Civil War: El Salvador (1979-1992)

Marc R Rosenblum. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


To an unusually high degree, Salvadoran politics and economics have been dominated throughout the country’s history by a small landowning aristocracy—the so-called fourteen families—in control of the country’s agricultural exports, primarily indigo in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and coffee since that time. These families collaborated to establish basic political institutions in the late nineteenth century, but global economic shocks divided elites over the issue of free trade versus protectionism, ultimately leading to the emergence of a military regime in 1931. The military remained active in politics for the next sixty years but gradually reintroduced procedural democracy, allowing limited electoral competition beginning in 1948 and restricted participation by opposition parties beginning in 1964.

Country Background

Thanks to strong global coffee markets and the development of additional export crops (cotton, sugarcane), the postwar period was characterized by steady economic growth of more than 5 percent per year between 1950 and 1978, and real GDP per capita peaked (for the entire twentieth century) at US $4,948 (1985 International Prices; Penn World Table 2006) in 1978. Yet the benefits of this growth were sharply restricted, as the transition from a subsistence agricultural economy to one emphasizing cash crops for export contributed to further concentration of agricultural resources, falling real wages, and severe economic inequality (see sidebar, “Inequality and Land Reform in El Salvador”). These economic issues contributed to a political backlash, including increased electoral support for the reformist Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and occasionally violent peasant demands for land reform. Military leaders responded to peasant protests with harsh repression and relied on fraud and cancellation of elections in 1972 and 1977 to deny PDC electoral victories. Finally, a coup by young military officers in 1979 brought PDC members into the ruling junta, although hard-liners in the military and their political allies on the far right continued to block substantive land reform and other efforts at redistribution.

Economic conditions worsened during El Salvador’s civil war (1979-1991), but the war also laid the groundwork for an economic transformation. On one hand, civil conflict interrupted normal coffee (and other) production and caused exports to fall from a high of US $2.1 billion in 1979 to US $970 million a decade later (World Bank 2001); and uncertainty associated with the civil war caused widespread capital flight and a decline in foreign investment. On the other hand, the war also stimulated new investment as war refugees became an important source of migrant remittances, most of which were targeted at nonagricultural export sectors (low-skilled manufacturing) favored by free trade agreements negotiated with the United States during the 1980s. Nontraditional exporters eventually played a central role in pressing the far-right ARENA party (the Nationalist Republican Alliance) to negotiate with leftist guerrillas beginning in 1989, and successful economic growth in the post-civil war period (average GDP per capita growth of 2.4 percent in the decade beginning 1991); Penn World Table 2006 has relied heavily on the manufacturing sector, including the development of an extensive duty-free manufacturing area. Thus, while agriculture and manufacturing represented 39 and 18 percent of GDP, respectively, in 1979, by 1999 their relative importance had reversed itself, with agriculture accounting for just 10 percent of GDP and manufacturing 23 percent (World Bank 2001).

The war produced a similar result in terms of El Salvador’s political development. First, the transition from scattered, largely uncoordinated peasant protests throughout the 1970s to a coherent guerrilla insurgency in the early 1980s provoked increasingly harsh responses from the military and from right-wing death squads with strong ties to the military and the coffee aristocracy. El Salvador was described as “not free,” based on its Freedom House civil rights score of 5 between 1981 and 1985, and “partly free” during the remaining years of the war, with a score of 3 in the 1988-1989 year and 4 in other wartime years. Moreover, these ratings almost surely reflect the pro-United States bias of Freedom House, and Amnesty International was even more critical of the Salvadoran regime: The Purdue Political Terror Scales give El Salvador an average human rights score of 4.6 (out of 5, with higher scores indicating worse humanitarian records) during the war.

Yet the visibility of these humanitarian abuses also caused the U.S. Congress to link continued military aid to democratic elections and humanitarian reforms. Although death squads remained active, and civilian authorities exercised imperfect control over the military, elections were held throughout the civil war, producing positive Polity scores beginning in 1982 (Polity IV Project 2006). Opposition candidates claimed a majority of parliamentary seats for the first time in El Salvador’s history in 1982, and Christian Democrat José Napoleon Duarte claimed the presidency in 1984. The persistence of elections eventually undermined support for the guerrilla insurgency, promoting their return to the bargaining table, and also facilitated the eventual incorporation of insurgents within the existing institutional framework, making a negotiated settlement more feasible. The years since 1992 have been marked by open electoral competition (Polity score of 7; Polity IV Project) and improved human rights (average PTS Amnesty International score of 2.5 in 1993-2003, including a perfect score of 1 in 2002; Purdue Political Terror Scales 2006).

Conflict Background

The Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992) was fundamentally the result of class conflict between an aristocracy that relied on a coercive state to limit labor rights and protect agricultural profits, and a grassroots insurgency demanding land reform and wealth redistribution. Peasant protests had sparked violent repression in the past, most notably in the 1931-1932 case of La Matanza, a National Guard massacre of between 17,000 and 30,000 peasants (out of a total population of just 2 million) in response to a general strike led by the communist Agustín Farabundo Martí. Peasant and working-class mobilization accelerated during the 1970s, partly in response to international political and economic shocks; and harsh repression and restrictions on partisan competition contributed to the escalation of guerrilla violence to the point of full-scale insurrection beginning in 1979.

