go to content go to search box go to global site navigation


El Salvador was inhabited by Paleo-Indian peoples as early as 10, 000 years ago, and their intriguing paintings (the earliest of which date from 8000 BC) can still be seen and marveled at in caves outside the towns of Corinto and Cacaopera, both in Morazán.

The Olmecs were the first advanced Meso american civilization, and are believed to have lived in present-day El Salvador as early as 2000 BC. The 'Olmec Boulder, ' a sculpture of a giant head found near Casa Blanca in Western El Salvador, is very similar to those found in Olmec centers in Tabasco, Mexico, and suggests their early presence and influence here.

In fact, El Salvador was an important trading center, and its archaeological remains show evidence of a number of influences, including Teotihuacán and Pipil Mayan in the west, and Lenca, Chorti and Pok'omama in the east. The step pyramid ruins at Tazumal, San Andrés and Casa Blanca (and the surrounding area, much of it unexcavated) have evidence of more than 3000 years of nearly-constant pre-Hispanic occupation, and they exhibit more than a dozen distinct building phases. Though not nearly as grand as ruins in other countries, they have good museums and are worth a short visit.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the country was dominated by the Pipils, descendants of Náhuatl-speaking Toltecs and Aztecs - both Mexican tribes. It is thought that the Pipil came to central El Salvador in the 11th century, just after the Maya dynasty collapsed. They called the land Cuscatlán, which means Land of Jewels, and built their capital - now known as Antiguo Cuscatlán - outside San Salvador. Their culture was similar to that of the Aztec, with heavy Maya influences, a maize-based agricultural economy that supported several cities, and a complex culture that pursued hieroglyphic writing, astronomy and mathematics. They spoke Nahua, a dialect related to Náhuatl. Tazumal, San Andrés and Joya de Cerén all show signs of a Pipil presence.

Spanish rule & independence

The Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in the region in 1524. He founded the colony's first capital near present-day Suchitoto before it was moved to it present location a few years later. After a year-long struggle against the Pipil, the Spaniards prevailed and laid claim to the land, sowing plantations of cotton, balsam and indigo. Throughout the 1700s agriculture soared, with indigo leading as the number-one export. A small group of the landowning elite - known as 'the fourteen families, ' though in truth there were more - controlled virtually all of the colony's wealth and agriculture, and used enslaved indigenous people and Africans to work the land.

In 1811, Father José Matías Delgado organized a revolt against Spain, but it was quickly quelled. The seed had been planted, however, and 10 years later, on September 15, 1821, El Salvador and the rest of the Central American colonies won independence from Spain. They initially joined Mexico, but in 1823 withdrew to form the Federal Republic of Central America. (Mexico sent troops to pacify its new additions, even occupying San Salvador, but to no avail.) Manuel José Arce was made president and Father Jose Matías Delgado wrote the constitution. Many streets in El Salvador are named after Delgado and Arce.

But cultural and regional rivalries doomed the Central American Republic. Perhaps more importantly, the same wealthy clique still controlled the majority of the land, and though the new constitution abolished slavery, more and more indigenous Salvadorans were left landless and poverty stricken. In 1833, disgruntled by the lack of land reform, Anastasio Aquino led an indigenous rebellion. Aquino and his followers captured and sacked San Vicente and Zacatecoluca (then one of the country's main cities), but were eventually subdued. Aquino was executed, but remains a national and regional hero.

El Salvador withdrew from the federation in 1841 and the whole thing collapsed a year later. Independence Day is still celebrated on September 15, however.

^ Back to top

Into the 20th century

In the late 19th century, synthetic dyes undermined the indigo market and coffee took the main stage. It quickly became El Salvador's most important cash crop and cafétaleros (coffee growers) earned money that was neither taxed nor distributed in 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.

Intermittent efforts by the poor majority to redress El Salvador's social and economic injustices were met with severe repression, and the government vigorously eradicated any union activity in the coffee industry during the 1920s. The stock-market crash in the United States, however, led to the collapse of coffee prices in 1929. Thereafter, the circumstances of the working classes, and in particular the indigenous Salvadorans, became that much more difficult.

In January 1932, Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist Party, led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people. The military responded by systematically killing anyone who looked or sounded indigenous, or who had supported the uprising. In all, 30, 000 people were killed in what became known as la Matanza (the Massacre). Martí was arrested and killed by a firing squad. His name is preserved by the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional).

As a result of la Matanza, the military took control of the nation. Military officers formed alliances with the land-owning elite who controlled the nation's purse strings. Few native traditions survived, and the peasants and farm workers continued to be repressed. They - and later, the Catholic Church - grew disgruntled as the economy worsened in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. The Soccer War in 1969 - a border dispute with Honduras that began at a soccer match - was a fleeting moment of national unity. It lasted only four days, with Salvadoran forces withdrawing from Honduras, but an agreement setting the border was not signed until 1992.

