Understanding El Salvador's Civil War

Exactly how El Salvador's 12-year civil war got started depends on whom you ask. More specifically, it depends on where that person falls on El Salvador's socioeconomic scale. Some on the upper end will tell you the war was caused by senseless terrorism by those who had no right or cause. Some on the lower end of the pay scale see the war as a courageous people's struggle. But, generally speaking, the war began because El Salvador's campesinos, or peasant farmers, got tired of living as, well, campesinos. By the late 1970s, these campesinos had struggled for decades without much forward progress, despite occasional and tepid reforms passed by El Salvador's right-wing military government and land-based oligarchy, and calling for war began to seem like the best way to call for change. Add to the mix yet another failed government reform in 1976, the 1980 government assassination of the beloved human rights leader Monseñor Oscar Romero, and the organization in 1980 of four left-wing people's groups into the formidable Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and the stage for war was set. Some had hoped that war could be avoided when a group of slightly more moderate government agents took control of the government and nationalized some aspects of the economy in 1979 and 1980. But those moderates didn't go far enough and were themselves soon targets of the country's right-wing military death squads.

The FMLN launched its first major offensive against the El Salvadoran military in 1981 and successfully gained control of areas around Chalatenango and Morazán. El Salvador's military's response -- with the help of the U.S. government, which spent $7 billion trying to defeat the organization -- was fierce and lasting. The war raged on and off for the next 12 years, until both sides had had enough. The atrocities of the right, including individual assassinations and the 1981 Mozote Massacre, have been well documented since. A peace deal was signed in 1992, most war crimes were legally forgiven, and the FMLN agreed to halt its military operations and become a political party. This conversion to democracy finally paid dividends when, in 2009, an FMLN-backed candidate, Mauricio Funes, was elected president.


Be Careful What You Ask For

Most travelers have some awareness of El Salvador's bloody 12-year civil war, which ended with the signing of peace accords in 1992, and are curious to better understand the war and its aftermath. But be careful with that curiosity. El Salvador's civil war was exceedingly violent, often included torture, and took place in a relatively small area. Because of El Salvador's high population density, very few Salvadorans of a certain age failed to be personally affected by the war. I learned the hard way not to casually ask too many questions about those times. Salvadorans are renowned for their friendly nature and will tell you about the war if asked. But almost inevitably, their stories will include the loss or torture of a wife, a child, or a father. The war is not a taboo subject, but these are horrific memories that should not be casually unearthed. It's better to ask questions of educators or El Salvadorans you know well.

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