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El Salvador: Before the War

Pipil ceramic
Pipal artwork
Long before the Spanish conquest of the early 16th century, the territory that is now El Salvador was home to various indigenous peoples. Some of the most ancient tribes - including the Pocomam, Chortí and Lenca - were related to the Maya. Others resembled the Aztecs of Mexico, the most predominant being the Pipil, a subgroup of the Nahua who migrated to Central America around 3000 B.C.

Beginning around the 11th century, the Pipil established a flourishing civilization in the area they called Cuscatlán, "land of the jewel." They developed vast agricultural lands and several urban centers, and they staunchly defended their culture. When Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernan Cortes, arrived in 1524 to explore the land, he met strong resistance from the Pipil and was forced back into Guatemala. Two Spanish expeditions followed, and the Pipil finally succumbed to the dominating force of the conquerors.

Soon realizing that the colony they named El Salvador (the savior) did not promise much in terms of gold and silver, the Spanish set about developing El Salvador's sole exploitable resource: land. The Europeans' appropriation of the land that sustained the indigenous people resulted in the rapid decline of the Pipil civilization. Intermarriages between whites and Indians further changed the make up of the indigenous races.

coffee picker
Young woman picking coffee beans
© Steve Cagan

Cash Crops
The Spanish instituted the widespread cultivation of a single lucrative export commodity, beginning with cacao in the latter half of the 16th century. In the 18th century, the cultivation of indigo (a plant used in natural dyes) reaped great profits and elevated the colonial capital of San Salvador in the eyes of the Spanish. When Napoleon conquered Spain in 1808, Salvadorans moved toward independence from the weakened Spanish Empire.

Coffee cultivation and exportation began to dominate the Salvadoran economy in the latter half of the 19th century, signaling the beginning of El Salvador's modern history. As coffee growers acquired land for large plantations, the indigenous people were displaced, creating larger gaps between the rich and the poor. This gave way to a legacy of the landed and the landless - an economy in which laborers could be hired and fired at will without consideration of working conditions or a livable wage.

With the drop in coffee prices during the 1930s depression, coffee growers laid off workers and reduced wages even further. Desperate to ensure their survival, the campesinos (farmers) began to organize under such leaders as Agustin Farabundo Marti. For the first time, opposition political parties emerged in El Salvador.

The Rise of the Left
When Marti led an insurrection of the rural poor in 1932, the army responded by killing 30,000 people, targeting those who wore traditional dress or spoke indigenous languages, in what became known as "la matanza." For the following 50 years, every president was a military officer, and the military dominated the country. A small land-owning elite controlled the economy and the mostly rural majority lived in poverty as agricultural laborers.

In the 1960s, on the heels of revolution in Cuba, the United States encouraged reform in El Salvador by creating the "Alliance for Progress." The Alliance supported the formation of opposition political parties and urged land reform - a reform resisted by both the socio-economic elite and the military rulers.

As opposition groups organized and grew stronger, so too did official repression on the part of the government. "Death squads" began assassinating "subversives" in an effort to curtail antigovernment activities and protests. Unarmed antigovernment demonstrators were fired upon by the military on two separate occasions. Flagrant ballot manipulation by the government continued, especially during presidential elections. By the early 1970s, several small guerilla groups had formed, believing change would only come through armed struggle. In the 1972 presidential elections, a center-left coalition reportedly won, until the government imposed a three-day news blackout and subsequently announced Colonel Molina the victor.

The Making of a Martyr
When the government stole the election of 1977 yet again, demonstrators gathered in the main plaza of San Salvador. They were soon surrounded by security forces who shot into the crowd. Shortly thereafter, a rural priest, Father Rutilio Grande, was assassinated. In response, Monsignor Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, called for an investigation, urged popular demonstrations and led a memorial mass attended by more than 100,000 people.

As information about the situation in El Salvador began to reach the international community, the United States government pressed the Salvadoran government to head off unrest. In 1980, after President Carter announced a $50 million aid package to support reforms - including $5 million in military aid - Archbishop Romero urged the U.S. to cease all military assistance to El Salvador. One month later, Archbishop Romero ended his Sunday sermon with this plea: "I beseech you, I beg you, order you in the name of God, stop the repression." Romero was assassinated the following day. Six months later, a full-scale civil war had begun.

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