During the 1970s, El Salvador suffered from landlessness, poverty, unemployment and overpopulation. In the government, the polarized left and right tangled for power through coups and electoral fraud. In 1972, José Napoleon Duarte, cofounder of the Partido Democrático Cristiano (Christian Democrat Party; PDC), ran for president, supported by a broad coalition of reform groups. His victory was denied amid allegations of fraud. Subsequent protests and a coup attempt were averted by the military and Duarte was exiled. Guerrilla activity increased and the right wing responded with the creation of 'death squads.' Thousands of Salvadorans were kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

In 1979, a junta of military and civilians overthrew President Carlos Humberto Romero and promised reforms. When these 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. The successful revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 encouraged many Salvadorans to seek reforms and consider armed struggle as the only means of change.

On March 24, 1980, the outspoken Archbishop Óscar A Romero was assassinated while saying mass in the chapel of the San Salvador Divine Providence Cancer Hospital. His murder is often seen as the point at which widespread civil unrest turned into out-and-out civil war.

^ Back to top

Civil war

The rape and murder in late 1980 of four US nuns performing relief work in El Salvador prompted the administration of US president Jimmy Carter to briefly suspend military aid to the Salvadoran government. But, when newly elected Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, unnerved by the success of Nicaragua's socialist revolution, his administration pumped huge sums into the moribund Salvadoran military (over US$500 million in 1985), prolonging the conflict. Guerrillas gained control of areas in the north and east, and the military retaliated by decimating villages. In 1981, the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion exterminated over 750 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 national president. D'Aubisson created death squads that sought out trade unionists and others who supported PDC-proposed agrarian reform. The FMLN continued its offensive by blowing up bridges, cutting power lines, destroying coffee plantations and killing livestock - anything to stifle the economy. When the government ignored an FMLN peace proposal, the rebels refused to participate in the 1984 presidential elections, in which Duarte was elected over D'Aubisson. For the next few years the PDC and FMLN engaged in peace talks unsuccessfully. Death squads continued their pillaging, and the guerrillas continued to undermine the military powers and jeopardize municipal elections.

^ Back to top

Nearing the end of the war

Hope for peace appeared in 1989, when the FMLN offered to participate in elections if the government agreed to postpone them for six months, to ensure the polls were democratically run. Their calls were ignored; in March of that year, Alfredo Cristiani, a wealthy Arena businessman, was elected president. The FMLN responded by intensifying its attacks and, on November 11, launched a major offensive on the capital. In retaliation, the military killed an estimated 4000 'leftist sympathizers.' Among them were six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, who were brutally murdered at the Centro Monseñor Romero at the Universidad Centroamerica. Today the center displays personal effects of the six priests, and of Romero and Father Rutilio Grande, as well as graphic photos of the murder scene - a recommended but deeply troubling visit.

In April 1990, UN-mediated negotiations began between the government and the FMLN. Among the first agreements was a human-rights accord signed by both parties in July 1990, but violations continued to occur. Violent deaths actually increased in 1991, the year that a UN mission arrived in the country to monitor human rights.

On January 16, 1992, an agreement - or rather a compromise - was finally signed. The ceasefire took effect on February 1. 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. In return, the government granted amnesty to those responsible for human-rights abuses.

During the course of the 12-year war, an estimated 75, 000 people were killed and the US government gave a staggering US$6 billion to the Salvadoran government's war effort. Land distribution actually worked, although it was a bureaucratic process involving loans to El Salvador by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Unpaid loans were forgiven in 1997.

^ Back to top

Current affairs

El Salvador's FMLN has proven to be a model example of a former guerrilla organization successfully joining the formal political process. The left-wing party scored large victories in the 2000 and 2003 congressional elections, though without quite winning a majority. The FMLN's firebrand style has not worked on the presidential level however, where Salvadorans have elected the right-wing Arena candidate twice in a row, most recently Antonio Elías Saca in 2004.

This may have something to do with the current national obsession: crime and gangs. Saca won the presidency in large part for his 'Super Mano Dura' anti-gang plan, a tougher but more legally savvy version of the previous administration's 'Mano Dura' policy. The policies have had at least a short-term impact on murder rates, which for most average Salvadorans outweighs the serious human rights concerns declaimed by the left.

In October 2005, Hurricane Stan plowed into Mexico's gulf coast, sending torrential rain across southern Mexico and Central America. Most of the deaths and damage occurred in Guatemala; in El Salvador, the official death toll was 69, with thousands left homeless by flooding and mudslides. The storm came just days after Volcán Santa Ana (aka Ilamatepec) erupted, triggering landslides that killed two, left hundreds homeless and blanketed downwind areas in thick ash, damaging coffee trees and other crops.

Slow economic growth has had its impacts. Many wonder if the remittances sent back from Salvadorans living abroad may be changing the famous Salvadoran work ethic: agricultural wages are so low, and the work so physically demanding, it may not seem worth the effort to people receiving even modest monthly checks from abroad. For the first time in recent memory, El Salvador had to solicit temporary foreign workers (around 10, 000 in all, mostly from Honduras and Nicaragua) for its all-important coffee and sugarcane harvests. This despite over 6% unemployment (and widespread underemployment).

^ Back to top