The start of El Salvador’s civil war coincided with the 1979 victory of the leftist Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan revolution and with the ongoing civil war in Guatemala (1961-1996), a smaller leftist insurgency in Honduras (1981-1990), and the subsequent Contra war in Nicaragua (1981-1990). Under the Reagan doctrine, the United States viewed these wars as a central front in the Cold War, and U.S. economic assistance supported expansion of the Salvadoran army from roughly 10,000 in 1979 to 43,000 in 1988. These forces were supplemented by 21,000 civil defense troops and between 50,000 and 100,000 members of the right-wing militia ORDEN (National Democratic Organization;, n.d.). Formal Salvadoran military strength peaked at 60,000 personnel in 1991 (World Bank 2001), up from between 7,000 and 12,000 in 1979 (Blum 2004). At its peak in the early 1980s, the guerrilla army included approximately 10,000 combatants and 50,000 “committed supporters” (McClintock 1998, 74).

Fighting was most intense during the four years prior to Duarte’s election in 1984 and intensified again in 1989 as the rebel FMLN launched a nationwide offensive and an assault on the capital city, San Salvador. Roughly 80,000 Salvadorans were killed during the war—the vast majority civilians killed by military and allied paramilitary forces operating in rural areas between 1980 and 1983—and another one million were displaced, including about 600,000 who migrated to the United States.

Sources: Gammage and Fernandez 2000; Call 2002; UNHCR 1994; OnWar 2000; World Bank 2001.
War: FMLN vs. government + ORDEN (paramilitary group)
Dates: November 1979-February 1992
Casualties: 80,000
Regime type prior to war: -4 (Polity 2; score ranges from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: +7 (Polity 2; score ranges from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita 1979: US $1,837 (1995 dollars)
GDP per capita 1997: US $1,704 (1995 dollars)
Insurgents: Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)
Issue: Land reform and wealth distribution; Cold War proxy war
Rebel funding: Ransom from urban kidnappings; private support from Western supporters; Soviet bloc aid
Role of geography: Rebels hid in mountains and across Honduran border.
Role of resources: None
Immediate outcome: Peace treaty with UN mediation and oversight of implementation
Outcome after 5 years: Stable peace; functioning democracy
Role of UN: Mediated peace talks; supervised troop demobilization
Role of regional organization: Contadora group (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua)
Refugees: 750,000 internally displaced; 1,000,000 fled to United States; 40,000 refugees in regional camps; 32,000 repatriated from regional refugee camps.
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in El Salvador

The Insurgents

The guerrilla army in El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), consisted of five separate leftist movements and an associated political arm, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). Three of the FMLN constituent groups were factions emerging out of the Communist Party of El Salvador (PCS). The first such group was the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), which split from the PCS in 1970 under the leadership of Salvador Cayetano Carpió, also called Marcial. Marcial and the FPL objected to the PCS’s adherence to the Soviet Union’s call for detente and for working within the existing political system, and the FPL called instead for a prolonged popular war of liberation, taking the Viet Cong insurrection as a model. Marcial committed suicide in 1983, and Leonel Gonzalez took over leadership of the FPL.

A second splinter group also rejected the PCS’s adherence to within-system change, and under the leadership of Joaquín Villalobos the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) also formed around 1970 with the goal of developing a Che Guevera-influenced cadre of rural revolutionary leaders. The ERP in turn split in 1974 when the the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN) departed under the leadership of Roque Dalton in order to place greater emphasis on nonmilitary political organizing. Following the assassinations of Dalton and his replacement, the FARN was led throughout the civil war by Ferman Cienfuegos.

A fourth faction emerged in 1976 in opposition to the PCS and its descendents: the Central American Revolutionary Workers Party (PRTC), which drew inspiration from Leon Trotsky’s internationalist approach and sought to promote a regionwide revolutionary movement. The PRTC was led by Francisco Jovel, who adopted the nom de guerre Roberto Roca.

Finally, following the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the PCS sponsored an armed faction of its own, the Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL). Led by PCS Secretary General Shafik Handal, the FAL was politically influential despite its modest military strength. The FPL under Marcial and Leonel Gonzalez were also politically influential among the guerrilla movements, but Villalobos’s ERP and Jovel’s PRTC proved to be the strongest military arms of the guerrilla movement.

In 1980, leaders of the five factions met in Havana, Cuba, where they agreed in October to form the FMLN with a unified governing structure consisting of a general command, made up of the top leaders of each faction, and the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (DRU), a day-today decision-making body that included three representatives of each faction. During the same year, escalating state violence—including, in particular, the February assassination of popular PDC politician Mario Zamora and the March assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero—caused some nonviolent opposition politicians to ally themselves with the growing revolutionary cause. Led by Ruben Zamora, a group of PDC activists left the party (then participating in the military-controlled governing junta) and joined the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) party to form the Democratic Revolutionary Front, a nonviolent political movement that formally allied itself with the FMLN. By 1981, the FMLN-FDR operated as a coherent revolutionary movement, and in September of that year France and Mexico offered formal diplomatic recognition to the FMLN-FDR as a legitimate political actor and the appropriate negotiating partner for ending the conflict in El Salvador.

After relying on domestic terrorism to fund its activities during the 1970s, the FMLN-FDR also received crucial economic, military, and political support from a variety of international sources as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua became key fronts in the Cold War. Talentino (1999, 215) estimates that Soviet bloc states may have contributed roughly US $1 billion to the FMLN during the conflict, and most analysts confirm U.S. allegations that small arms flowed freely to the FMLN from Cuba and Nicaragua throughout the civil war. In addition, the FMLN became a favorite among leftists within the Western democracies, assembling an international solidarity network that included more than 300 organizations spread across forty-two countries, including the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) in the United States (Waller 1991). Within the United States, solidarity groups raised an estimated $US 8.5-18.5 million during the 1980s, and that this figure may have been matched by fundraising within other Western Democracies (Waller 1991, 210). FMLN front organizations also obtained limited funding from international development agencies and friendly Western governments.

Politically, CISPES and other solidarity groups within the United States supported FMLN-FDR lobbying efforts that sought to limit U.S. military and economic assistance to the Salvadoran government. These efforts were supported by congressional Democrats, and Congress passed legislation in 1981 (the International Security and Development Cooperation Act) tying U.S. economic and military assistance to a presidential certification that El Salvador was making “a concerted effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights” and that the Salvadoran government remained committed to elections and land reform. Nonetheless, the certification process depended on presidential reporting, and the Reagan administration was criticized for circumventing congressional oversight efforts (see sidebar, “U.S. Congress Fails to Check Presidential Discretion During El Salvador’s Civil War”).


With 297 persons per square kilometer (1999 data; World Bank 2001), El Salvador is easily the most densely populated nonisland nation in the Western Hemisphere. The country is bisected by a pair of mountain ranges running the length of the country from east to west, and 70 percent of the population lives in small mountain towns and rural areas (with most of the remainder in the nation’s largest city, San Salvador). Although the five FMLN factions began as urban guerrilla movements, throughout the civil war the rebels were most active in mountain villages and rural areas in the northern and eastern third of the country, and government troops drawn from coffee-growing areas in the central part of the country had limited mobility and poor intelligence about rebel activities in these areas.


Political violence was common in El Salvador throughout the prewar period, but most analysts identify the October 1979 proreform junior officer coup—in the wake of the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua—as a final, failed effort to avoid escalation to full-scale civil war. Yet the coup failed to accomplish its primary goals of initiating land reform and preventing human rights violations by the military and its paramilitary allies. Instead, hard-liners in the military and ORDEN responded to the reform efforts of junior officers by escalating their attacks on regime opponents, including educators, clergy, and labor union officials.

The independent group Americas Watch confirmed the murder of forty employees of the agency charged with implementing land reform between March 1980 and September 1981; the murder of at least 100 striking workers in the week after the 1979 coup and of ninety-two members of the Salvadoran Communal Union between 1980 and 1981; the elimination through bombing, assassination, and arrest of all independent Salvadoran news media by 1981; and the murder of dozens of teachers, university officials, and university students in 1980 (Americas Watch 1991). The military and ORDEN also assassinated a number of the country’s most prominent reformers in 1980, including PDC leader Mario Zamora in February, Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, six members of the FDR executive committee in November, and three North American nuns plus a lay church worker in December.

In addition to this assault on urban civil society, the military pursued a scorched-earth rural campaign in an effort to “drain the pond” and isolate the guerrilla “fish.” As the United Nations Truth Commission summarized with respect to military and death squad activities during the first years of the war,

Any organization in a position to promote opposing ideas that questioned official policy was automatically labelled as working for the guerrillas. To belong to such an organization meant being branded a subversive. Counterinsurgency policy found its most extreme expression in a general practice of “cutting the guerrillas’ lifeline.” The inhabitants of areas where the guerrillas were active were automatically suspected of belonging to the guerrilla movement or collaborating with it and thus ran the risk of being eliminated. (United Nations Truth Commission 1995)

Stanley (1996, 222) estimates that right-wing forces committed close to 12,000 political murders in 1980 and more than 16,000 in 1981, mainly of individuals with no direct ties to the guerrilla movement. Over 75 percent of the acts of violence reported to the UN Truth Commission occurred in 1980-1983, and more than half of reported acts occurred in 1980-1981. For the entire conflict, 85 percent of human rights violations reported to the UN Truth Commission were attributed to the military and military-backed ORDEN, whereas 5 percent were attributed to the FMLN.

Several particularly egregious acts of organized violence by the Salvadoran military against noncombatant peasants have been well documented. One large-scale massacre occurred in the northern Cuscatlán province in May 1980, when the Salvadoran military flushed several thousand peasants from their villages and pursued them to the Sumpul River, where Honduran military forces forbade them passage across the river into Honduras. On the morning of May 15 in the hamlet of La Arada, National Guard and ORDEN forces backed up by two helicopters opened fire on the peasants, killing 600. The following year in October, 150 noncombatants, including forty-four children, were killed by the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion while trying to cross the Lempa River under similar circumstances in Usulután Province. And an American graduate student testified before Congress to being trapped at the Lempa River in Cabañas Province for fourteen days in November 1981 along with 1,000 villagers and facing aerial bombardment, helicopter strafing, and artillery fire before finally crossing to safety once Honduran soldiers withdrew from the border. The most notorious civilian massacre occurred in December 1981 in the northeastern Morazán Province, when between 790 and 1,000 men, women, and children were murdered by the Atlacatl Battalion in and around the village of El Mozote (Americas Watch 1991; Binford 1996; Danner 1994; UN Truth Commission 1995).

The guerrilla factions responded to the escalating violence—under the personal guidance of Cuba’s Fidel Castro—by setting aside internal divisions to form the FMLN in October 1980. Shortly thereafter, the FMLN responded to the November 1980 election of Ronald Reagan (who made Central American intervention a key campaign issue) by announcing a “final offensive” against the Salvadoran regime. The guerrillas captured several towns in the provinces of Chaletenango and Morazán, overran the military barracks in El Salvador’s second-largest city, Santa Ana, and engaged the army in sustained battles around the Guazapa volcano in San Salvador province. Yet the offensive failed to accomplish a decisive victory because the FMLN lacked the necessary national infrastructure to consolidate its gains and because the expected generalized peasant uprising failed to materialize. Nonetheless, in a sustained series of offensives between July 1981 and March 1983, the FMLN made steady territorial gains, and by 1982-1983 the FMLN was organized into a formal structure of brigades and battalions and was able to mount increasingly sophisticated attacks against larger towns and military bases (Barry, Vergara, and Castro 1988).

Targets of major attacks included the Ilopango air base on the outskirts of San Salvador (destroying 70 percent of El Salvador’s air force) in January 1982, the town of Ciudad Barrios in San Miguel province in August 1982, the city of Berlin in Usulutan province in February 1983, the city of San Miguel (the nation’s third largest) in San Miguel province in September 1983; and the army barracks at El Paraiso in Chalatenango province in December 1983. Between June 1981 and June 1983, the Salvadoran army reported 3,300 troops killed and 6,400 wounded (with twice as many casualties during the second year), compared to an estimated 2,000 guerrillas killed during 1982 (Cody 1983). By the end of 1983, the FMLN effectively controlled one-third of Salvadoran territory, concentrated in the eastern, central, and northern provinces, and in early 1984 U.S. planners were sufficiently concerned about the military situation to draw up plans for emergency U.S. air strikes in the case of significant rebel gains during the expected 1984 offensive (LeoGrande 1991, 113).

Yet, rather than the beginning of the end for the Salvadoran regime, 1984 marked a political and military turning point. Politically, the relatively clean 1984 presidential election brought the Christian Democrat Napoleon Duarte to power in a runoff against right-wing ARENA candidate and death squad leader Roberto d’Aubuisson. Even with 360,000 individuals turned away because of registration and procedural flaws, turnout was relatively high at 1.4 million voters out of 2.5 million registered (Baloyra-Herp 1995). Many Salvadorans questioned Duarte’s democratic credentials following his participation in the governing junta in 1980, but the new president oversaw a substantial reduction in death squad activity and military attacks against civilians—perhaps aided by Vice President George Bush’s December 1983 trip to El Salvador, during which military officers were warned of a reduction in aid unless humanitarian conditions improved. Nonviolent political life resumed within San Salvador. Duarte also initiated negotiations with the FMLN-FDR in 1984, although talks broke down over the guerrillas’ insistence that they be included in an interim government prior to new elections and that the military be purged of human rights abusers (LeoGrande 1991, 116).

Nonetheless, the Duarte government was clearly perceived both inside and outside El Salvador as substantially more legitimate and democratic than its predecessor. This perception weakened popular support for the guerrilla insurgency within El Salvador. Perhaps more important, Duarte’s election bolstered the Reagan administration’s position of unconditional support for the Salvadoran government. Thus, whereas the years 1981-1984 were characterized by intense interbranch conflict within the United States over aid to El Salvador, between 1984 and 1989 Congress approved presidential requests for aid to the Salvadoran regime without debate (see sidebar, “U.S. Congress Fails to Check Presidential Discretion”).

The year 1984 also marked a military turning point in the Salvadoran civil war as the previous five years of U.S. aid and training began to pay dividends for the Salvadoran military. Although a majority of Salvadoran troops remained defensively arrayed around bridges, cities, and power plants, elite units became more effective in implementing nonconventional counterinsurgency operations with an emphasis on search-and-destroy missions and in using air power against guerrilla concentrations. In response, the FMLN dispersed throughout the northeastern third of the country and focused on rebuilding its urban and rural political bases while executing small-scale hit-and-run attacks and disrupting commerce rather than undertaking major new offensive actions. Thus, in contrast to the first years in which the guerrillas made steady gains, after 1984 it became clear that the war was at a stalemate, and each side made plans to outlast the other in a war of attrition.

By the late 1980s, political and military developments seemed to favor the right, forcing another tactical shift by the FMLN. Duarte’s failure to negotiate an end to the war or to revive El Salvador’s economy alienated many voters, and the ARENA party won a majority in the 1988 legislative elections, with fewer than 1 million voters participating out of 2 million registered. During the presidential campaign in the following year, the FDR broke with the FMLN to run a candidate. The FMLN then announced its own willingness (for the first time) to participate in elections supervised by the current regime, on the condition that elections be delayed six months to allow time for campaigning. Yet with ARENA candidate Alfredo Cristiani ahead in the polls, the military refused to delay the vote. The FMLN responded with election day attacks around the country, resulting in power outages in San Salvador and 80 percent of the country. Nonetheless, Cristiani’s election seemed to signal a political turning point, and Salvadoran and U.S. strategists were more convinced than ever before that a military victory was at hand.

Thus, although Cristiani agreed to negotiate with the FMLN beginning in September 1989, he was unprepared to offer concessions, and negotiations quickly broke down over the FMLN’s demand that military officers be brought to justice for previous human rights abuses. At the same time, Cristiani sought to crack down on political dissent given voice under Duarte, proposing an antiterrorism law that criminalized providing information to international human rights monitors. And 1989 saw the first increase in death squad activity since the early 1980s, with the majority of attacks aimed at church, university, and labor officials involved in political organizing.

In this context, the guerrillas returned to their urban terror roots, launching hit-and-run attacks against a number of military and political targets within San Salvador, including the assassination of several ARENA officials and the kidnapping of Duarte’s daughter. Finally, in response to simultaneous right-wing bombings at the headquarters of a major trade union (FE-NASTRAS; the Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños, or federated national union of Salvadoran workers) and a major human rights organization (the Committee of the Mothers of the Disappeared), the FMLN withdrew from negotiations and in November 1989 launched its largest offensive of the war, with attacks at fifty different points around the country. For the first time, much of the fighting occurred within San Salvador itself, as roughly 3,500 guerrillas occupied the city, building barricades in poor neighborhoods and taking positions in apartment buildings and hotels in wealthy neighborhoods from which they fired at government soldiers and aircraft. The FMLN withdrew from San Salvador after two weeks of aerial bombardment and strafing of heavily civilian-occupied areas by regime forces; yet even in retreat, the guerrillas withdrew in an orderly manner, retaining the ability to strike again.

