lenca tribe, with their own Aztec-based language, settled into and controlled the eastern region of the country, where their descendants remain today. Both the Maya and the Lenca dynasties held power until the arrival of the Spanish in 1524, and both waged ultimately futile efforts to stop the invading conquistadors.


Maya History -- Before the arrival of the first Europeans, Mesoamerica was the land of the ancient Maya. Here, mathematicians came up with the concept of zero, astronomers developed a solar calendar accurate to a single day every 6,000 days, and scribes invented an 850-word hieroglyphic vocabulary that scholars consider the world's first advanced writing system. Some of this civilization's practices were less than civil: The Maya built extensive ball courts to play a game called "pok a tok," where the losing team could be executed.

Evidence of human presence in the Maya region dates as far back as the 10th millennium B.C. Maya history is often divided into several distinct periods: Archaic (10,000-2000 B.C.), Pre-Classic (2000 B.C.-A.D. 250), Classic (A.D. 250-900), and Post-Classic (900-1540). Within this timeline, the Classic period itself is often divided into Early, Middle, Late, and Terminal stages. At the height of development, as many as 10 million Maya may have inhabited what are now Guatemala, Belize, Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. No one knows for sure what led to the decline of the Classic Maya, but somewhere around A.D. 900, their society entered a severe and rapid decline. Famine, warfare, deforestation, and religious prophecy have all been cited as possible causes. (Try Jared Diamond's bestseller Collapse [Penguin, 2005] for information and speculation.)

Unlike the Incas of Peru, the Maya had no centralized ruler. Instead, the civilization consisted of a series of independent city-states, usually ruled by hereditary kings, often at war with one another. The most famous Maya ruin in El Salvador is at Tazumal and includes a temple pyramid, ball court, and other structures considered to be classic examples of Maya architecture and similar to those found in other parts of Central America.


According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred Maya book of creation myths and predictions, the world as we know it will end on December 21, 2012. While some New Age analysts have dire predictions for the date, more optimistic prognosticators foresee a day of positive human evolution.

A Spanish Colony & Independence

When Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado attempted to claim this territory for Spain in 1524, his army was thwarted by Pipil fighters. Alvarado tried again the following year, however, and was able to bring the region under the Spanish flag. Alvarado then named the region El Salvador or "The Savior." For roughly the next 3 centuries, El Salvador remained under Spanish control. Agriculture became the main source of wealth, with the Spanish planting cotton, balsam, and indigo, the last of which became El Salvador's main export. The vast majority of the population lived as indentured peasants working for a landowning oligarchy known as "the 14 families."


In 1821, El Salvador, along with four other Central American countries, declared its independence from Spain. The first couple of years of freedom, however, weren't easy. In 1822, El Salvador decided against joining Mexico and other provinces in a Central American union and had to fight off troops sent to bring the country in line. The country went so far as to request statehood from the United States government. Ultimately, however, El Salvador was able to expel the troops and joined a more equitable union of Central American states, known as the Central American Federation, in 1823.

Things remained relatively calm until 1832, when El Salvador's poor staged the first of what would be numerous uprisings to protest unfair land distribution. Like later uprisings, the 1832 effort resulted in little change. In 1838, the Central American Federation dissolved, and El Salvador became a fully independent country.

During the 19th century, El Salvador's land-based elite flourished as the coffee industry grew. During that time, the country's much-amended constitution was again restructured to give the majority of its 72 legislative seats to landowners. The head of each department was also appointed by the president. The system allowed wealthy coffee-plantation owners simply to incorporate much of the country's deedless common land into their coffee farms and to maintain a stranglehold on the landless masses.


20th-Century Unrest

Coffee became the dominate industry, and at the turn of the 20th century, it accounted for 95% of the country's export earnings, controlled by 2% of the population. The landowners paid no taxes, employed the locals at slave wages, and expropriated indigenous common lands. This obviously didn't sit well with the landless masses, who rose up numerous times to try to force change but were largely powerless against the wealthy elite and their military bidders. The collapse of coffee prices in 1929 meant mass unemployment that further impoverished the locals. An uprising, later named "La Matanaza" (The Massacre), took place in 1932, led by Farabundo Martí, for whom the people's FMLN organization was later named. It was a failed uprising, which resulted in brutal consequences: the death, imprisonment, or deportation of 30,000 indigenous people and government opponents.

Over the next nearly 5 decades, El Salvador's poor suffered under successive repressive governments that occasionally offered token land reforms, allowing for large-scale armed conflict to be largely avoided. The country did engage, however, in a short 5-day war with Honduras from July 14 to July 18, 1969, over immigration issues, known as the Soccer War. More than 300,000 undocumented El Salvadorans were believed to be living in Honduras at the time, and the Honduran government and private groups increasingly sought to blame them for the country's economic woes. During a World Cup preliminary match in Tegucigalpa, a disturbance broke out between fans on both sides, followed by a more intense incident during the next game in San Salvador. El Salvadorans living in Honduras began to be harassed and even killed, leading to a mass exodus from the country. On June 27, 1969, Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with El Salvador, and on July 14, the El Salvadoran Air Force began an assault on Honduras and took control of the city of Nueva Ocotepeque. Though the war lasted only 5 days and ended in a stalemate of sorts, in the end, between 60,000 and 130,000 El Salvadorans were expelled or fled from Honduras, and more than 2,000 people, mostly Hondurans, were killed. While a peace treaty was signed between the two countries in 1980, to this day, relations between them remain strained.


Though the Soccer War quickly became a memory, the anger of El Salvador's poor farmers did not, and by the 1970s, sporadic and violent insurgencies against the government began. The government responded with a largely useless land reform bill in 1976 that did little to improve lives or ease the anger of the campesinos (peasant farmers). Some held out hope for improvements when a slightly more moderate group took control in 1979, but that group quickly dissolved under its own political strife and targeting by the military death squads. Many say the final straw came in 1980, with the government's assassination of beloved human rights champion Monseñor Oscar Romero, who was gunned down in the middle of Mass. After four of the country's leading guerilla groups merged into the cohesive and organized Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, later in 1980, the stage was set for war.

The Civil War

The FMLN staged its first large-scale military offensive on January 10, 1981, in which it gained control over the areas around Chalatenango and Morazán. All ages, including children and the elderly, and both sexes joined in the guerilla movement. The El Salvadoran government's response was brutal, particularly at the 2-day, December 1981 Mozote Massacre, when military soldiers executed more than 1,000 men, women, and children in the eastern mountain village of Mozote. The war raged on and off over the next 11 years, with international powers viewing the battle as an ideological struggle between democracy and communism. Cuba supported the guerillas, and the United States -- to a total of $7 billion -- supported the El Salvadoran military government. More than 70,000 people were killed during the war's brutal run, including many who were executed and mutilated by government troops, who then dumped the bodies near town squares in order to warn against terrorism. More than 25% of the country's population was displaced by the war by its end.


The FMLN responded by blowing up roads and bridges, destroying farms, and attacking power lines with the intention of paralyzing the economy. A glimmer of hope came in 1989 when the rebels offered to take part in the elections. The right-wing establishment rejected their overtures, and the fighting intensified. A rebel attack on the capital was countered by a government-sponsored manhunt that killed 4,000 people, including six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroamérica in San Salvador.

By 1991, both sides had had enough of the long stalemate, and a spirit of compromise emerged. In 1992, a truce was declared and a peace deal signed. A new constitution was drafted that enacted a number of land reforms and did away with the military death squads in favor of a national civil police; in addition, the FMLN became a legal political party that remains active today. Amnesty for war crimes, of which there were many, was declared in 1993.

Peace, Crime & Natural Disasters


El Salvador continues to struggle. The plight of its campesinos and civil war deaths have been replaced by one of Latin America's highest homicide rates, due mainly to the presence of the notorious street gang Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. Though MS-13 began on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s, heavy deportation of U.S.-based gang members has steadily increased the gang's influence in El Salvador. Continuing government efforts known as Mano Dura (Hard Hand) attempt to break up the gang. Such initiatives have had small, sporadic impacts, but they have raised human rights concerns. Crime remains a central issue of El Salvadoran life and the main preoccupation of its people.

In 1998, El Salvador was hit by catastrophic Hurricane Mitch, which killed 374 people, left 55,000 homeless, and stalled the economy. Mitch was followed in 2001 and 2005 by massive earthquakes that killed over a thousand people, left thousands more homeless, and severely damaged thousands of buildings -- many of which remain under repair today, including San Salvador's majestic National Theater. If this was not enough, Hurricane Stan descended on the country in October 2005, leaving 69 dead and countless homeless in its wake.

The war is over, however. Since 1992, the country's new constitution and cooperation of the two main political parties have allowed El Salvador to remain politically peaceful. The FMLN has made a successful switchover to party politics, and it won significant congressional elections in 2000 and 2003. The presidency proved more elusive to the former rebels. In 2006, former TV sports presenter Tony Saca became president of El Salvador under the conservative ARENA party. His presidency witnessed an underperforming economy with high inflation and 6% unemployment. Remittances from relatives in the U.S. remain an important source of income for the country and make up a whopping 15% of its GDP.


Despite rising inflation and other problems, El Salvador's economy has grown steadily in the last decade -- the percentage of El Salvadorans living in poverty has been reduced from 66% in 1991 to just over 30% in 2006. Still, many El Salvadorans think the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which the country joined in 2006, is causing economic woes. As a result, the FMLN party found itself on the upswing and finally won the 2009 presidential elections with its candidate Mauricio Funes, a popular and respected TV journalist. He has toned down his party's left-wing rhetoric, promising to stick with dollarization and keep a friendly distance from Hugo Chávez. He beat the ARENA party with 51% of the vote, making him El Salvador's first leftist president.

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