El Salvador’s history as an independent state spans just under 200 years. In contrast, this has been an often conflict-filled and bloody story that culminated with brutal civil war in the 1980s.
Before 1821 the area was part of a European empire and before 1521 most of the country belonged to the so-called Mesoamerica which is one of the areas on earth where humans first developed agriculture and centralized, stratified societies.
El Salvador’s history as a geographical unit thus spans around 9000 years, from the maize cultivated around the year 7000 BCE, through migration and colonization until the descendants of the colonizers formed a modern nation state. To see more information other than history, please visit Abbreviationfinder to learn more about climate, population, government, and economy for the country of El Salvador.
Prior to the Spanish conquest, the present El Salvador, together with Mexico and Guatemala, and most of Honduras and Nicaragua, formed what we call Mesoamerica. Based on the cultivation of maize, beans and squash (“the Holy Triad”) and regional trade, the first state formation occurred here around the year 2500 BCE.
Often, the culture of olm is regarded as the builders of the very oldest ceremony centers. Olmecical ruins are also found in El Salvador, but the ruin complexes that are most visible today belong to Mayan and/or Nahuatl cultures. The site of Joya de Cerén, known as “Central America’s Pompeii ” because it was buried in ashes around 200 AD, was a smaller settlement under the mayoral state of San Andrés and is today on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Besides the “Holy Triad,” the Mayan and Nahuatl-speaking peoples also largely shared mythology and a cyclical understanding of history, where the present world is the fourth or fifth in the series of creations. Furthermore, they lived in hierarchical societies with a type of monarch at the top. The easternmost parts of El Salvador were inhabited by Lenca- speaking people. Based on language and other cultural features, the Lencas are often considered to be the so-called circum-Caribbean cultural area, which extends further down Central America and into the Caribbean and South America.. However, the Lenca communities of El Salvador were heavily influenced by Mesoamerican traditions, leaving behind the same type of ruins of temples and noble residences.
The Nahuatl-speaking pipil people dominated the western and central parts of the country when the Spaniards arrived; even they immigrated relatively late from central Mexico from around the year 700 AD The dominant states were Cuzcatlán and Sonsonate (Izalco).
- Countryaah: Check to see the location of El Salvador on the world map. Also covers major mountains, rivers and lakes in El Salvador.
Colonial time and independence
Cuzcatlán and Sonsonate were conquered by Spanish conquistadors in the years between 1524 and 1528 under the leadership of Pedro Alvarado and with the help of rental troops from Mexico and Guatemala. The Pipilas defended vigorously, but as in the whole of America, the original inhabitants had to lose European military organization and, not least, the flora of diseases the Spanish brought with them from the Old World. In many places half and more died of, among others, smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague.
The capital of San Salvador was founded as a military base for securing the empire. The fertile and densely populated lowland areas south of Guatemala and west of the mountains of Honduras were organized as audiencias and later provincias under the Spanish General Captainate Guatemala.
The establishment of a class society
As part of the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), Central America with its conquest was also socially and economically rearranged (reduido). Pipil and others were to become godly and obedient subjects of the Spanish crown. The Conquerors became the new upper class. El Salvador’s gold was the rich agricultural land that, even before the conquest, had produced cocoa as well as the dyes indigo and cochineal for all of Mesoamerica. The new gentlemen took control of the trade and quickly these dyes became the region’s most important export products to Europe as well. The most easily run areas of the valley plains became Spanish goods (haciendas) and pipils, Mayans and Lencas were displaced to “Native American” villages on increasingly marginal land. At the same time, they had a duty to work on the goods.
Socially, Spanish America was “the two republics”: a Spanish and white and an “Native American”. The latter was the subordinate, but also benefited from the Crown’s protection against individual landlords. Spain did not want any local nobility with thoughts of independence. Economically, the colony became part of a global exchange system centered in Europe.
The struggle between liberals and conservatives
The Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Wars ended the Spanish Catholic Empire. Inspired by the French Revolution, liberal forces led the uprising against the crown throughout Spanish America. During the 1820s, the former viceroys became 20 independent republics. However, when General Capitolate Guatemala broke free, it happened in response to Spain having given itself a liberal constitution, The Cádiz Constitution of 1812. Therefore, together with the conservatives of Mexico, the provinces of Central America formed an independent but short-lived empire. In 1823, the Liberals seized power and proclaimed “The Federation of the United Provinces of Central America.” El Salvador, which until then had been ruled directly from Guatemala, was created as an association of Sonsonate and San Salvador (Cuzcatlán).
The federation did not last until 1838 due to continuous and violent demolitions between the liberals and the conservatives. The Liberals wanted a modern, secular and free-trade state, while the Conservatives wanted a closed market and a strong Catholic church.
All the provinces were characterized by the fighting, but most often Guatemala emerged as the conservative bastion while El Salvador (and Honduras) were the core areas of the liberals. General Francisco Morazán (1792-1842) – originally from Honduras, but eventually headquartered in San Salvador – was among the Liberal leaders. Morazán was decisively beaten by Guatemalan Rafael Carrera (1814-1865) who led a peasant guerrilla against the “godless” liberals. During the 1840s, he also became the leader of the Conservatives, directly in Guatemala and indirectly in the now independent republics further south, with Guatemalan domination. Thus, El Salvador’s first decade as an independent state was characterized by conservative landlords managing central power.
As aspiring rulers of poor territories without administrative apparatus, the first presidents of the region were as similar to warlords as to ideologically based statesmen. In addition, they began a tradition of borrowing abroad, ie London, to finance their ambitions. This charismatic and militaristic type of leader is known as caudillo. The authoritarian style, the tradition of interfering with the neighboring province to support its party counterparts there, as well as loan financing rather than taxation, came to haunt the region’s politics well into the 20th century.
Coffee economics and liberal triumph
From 1870, liberal forces were back at the helm throughout the region. Based on the cultivation and export of coffee (first tried in Costa Rica) and inspired by European positivism, a less anti-clerical and more practically oriented new generation of liberal leaders could build the young states with modern infrastructure in the form of banking, central government and not least communications. The railway across the Panamá ownership (completed in 1851) provided a powerful stimulus for export agriculture.
Up to the mid-1800s, the Salvadoran economy had mainly been linked to indigo, cattle farming, sugar and tobacco. From the mid-1860s, liberal governments began to encourage the cultivation of coffee, which not least suited the mountainsides that had hitherto been refugees for Pipils and Mayans. In 1882, even the village’s common property was declared “contrary to the laws of the Republic,” and formally abolished.
As the indigenous people were farm workers meant thus progress as coffee made possible an cementing the country’s vast social disparities. While increasingly densely cultivated territory was linked by road, rail and telegraph, and in many ways emerged as the most ” progressive ” country in Central America, the state also built up a professional order apparatus in the form of army, national guard (rural police) and different police forces.
During the 1870s and 1880s, coffee accounted for between 80 and 90 percent of the country’s income. Most of it went to Europe, but beyond the 20th century also to the United States. Investors from here came to play an increasingly important role in economic development and thus the region was increasingly drawn into international politics.
The road to dictatorship
Often, this era in Central American history is known as “the Republican dictatorships” and in several countries the history of the liberal triumph is closely linked to dictators such as Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, Justo Rufino Barrios in Guatemala and José Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua. The latter, in particular, often interfered with neighboring countries’ policies. At the initiative of the United States and Mexico, a separate Central American Arbitration Court was established in 1908 to stabilize the region. The Court – and later the Central American Common Market that emerged in the 1960s – remain examples of the common sense that the Federation sought to build constantly.
Ruled by a kind of alliance between the so-called “14 families” rather than a person-based dictatorship, El Salvador was the region’s most stable country until the crackdown on world trade in 1929. In 1931, Arturo Araujo from the Social Democratic Party won the country’s then-free elections. Only nine months later, however, he was overthrown by a group of officers who immediately gave Vice President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez power. Hernández had fascist sympathies (he was one of the first to recognize Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain), and remained a dictator until 1944. His rule thus put an effective end to the beginning institutional modernization of the country. The country was now ruled by generals until the Civil War broke out in 1979.
1932: La Matanza
The crash in 1929 led to a drastic fall in coffee prices as well. Wages were halved and mass unemployment characterized the country. This crisis was the backdrop for the election of Arturo Araujo in 1931 as well as for a series of rebellions that were in some cases led by the local Communist Party, PCS, led by Farabundo Martí. The revolt was brutally beaten by the army; As many as 30,000 people, essentially pipelines from Izalco, were massacred in a massacre that has since become known as la matanza, “the (great) massacre.”
The Pipil uprising was led by the village’s own elders and can also be interpreted as a desperate attempt to encourage a new creation, quite independent of modern, revolutionary thinking. Regardless, the events paved the way for the coup in 1932 and eventually a political dynamic characterized by a series of short, democratic openings (in 1944, 1961, 1972 and 1979) which were soon followed by stable but right-wing generals as presidents. The massacre of 1932 also meant a last turn in what one might call the cultural genocide of the country’s indigenous peoples; From then on it was long forbidden to speak other languages than Spanish, and to wear “Native American” clothing.
Dictatorship and Civil War
The right-wing and militarily-based governments that followed Hernández’s dictatorship failed to meet the challenges that the modernization of the economy and social life in the 1960s and 1970s raised. However, the so-called Progress Alliance, which was the name of the United States’ support agreement with 22 Latin American states to modernize the South’s neighbors and meet the challenge of communism in the 1960s, managed to encourage more robust economic development.
With the formation of the Central American Common Market (MCCA), the country experienced good growth, but instead of following up on free elections and allowing new parties, the generals aimed to consolidate their own state-bearing party. The National Reconciliation Party (PCN), as it was called, was also complemented by its own paramilitary force called the ORD in the countryside. Thus, the country’s orderly powers remained in its essence private security forces acting on behalf of political leaders.
The so-called ” football war” or the “hundred-hour war” between El Salvador and Honduras took place on 14-14. July 1969. Many of the underlying causes are that the less developed Honduras became the loser in the new, regional economy. Honduras, the region’s least populous country, announced the return of hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran migrants. This happened in a tense atmosphere after tussle between the two countries to qualify for the 1970 Mexico World Cup. Salvadoran forces moved into neighboring countries and Honduran planes bombed the airport in Ilopango before the OAS and the US forced the parties to the negotiating table.
Radicalization and military coup
During the 1972 elections, José Napoleón Duarte, mayor of San Salvador, lost through the 1960s and leader of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). The winner was the man who organized the WORD, Colonel Arturo Armando Molina. The victory was secured by electoral fraud. Duarte went into exile to Venezuela. In parallel with this closure of the political center, the Cold War and the victory of Communism in Cuba, the opposition became increasingly radical. During the 1970s, several burgeoning guerrilla groups formed.
In 1970, a group in the Communist Party, led by Cayetano Carpio, formed the guerrilla army FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación, People’s Liberation Forces). The following year, a group formed in the student community formed the guerrilla army ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, People’s Revolutionary Army), led by Joaquín Villalobos. Through kidnapping of wealthy businessmen acquired guerrillas themselves a war fund of an estimated 70 million US dollars. On the other side of an ever-weaker reform-oriented political center, a network of so-called death squads was built up in the army and the ORD. These were masked killers who wound uprevolutionaries on the left who were believed to undermine social order. In turn, the death squads received the support of wealthy businessmen.
In October 1979, three months after the Sandinist revolution in Nicaragua, in an extremely polarized situation, a group of reform-oriented officers seized state power and announced a series of radical measures such as land reform and nationalization of private companies. The Christian Democrats (PDC) and the Social Democratic MNR entered the government, but the Conservative elite strongly opposed. Within a few months, the most radical of the junta was being squeezed out and replaced by a growing number of militant officers, as an increasingly stronger and better organized revolutionary left side mobilized for war.
FMLN is formed
In January 1980, the Social Democrats and large parts of the Christian Democracy left the junta and entered into a political alliance with the revolutionaries in the FPL and EGP. That same month, US President Ronald Reagan joined a marked anti-communist program; it was to strike back the ongoing revolutions in Central America. In October 1980, the various revolutionary parties merged into the so-called Frente Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), named after the leader of the Communist Party that was killed in 1932.
Besides the FPL and ERP and three other, less revolutionary parties, the so-called mass organizations also participated – Leninist party theory prescribes that unions, women’s organizations and other sectoral organizations support their parties, which form the vanguard of the revolution. Disputes over revolutionary strategy have so far resulted in bloody internal settlement; best known is the 1975 murder of the poet Roque Dalton (1935-1975), who was accused of revisionism and of being a CIA agent. With Nicaragua as an example, however, they were able to unite. Internationally, the FMLN received weapons assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union, and politically achieved the front to be recognized as a belligerent party by Mexico and France. In 1981, the guerrilla launched its major offensive to seize government.
Guerrilla War and Death Squadrons
Facing a poorly organized army of about 15,000 men, the FMLN managed to establish territorial control in about 20 percent of the country (Chalatenango, Cabañas and Morazán provinces). In other words, this was a type of full war that El Salvador’s army could hardly have waged without extensive aid to US weapons and organization. The FMLN’s offensive ended in a post war that lasted for almost ten years. At the same time, it was a dirty war; a large preponderance of those killed were civilian small farmers from the areas that came into the firing line where the parties established control of their bases. These clean-up actions were largely carried out by masked members of the ORD (now renamed “civil defense forces”), as well as FPL.
As many as 70,000 people lost their lives during the war. Most famous is the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero in March 1980, the massacre of about 800 poor peasants in El Mozote in Morazán Province in 1981 and the killings of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper in 1989 when officers entered the area of UCA University where they worked and lived.
The killing at Romero was probably ordered by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a military who had previously worked in El Salvador’s security service and who in 1981 founded the ARENA party with a militant anti-revolutionary profile. In the elections for a new constitutional National Assembly in 1983, ARENA became the largest party. D’Aubuisson became the president of the assembly and as such he was given the position and resources to form a powerful network of death squadrons and take control of the WORD. However, during the presidential elections the following year, Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte, who also had political support from the United States, won.
The road to peace
However, Duarte did not manage to stop the war (despite several negotiations attempts) or to govern the country (ARENA dominated the National Assembly and corruption characterized the PDC). Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the FMLN launched a recent major offensive and occupied for a while parts of the capital’s better neighborhoods. Again, it became clear that neither party was able to win militarily. With businessman Alfredo Cristiani, ARENA won the presidential election in 1989. Encouraged by US new president George HW Bush, he agreed to negotiations with the FMLN under the auspices of the United Nations in March 1990.
New Year’s Eve 1991, a comprehensive peace treaty was signed in New York, after ten years of brutal civil war. The peace treaty was truly a breakthrough, as it also sought to address the causes of the war. The FMLN was transformed into a political party, but disagreement over which political line the party should lead ensured that the party did not win any presidential election until 2009.
The end of the civil war led to a few years of reform and high economic growth. But even if the civil war was over, El Salvador should not get rid of the violence – on the contrary; in the 1990s and 2000s, the country became the scene of gang wars that made El Salvador one of the most dangerous places to live. With increased violence, reforms and economic growth also stopped.