El Salvador’s Durable Disorder: Low Intensity Postwar Democracy

Memorial at El Mozote. Photo: Efrojas.

During the first FMLN government in El Salvador (2009-2014) the military invited the appointed governor of the Department of Morazán to participate in a memorial for a former colonel, at the site dedicated to his death. At first sight this may not warrant special attention, as it is not unusual for government officials to honor the fallen heroes of their country,  but in this case it pushed the bounds of normalcy. The FMLN, the political party that emerged in postwar El Salvador after the demobilization of the guerilla armed forces, had just been elected for the first time into power and the appointed governor of Morazán was no other than Miguel Ventura, a former left leaning priest activist, proponent of liberation theology and active supporter of the guerilla. During the war he was captured and tortured by military forces, because of his activism in organizing peasants to demand social justice. The memorial that he was invited to on the other hand, was held for Col. Domingo Monterossa, a former trainee of the school of the Americas (Gill 2004). As head of the Atlacatl special forces he was directly responsible for several civilian massacres, including the most infamous one at el El Mozote, where on Dec. 11th, 1981 his soldiers killed over 1000 civilians, including elderly and infants as part of scorched earth tactic against the guerilla forces (Danner 1993; Binford, 2016; Gould 2006). Monterossa died in 1984 when the guerilla force planted a bomb in a radio transmitter in the town center of Joateca (Dept. Morazán). Having profiled Monterossa, who had an addicted to war trophies, the rebels left the transmitter, in what looked like a skirmish, behind for him to pick it up. He did, and as his helicopter departed for the military quarters in San Miguel the bomb exploded taking his life and that of other high ranking military officers (Henriquez Consalvi, 2012). This incident became memorialized, and it is this very memorial that the governor of Morazán, Miguel Ventura had been invited to.

Despite ample proof against Monterossa, and the forced dismantling of the Atlacatl special forces, as part of the peace accords, the military headquarters in San Miguel (the biggest city in Eastern El Salvador) still carries his name and the aviation museum in San Salvador dedicates an entire room to him. Yet nowhere is a mentioning of the massacres to be found. Instead, following his death, the mayor of Joateca (Dept. Morazan) had a memorial dedicated to him, with high ranking military, visiting the memorial to pay tribute to this “fallen war hero.”

Obviously, commemorating Monterossa as a war hero, cannot be simply regarded as an insensitive act for the families of the people killed in places like el Mozote. Instead, as made clear by the invitation extended to Miguel Ventura -himself a former torture victim of the military- the annual commemorations constitute conscious acts of demonstrating the military’s the power, in the face of an FMLN government. They go to show the contemporary power of the military in El Salvador, and how little the self-awareness of the military, its attitude toward the civil populations, and its role in the civil war have changed. As such, it represents a conscious effort of rewriting the history of the civil war, attempting to influence present (and future) interpretations of the military, as well as creating a specific vision of the current political situation of El Salvador. Visiting Joateca in 2017 we were handed a “memory document,” a leaflet produced by the military (although not presented as such), identifying the former guerilla force as “terrorists,” “delinquents,” referring to them as “savages.” The document even questions whether the guerilla, in fact, were behind the killing of Monterossa -after all, how could “savages” outsmart the best trained Salvadorian soldier, “the true sacrifice of national heroe”?

Joateca is only a few kilometers away from el Mozote, yet their stories are quite distinct. Inhabitants of el Mozote stayed largely neutral during the conflict; they were sympathetic to the guerilla yet very few joined their ranks. By and large they didn’t join nor organized against the guerilla. Joateca, on the other hand, had an active paramilitary force. In fact, during our visit we met a man whose entire family was killed during the war by a locally acting paramilitary group, some of whom still alive and in town. In 2000, he exhumed his family members from their roadside grave to give them a proper burial, yet for fear of reprisal he refuses to identify or address the killers.

These stories are not unique in El Salvador, and can even be found in the countries capital. The right-wing ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista; “National Republican Alliance”) party, founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubisson, the mastermind behind the assassination of archbishop Oscar Romero and the founder of death squads in El Salvador, won the general elections immediately after the war. It was not until 2009 that the FMLN won for the first time the residency of El Salvador. However, since then ARENA has re-taken several important municipal governments during the past several years. It’s hymn still expresses violence against communists “El Salvador will be the grave where the reds will die, saving that way America” and its political campaigns are always started in Izalco, where in 1932 a massacre took place, which in the eyes of Arenistas stopped the first communist movement[1]. Still, it might come as a surprise that in a country where many people regard Oscar Romero as a saint (and the Vatican moving slowly in that direction, too), a small park is named after Roberto D’Aubisson, and that, in 2014 San Salvador’s ARENA mayor Norman Quijano decided (during the FMLN presidency) to rename San Antonio Abad, a major throughway of the city, into “Mayor Roberto D’Aubisson,” describing him as having “more than sufficient merits to deserve this kind of homage.” This move of rewriting history was publicly rejected, including by El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman, David Morales, who contended that this may violate recommendations made by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. However, while street signs were never changed, GoogleMaps has the street as Roberto D’Aubisson.