The battle of San Salvador was a final turning point, ultimately setting in motion the negotiating process that led to the end of the war. By taking the battle to the most elite neighborhoods of San Salvador, the guerrillas firmly established their continued military relevance, demonstrating again that the civil war remained at a stalemate with no military end in sight. Second, the national guerrilla offensive also reinforced concerns among economic elites that the civil war would continue to undermine El Salvador’s economic growth, sparking renewed calls from the right for a negotiated settlement. Third, the tolerance of the Cristiani government for civilian losses in its assault on guerrilla positions also undermined its claim to democratic legitimacy and reinforced elite fears that military autonomy was spiraling out of control. For all these reasons, the battle of San Salvador is often described as El Salvador’s “Tet offensive”: The guerrillas lost the battle but won a negotiated settlement as a result (Baloyra 1996; LeoGrande 1991).

Causes of the War

The roots of El Salvador’s civil war are found in its monoculture export economy, the polarized political system that emerged out of this economic pattern, and a series of short-term economic and demographic changes that created irresolvable crises during the 1970s. From the colonial period, a small group of Salvadoran elites (the so-called fourteen families) bought the best agricultural land and expanded their holdings through the successful cultivation of the region’s first export crop, indigo. Independence from Spain in 1821 and Mexico in 1823 (and the breakup of the Central American Federation in 1839) coincided with a global boom in coffee prices (and with the development of synthetic dyes replacing indigo), and indigo growers easily transformed their existing estates into coffee plantations. By the late 1920s, coffee represented 92 percent of the country’s exports (Talentino 1999, 203).

Although El Salvador’s climate and topography are well-suited to coffee cultivation, its nineteenth-century demographics were not; the region was scarcely populated, and coffee production is labor intensive. As a result, landowners collaborated during this early state-building period to create a strong centralized police force; they passed tenancy reforms to eliminate communal holdings and vagrancy laws to bind colonato workers to particular coffee estates. By the early nineteenth century, most Salvadoran peasants worked as sharecroppers indebted to their coffee-growing patrons or as squatters illegally growing a subsistence diet on someone else’s property. These “uniquely repressive” land relations created the conditions for profitable coffee exports (Wood 2000, 28), but they also institutionalized state power as a nonmarket instrument of aristocratic control over the rural working class. As growers benefited from cheap credit and booming coffee prices in the late nineteenth century, an increasingly cohesive coffee oligarchy emerged by the 1920s, and landowners’ dependence on nonmarket means of labor control deepened.

Thus, class conflict in El Salvador fundamentally was a function not of scarcity but rather of economic success. Strong coffee sales and the emergence of new export crops (cotton and beef) allowed large producers to consolidate ever-larger estates, whereas small growers accumulated debt and were often unable to weather short-term fluctuations owing to coffee’s five-year crop cycle. At the same time, high profit margins during the 1940-1970 period caused elites to remain invested overwhelmingly in primary exports, and El Salvador failed to join other Latin American states in pursuing state-led industrialization, delaying the development of a significant urban middle class or industrial sector. Instead, the country relied heavily on trade, including within the Central American Common Market (CACM), founded in 1960. In this context, El Salvador never pursued land reform, and the country retained a profoundly unequal distribution of resources. Conflict over access to land was thus a recurring theme, especially during the second half of the twentieth century, when El Salvador became one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

The emergence of a single dominant economic group naturally promoted polarized and exclusive politics. Following a tumultuous half-century of armed conflict between liberal and conservative elite factions after the country’s independence, the 1871-1930 period was dominated by like-minded economic liberals who managed smooth political successions and implemented the progrower labor policies discussed above, putting down a series of peasant rebellions in the process. Yet the strength of the progrower consensus would ultimately prove a weakness, as the ability of the ruling clique to rule by consensus prevented the development of a competitive party system, and no mechanisms were in place to resolve conflicts that emerged during the Great Depression.

These institutional weaknesses came to a head during the global economic crisis of the 1930s, raising a number of problems that eventually contributed to the country’s 1979-1992 civil war. First, falling prices sparked a 1931 military coup by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez; the military remained in direct control of El Salvador until Duarte’s election in 1984. The absence of an opposition party also denied rural workers the opportunity to peacefully protest deteriorating working conditions during the Depression, and when the communist Augustín Farabundo Martí led a peasant protest over falling wages, the army and National Guard murdered 30,000 peasants—apparently with little regard for whether or not they had directly participated in the protests—in a bloodletting known in El Salvador as La Matanza, or the massacre. Wood (2000) and others identify La Matanza as a formative polarizing event, contributing to the association of all peasant protest with communism on one hand and with a durable alliance between the landed aristocracy and the military on the other. This alliance between growers and the military was further institutionalized in 1948, when the military began holding regular elections, and in 1961, when military leaders formed the National Conciliation Party (PCN). Yet even as military leaders continued to hold elections and even tolerated the emergence of the Christian Democrats and the National Revolutionary Movement as opposition parties in the 1960s, they continued to rely extensively on fraud and repression to prevent opposition party victories at the national level. In this way, rather than a channel for political dissent and economic restructuring, El Salvador’s political system became a source of frustration for regime opponents denied access to power.

