Carly Greenfield is a second year International Relations student with an interest in non-wartime violence, gender theory, and organized crime, especially in Latin America.
El Salvador, a state of little more than 6 million people, often falls below the radar in the 21st century. However, 25 years ago, El Salvador was ending a 12-year civil war that had ushered it into a violent Cold War paradigm and brought global media attention along with it. Today, El Salvador is the battleground for deadly gang warfare and a hardened state presence. While the peace deal of 1992 ensured an end to the conflict, Salvadorans have not been able to cultivate a peaceful society. In 2015, San Salvador hosted the third highest murder rate in the world: with its population hovering around 1.7 million, almost a third of all Salvadorans have been forced to make this a part of their daily lives. The peace deal failed to create a peaceful state due to an inability to remedy the conflict’s roots of inequality and injustice, failure to persecute military members following the deal, and a failure to address the trauma experienced by local communities. Along with a lack of political will, El Salvador has faced the same abject poverty as its neighbor states and extreme levels of emigration towards the United States (US), leading to an excess in crime rates.
The civil war was fought between the Government of El Salvador and Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), but its roots lay much further back in El Salvador’s history. Like most of Latin America, Spain dominated El Salvador for over 300 years until its full independence in 1838. This laid down a system built around natural goods such as indigo and sugarcane and the need for a peasant population to farm it. Following independence, as in the colonial period, a group of elites held almost all of the wealth in the country. In the 19th century, they amassed control of the economy through the farming of a new crop: coffee. Economic disparity grew and in the 20th century, peasant revolts became increasingly common, leading to brutal crackdowns by the government. As El Salvador swung from one military dictatorship to the next and social mobility stayed practically impossible, the growth of leftist guerrilla movements was expected. Like in neighboring states Nicaragua and Guatemala, the 1970s and 1980s became ground zero for revolutionary politics.
El Salvador’s civil war lasted from 1980 to 1992, leaving over 75,000 people dead and thousands more displaced from their homes. It was notorious for death squads, the use of child soldiers, and various other human rights violations. Thousands had fled to neighboring countries, chief among them the United States. The US, who had backed the Salvadoran government during the war, would play a key part in both the peace deal and its ensuing breakdown. Following the 1989 Jesuit massacre, and the US no longer supplying the government with weapons but rather calling for an end to the conflict, the government and FMLN brokered a peace deal. Although the peace deal succeeded in ending the violent civil war and incorporating FMLN into the political system, economic goals of the peace agreement were less successful. Along with this, a lack of funding for government programs reincorporating child soldiers or supporting communities most affected by the atrocities kept areas from healing.
Within the peace accord, several agreements have been breached or not followed closely— Chapter 1, Armed Forces, facing the most challenges. Point 5, End to Impunity, gave the Commission on the Truth power to end impunity for armed actors involved in human rights abuses. However, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed an amnesty law that protected all military and guerrilla forces from prosecution in 1993, undercutting the Commission on the Truth, leaving many victims without anyone to hold to account. To this end, the entrance of the FMLN into the president’s office in 2009 led to the removal of the blanket amnesty law, yet still few cases have been prosecuted. Now, at the 25th anniversary, prosecutions are becoming less and less likely, meaning the justice side of the conflict remains unfulfilled, keeping the country from experiencing total peace. With Point 6 of Chapter 1, Public Security Forces, the government has loosened the regulations set out in the peace accord. While the peace accord set about creating a police force controlled by civilian authorities, rather than allowing the military to conduct the policing within El Salvador, the government has instead militarized its police. Though the primary role of the national civil police was shaped around safeguarding peace, anti-gang policies have been more offensive than defensive in nature. In the first decade of the 2000s, El Salvador’s leadership developed the manu duro policy (iron fist). President Antonio Saca brought more force to the program and labeled it super mano duro. These policies led to increased police presence in El Salvador along with heavier weapons and the legal ability to take harsh methods against suspected gang members, therein beginning to blur the line carefully set out by the peace accords. In 2015, the government labeled street gangs as terrorist organization— a step that proponents said was fitting, given how the gangs terrorize the local population and seek to undermine the government. What this decision also does, however, is expand police rights to round up any person with a gang-related tattoo, as being a member of a gang is now illegal. Searches and raids rose and stories began to crop up of police abuse and overzealousness, but few arrests were made inside the police force. The government’s ability to seek justice as it sees fit is reminiscent of the civil war, making some civil society activists uncomfortable. As many gangs are most active in poor neighborhoods, it is those people who are most affected by gang violence and extortion and government abuse, rekindling the divide between the poor and the heavily armed police.
