Reflections on 25 Years of Peace in El Salvador

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This month marks 25 years since the guerrilla rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the government of El Salvador convened in Mexico City to sign the Chapultepec Peace Accords that would end the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). The 12-year armed struggle claimed an estimated 80,000 lives and led to a mass exodus of almost a fourth of El Salvador’s population. To understand the Salvadoran Civil War is to understand the current Central American refugee crisis, the notorious Mara-Salvatrucha, and the proliferation of pupuserías in your hood.

The war started as a popular insurrection by five revolutionary forces that composed the FMLN against a repressive government. In what would be one of the last battlegrounds of the Cold War, the violence escalated as the United States paid $4.5 billion in military aid to the Salvadoran government to stop the spread of communism. According to a UN Truth Commission report, Salvadoran government forces – composed heavily by death squads – committed 85 percent of the atrocities during the conflict.

From this conflict emerged two political parties, one composed of Marxist ex-guerrillas and another of the long-standing oligarchy, which together would broker peace in the form of the privatization of public services, high youth unemployment and amnesty for war criminals. Meanwhile, the seeds of a new war were sprouting from the youth dispossessed by war. You may have heard of them, they’re the subject of endless sensational news stories and documentaries that have come to define Salvadorans in the world’s popular imaginary – the transnational gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18. The groups have their origin in Los Angeles but proliferated throughout Central America when President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 that expanded the criteria for deportation, sending back thousands of criminalized youth to a country they no longer knew. Ostracized by Salvadoran society, deportees turned to extortion, assault and murder as the state remilitarized to combat their growing influence – meanwhile an entire nation of civilians is held hostage, again.

However, el pulgarcito de América is still holding out for peace as the world stood still to acknowledge a remarkable day without homicides on January 13, and there are reports that at least one gang is calling for a ceasefire with the government forces. Before history repeats itself again, I reached out to four out of the 2 million Salvadorans that call the United States home and asked them to reflect on the last 25 years of alleged peace.

Vanessa Erazo, 37

Soon after the ceasefire agreement – which eventually led to the peace accords – was announced on December 31st, 1991, Vanessa traveled with her family to El Salvador for the first time in 10 years. She was 12 years old at the time, and contrasts it with her recent trips to the country.

“The biggest difference in 1992 from today, is that it was a country ravaged by violence and destruction, but there was hope for the future and about how things could change. Now economically and infrastructure-wise the country looks fancier and there are American chains everywhere, but then the amount of violence that people are experiencing on a daily basis is much worse than the civil war. And there isn’t as much hope for the future. Nobody knows where the solution lies.”

Despite the turmoil, she reiterated that there is more to El Salvador than just a narrative of violence. “It’s still a country that’s filled with so much physical beauty, history and people who are living their lives. Amidst all this sadness, it’s still a country worth visiting and seeing. It’s more than just the murder capital of the world.”

Orlando Erazo, 72

I also caught up with Vanessa’s father who’s lived in the United States for 40 years and saw the peace process as sigh of relief. “I felt very joyful because there had been so much suffering, death and damage. The guerillas took down electrical towers and bridges, and the government would do air strikes on small villages and displace peasants.”

He pointed out that the despite the current situation, El Salvador has indeed made some progress that cannot be denied. “The positive is that the political situation has changed completely. Now people can talk on the radio, television, or newspaper about whatever they want. If you had a dissenting opinion before, you would be killed. We now have former guerrillas as president and vice president. The current government also puts a little bit more emphasis on social programs than the old one. For example, the current government gives free uniforms to primary and secondary school children.”

Olga Alvarenga, 62

I also asked my own mother about her take on the peace process, and she admits that she had conflicted feelings almost immediately. “At first I was very skeptical that the war actually coming to an end. On the other hand, I was also happy that people were going to live more peacefully. Many people died unnecessarily and senselessly, most of whom were just civilians at the wrong place and at the wrong time, many not part of either faction.”

She also emphasized the harmful lingering effect that the war had in fracturing families, which gave way to today’s culture of violence. “The post-war years failed the youth population. There were so many kids orphaned by the war, but also kids left behind by parents that had to immigrate to other countries without them. All these underage kids were left helpless. To fix the current situation, there needs to be a general awareness by all Salvadorans to protect children from a young age. We need to build consciousness over a long period of time. A wound doesn’t heal in one, two or three days, especially a large wound like the one El Salvador has.”

Mirna Medina, 52

Bay Area community activist Mirna still lived in El Salvador when peace was declared. She was a militant for the cause and helped in repopulating programs that helped rural Salvadorans resettle toward the end of the war. Even then, she was critical of the path El Salvador was taking towards reconciliation. “I felt uncertainty because the left was making pacts with the government of El Salvador and the USA. We had one of the cruelest and messed up right wing regimes in Latin America. Also the U.S. wasn’t facilitating peace out of their own kindness, they were protecting their economic interest by ending the war to have the region under their control.”

The sobering truth is those 25 years later, the peace accords left much to be desired. “In my opinion the peace accords failed. They signaled the end of war, but they absolutely did not resolve any of the root causes of the war, such as inequality. We wanted to improve social conditions but all the economic power stayed with the old owners. It was my expectation that the organization that took us into armed struggle would be our vanguard and it was not. We wanted to change the system but that has not happened. Instead it gave way to neoliberalism.”