Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Enemies of War

Broadcast Schedule

Get the Video




El Salvador: Civil War

Archbishop Romero
Slain Archbishop Oscar Romero
Not long after the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, peaceful rallies turned violent as police opened fire on the crowds. News footage of unarmed demonstrators being gunned down on the steps of the National Cathedral turned the eyes of the world to El Salvador, a tiny country in conflict.

The desire to prevent the kind of leftist takeover seen in Cuba and Nicaragua motivated the United States to get involved. Human rights - a cornerstone of President Carter's foreign policy - also propelled the U.S. to action. Not only the general level of violence, but also the murders of American citizens affected U.S. relations with El Salvador. In December 1980, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered. The U.S. responded by cutting off aid to El Salvador, but only very briefly, pending an investigation. Then, in 1981, two American land reform advisers were gunned down in the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador. The U.S. Congress subsequently decided to disburse aid only as improvements in the Salvadoran human rights situation became evident.

Photo © Mike Oso
Guerillas Unite
Simultaneously, the opposition strategy of the Salvadoran left was coalescing. In 1981, leftist parties organized with guerrilla groups to coordinate their efforts against the government, uniting to form the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion or FMLN). Their counter offensive began in January 1981. Though the FMLN offensive failed on several fronts, they retained certain military strongholds and helped to focus international attention on El Salvador. In August 1981, France and Mexico formally recognized the FMLN as a "representative political force" and called for a negotiated settlement between the warring factions.

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States changed American policy in El Salvador dramatically. The new U.S. administration worried about Communist expansion in Central America and viewed the El Salvador military government as a potential barrier against Communism. The Reagan administration substantially increased both military and economic aid to El Salvador.

Military helicopter

The civil war raged on in El Salvador, fueled by U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military. The government harshly repressed dissent, and at least 70,000 people lost their lives in killings and bombing raids waged against civilians throughout the countryside. The country's infrastructure had crumbled, and the nation appeared to be no closer to its goals of peace, prosperity and social justice than when the process began. Then, in 1989, the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America shocked the international community into action.

Truth Revealed
With continuing reports of atrocities and murders in El Salvador, the U.S. Congress no longer accepted the State Department's assurance that things were getting better. Speaker of the House Tom Foley created a special task force to monitor El Salvador's investigation of the murders. Congressman Joe Moakley of Massachusetts was selected to head up the investigation. During his research and visits to El Salvador, Congressman Moakley encountered a massive cover-up, deep problems with the Salvadoran armed forces, conspiracy and lies, which led him to challenge U.S. policy. He discovered that from a very high level, the armed forces of El Salvador had been responsible for the murders of the Jesuits. His investigation also led to the conclusion that certain levels of the U.S. government had known about the situation long before the task force was created.

Moakley's report revealed the cruel injustice of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government, setting in motion an international process to end the war. Both sides of the conflict in El Salvador approached the United Nations for help in negotiating a settlement. The United Nations sponsored talks, which culminated in the January 1992 signing of the Peace Accords, ending 12 years of civil war.

In examining the staggering breadth of the violence that occurred in El Salvador, the Commission was moved by the senselessness of the killings, the brutality with which they were committed, the terror that they created in the people, in other words the madness, or locura, of the war.  Reinaldo Figueredo, UN Truth Commission

FMLN supporters after peace declaration
FMLN post-election celebration
© Jeremy Bigwood

The Peace Accords dictated that the FMLN surrender their weapons to U.N. Forces, and that 102 Salvadoran officers be dismissed. Considered to be the most successful U.N.-brokered agreement in the world today, the majority of the Accords have been followed.

Story | People | El Salvador | Timeline | Perspectives | Film | Talkback | Resources | ITVS

home Resources The Film Talkback Perspectives Timeline post 1990 pre 1980 El Salvador People Story