Salvadoran Civil War 1980-1992

[ 1980 - 1992 ]

The early reaction of the Salvadoran radical left to the progression of reformist junta governments was characteristically fractious. The PCES expressed initial support for the first junta. Other groups, such as the ERP, condemned such impulses as collaborationist and renewed their call for an insurrection. Although some dialogue apparently took place between Colonel Majano and his supporters and some members of the radical left, the erosion of Majano's position within the military and the inability of the junta governments to stem the tide of right-wing violence, not to mention a certain suspicion among the Majanists themselves of the leftists' ultimate goals, worked against any effort to incorporate them into the governmental structure. Some observers have noted this failure to bring the left into the political process as a major shortcoming of the reformist juntas. It appears, however, that the political will to do so was lacking on both sides. This was particularly true of the Marxist guerrilla groups that had expanded their membership and their aspirations since their establishment as urban terrorist cells in the mid-1970s.

Foreign influences on these Salvadoran guerrilla groups served in large part to convince their leadership of the need to sublimate old ideological quarrels in favor of a coordinated and cooperative effort to arouse the Salvadoran masses. The example of the Nicaraguan revolution served as both an inspiration and a loose blueprint for the Salvadorans. Nicaragua demonstrated the importance of incorporating as many sectors of society as possible into a revolutionary movement while still ensuring the predominance of a Marxist-Leninist "vanguard" group within the coalition. ...Clearly, several ideologically diverse (Maoist, pro-Soviet, and pro-Cuban) guerrilla groups could not fulfill simultaneously the role of revolutionary vanguard. Salvadorans recognized a need for unity that was not achieved until Cuba's Fidel Castro took a direct hand in the matter. The negotiating process began in Havana in December 1979, some two months after the reformist coup in El Salvador, and was concluded by May 1980, when the major guerrilla groups announced their unity under the banner of the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (Direccion Revolucionario Unificada-- DRU). Despite some continued infighting, the DRU succeeded in coordinating the groups' efforts to organize and equip their forces.

While the military strategy of the left was proceeding along one path, some opposition parties and the mass organizations were following a similar and eventually convergent course. On April 1, 1980, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Revolucionario--FDR) was established by the CRM, the umbrella group of the mass organizations. It brought together all five of the mass organizations associated with the DRU guerrilla groups as well as Ungo's MNR, Zamora's MPSC, another party known as the Popular Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberacion Popular-- MLP), forty-nine labor unions, and several student groups. FDR political leaders such as Ungo and Zamora began to travel abroad, where they found political and moral support, particularly in Mexico and among the social democratic parties of Western Europe. Meanwhile, the mass organizations began a campaign of general strikes in an effort to pave the way for a full or partial leftist assumption of power, either through insurrection or through negotiations.

In November 1980, the FDR was struck a traumatic blow when one of its leaders, Enrique Alvarez, was killed along with five other members of the front by a right-wing death squad. This incident underscored the danger of the FDR's strategy of open organization and opposition and contributed to its formal unification with the DRU. Although the leadership of the mass organizations had long been cooperating with the guerrilla groups, the politicians of the MNR and MPSC had sought to steer a slightly more independent path. After the Alvarez murder, however, they felt compelled to make common cause with the DRU; they took this action not only for their own protection but also because they believed that the prevailing level of violence in the country legitimized a violent response. By 1981 the FDR had been united formally with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional--FMLN), the successor organization to the DRU. The first public announcement of the FMLN-FDR was made in Mexico City in January 1981, some four days after the FMLN guerrollas initiated an operation that they dubbed, prematurely and inaccurately, the "final offensive."

The guerrilla offensive began on January 10, 1981. From the perspective of the FMLN, its timing proved to be premature in a number of respects. The guerrillas' logistics network was not prepared to support an operation on an almost countrywide level; the rebels generally were not well armed and clearly were not well trained. The Salvadoran armed forces, although initially taken by surprise, were sufficiently cohesive to rally and beat back the guerrilla attacks. The FMLN hoped to establish operational control over Morazan Department and to declare it a "liberated territory." This major objective never was achieved. On a basic level, the final offensive demonstrated the limited extent of the guerrillas' support among the Salvadoran population. The anticipated countrywide insurrection on which the FMLN had staked so much of its hopes for victory never materialized...

Another high-impact incident was the murder of four churchwomen from the United States in December 1980. The murders themselves drew the ire of the United States government and public and prompted the administration of Jimmy Carter to suspend a program of limited military aid it had granted to the junta government (United States military aid had been rejected by the Romero government in 1977 when the Carter administration sought to link disbursement to human rights compliance). The subsequent investigation frustrated United States officials, angered the American public, and enhanced the suspicion that high-ranking officers in the security forces were orchestrating a cover-up of the affair.


While wiping out rebels, government forces recently massacred some 750 men, women, and children in El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in December 1981. Leftist guerrilla rebels, supported by Cuba and Nicaragua, operated mainly in the countryside, raiding towns, police stations, and military posts to obtain arms and gaining control of about a third of the country. Right-wing death squads, formed to eliminate suspected leftists, were blamed for killing thousands of civilians, including Jesuit priests, nuns, labor organizers, peasant leaders, alleged communists, and democratic reformers. A succession of US-supported centrist and rightist governments failed to defeat the rebels of the marxist-led FMLN, which rejected (1987) both the Central American peace plan and a unilateral cease-fire by the government. By early 1989, the FMLN guerrillas were militarily deadlocked with the Salvadoran armed forces and had gained almost no political power. During elections in March 1989, the FMLN mounted a bold offensive, attacking about 20 towns; the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) won control under Alfredo Cristiani (1947-). But charges of widespread corruption continued; defiant FMLN rebels launched another bold offensive in San Salvador in November 1989. President Cristiani then engaged in UN-mediated negotiations for 21 months until a peace accord was reached on January 16, 1992, followed by a permanent cease-fire on February 1. Afterward, FMLN forces gradually disbanded, government forces were cut in half, and political and economic reforms were instituted. The war had cost about 80,000 lives, uprooted about 1 million people, and destroyed the country's productive infrastructure.

Weapon Name Weapon Class Weapon Class Type
M67 recoilless rifle Manportable Rifles
Dragunov sniper rifle Manportable Rifles
M60 machine gun Manportable Machine Guns

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts