The El Salvadoran Civil War
(Created by Maureen Kane, History 135, December 2002)

Course Home page


Was the United States justified in providing aid to the El Salvadoran military between 1980 and 1991?


El Salvador is a small, Central American country bordered by Honduras, Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean.  In recent years, it has been plagued by violence and poverty due to over-population and class struggles.  The conflict between the rich and the poor of the country has existed for more than a century.

In the late 1880s, coffee became a major cash crop for El Salvador.  It brought in 95% of the country's income.  Unfortunately, this wealth was confined within only 2% of the population.  Tensions between the classes grew , and in 1932 Augustin Farabundo Marti formed the Central American Socialist Party and led peasants and indigenous people against the government.  In response, the government supported military death squads which killed anyone who even looked Indian or may have been supporting the uprising.  The killing became known as La Matanza (the Massacre) and left more than 30,000 people dead.  Marti was eventually arrested and put to death.

The struggle continued through the 1970s.  Both sides continued to fight back and forth in an endless string of assignations and coups.  As the presence of guerillas existed, the military reinstated the death squads in order to combat the rebel forces.  In 1979, yet another military junta overthrew the government.  When the Junta made promises to improve living standards in the country but failed to do so, discontent with the government provoked the five main guerrilla groups country to unite in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

In 1980, El Salvador's civil war officially began.  The government-supported military targeted anyone they suspected of supporting social and economic reform.  Often the victims were unionists, clergy, independent farmers and university officials.  Over the ensuing twelve years, thousands of victims perished.  Some of the most notable were Archbishop Oscar Romero (shot to death 1980), four US church workers (raped and murdered 1980) and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter (shot to death at home 1989).  The military death squads wiped-out entire villages believed to be assisting the guerrilla efforts.  In 1981, the military killed over 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote .  The first reports of the attacks were denied by both El Salvador and the United States, but after the mass graves were uncovered, it was hard to deny what had taken place.

As the military defended their stand of killing any alleged rebels, the FMLN also worked to blow-up bridges, cut power lines, destroy coffee plantations and anything else to damage the economy that supported the government.  The FMLN also murdered and kidnapped government officials.  As time passed, guerrilla efforts became more advanced.  The FMLN progressed from using machetes and small pistols to using grenade launchers and other imported arms.  Their advances became more strategic and better planned.

The war persisted despite efforts from both sides to bring an end to the fighting.  The FMLN refused to participate in presidential elections, feeling that any election results would be adjusted in favor of right-wing parties.  The government refused to attended peace talks organized by the FMLN.

Today many people say that that the Salvadoran civil war never would have lasted so long without the support of the United States.  Like many countries engulfed in civil war, El Salvador exhausted its resources fighting itself.  The government was able to continue its efforts with help from the US, which had begun supporting the government with financial and military aid as soon as the war started.  Although the US temporarily suspended funds after the rape and murder of the church women in 1980, apparent growing socialist support in Nicaragua encouraged President Reagan to reactivate support for El Salvador.  Military and monetary aid supporting the Salvadoran government from the US continued until 1990.  During the height of the war, aid averaged 1.5 million dollars a day.  The US finally ceased support only in 1990 after the United Nations became involved, and Congressman Moakley confirmed reports of human rights violations.  Eventually, the military aid from the US became reconstruction aid.  Currently, the US sends about 30-35 million dollars annually to El Salvador.

Throughout the war, critics in the US fought to end US aid to El Salvador's government and argued that America was pouring money into an organization that committed incredible violations against human rights.  Some say that the US choose to remain ignorant to the violations in order to justify its actions.  In addition, many argued that America had no business in Central America as many regional countries, including El Salvador, were ripe for internal unrest.

On the contrast, others supported the government' decision to intervene.  They agreed with President Ronald Reagan when he said, “What we see in El Salvador is an attempt to destabilize the entire region and eventually move chaos and anarchy to the American boarder.”  Some felt paranoically that it was essential to protect America from any possible communist advance.  The FMLN rebels were seen as communist supporters because they accepted some weapons from Cuba and had the verbal support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  (Evidence is said to be found in certain "White Papers", but has not been confirmed.)  Acceptance of any Cuban support was viewed as acceptance of Soviet support.  At the time the Soviets were viewed as the greatest threat to the United States.

In the end about 75,000 people died as result of the civil war between 1980 and 1992.  Most of these people were simply civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Whether the US was right or wrong in supplying aid to the government of El Salvador is an issue still being debated today, as more evidence of war crimes emerges and more former government officials are prosecuted.  Did the US really know about the thousands of unarmed civilians being killed?  Was Fidel Castro actively supporting the rebels?  These are all viable questions to be answered before deciding if the US was right or wrong.



  • Civilians resign from the national government
  • Military and Christian Democratic Party form junta
  • March 24, Archbishop Oscar Romero assassinated.
  • FMLN formed
  • Death threats and 2 bombs received at the University of Central America
  • Ronald Reagan elected US president.
  • 6 FMLN leaders kidnapped and killed.
  • 4 US church workers abducted, raped and killed.


  • FMLN began military attacks.
  • Salvadoran military took over the University of Central America.
  • US President Carter sent 5 million dollars in aid to the Salvadoran military.
  • Massacre at El Mozote left more than 1,000 civilians dead.


  • President Reagan approved human rights’ standards in El Salvador.


  • President Reagan asked Congress to send more aid to El Salvador.


  • Napolean Duarte (Christian Democrat) became Salvadoran president.
  • 5 National Guard members convicted in the murders of the church women.
  • Peace talks began.
  • US Kissinger Commission called for more aid and examination of human rights issues.


  • FMLN kidnapped Duarte’s daughter and her friend.
  • Father Ellacuria and Monsignor Riveras Damas negotiated the girls’ release.


  • Peace talks fell apart.
  • ARENA party increased power.


  • Peace talks began again.
  • US increased aid to El Salvador.


  • Father Ellacuria met with FMLN leaders in Nicaragua.
  • Father Ellacuria and Father Montes (Catholic Leaders in El Salvador) met with future Salvadoran president, Alfredo Cristiani.
  • George Bush elected US president.


  • February, US Vice President Dan Quayle visited El Salvador and warned against further human rights violations.
  • Alfredo Cristiani became Salvadoran president.
  • April, the Salvadoran Attorney General Roberto Garcia Alvarado is murdered.
  • June, the Minister of Presidency, Jose Antonio Rodriguez Porth is murdered.
  • October, the daughter of Colonel Eduardo Casanova Vejar of the Salvadoran military is assassinated.
  • November, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Bernard Aronson, called for peace.
  • National Trade Union Federation is bombed.
  • President Cristiani asked Father Ellacuria (Catholic Leader of El Salvador) to help investigate the bombing.
  • FMLN attacked military centers in major cities.
  • Military bombed residential neighborhoods believed to support the FMLN.
  • US pulled-out non-essential military personnel.
  • November 15, secret military meeting held to plan assasination of Father Ellacuria.
  • November 16, 6 priests, their housekeeper and her daughter murdered at UCA.
  • December, Congressman Joe Moakley led the Speaker’s Salvadoran investigation.


  • Colonel Benavidas of the Salvadoran military is arrested for the November 16th murders.
  • February, Congressman Moakley visited El Salvador.
  • April, Congressman Moakley filed his official report.
  • UN became involved, and serious peace talks finally began.
  • US House of Representatives voted for a 50% decrease in aid to El Salvador.


  • FMLN killed 2 U.S. military advisors.
  • Congressman Moakley reported that the El Salvadoran military is controlling investigations.
  • Congress increased aid to El Salvador by 50%.
  • Colonel Benavides and Lieutenant Mendoza are convicted in November of the murders at UCA.
  • Moakley reported that high military officials planned the murders.
  • Military and FMLN signed a peace agreement in New York.


  • Peace Accords of El Salvador signed in Mexico.
  • Cease-fire began under UN supervision.
  • UN Truth Commission began investigation of human rights violations.
  • UN Secretary General found the El Salvadoran military not in compliance with the peace accords.
  • UN released findings from investigations.
  • Top military officials resign in El Salvador.
  • US finally ended military aid to El Salvador.


  • Elections held in El Salvador , ARENA party wins, FMLN comes in second 


  • 2nd elections, FMLN wins 45% of National Assembly and mayor of San Salvador.
  • US began to send reconstruction aid.


  •  Law suit against Generals Garcia and Casanova of the Salvadoran military for the 1980 church-workers’ murders begin 


  • US constructed a military base at the Salvadoran national airport.
  • Court found Generals Garcia and Casanova not totally responsible for murders.
  • Salvadoran Attorney General began an investigation against former president, Cristiani and other top officials.


  • Generals Garcia and Casanova found guilty for allowing their men to kidnap, torture, rape and murder thousands of unarmed civilians 


WWW Sites

There are many sites that contain information about the civil war in El Salvador, including:

www.usaid.gov/our_work/democracy_and_governance/regions/lac/elsalvador.html is a US government site containing updates and facts about El Salvador

www.pbs.org/itvs/enemiesofwar/elsalvador2.html is a good neutral website about the war that is easy to follow.

www.pbs.org/wnet/justice/elsalvador_debate.html c
ontains a debate between Reps. Hyde and Mikulski looking back at US aid given to El Salvador during the war .

www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Americas/El-Salvador-HISTORY.html is a brief History and description of political parties in El Salvador.

www.fmln.org.sv/ is a history and description of the FMLN.

www.thedagger.com/archive/elsal/ is a site following the life and death of American photographer John Hoagland

Other sites

Recommended Books

America and Guerilla Warfare.  Lexington, 2000.  Gives a background of guerilla warfare in general and describes the US experiences with guerilla warfare around the world, including in El Salvador.

Our Own Backyard: The US in Central America.  Chapel Hill, 1998.  Gives a description of US involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

A Decade of War: El Salvador Confronts the Future.  New York, 1991.  Describes the history of El Salvador, the civil war and the beginnings of post-war reconstruction.

El Salvador: Central America in the New Cold War.  New York, 1991.  Good book giving a brief history of El Salvador and then the war quoting many people and documents.

Related Events


This page is copyright © 2002-12, C.T. Evans and M. Kane.
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu