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History of El Salvador

Before the Spanish conquest, the area that is now El Salvador was made up of two large indigenous states and several principalities. The indigenous inhabitants were the Pipils, a tribe of nomadic Nahua people long established in Central Mexico. Early in their history, they became one of the few Mesoamerican indigenous groups to abolish human sacrifice. Otherwise, their culture was similar to that of their Aztec and Mayan neighbours. Remains of Nahua culture are still found at ruins such as Tazumal (near Chalchuapa), San Andres (northeast of Armenia), and Joya De Ceren (north of Colón). The first Spanish attempt to subjugate this area failed in 1524, when Pedro de Alvarado was forced to retreat by Pipil warriors. In 1525, he returned and succeeded in bringing the district under control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which retained its authority until 1821, despite an abortive revolution in 1811.

Table of contents
1 Independence
2 From Military to Civilian Rule
3 Ending the Civil War


In 1821, El Salvador and the other Central American provinces declared their independence from Spain. When these provinces were joined with Mexico in early 1822, El Salvador resisted, insisting on autonomy for the Central American countries. Guatemalan troops sent to enforce the union were driven out of El Salvador in June 1822. El Salvador, fearing incorporation into Mexico, petitioned the U.S. Government for statehood. But in 1823, a revolution in Mexico ousted Emperor Augustin Iturbide, and a new Mexican congress voted to allow the Central American provinces to decide their own fate. That year, the United Provinces of Central America was formed of the five Central American states under Gen. Manuel José Arce. When this federation was dissolved in 1838, El Salvador became an independent republic. El Salvador's early history as an independent state--as with others in Central America--was marked by frequent revolutions; not until the period 1900-30 was relative stability achieved. The economic elite ruled the country in conjunction with the military, and the power structure was controlled by a relatively small number of wealthy landowners, known as the 14 Families. The economy, based on coffee-growing, prospered or suffered as the world coffee price fluctuated. From 1931--the year of the coup in which Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martínez came to power until he was deposed in 1944 there was brutal suppression of rural resistance--until 1980, all but one Salvadoran temporary president was an army officer. Periodic presidential elections were seldom free or fair.

From Military to Civilian Rule

From the 1930s to the 1970s, authoritarian governments employed political repression and limited reform to maintain power, despite the trappings of democracy. Fidel Sánchez Hernández was president from 1967 to 1972. In July 1969 El Salvador invaded Honduras in the short Football War. During the 1970s, the political situation began to unravel. In the 1972 presidential election, the opponents of military rule united under José Napoleón Duarte, leader of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Amid widespread fraud, Duarte's broad-based reform movement was defeated. Subsequent protests and an attempted coup were crushed and Duarte exiled. These events eroded hope of reform through democratic means and persuaded those opposed to the government that armed insurrection was the only way to achieve change. As a consequence, leftist groups capitalizing upon social discontent gained strength. By 1979, leftist guerrilla warfare had broken out in the cities and the countryside, launching what became a 12-year civil war. A cycle of violence took hold as rightist vigilante death squads in turn killed thousands. The poorly trained Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF) also engaged in repression and indiscriminate killings, the most notorious of which was the El Mozote massacre in December 1981 in which some 900 civilians were slaughtered.

On October 15, 1979, a group of military officers and civilian leaders ousted the right-wing government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero (1977-79) and formed a revolutionary junta. PDC leader Duarte joined the junta in March 1980, leading the provisional government until the elections of March 1982. In an effort to project a more moderate image, the junta initiated a land reform program and nationalized the banks and the marketing of coffee and sugar. At the same time, however, the junta allowed members of the "death squads", paramilitary groups with close ties to the military, to carry out a campaign of terror against political dissidents. The death squads carried out several high profile profile murders at this time; archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1981 after publicly urging the US government not to provide military support to the El Salvadoran government, and four US nuns were also raped and murdered by members of Salvadoran death squads. In all, thousands of Salvadorans were murdered by the death squads.

During this period, political parties were allowed to function again, and on March 28, 1982, Salvadorans elected a new constituent assembly. Following that election, authority was transferred to Alvaro Magaña, the provisional president selected by the assembly. The 1983 constitution, drafted by the assembly, ostensibly strengthened individual rights, established safeguards against excessive provisional detention and unreasonable searches, established a republican, pluralistic form of government, strengthened the legislative branch, and enhanced judicial independence. It also codified labor rights, particularly for agricultural workers. However, despite these nominal reforms, in practice the human rights record in El Salvador continued to be plagued by a terror campaign instituted by the death squads, though, and thus these changes did not satisfy the guerrilla movements, which had unified as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Duarte won the 1984 presidential election against rightist Roberto D'Aubuisson of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) with 54% of the vote and became the first freely elected president of El Salvador in more than 50 years. D'Aubuisson and his ARENA party had close ties to the death squads, and was described as a "pathological killer" by former U.S. Ambassador Robert White. In 1989, ARENA's Alfredo Cristiani won the presidential election with 54% of the vote. His inauguration on June 1, 1989, marked the first time that power had passed peacefully from one freely elected civilian leader to another.

Ending the Civil War

After a stop of economic and military aid from United State due to domestic pressure to the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the Salvadoran government was forced to adopt a different approach to the insurgency. Upon his inauguration in June 1989, President Cristiani called for direct dialogue to end the decade of conflict between the government and guerrillas. An unmediated dialogue process involving monthly meetings between the two sides was initiated in September 1989, lasting until the FMLN launched a bloody, nationwide offensive in November of that year. In early 1990, following a request from the Central American presidents, the United Nations became involved in an effort to mediate direct talks between the two sides. After a year of little progress, the government and the FMLN accepted an invitation from the UN Secretary General to meet in New York City. On September 25, 1991, the two sides signed the New York City Accord. It concentrated the negotiating process into one phase and created the Committee for the Consolidation of the Peace (COPAZ), made up of representatives of the government, FMLN, and political parties, with Catholic Church and UN observers. On December 31, 1991, the government and the FMLN initialed a peace agreement under the auspices of then UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. The final agreement, called the Chapultepec Peace Accords, was signed in Mexico City on January 16, 1992. A 9-month cease-fire took effect February 1, 1992, and was never broken. A ceremony held on December 15, 1992, marked the official end of the conflict, concurrent with the demobilization of the last elements of the FMLN military structure and the FMLN's inception as a political party.

In July 2002, a Miami, Florida, jury determined that two former Salvadoran defense ministers, José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, were responsible for the torture by Salvadoran death squads during the 1980s of three men. The victims sued the former commanders under a U.S. law that permits such lawsuits. The former commanders were ordered by the jury to pay $54.6 million to the victims.