Polarized politics came to a head in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the week-long Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras in July 1969. Although the immediate conflict leading to El Salvador’s invasion of Honduras was the abuse of Honduran fans, players, and national symbols during a World Cup qualifying match between the two states, the tension underlying the conflict was Honduras’s 1969 agrarian reform policies, which were designed to discourage Salvadoran immigration and to strip 300,000 Salvadoran immigrants in Honduras of their economic rights. The Salvadoran military won the Soccer War on the ground, but the country was forced by the threat of OAS sanctions to relinquish its territorial gains without gaining the compensation for Salvadorans in Honduras that had been sought. Moreover, 130,000 Salvadorans were forced to return from Honduras to El Salvador. On top of already rapid population growth—the population increased 78 percent between 1960 and 1980—this new influx of landless peasants was an insurmountable strain on the Salvadoran economy. Finally, the Soccer War also led to the downfall of the Central American Common Market just as the 1973 oil shocks threatened global demand for coffee; Salvadoran GDP growth stagnated while inflation climbed to 60 percent.

In this context, political support for the Christian Democrats reached an all-time high, and the PDC joined church and union officials in convening a national congress for agrarian reform. Proreform advocates rallied behind Duarte in the 1972 presidential race, but his apparent victory was preempted by the military’s suspension of vote counting midway through the process. Junior officers refused to accept the electoral intervention, but senior military officers (with support from Guatemalan and Nicaraguan military allies) defeated their coup attempt and forced Duarte into exile. In the aftermath, the military sought to purge the country’s schools and churches of PDC supporters and other activists. Fifty students were killed in 1975 when troops fired into a crowd of protestors angered over the country’s outlay of US $3 million to host that year’s Miss Universe pageant; and roughly 200 teachers were killed or “disappeared” (mainly by the paramilitary ORDEN group) between 1972 and 1977 in retaliation for reform advocacy. Large-scale protest also erupted following fraudulent election outcomes in 1977, with troops killing at least 90 protestors (LaFeber 1993). Yet the military and paramilitary’s use of violence during the decade did little to deter protest and instead reinforced recruitment efforts by the left, as an increasing number of reform-minded individuals adhered to the perception that armed insurrection represented the only path to progressive reform in El Salvador. Youth activists flocked to the urban guerrilla groups, which would later make up the FMLN, and guerrilla factions raised an estimated US $50 million toward the purchase of weapons stockpiles, mainly through a campaign of elite kidnappings and bank robberies.

Moderate officers and their Christian Democratic allies overthrew hard-line President Carlos Romero in October 1979, seeing the coup as a final chance to create a political alternative to civil war. The initial postcoup junta included strongly reform-oriented civilians Guillermo Ungo (of the PDC) and Román Mayorga (of Catholic University). Once again, however, elites drew the line at land reform, the one issue that most directly threatened their economic well-being, and military leaders resisted reformers’ calls for investigations of previous human rights abuses. With support from the third civilian member of the junta (Mario Andino, whose Phelps Dodge copper company had strong ties to the military), the two military members of the junta blocked land reform and substantive human rights changes; and repression of leftist and working-class protestors continued unchecked. By January, the junta’s three civilians had resigned and were replaced by a pair of PDC members more acceptable to the military, eventually including Duarte, who was then named president of the junta. Military and death squad attacks on peasants and civil society leaders accelerated in 1980, and by April the guerrilla factions had begun negotiations to create the FMLN. Although the Carter administration pressured the junta to implement limited land reform beginning in March 1980, the alliance between the PDC and the military on one hand and the creation of the FMLN-FDR on the other presented political activists with two polarized alternatives; the center in El Salvador was no longer politically viable. This pattern of polarized politics and politicized violence would prevail in El Salvador for the next decade.


Conflict Status

If the Salvadoran civil war was fundamentally a function of economic conflict, its resolution likewise reflected changing economic realities. On one hand, traditional agricultural elites saw their fortunes plummet during the war as conflict disrupted coffee production, wartime casualties and war-induced emigration created labor shortages, and Salvadoran coffee was eventually boycotted by international opponents of the Salvadoran regime. At the same time, the inflow of migrant remittances and the scarcity of hard currency for the purchase of manufactured imports promoted the emergence of a Salvadoran industrial sector centered in San Salvador. New manufacturing elites saw emerging free trade regimes, such as the NAFTA, as a model for future Salvadoran growth; and they feared that economic disruption and the international stigma associated with continued civil war threatened the country’s economic opportunities. For these reasons, by the late 1980s economic elites were increasingly open to a negotiated settlement to the civil war, especially after the FMLN’s 1989 offensive gave the lie to the idea of a purely military victory.

On the other side, members of the FMLN also became more open to a negotiated settlement over the course of the 1980s. Although it is likely that close to a majority of Salvadorans who followed politics were broadly supportive of the FMLN in 1979, support for the guerrillas eroded over the course of the 1980s as the regime consolidated its control over national media; elections in 1982, 1984, and 1989 conferred democratic legitimacy on resulting civilian governments; and the guerrillas relied on economic sabotage as a primary technique after 1984. Thus, by the time of the 1989 offensive, a majority of Salvadorans blamed the guerrillas for the economic problems and more general hardships associated with the civil war (McClintock 1998, 77).

Talks between Duarte and the FMLN broke down in 1984, but the election of Alfredo Cristiani of the conservative ARENA party as president in 1989, followed by the 1989 FMLN offensive, laid the groundwork for successful negotiations. International developments also supported a negotiated settlement, including the November 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall and the February 1990 election of Sandinista opponent Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua. Finally, the Bush administration abandoned earlier U.S. opposition to a negotiated settlement, especially following the high-profile December 1989 murder by U.S.-trained Salvadoran military personnel of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.