Point 11 called for the suspension of forcible recruitment: children disappeared throughout the conflict and many were coerced or forced into fighting, leaving a generation with few skills outside of war. While the government has taken steps to protect children, the gangs recruit boys as young as 10 to serve as lookouts and informants throughout the country. Recruitment into a street gang should be treated as a similar crime to that named in the peace accord since most of the gang members are young and die early. The government’s inability to protect its youth shows that the peace accord has not been implemented in its entire scope, made more acute due to a lack of finances.
The El Salvador peace deal, like many other peace deals, focused on resolving the conflict at hand and less with the structural issues going on inside El Salvador. Still, Chapter 5 sought to answer “the agrarian problem.” Land reform occurred to give workers more access to the wealth being gained from the earth they till and more peasants were able to buy land. Still, wages did not rise substantially, and an elite few continue to amass a critical amount of the wealth. The space left between peace accords and truth commissions following conflict leaves substantial room for economic structures to remain in place even while they are often a focal point of the conflict. The failure of the government to set significant reforms in place means that many Salvadorans face similar economic pressures as those prior to the civil war.
It would be incorrect to claim, however, that El Salvador is wholly responsible for its homicide rate or gang epidemic. The role of the US in Salvadoran politics was a main hindrance to peace within the state during the civil war, and its support of the original peace deal was mainly in pursuit of its own national interest. Now, as the international community looks to how El Salvador can lower its homicide rate, it should really be analyzing US immigration policy. The practices that gangs employ have their origins in Los Angeles, not in Soyapongo.
Thousands of Salvadorans escaped the country during the civil war, particularly young men avoiding being brought in to fight. Many fled to the US, albeit without the proper documentation, and settled in Los Angeles. The adolescents noticed the street culture already prevalent in the city at the time, particularly the gang rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips. This gave birth to la Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, and one of the main gangs in El Salvador today. While the gang was formed in Los Angeles, it ended up back in El Salvador: the US government, cracking down on illegal immigration, deported thousands of Salvadorans back to El Salvador following the peace accord. Since the US prioritizes deporting those with criminal records, gang members were the perfect example of what the government wanted to get out of the country. So although the young men were raised in American streets, the US took no responsibility for their behavior, and gang culture was exported to El Salvador along with the people. Since most of these men had little connection to El Salvador, they were difficult to integrate, notwithstanding all of the other issues that the country was facing. US foreign policy towards El Salvador, laden with hypocrisy for decades, has only furthered the destabilization of the small country. By only understanding the civil war through the Cold War, it supported brutal government tactics and furthered the endless bloodshed. The deportation of young gang members and the separation of families across borders continue to put Salvadorans at risk. Furthermore, when the US saw an increase in unaccompanied minors entering the US in 2014, they were careful not to label them refugees, even though they were escaping the deadliest region outside of a warzone. As El Salvador continues to grapple with its rival gangs, the US continues its deadly deportation policy.
What does this all mean, in the context of a 25 year-old peace deal? Small states do not have full agency in their policymaking if they are not afforded it by larger states, such as in the US-El Salvador relationship. The violence in El Salvador should also serve as a reminder of the importance of financial power to put in place post-conflict programs that emphasize reintegration, community building, and job opportunities. Impunity serves no one but those who committed the crimes, even if it is being done in the name of healing and moving on. Furthermore, governments must conduct their own commissions to reform long-established obstacles: while truth commissions may bring victims’ voices to light, and peace accords disarm the opposition, there continues to be no exact model for addressing the long-term grievances of oppressed groups, especially in postcolonial states. The peace accord may have ended the civil war, but it was unable to provide stability or lead to civil society involvement that could have created a peace that meant more than simply the absence of war.