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History, Civil War

Alfredo Cristiani, FMLN, leftist parties, Central American University, new Supreme Court

While these problems haunted El Salvador, a revolution in neighboring Nicaragua, led by the Sandinista guerrilla movement, overthrew the Somoza dynasty in July 1979. El Salvador’s military feared a similar uprising, as public protests continued to grow against the government, and in October 1979 military officers took over the government in a coup. The officers wanted primarily to maintain the power and reputation of the military, but they offered concessions to moderate and leftist groups, giving them seats on the ruling junta. The junta ordered the feared paramilitary death squad, ORDEN, to disband, but other death squads soon appeared to continue the political assassinations and torture. Nearly all the civilians on the junta soon resigned in protest over the continued repression. This crisis ended in January 1980 when the Christian Democratic Party agreed to collaborate with the military to form a new junta. Duarte returned from exile and became leader of the new junta, with the support of the United States.

Duarte’s government initiated social and economic reforms, including a plan for land reform, and tried to control abuses by the armed forces. But the military chiefs still controlled the nation. Right-wing death squads carried out political assassinations to intimidate their opponents. In 1980 San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a critic of the military government, was murdered during a religious service, several Christian Democratic leaders were assassinated, and three U.S. Catholic nuns and another church worker were raped and killed. Five members of the Salvadoran National Guard were later convicted of murdering the churchwomen.

On the left the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of guerrilla organizations, declared war against the government. These revolutionary organizations conducted military campaigns, but also carried out assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and sabotage. In regions they controlled, the guerrillas demanded payments from landholders and business owners. As violence escalated on both sides, many innocent civilians were caught in the middle.

Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, who was accused of taking part in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, organized a new right-wing political party, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), to challenge Duarte. In the election of 1982, the leftist parties refused to participate, and Duarte’s Christian Democrats won a plurality of the seats in the National Assembly. However, a coalition of ARENA and the PCN won the majority of the seats. D’Aubuisson became head of the Salvadoran Constitutional Convention, which wrote the constitution of 1983. This constitution returned the government to an elected, civilian presidency and enlarged the assembly to 84 members.

Duarte won the presidency in the 1984 election, but he was unable to end the destructive civil war. To add to his problems, a massive earthquake destroyed much of San Salvador in 1986, while he himself was dying of cancer. However, by signing the 1987 Central American Peace Accord (known as the Arias Plan), Duarte began a process that would eventually end the civil war and restore peace to the war-torn country. His party, meanwhile, was accused of corruption, and the nation’s economy suffered from low prices for its exports. With the population exhausted by years of warfare, ARENA won broader support and took control of the legislature in 1988. In 1989 ARENA’s presidential candidate, Alfredo Cristiani, won the election to succeed Duarte.

A major FMLN offensive in 1989 succeeded in capturing large areas of San Salvador before the guerrillas retreated again. The following year, peace talks began between the government and the FMLN, mediated by the United Nations (UN). After long, difficult negotiations, the two sides reached an agreement, known as the Chapultepec Accord, in January 1992. Under the agreement, much of the FMLN forces and the government army was disbanded; the old security forces and the National Police were abolished; and a new civilian police force was formed that included both former National Police and FMLN members. A UN commission assisted the Salvadorans in implementing the agreements in the areas of human rights, military, police, and elections.

The civil war took a terrible toll on the country’s people and property. As many as 75,000 people died in the conflict, with thousands more wounded and displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country. A United Nations Truth Commission investigated the most flagrant cases of human-rights abuses committed during the civil war and reported its findings on March 15, 1993. It recommended reforms of the armed forces and the judiciary and urged that individuals guilty of human-rights violations be removed from office and from the military. The Legislative Assembly gave amnesty from criminal prosecution to all those implicated in this report, including officers suspected of murdering six Jesuit priests at the Central American University in 1989. However, the legislature implemented the reforms, purging many officials from office and retiring hundreds of officers from active military duty. The Legislative Assembly elected a completely new Supreme Court in July 1994, complying with the Truth Commission’s recommendation that none of its justices be allowed to continue in office.



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