May 28, 2017: The Civil War in El Salvador: Lessons from the Cold War

By the 1970s, the government of El Salvador was like many Latin American and Developing Nations: a pro-U.S., capitalist military dictatorship, virulently anti-communist and anti-Soviet Union. The global politics of the Cold War meant the United States demanded the loyalty of the Central American governments. The people of El Salvador paid a high price for their position in the Cold War with few social programs, no labor protections, and a complete absence of civil rights. Attempts at social justice reforms such as demands for land redistribution, labor unions, public education, democratic elections, even freedom of speech and the press were denounced as the first steps towards a Communist takeover by the elites who controlled the export-dominated economy and their U.S. allies. As the people of El Salvador refused to accept the lack of political and economic reforms, the military was increasingly called upon to break up demonstrations and protect the propertied interests of the country.  Death squads targeted journalists, labor leaders, community activists, intellectuals, and artists. By 1980, the military openly controlled the government. The people of El Salvador decided to take up arms to force the reforms they had demanded unsuccessfully for decade.

Five guerrilla organizations launched coordinated attacks against the government on January 10, 1981.  These organizations’ members were drawn mainly from the rural people of El Salvador, many of whom were illiterate and living in abject poverty. The organizations had different goals for their revolution – Communists, Social Democrats, Anarchists, and Social Justice Reformers all organized and took up arms to promote their reform agenda. These groups all banded together under the umbrella organization FMLN – the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Under the foreign policy doctrine of Containment, the United States supported the military dictatorship of El Salvador with weapons, training, and financing. The guerrillas responded with attacks on government and military installations, as well as economic infrastructure.  The civil war eventually claimed the lives of 75,000 Salvadoran in the 11 years of conflict and the United States sent more than $4.5 billion in military aid. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and several internationally high profile atrocities committed by Salvadoran government forces against civilians, the United States finally cut off military aid to El Salvador in 1991.  With the end of military aid, the Salvadoran government finally agreed to peace accords in January 1992 that called for democratic elections, reformation of the Salvadoran police and military, human rights guarantees, and an amnesty extended to both sides. While not addressing all of the problems, the 1992 peace accords have maintained stability and peaceful political transitions for El Salvador for the last 25 years.

During the civil war, FMLN guerrillas controlled several large areas in El Salvador, including the Morazan region in northwest El Salvador near the Honduras border. The largest town in the rebel-controlled region was Perquin. Today Perquin is home to the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. The Museum was founded in 1992 only months after the peace accords were signed. The Museum was founded by former FMLN revolutionaries who wanted to keep the revolutionary memory alive within El Salvador and the world. One of the Museum’s founders and current Director is former FMLN Comandante Mario. Comandante Mario was a founding member of the FMLN and helped coordinate the attack that started the revolution in 1981. Today he keeps the legacy of his revolution alive at the museum giving talks and guiding tours of the Museum’s five major exhibits, including memorials to fallen FMLN soldiers, examples of the weapons and combat methods of the FMLN, posters of solidarity with the FMLN from around the world, a display of the daily life in the mountain camps of the guerrillas, and a collection of wrecked helicopters shot down by FMLN forces.

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El Salvador’s Museum of the Revolution: copy of The 15 Principles of the Guerrilla Combatant

One of the downed US-supplied military helicopters was used by the infamous Colonel Domingo Monterrosa during the civil war. Monterrosa was the officer in charge of the massacre at El Mozote, a small village near Perquin. In December 1981, Monterrosa led Salvadoran forces into the hamlets around Mozote and rounded up all of the inhabitants before slaughtering the entire population of the town and the surrounding countryside. More than 1,100 innocent people were killed, the majority of whom were women and children. The massacre was meant to send a message to other towns in order to eliminate support for the guerrilla fighters. The United States initially attempted to cover up the massacre which was carried out by US-trained soldiers with US-supplied weapons.

Rufina Amaya was the lone survivor of the massacre. Working with the FMLN radio station Radio Venceremos, she made sure the world learned what happened at Mozote. After the civil war ended and civilians returned to Mozote to rebuild, Rufina worked to train the women of the village to act as docents and give tours of the site of the infamous massacre. Like Comandante Mario, Rufina wanted to make sure the lessons of Mozote – “Never Again!” – were passed on to future generations.

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El Mozote Memorial

The FMLN would seek out Colonel Monterrosa for the massacre. In October 1984 they allowed him to believe he had finally captured the transmitter of Radio Venceremos that he had long sought. Placing the transmitter beside him to take back to his office as a trophy, Monterrosa’s helicopter rose above the Salvadoran mountains. Unknown to Monterrosa, the transmitter he had chased with violent abandon was really a bomb in disguise. Once his helicopter reached altitude, the bomb exploded, turning the copter into a fireball above the mountain forests. Once the fires had died, the guerrillas returned to the crash site to recover the wreckage. Today the fuselage of the helicopter is the most-prized attraction at the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. Leftists around the world come there to be photographed with the helicopter’s remains as a symbol of the fight against oppression everywhere.

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Monterrosa’s helicopter

The people of El Salvador fought for the rights and opportunities of future generations against a violent US-backed dictatorship for over a decade. Today that revolutionary spirit is kept alive in the mountains of northwestern El Salvador. The lessons of the Cold War are being passed on to those future generations at the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution and by the women of Mozote.


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