All this goes to show that memory in El Salvador is as much about the present than the past. And the current messages are clear. First, as of now no coherent agreed upon history of the civil war has emerged and as such no unified nation has arisen after the peace accords of 1992. Second, even after over 12 years of left leaning governments, right-wing politics are still common in El Salvador, and the left has been unable to muster up massive popular support to rewrite important memory sites or force important changes -such as posthumously prosecuting Monterossa as a war criminal.

Having been dedicated to (left leaning) neoliberal policies ever since the end of the war, the FMLN government has increasingly distanced itself from their social base through coopting some of its leaders and delegitimizing major movements. Leaving the economic policies untouched in the peace accord, El Salvador’s left worked on compensating some of the inequalities left by the economic system with pension programs and giving land to former combatants. However, neither the economic powers nor the role of the military have been significantly altered. Neoliberal policies put in place during the war were largely maintained by the postwar governments, that bet on remittances and the export of cheap labor (call centers and maquillas, cheap manufacturing plants, emigration) as stimulating a healthy growth of the country.

Similarly, while decreased in size, the military has never been purged after the war, nor has its role decreased in the postwar era. To the contrary, as seen above, military leaders are aware of their power and make no secret of it either. With the different waves of tough on crime policies [mano dura (2003) and super mano dura (2004)] the military plays an increasing role in policing and administrating of the country. Not only is the head of police a high-ranking military, but the military accompanies the police on their rounds through El Salvador. While officially not allowed to detain or search people, they still very often do, implicating the police after the fact (if at all). Naturally, people are still scared of the military and few complaints emerge. Similarly, the military is in charge of overseeing the registration of privately owned guns in El Salvador. Clearly, then the Salvadorian army is more than a military force for the defense of the country against outside enemies.

However, in El Salvador violence has also become a big industry. For 2015 and 2016, The Economist featured El Salvador as the most violent country (not at war), with its capital, San Salvador, holding in both years the dubious title of “most murderous city” (March 31, 2017). Of course, homicides are a problematic currency for measuring violence. Not only does it leave out other crimes that affect people’s lives, but murder rates usually also do not include the state-sanctioned police and military killings. This is especially problematic given the increasing evidence of security forces turning the war on gangs into an extrajudicial siege. With about 16,000 active military (globalfirepower.com), 16,000 police officers (Insightcrime, March, 9th, 2017), and over 30,000 official security guards -contracted by approximately 350 official security firms- there is about one armed security person for every 100 inhabitants of the country. Obviously, the rate is much higher in the capital. In addition, there is an undisclosed number of individuals or businesses with private guards -with one family in San Salvador having reportedly over 500 hired guards (personal information anonymous, 2017).

It is not surprising then, that even with a left leaning government in power prosecution of minors for gang related crimes has increased by 50% in 2015. The right-wing ARENA party even proposed reforms to the Juvenile Penal Law, seeking to try minors linked to gang activity as adult terrorists (Stevens, 2015). Police records show that between January 2015 and August of 2016 police and military killed 693 gang members, injuring 255 in violent confrontations, with 24 killed soldiers and police officers. The imbalances between killed and injured gang members, as well as between killed gang members and law officers indicate an excessive use of force by the latter (Valencia, 2016; Lakhani, 2017) with evidence of extrajudicial killings mentioned by the human rights ombudsman David Morales (Hernández, 2016). News reports of these incidences have not led to investigations but to threads against reporters and news outlets.

These examples fit the wider Latin American context, where recent years have seen a receding of the left and an upsurge or right wing neoliberal politics even under left wing governments. The most iconic changes have probably occurred in Brazil and Argentina, where with Temer and Macri two free market conservatives gained control of the government, pushing for closer alliances with Mexico and ultimately the US. Less dramatic yet important changes can be seen in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, where initially anti-neoliberal, left wing governments show clear signs of distancing themselves from their popular base, often introducing neoliberal policies to overcome their inability to effectively deal with neoliberalism (Sankey 2016). Lacking clear programmatic visions, cohesive and sustainable long term programs, the activation of a large social base became increasingly difficult (if not impossible). Anti-neoliberal rhetoric was initially paired with expanding public services, some reversals of privatization, and an intended increase in the productive sector. No doubt these measures often had positive effects for the poor and working people, who often experienced increased access to education, basic goods and services, as well as housing.

However, reforms rarely ever interrupted existing national and international power structures, leading to their own contradictions. To finance development programs an increase dependency on extraction of cheap labor (as in El Salvador) or natural resources was put into place, yet what was often considered a “stage of development” never opened the way to more advanced economies or a restructuring of society. Leaving previous inequalities in place, allowed for short term solutions at best, while the structural causes of poverty remained intact. This in turn led to increasing violence -including gang activities- pushing left leaning governments into more militaristic efforts to control the poor and disenfranchised.

