Stalled progress 25 years after El Salvador's peace accords

Today is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords which brought an end to El Salvador’s twelve year long civil war.    The warring parties became political parties.  The armed conflict was brought to an end, and a series of political reforms was put in place.    The anniversary is being celebrated with official events today and throughout the year.

“Peace is not the absence of war” – this has been the tag-line in a set of announcements on the radio station of the University of Central America in San Salvador.   Many Salvadorans do not believe that the Peace Accords brought peace, even though they did end the war.    Certainly El Salvador’s position as the country with the highest “peace time” homicide rate, suggests that there is much yet to be achieved.  

Still, El Salvador has been transformed for the better in several ways following the end of the civil war.

There has been a peaceful transfer of power to a leftist government.   The 2009 election of Mauricio Funes on the ticket of the FMLN represented the first time in El Salvador’s history that the country had something other than a right wing or military government.    It was followed by the election in 2014 of president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla military commander.    Democracy has started to take hold in El Salvador.

There is generally freedom of expression and freedom to organize.   Prior to the 1992 Peace Accords, you could be killed for advocating for labor’s rights to organize or for denouncing government abuses.    Today such events have largely (although perhaps not entirely) ceased.   Physical violence against political opponents is rare.

Extreme poverty has been reduced and levels of education for boys and girls have increased.   There has been expanded access to potable water and electricity, and roads have been improved throughout the country.

Elections are generally fair and transparent.   While elections in the 1990s immediately after the conclusion of the war were problem-filled, more recent elections get high marks for transparency and absence of fraud.  

Yet there are many ways in which the hopes of Salvadorans at the time of the Peace Accords have never been fulfilled.

Much of the structural injustice which gave rise to the civil war remains.   El Salvador remains a country with tremendous social and economic inequality.   Shopping malls with luxury goods exist across the street from marginalized communities lacking even basic services.    While extreme poverty has been reduced, the daily challenges to put food on the table remain for most Salvadoran families.  

Justice for the victims of war time atrocities has never been achieved.    The 75 thousand civilian victims of the war have never received justice.    Far from being just “collateral damage,” civilians were often targeted in massacres by the armed forces.   Workers for a just El Salvador, like Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, the US church women, and the six Jesuit priests, were assassinated by death squads and the military.   Yet the amnesty law, in force from 1993 until its nullification in 2016, has prevented any judicial process which could deal with these crimes against humanity.    Impunity reigns.

The country has returned to a war footing, and thousands of civilians are again dying on an annual basis.   One of the initial achievements of the 1992 Peace Accords was the return of the armed forces to their barracks and their removal from internal affairs.   Yet for more than a decade, presidents in El Salvador have been calling on the armed forces to assist in the battle against gangs in the country. This use of the army has dramatically increased in recent years, such that the sight of heavily armed, and often masked, soldiers travelling the streets and highways of the country is a regular sight. Armed confrontations between the gangs and the army are common.

Human rights are again imperiled by the clamor for “security.”    Abuses by the security forces during the 1970s and 1980s were always justified as necessary to provide security and protect private property.   Today, reports are increasing that the police and military have engaged in extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of gang members or youth who just might be gang members. Only the traditional defenders of human rights are raising concerns over these practices.

The progress made after the end of the civil war has stalled and is threatened with reversal.    Some in El Salvador are calling for a new generation of peace accords in an attempt to reduce the political and social polarization which makes solving the country’s problems so difficult.   Where such vision and leadership will come from is yet to be seen.