The negotiated settlement occurred in phases, beginning in December 1989 when the Central American presidential summit at San Isidro Coronado, Costa Rica, called on UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to mediate between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN. The 1989 summit agreement was the first time the so-called Esquipulas Process (named for the town in Guatemala where presidents from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras first gathered to promote settlements to the region’s civil conflicts) recognized the FMLN as a negotiating agent. Then, in April 1990, the Cristiani administration and the FMLN signed the Geneva Accord, establishing parameters for UN-mediated negotiations aimed at an end of armed conflict, protection of human rights, reunification of Salvadoran society, and integration of the FMLN into a democratic political system.

An agreement on human rights was signed the following July in San José, Costa Rica; and with this agreement a United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (UNOSAL) was created to verify compliance. Constitutional amendments were passed in April 1991 limiting internal activities of the armed forces and establishing a truth commission to investigate humanitarian claims. Negotiations broke down later that year over how to bring demobilized combatants back into the political system, leading to a temporary revival of armed conflict; but government and FMLN representatives accepted an invitation from the UN secretary-general to meet in New York and later signed the New York Accord of September 1991, in which the two sides agreed to complete negotiations in a single additional phase under the auspices of a Committee for the Consolidation of the Peace consisting of government, party, and FMLN officials, with officials of the Catholic Church and the United Nations participating as observers.

Finally, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed just four months later on January 16, 1992, in Mexico City. Under the agreement, the role of the armed forces was restricted to the protection of national sovereignty, and their size was reduced 70 percent by the dissolution of the military’s rapid reaction battalions, the National Guard, and the National Police and by the absorption of state intelligence agencies by the office of the president of the republic. Second, public security functions were placed under a newly created National Civil Police force under civilian control and overseen by an ombudsman for the defense of human rights. Third, electoral reforms were also adopted, including the creation of the independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Fourth, the UN Truth Commission was formed to investigate human rights abuses, and a separate ad hoc commission was formed to investigate the human rights records of military officers, with 102 officers ultimately dismissed as a result. An independent national judicial council and school for judicial training were also planned, to foster a fair and independent judiciary. Finally, reincorporation programs were created to provide employment opportunities—including through land distribution in a “land for arms” program—for former soldiers of the Armed Forces of El Salvador and the National Police as well as former guerrillas of the FMLN and the civil population most affected by the conflict (Whitfield 2001). These programs took effect as a nine-month cease-fire was declared on February 1, 1992. On December 15—the cease-fire never having been broken—the last armed element of the FMLN was demobilized, and peace was declared.

Duration Tactics

The Salvadoran civil war lasted more than twelve years, with the most intense periods of fighting between 1980 and 1983 and in 1988-1989, putting El Salvador roughly in the top 25 percent of long-lasting civil conflicts, based on Fearon’s (2004) data. Although the Salvadoran case lacks the two characteristics Fearon finds most closely associated with long-lasting civil conflict—so-called “sons of the soil” movements and rebel access to valuable contraband—its longevity may be attributable to the characteristics that make it similar to the long-lived wars analyzed by Fearon. First, although neither side in the Salvadoran conflict was able to exploit precious minerals or contraband to raise the revenues necessary to prolong civil conflict, the war’s status as an important Cold War battleground provided both sides with access to extensive external sources of funding. Second, like “sons of the soil” conflicts, the civil war in El Salvador was largely based on conflict over land rights, with the oligarchy and its military allies deeply opposed to the land reform demanded by the disenfranchised peasantry. (Unlike “sons of the soil” conflicts, the Salvadoran case generally lacked an ethnic dimension, as El Salvador’s indigenous population was almost completely exterminated during the colonial period.) Thus, throughout the 1980s both sides in the conflict saw little opportunity for a negotiated settlement, and it was only late in that decade, when elite economic interests diversified (making land reform less problematic), that a negotiated settlement became possible.

External Military Intervention

In 1981, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick famously described Central America as “the most important place in the world for the United States today.” Although many observers took issue with this description, El Salvador and the rest of Central America clearly became a central front in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and both sides in the conflict received extensive external economic, political, and logistic support. For the guerrillas, external support came in the form of arms from Cuba and Nicaragua, nonmilitary aid (uniforms, medicine) from East Germany, and an estimated US $1 billion in economic assistance from Soviet bloc states.

In the U.S. case, aid to the Salvadoran regime was controversial throughout the civil war because of the military’s and paramilitary’s abysmal human rights records. Yet between 1979 and 1992, an average of seventy-four U.S. troops were stationed in El Salvador, peaking at 108 troops during 1985 and 1987. Although U.S. troops were never formally assigned to direct combat roles, extensive anecdotal evidence exists that U.S. troops became directly involved in the Salvadoran conflict on a number of occasions, and Blum (2004) reports twenty American casualties within El Salvador during the war. Salvadoran forces, including the Atlacatl Battalion associated with some of the war’s worst human rights violations, received extensive U.S. training and supervision.