To defend against activists and an unhappy base, clientlelism often rewarded “loyal” activists at the cost of open dialogue with more critical voices and the broader basis. Incorporating leaders of popular movements into the government, depoliticized and delegitimized these movement, while silencing its social base. In El Salvador, this strategy cost the governing FMLN party several important municipal governments, when the government removed mayors to include them into higher offices. Through these actions, the poor and the working class were deprived of being a social force and became once more relegated to being passive beneficiaries of elite politics. Economic crises made this evident in specifically cruel ways, installing pro market reforms as well as cutting social programs exposed these governments of what they were -left leaning neoliberals. Resulting tensions with the social base made a growing disenchantment evident, opening the doors for the right to regain control of the political landscape once again (Sankey 2016).

To be clear, El Salvador never formed part of this “pink tide,” and no restructuring of the society occurred following the civil war. In fact, by and large the FMLN governments followed the economic and security policies laid out by previous ARENA presidents. This might not be surprising, given the fact that most of the guerilla movement in El Salvador had its origin in Christian base groups rather than socialist / communist circles. Despite constant political formation the guerilla didn’t grow a strong and independent ideological position; consequently, with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 many of the leaders no longer saw a feasible alternative to social democracy and capitalism. In fact, it was this perceived lack of ideological and political alternatives as well as the worries of decreasing international support that led some guerilla commanders to start thinking about ending the war already in 1989. This tendency was further increased in 1990 with the electoral loss of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the strongest international supporter of the Salvadorian guerilla force.

The lack of an alternative political project to neoliberalism was visible during the peace negotiations. While some land, pensions, or positions were given to former soldiers of both sides, the overall distribution of wealth remained largely unaffected and the same families that held most of the wealth before the war do so today. With the prewar economic and military powers largely intact, little change could be expected from the new democratic El Salvador. Said differently, the prewar economic powers were fairly intact after the war, while the left struggled to find its new place in the emerging democracy. Its role, however, was clearly inscribed into the proceedings of the peace negotiation: While the enemy force (from the guerilla perspective) remained largely unaffected (albeit severely downsized), the guerilla forces were completely disarmed as part of the peace process. Furthermore, in 1993 a general amnesty was put in place to supposedly avoid further divisions of the country. However, the reality was quite different: With an estimated 95% of war crimes committed by the military and right wing paramilitary groups (UN truth commission 1993), the law, in essence, protected high ranking military, who remained in office.

In general, these postwar developments left many former guerillas feeling betrayed by their former leadership not only for ending the war, but for not going through with their ideas either during the peace negotiations or once in power. Over 25 years after the peace accord we heard many former combatants complain, suspecting the FMLN politicians and their former commanders of having created for themselves nice nest eggs during the peace process, stealing from the movement. We take these claims not as evidence of stealing or other wrongdoings committed by the leadership, but rather as a way of expressing a feeling of ideological betrayal that many of the poorer sectors of former guerillas experience. Some former commanders, in contrast, explained these differences as based in ideology: “there are those that still think socialism is possible.”

All this goes to show that in El Salvador the right-wing parties never lost their voice or power. In fact, after the supreme court put an end to the above-mentioned amnesty laws in 2016, the first cases brought forward all target the former guerilla leadership for kidnapping. These cases are clearly politically motivated. Accusing the entire commanding structure of the FMLN (including the current president) the cases are built to threaten and discredit the left (whose banner carrier are all former commanders of the guerilla forces) and to “illustrate” that both sides committed crimes during the war. At the same time, the left has not been able or willing to bring their own charges to the courts. We speculate that this in part due to fear (see the above-mentioned example of paramilitaries in Joateca), as well as a lack of popular engagement with the current FMLN government.

Clearly, despite the 8+ years of FMLN governments, the El Salvador’s right has not ceased and their messages can be heard in very different places and on very different topics. Forcing the left government toward a tough on gang crime policy, is as much part of this strategy, as are the seemingly unrelated pro-life, and anti LGBT campaigns. Renaming streets, celebrating former military or bringing cases against the FMLN leadership in the post amnesty times represent efforts to shift the political discourse in El Salvador once more to the right of the spectrum, regardless of the party in power. These efforts are fruitful, particularly, because they exploit the lack of a clear ideological project of the left. Activating fear not only discredits the FMLN governments, forcing them to follow political lines that some years ago few would have thought possible. To be clear, the point of politics is to make policies. It is much less about party affiliations. The right-wing discourse has important economic support, yet while the economic sector very likely would favor a right-wing politician, it is equally happy with a business friendly left wing populist, who in fact might have an easier time selling their policies.

Norbert Ross, Vanderbilt University.

Antonia Ross Sanchez, Centre College.


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[1] Chichicaste Jan. 22; 2009 chichicaste.blogcindario.com. During the massacre of 1932 the military government killed between 10,000 and 30,000 peasants who organized against oppressive labor conditions in the coffee plantations.