Paleo-Indian peoples populated El Salvador as early as 10,000 years ago, leaving their mark with cave paintings in modern Morazán. Around 2000 BC the Olmecs followed, leaving as their legacy the Olmec Boulder, a giant head sculpture similar to those from Mexico, found near Casa Blanca.
El Salvador was once a key regional trading center. Archaeological remains reveal diverse influences, from Pipil, Teotihuacan and Maya in the west to Lenca, Chorti and Pok’omama in the east. The step pyramid ruins at Tazumal, San Andrés and Casa Blanca show 3000 years of nearly constant pre-Hispanic habitation.
When Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in 1524, he saw a country dominated by Pipils, descendants of Toltecs and Aztecs. These northern peoples (from modern-day Mexico) dubbed their home Cuscatlán, ‘Land of Jewels.’ Their maize-based farming economy flourished enough to support several cities and a sophisticated culture with pursuits that included hieroglyphics, astronomy and mathematics. Their dialect is related to modern Nahuat.
From Indigo to Independence
Spanish rule started with a year-long struggle against the Pipil. The Spaniards prevailed and laid claim to the land, transforming it into plantations of cotton, balsam and indigo. Agriculture boomed throughout the 1700s, with indigo the number-one export. A small group of Europeans, known as the ‘14 families,’ controlled virtually all of the colony’s wealth and agriculture, enslaving indigenous peoples and Africans to work the land.
Conflict simmered under this gross imbalance of power. A revolt against Spain in 1811 was led by Padre (Father) José Delgado. While it failed, it planted a seed of discontent. Independence was gained 10 years later, on September 15, 1821, when El Salvador became part of the Central American Federation.
Pushing for land reform, Anastasio Aquino led an indigenous rebellion in 1883. Though it was subdued and Aquino was executed, he became a national hero. El Salvador withdrew from the Central American Federation in 1841, but Independence Day continues to be celebrated on September 15.
In Comes Coffee
In the late 19th century, synthetic dyes undermined the indigo market, and coffee took the main stage. A handful of wealthy landowners expanded their properties, displacing indigenous people. Coffee became the most important cash crop and cafetaleros (coffee plantation owners) earned purses full of money that was neither taxed nor redistributed as reasonable wages to the workers. By the 20th century, 95% of El Salvador’s income derived from coffee exports, but only 2% of Salvadorans controlled that wealth.
The 20th Century
The government vigorously eradicated union activity in the coffee industry during the 1920s. In January 1932 Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist Party, led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people. Under Maximiliano Hernández Martínez' orders, the military responded brutally by systematically killing anyone who looked indigenous or supported the uprising. La Matanza (the Massacre) resulted in the death of 30,000 individuals, including Martí, who was killed by firing squad. The FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) revolutionary army would later take up his name in his honor.
Over the course of the 1970s, landlessness, poverty, unemployment and overpopulation became serious problems. In government, the polarized left and right tangled for power through coups and electoral fraud. In 1972 José Napoleon Duarte, cofounder of the Christian Democrat Party (Partido Democrático Cristiano; PDC), ran for president supported by a broad coalition of reform groups. When his victory was denied amid allegations of fraud, protests followed. The military averted an attempted coup, and the right responded to increasing guerrilla activity by creating ‘death squads.’ Thousands of Salvadorans were kidnapped, tortured and murdered.
In 1979 a junta of military personnel and civilians overthrew President Carlos Humberto Romero and promised reforms. When promises were not met, opposition parties banded together as the Frente Democrático Revolucionario (FDR) and allied with the FMLN, a revolutionary army composed of five guerrilla groups for whom armed struggle appeared to be the only means of change. The successful revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 had encouraged many Salvadorans to demand reforms. One of them was Monsignor Oscar Romero, a formerly conservative priest who took up the cause of the people.
On March 24, 1980, outspoken Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying Mass in the chapel of the San Salvador Divine Providence Cancer Hospital. His murder ignited an armed insurrection that same year that was to turn into a civil war.
The rape and murder in late 1980 of four US nuns performing relief work in El Salvador prompted the Carter administration to suspend military aid. But in 1981 the newly elected Reagan administration, bristling from the threat of Nicaragua’s socialist revolution, pumped huge sums into the moribund Salvadoran military. Uncle Sam’s support would effectively prolong the conflict. When guerrillas gained control of areas in the north and east, the Salvadoran military retaliated by decimating villages. In 1981 the US-trained elite Atlacatl Battalion killed more than 700 men, women and children in El Mozote, Morazán. As many as 300,000 citizens fled the country.
In 1982 Major Roberto D’Aubisson, founder of the extreme-right ARENA party, became president of the legislative assembly and enacted a law granting the legislative body power over the president. D’Aubisson created death squads targeting, among others, trade unionists and agrarian reformers. In response, the FMLN offensive blew up bridges, cut power lines and destroyed coffee plantations and livestock – anything to stifle the economy. When the government ignored an FMLN peace proposal, the rebels refused to participate in the 1984 presidential elections, which Duarte won over D’Aubisson. For the next few years the PDC and FMLN engaged in peace talks unsuccessfully. Death squads continued pillaging, and the guerrillas continued to undermine military powers and jeopardize municipal elections.
The Search Goes On
When government forces razed villages during the civil war, they didn’t always kill everyone. Some children, taken from their mothers’ arms or found helpless on the killing field, were spared. Those survivors were given up for adoption and displaced.
The organization Pro-Búsqueda was formed to find displaced children and reconnect them with their original families. Through a combination of DNA tests, family accounts, adoption files and newspaper reports, Pro-Búsqueda has managed to reunite hundreds of families. An estimated 5000 children were displaced by the war, hence Pro-Búsqueda has many cases still pending.
For more information, contact Pro-Búsqueda.
The Price of Peace
Hopes for peace rose in 1989, when the FMLN offered to participate in elections if the government agreed to a postponement to ensure democratic polls. Its calls were ignored and Alfredo Cristiani, a wealthy ARENA businessman, was elected president. The FMLN’s response was a major attack on the capital. In retaliation the military killed an estimated 4000 ‘leftist sympathizers.’
UN-mediated negotiations began between the government and FMLN in April 1990. Among the first agreements was a human-rights accord signed by both parties. Yet violent deaths actually increased in 1991 when a UN mission arrived to monitor human rights.
On January 16, 1992, a compromise was finally signed. The FMLN became an opposition party, and the government agreed to various reforms, including dismantling paramilitary groups and death squads, and replacing them with a national civil police force. Land was to be distributed to citizens and human-rights violations investigated. But instead the government gave amnesty to human-rights abusers, a decision that in 2016 was finally ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, allowing trials against suspected perpetrators to begin.
During the course of the 12-year civil war, an estimated 75,000 people were killed.
The FMLN has mostly proven to be a model example of a former guerrilla organization transitioning to mainstream politics. Skeptics argued that Salvadorans would always prefer conservatives. However, this all changed in 2009 when Mauricio Funes led the FMLN to power in a popular victory. The FMLN narrowly achieved re-election in 2014 under the leadership of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, but the party received only 25% of votes in the 2018 legislative elections, losing out to ARENA.
An ongoing issue for the ruling administration has been how to deal with the two major criminal gangs in the country. Also known as M-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, and Barrio 18, these gangs of roughly 100,000 across Central and North America were formed in the USA in response to orchestrated attacks by Mexican gangs. Deported en masse from the USA between 2000 and 2004, the maras became heavily involved in drug cartels, guns, the sex trade and illegal immigration.
Both the carrot and the stick have failed to have a lasting impact on the gang problem, as successive governments have struggled to curtail the violence. A heavy-handed approach by the right-wing ARENA party in the 2000s led to numerous high-profile arrests but arguably exacerbated the retaliation, while a carefully brokered 'truce' between the rival gangs in 2012 proved only a temporary reprieve.
Record body counts in 2015 earned El Salvador the dubious distinction of having the world's 'highest murder rate.' International media continues to frame the progress of the country in relation to this damning statistic. In January 2017, newspapers picked up the story that for the first time in two years, El Salvador had passed a whole day without any reported homicides.