A Short History of El Salvador

By Victor Perla

El Salvador has a history of being one of the most violent places on earth. The roots of this violence are closely intertwined with the legacy of the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century. In the first documented meeting between the Spanish and the native Pipil in 1522, the Pipil put up such a determined guerrilla resistance that the Spaniards couldn’t establish a permanent settlement for three years. Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, writing to his superiors, expressed his frustration with Native resistance to Spanish rule by sentencing them all to death.

When the Spanish did finally impose control over the territory, they set up a feudal economic, social and political order that benefitted the European elite and relegated indigenous people to be little more than peons. An estimated 1% of the population controlled over 60% of the land, agriculture and industry. This system remained largely in place up to and throughout the 20th Century. There has been no period of 100 years in Salvadoran history that has not been marked by at least one major violent uprising against this system of economic inequality and political injustice.

Under such conditions, despite its great natural wealth, El Salvador became one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. When an incipient democratic movement began to evolve in the 1920s—resulting in a democratically elected president, the elite sponsored a coup. A populist counter rebellion was extinguished in La Matanza (The Slaughter) where up to 30,000 primarily indigenous Salvadorans (including their leader Farabundo Marti) were executed or otherwise killed. From 1932-1992 the country was ruled by a military dictatorship.

Beginning in the 1960s Salvadorans began mobilizing again for improved economic conditions and a return to democracy. However, their demands were met by government violence, which unleashed the military to crush peaceful protest and death squads to kill activist leaders, including Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. In response, Salvadorans formed a guerrilla movement called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The FMLN battled the Salvadoran government in a twelve-year Civil War (1980-1992). During that time the U.S. provided the Salvadoran military with $6billion to quell the uprising.

Paradoxically, the war led to the exodus of about 25% of all Salvadorans to the United States where they faced discrimination, poverty and gang violence. One of the reactions to these conditions was the formation of immigrant gangs by Salvadorans and refugees from other Central American countries.

After the Civil War, the U.S. government began deporting Salvadorans suspected of being gang members back to El Salvador: a policy that helped export North American gang violence to Central America and inadvertently created amorphous transnational networks of rival gangs operating throughout much of the continent.

In 1992 in El Salvador democracy was finally implemented, but economic justice came more slowly. In 2009, the FMLN was elected to the Presidency and since then has made major changes such as providing free public schools and health care. To fund their social programs the FMLN government has for the first time in the country’s history raised taxes on the rich and reduced military spending. Add to this a drop in gang violence because of a peace agreement between the country’s rival gangs and the country’s future, while still precarious, looks brighter.

Today in the U.S. Salvadorans comprise the third largest Latino immigrant group and despite the obstacles have become a political force in community, labor, student, and immigrant rights organizing.