The smallest country in Central America -- and the only one with no coastline on the Caribbean Sea -- El Salvador is home to approximately six million people. Slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts, El Salvador borders Guatemala (to the west) and Honduras (north and east), with the Pacific Ocean lining the Salvadoran coast. Though geographically unobtrusive, El Salvador gained international attention during its 12-year civil war. The United States government tended to view El Salvador as a proxy battleground in the cold war against the Soviet Union; this sentiment found particular currency as a result of the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
During the civil war, the violence in El Salvador went far beyond traditional military conflicts. Challenged by guerrilla warfare, the military leadership often chose not to distinguish between the armed and unarmed, civilian and soldier. Consequently, the nation suffered 75,000 deaths and disappearances, most at the hands of government-backed forces. Among the thousands of dead were four American churchwomen who were abducted, raped, and murdered in late 1980.
Meanwhile, the government of the United States was supplying the Salvadoran regime with hundreds of millions of dollars per year. President Jimmy Carter briefly suspended funding following the deaths of the churchwomen, but he reinstated aid shortly before leaving office. Throughout the terms of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the U.S. Congress debated human rights and other issues, but never suspended aid to El Salvador.