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Justice & The Generals
El Salvador
Around the World
About the Film
Photo of a child on a swing
Education - Lesson Plans
Introduction Lesson Plans Further Practice National Standards

Lesson  #1
  Printable Format


El Salvador's political and social history provides important background on the events described in Justice and the Generals. An imbalance between the wealthy and the poor led to years of civil unrest, exacerbated by violent clashes between a government run by the military and those opposed to it. These circumstances eventually led to the Ford v. Garcia trial, centered on an isolated incident, but representative of the nation's primary conflicts.


Students will:
  • analyze El Salvador's history and the conditions that contributed to its civil war

  • identify the factors that led to the churchwomen's murder

  • make determinations about the future of El Salvador's political and social climate with respect to human rights
Estimated Time

5-6 classroom periods


Recommended Film Segments

Minutes 01 to 43 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )
Minutes 46 to 59 : ( Watch it now for T1 or 56k )

Teaching Procedure

1) Ask students to identify El Salvador on a map of the world or Central America and then share what they know about the country. (Students might note topics that include the nation's history, current events, political and economic conditions, and human rights. Or, offer these and related topics as prompts for student discussion.) Record student responses on chart paper. Acknowledge particular student-identified themes related to the film's the story line, incorporating them into an overview of El Salvador's history and the Ford v. Garcia trial.

2) Provide some background on the premise for Justice and the Generals. Have students view the recommended film segments. After viewing, pose the following discussion questions (or distribute them as a worksheet):
  • What aspects of El Salvador's history contributed to the nation's civil unrest and war? Given the circumstances, could a civil war have been avoided? Explain why or why not.

  • What was the role of the four U.S. churchmen in El Salvador? Why might El Salvadoran leaders have considered this type of clergy activity to be "subversive?" What other roles did clergy undertake? In your opinion, what were the pro and con aspects of this service?

  • What are the events involved in the murder of the U.S. churchwomen?

  • What was the role of the U.S. in the nation's civil war, the treatment of El Salvadoran military leaders, and the murder investigation? Justify or negate the actions of the United States.

  • What factors hindered the churchwomen's families' pursuit of information? What other challenges did they encounter?

  • What was the primary argument the defense would use during the trial?
3) Divide students into small groups and ask them to further research El Salvador's history and the Ford v. Garcia trial. Distribute the handouts The Case of Four American Churchwomen and Historical Overview: El Salvador and point students to relevant Web sites and print resources. Explain to students that as they research, they should identify and record the primary factors that led to the nation's struggles and the murder, and also those that influenced the trial. Instruct students to list these themes/topics, which might include class division, poverty, unequal land distribution, absence of a democratic government, a government led by the military, U.S. foreign policy, death squads, and opposition groups. For each selected theme, students should have qualifying information. For example, if they choose class division, they should elaborate on what this entailed (i.e., wealthy landowners claiming indigenous people's lands).

4) Post at least 15 sheets of chart paper around the classroom. Invite each group to share its themes. Chart each individual theme on separate chart paper sheets. Make sure to list all the themes, avoiding duplication. Invite the groups to write their qualifying information under each recorded theme (if applicable) on the chart paper.

5) Have each group evaluate the class' cumulative information and for each theme, note how situations could have been altered or prevented in order to avoid the consequences-multiple deaths, poverty, the churchwomen's murder, etc. Instruct the groups to construct strategic and practical recommendations, considering relevant legal, international, political, and economic factors. For example, they can contemplate how leadership roles might have been monitored or redefined; what international involvement could have been stepped up or eliminated; and what could have prevented the deaths not only of the churchwomen, but those of thousands of El Salvadorans.

6) In the role of political analysts, have each group present its perspectives, highlighting its selected factors and approach to change. Groups can use charts, graphs, and other visuals to demonstrate their points of view. Engage the class in an informal debate on the proposed strategies.

7) Explain that in 1992, the Salvadoran government and armed opposition groups (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front-FLMN) signed a peace treaty, leading to the nation's first democratic government. Ask students to speculate how the country has fared since this agreement, given the country's history and struggles. Do they believe the inequities have subsided, that the government has eased its force, or that human rights abuses have decreased? Remaining in their small groups, have students research the nation's current status to determine what changes have occurred and what still needs to be addressed. Maintaining their roles as political analysts, have each group highlight what it considers to be persistent problems and what needs to be done on a global level to ensure El Salvador's democratic practices and protection of human rights.

Assessment Recommendations

Assessment should be informal and focus on student contributions to group and class discussions, participation in group projects and presentations, interaction with group partners, and capacity and willingness to negotiate controversial and complex subject matter. Keep in the mind the challenging topic, allowing students to work at their knowledge and skill levels. Assessment may be rubric-based or students can use journals to document their understanding of the materials and topic and assess their involvement in projects and discussions.

Extended Activity

  • Other countries, such as Haiti, Guatemala, Angola, Argentina, Liberia, and Colombia, have experienced political and social unrest, civil war, and violence. While specific circumstances and events have differed in each nation, factors such as human rights abuses and military force were-or still are-common elements of their respective struggles. In small groups, students can conduct a comparative study of selected nations, noting their conflicts' similarities and differences. Invite them to write news analyses as international journalists, discussing possible future global solutions to these types conflicts

  • Students can take on roles of actual or fictitious individuals (citizens, members of opposition groups, American government officials, military leaders, guardsmen, etc.) living through El Salvador's civil war. In this capacity, they create and present dramatic monologues about their experiences.
Related Web Sites

Enemies of War

Online Newshour: Truth and Democracy

Amnesty International

Global Issues

Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights

New Day Films: Central America: Roots of Conflict

Country Reports: History of El Salvador

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