Yet the most important U.S. role in El Salvador’s civil war was its direct military and economic aid to the Salvadoran government. After briefly suspending such aid over humanitarian concerns in 1976-1977, the Carter administration resumed economic assistance in 1978 and military assistance following the 1979 coup (and the Sandinista revolution). Aid remained highly controversial, but the Reagan administration largely circumvented congressional efforts to tie assistance to improved human rights conditions (see sidebar, “U.S. Congress Fails to Check Presidential Discretion during El Salvador’s Civil War”). Thus, a total of US $4.5 billion in official government assistance flowed from the United States to El Salvador over the course of the war, including US $1.1 billion in military loans and aid. Given that the far smaller, poorly supplied FMLN occupied much of El Salvador during the early years of the war and fought the Salvadoran military to a standstill for over a decade, this high level of aid—as well as diplomatic and logistic support throughout the conflict—was likely decisive in preventing a guerrilla victory. As McClintock (1998, 9) summarizes, “[S]cholars and political leaders agree virtually unanimously that U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government prevented a takeover by the FMLN.”

Conflict Management Efforts

The United Nations secretary-general played a crucial mediating role during peace negotiations, and the UN Observer Mission in El Salvador (UNOSAL) provided important monitoring to ease implementation of the peace accord. UNOSAL was first deployed in July 1991—prior to the cessation of hostilities—to verify compliance with the San José agreement’s human rights requirements. Observers credit the early deployment of UNOSAL with reducing human rights violations and building confidence in the peace process itself (e.g., Whitfield 2001). In addition to human rights monitoring, UNOSAL supervised much of the institution building mandated by the Chapultepec Accord, including the construction of a new civil police force and demobilization of combatants in the “land for arms” program. UNOSAL and UN Development Program (UNDP) officials also helped establish El Salvador’s internal human rights ombudsman and supervised judicial and electoral reforms. Although Whitfield criticizes the UN mission for failing to arrange sufficient external funding to guarantee all aspects of El Salvador’s postwar reforms and for failing to anticipate or prevent a postwar crime wave perpetrated by former combatants, the UN is widely recognized as having made an important contribution to El Salvador’s negotiated transition from civil war to democracy; and El Salvador is seen by many as an exemplar to be emulated elsewhere.


More than thirteen years after the Treaty of Chapultepec ended hostilities between Salvadoran government forces and the FMLN, the peace has held, and El Salvador stands out among Central American states (along with Costa Rica) as a well-functioning democracy with a competitive political system consisting of two main parties (the FMLN and ARENA) and a handful of smaller actors. The FMLN won a plurality of seats (thirty-one out of eighty-four) in 2003 legislative elections, but the alliance of ARENA (twenty-seven seats) and the PCN (sixteen seats) continues to hold a coalitional majority. The centrist Christian Democrats and center-left Center Democratic Union (descended from the FDR and Democratic Convergence) hold five seats each. The FMLN and ARENA together won 94 percent of the votes for president in 2004, with ARENA winning an absolute majority (58 percent) on the first ballot. Most observers now consider El Salvador’s democracy to be institutionalized, and there seems to be little chance of a return to widespread political violence.

In this sense, El Salvador’s civil war may be viewed as a success story. In contrast with other “third-wave” cases, democratization in El Salvador did not result from a split among regime elites or from a cross-class coalition including economic elites excluded from the nondemocratic equilibrium. Rather, the civil war in El Salvador pitted disenfranchised peasants and workers against a unified oligarchy with cohesive support from the military. Against these long odds, insurgents in El Salvador fought the regime to a standstill and successfuly demanded a democratic opening. Thus, Wood (2000) argues that El Salvador is one of the few cases (along with South Africa and possibly Guatemala and Poland) in which democracy was “forged from below.”

Yet it is difficult to overstate the costs of this political victory. Out of a prewar population of just 4.5 million people, 80,000 Salvadorans were killed—almost 2 percent of the population, making El Salvador’s civil war bloodier than North America’s nineteenth-century War between the States. One in four Salvadorans were driven from their homes during the war, and one in five Salvadorans now live outside the country, mostly within the United States. The war also destroyed El Salvador’s economy, as investment ground to a halt and real per capita GDP growth averaged negative 2.7 percent for the entire civil war period. Although the economy has rebounded from this extreme low, GDP growth remains only 2 percent per year, less than the level needed to raise per capita income. Crime and urban violence also remain major problems.

Was such a destructive civil war the only way for El Salvador’s popular classes to gain access to El Salvador’s political system? The failure of Salvadoran elites to diversify the country’s economy certainly delayed political modernization through more typical channels; and the alliance between the coffee aristocracy and the Salvadoran military was resistant to evolutionary political change. Elite resistance to reform was exacerbated in El Salvador’s case by the country’s own history of political violence (for example, the 1932 La Matanza) and by the tendency throughout Latin America during the Cold War to associate demands for reform with godless communism. The United States shares the blame for supporting repressive military regimes throughout the postwar period, for steadfastly opposing a negotiated settlement throughout the 1980s, and for its direct contribution to the violence in El Salvador in the form of economic and military aid during these years as well as active complicity in egregious human rights abuses by the Salvadoran military.

Finally, any analysis of El Salvador’s civil war should warn analysts away from holding up the Salvadoran model as a positive example to be emulated by U.S. military planners in addressing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Colombia. Salvadoran death squads—with extensive support from U.S. allies in the Salvadoran military and right-wing parties—systematically murdered innocent civilians throughout the civil war, especially during 1980-1983. Not only were such tactics morally reprehensible, but there is little reason to believe that the Salvadoran strategy was particularly effective, as the state’s assault on civilian populations did little to diminish guerrilla operations. Rather, peace in El Salvador came when both sides came to see their economic and political interests as better served by compromise than through continued bloodshed—a decision that might have been reached a decade—and tens of thousands of civilian lives—earlier, had it not been for the external context of the Cold War and U.S. opposition to a negotiated settlement.