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El Salvador struggles 29 years after peace accords

The civil conflict left 75,000 dead and at least 8,000 disappeared

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Updated: January 20, 2021 05:17 AM GMT
El Salvador struggles 29 years after peace accords

A woman holds flowers at the Monument to Memory and Truth during the commemoration of the 29th anniversary of the Peace Accords that put an end to El Salvador's civil conflict (1980-1992), in Gerardo Barrios Park known as Civic Square in San Salvador, on January 16, 2021. (Photo: MARVIN RECINOS / AFP)

The mural in the town of La Laguna depicts a rifle firmly planted into the ground but one that, with time, becomes a tall corn plant with a dove hovering nearby.

The mural "from rifle to corn" depicts what happened in this part of the Salvadoran countryside, as it evolved from a theater of war in the late 1970s and 1980s to a thriving agricultural area, after rifles and other weapons were laid to rest with the signing of peace accords in 1992.

Almost three decades since the documents were signed Jan. 16, 1992, ending decades of conflict and 12 years of civil war, the accords have come under criticism, mainly from the nation's current president and his supporters.

On Dec. 17, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele called the accords a "farce," saying they had done little to provide a sense of safety, made no advances in the areas of justice or meaningful reforms in education, health care or other social programs for Salvadorans.

"Why, if they were so good, did they not benefit the Salvadoran people?" Bukele asked. "Ah, the war stopped," he added with sarcasm.

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The violence of the civil war was replaced by crime and violence from Salvadorans who had become gang members in the U.S. and were later deported, returning to their country with a system of extortion that took root and flourished among the largely unprotected poor and middle class of El Salvador.

Politicians from the two main political parties that held power following the accords abused the system for their financial gain while doing little to resolve the lawlessness that affected the lives of the majority. As a result, gangs established deep roots in Salvadoran society.

It's a problem that Bukele and his administration have not been able to solve. In a December 2019 interview with the CBS news show "60 Minutes," Bukele admitted that the gangs "have a de facto power, a real one. They charge taxes. They actually say, 'OK, if you pay this, we'll provide security for your business.' They have a quasi-security force."

But many say the failure of the parties that took part in the accords is not a reason to deny that the documents provided a foundation for a nascent, if imperfect, democracy in El Salvador.

In an interview published Jan. 16 in El Salvador's La Prensa Gráfica newspaper, Hector Lindo-Fuentes, a Salvadoran historian and retired Fordham University professor, said the accords provided a way toward the peaceful transfer of power that did not exist before in the country.

"Before the accords, those who controlled the reins of government would not let go of them without violence," he said in an interview published by journalist Ernesto Mejía. "Power would not change hands from one (political) group to the other without violence."

Those who challenged the government were met with violence, jailed, tortured or murdered. Catholic clergy and laity were among them, most famously, the archbishop of San Salvador, now St. Oscar Romero, who was martyred at the start of the war in 1980 after speaking out in defense of the poor and government-sponsored violence.

Some say the war officially began with the killing of the archbishop, who was fatally shot as he celebrated Mass. With his killing, the scant opportunity to dialogue and call out injustices died, too.

An independent press, just as fair elections, also did not exist, nor did an independent Supreme Court or legislative body. Those problems ultimately led the nation on a path toward civil conflict that would leave 75,000 dead and at least 8,000 disappeared.

Lindo-Fuentes said that while the accords did not solve all of El Salvador's problems, in 1992 the killing from the war stopped. The agreements between a coalition of left-wing groups and El Salvador's repressive right-wing government also provided a framework to work through political and ideological differences without violence.

The accords also sought to change the role of the military, which had taken part in atrocities ordered by those in power, and instead reimagined a new role for it as an institution to protect the populace, not harm it. They also established a national office to handle human rights violations, which were rampant during the war.

On Jan. 16, almost 200 prominent Salvadorans signed a statement published in full-page ads in two of the country's largest national newspapers supporting the accords, in which the Catholic Church played a significant role. Signers included Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez and Bishop Oswaldo Escobar of Chalatenango, along with three well-known Jesuits and representatives from the Lutheran, Anglican and Baptist churches.

A day later, however, San Salvador Archbishop José Escobar Alas, in a news conference, said the accords have produced little fruit. He seemed to echo the president's arguments that there's been no advancement in terms of peace, education or health reform.

Those with different points of view say Bukele poses a greater threat to the nation and its fragile democracy than any unfulfilled ideals.

In the interview with La Prensa Gráfica, Lindo-Fuentes said that while he did not know what was behind the narrative of detracting from the accords, a Feb. 9, 2020, event orchestrated by Bukele showed "a flagrant violation" of the spirit of the documents.

That's the day Bukele entered the halls of the country's equivalent to the U.S. Congress -- the general assembly -- flanked by soldiers armed with machine guns as he tried to pressure legislators to approve a $109 million package for security.

The use of the military in an attempt to coerce lawmakers, an action condemned internationally, sought to "place the army as a political actor in an action that sought to take away independence from the legislative power," Lindo-Fuentes said.

Some worry about what Bukele's attacks signal for the future of El Salvador, particularly if his party succeeds in gaining a majority of seats in upcoming Feb. 28 elections for the Legislative Assembly.

Such a win "could further enable Bukele's worst instincts, boding ill for El Salvador's democracy," wrote Robert Looney, a distinguished professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in a Jan. 6 article for World Politics Review.

On Jan. 14, the country's bishops gathered in San Salvador at the cathedral where St. Romero is buried and participated in a Mass to mark the World Day of Peace that the Vatican observes Jan. 1.

"Our celebration almost coincides with the 29th anniversary of the Peace Accords that restored hope and trust to Salvadorans," said Archbishop Santo Rocco Gangemi, the apostolic nuncio to El Salvador, speaking favorably of the documents.

He said that "like all human endeavors, they are subject to be improved upon with practice, but they mark a milestone and a starting point."

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