History of El Salvador

From Academic Kids

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. The eastern region was populated and ruled by the Lencas. Early in their history, the Pipil, became one of the few Mesoamerican indigenous groups to abolish human sacrifice. Otherwise, their culture was similar to that of their Aztec and Maya neighbours. Remains of Nahua culture are still found at ruins such as Tazumal (near Chalchuapa), San Andrés (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. It was Alvarado who named the district for "El Salvador ("The Savior.")

Missing image
Eruption of Ilopango Volcano, 1891

Colonial rule

During Spanish colonial rule, the history of El Salvador can be followed under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. (See also the more general History of Central America).


The first "shout of independence" in El Salvador came in 1811, at the hands of criollo elite. Many intellectuals and merchants had grown tired of the overpowering control that Spain still had in the American colonies, and were interested in expanding their export markets to Britain and the United States. The Indigenous uprisings aimed at Spanish subjugation plagued the territory at this time, and they were re-interpreted by the Republicans to serve their purpose and show popular support for independence. Thus a movement grew amongst the middle class criollo and mestizo classes. Ultimately, the 1811 declaration of independence failed when the viceroyalty of Guatemala sent troops to San Salvador in order to crush the movement. The momentum was not lost however, and many of the people involved in the 1811 movement became involved in the 1821 movement.

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 United States Government for statehood. But in 1823, a revolution in Mexico ousted Emperor Agustín de 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.

In 1832 Anastasio Aquino led an indigenous revolt against creoles and mestizos in Santiago Nonualco, a small town in the province of San Vicente. The source of the discontent of the indigenous people was lack of land to cultivate. The problem of land distribution has been the source of many political conflicts in Salvadoran history. The Central American federation was dissolved in 1838 and El Salvador became an independent republic.

El Salvador in its early history was impenetrably localized, aided by its geography, its unbridged rivers that could only be crossed at fords and its lack of any linking highway that could take wheeled vehicles. The first highway for wheeled traffic was begun in 1855. Thus the "Fourteen Families" (actually many dozens of families) that have controlled El Salvador's history were all but independent territorial magnates. Through the 19th century, the much-amended (1859, 1864, 1871, 1872, 1880, 1883, 1886) constitution of 1824 provided for a unicameral legislature of 70 deputies, in which 42 seats (a majority) was set aside for the landowners (3 representing each of the 14 Department), technically chosen by the popular vote. Each Departmental governor however, was appointed by the president. The system was easily manipulated. During the later 19th century smaller landholding, and traditional communal holdings that predated written deeds, were absorbed into the coffee plantations (fincas). The great majority of Salvadoreans were landless.

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, based on agriculture and some mining, ruled the country in conjunction with the military, and the power structure remained in the control of the "Fourteen Families" of wealthy landowners. The economy, based on coffee-growing after the mid-19th century, as the world market for indigo withered away, 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. The most notable event was the 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising and the retaliation led by Martinez's government, in which thousands of indigenous people and political opponents were murdered, imprisoned or exiled. 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, the Revolutionary Government Junta, a group of military officers and civilian leaders ousted the right-wing government of the President, General Carlos Humberto Romero (1977-79). 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. PDC leaders including Duarte also pledged to end human rights abuses from the military and affiliated death squads.

However, the Junta was torn by internal divisions, institutional pressure from the military, and a continuing insurgency from the FMLN. The extreme Right viewed moderates in the new government as Marxist sympathizers, and death squads continued to orchestrate a campaign of terror against armed and civilian opponents alike, targetting not only suspected FMLN sympathizers but local PDC leaders as well. One of the most infamous death squad assassinations occurred when the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, was murdered in 1980 after having publicly urged the U.S. government not to provide military support to the El Salvadoran government. Future investigations found that Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, head of Military Intelligence at the time, had ordered the assassination.

During this period, political parties were allowed to function again, and on March 28, 1982, Salvadoreans elected a new constituent assembly. Following that election, authority was transferred to Álvaro Alfredo Magaña Borja, 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. Fearful of a D'Aubuisson victory, the CIA had used approximately $2 million to support Duarte's candidacy. 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.

In 1986, the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador published a 165-page report on the Mariona men's prison. The report documented the routine use of at least 40 kinds of torture on political prisoners, and that U.S. servicemen often acted as supervisors. On October 26, 1987, Herbert Ernesto Anaya, head of the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission was assassinated.

Despite the controversies regarding repression and brutality from the Salvadoran Armed Forces, the U.S. continued to give aid to El Salvador. However, the country's chaotic situation did not seem to be improving.

Ending the Civil War

Cristiani attempted to begin negotiating an end to the war through direct talks with the FMLN, which began in Mexico City on September 13, 1989. However, a peace agreement proved elusive, and on November 11 the FMLN launched a bloody offensive on the capital city San Salvador in which hundreds of people died. In response, the armed forces stepped up their counterinsurgency war; four days later, six Jesuit priests and their two servants were shot and killed by a death squad. This event provoked international outrage, and led to a cutoff in military aid from the U.S. Cristiani attempted to calm people down by seeking to bring those responsible for the crime to justice. Four officers, three non-commissioned officers, and two soldiers were found guilty and imprisoned by a special committee set up in January 1990.

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.

El Salvador Since 1992

El Salvador is struggling to cope with growing gang violence, perpetrated by groups such as Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang. The violence is exacerbated by ongoing social unrest, economic devastation from the civil war, the breakdown of families and social structures, and the presence of refugees turned gang members from the United States who came home or were deported to El Salvador after 1996.

In 2004 El Salvador initiated a project called Mano Dura (Hard Hand) which consisted of non-tolerant and strict control over the gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha. This project has had its success in lowering the crime rate; however human rights activists have questioned the authority and behavior of the officials when confronting the convicts.

fr:Histoire du Salvador pt:História de El Salvador


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