Brief History of the Civil War & the Repopulation Movement

El Salvador was engulfed in civil war from 1980 until 1992. The effects on this tiny country of 6.7 million people (slightly more than the population of Massachusetts) were devastating. Seventy-five thousand people died and 1.5 million (more than 1 out of every 5) were displaced.

The roots of the civil war lie in El Salvador’s long history of rule by a small circle of elites and the poverty and disenfranchisement of most of its people. This divided society had erupted in violence many times in the past, notably in 1932 when the Salvadoran government responded to an armed rebellion of peasants led by university student Agustín Faribundo Martí by killing not only the rebels but an estimated 10,000 people. The army destroyed entire communities, killing anyone recognizable as a Pipil Indian, because people of Pipil heritage had participated in Faribundo Martí’s movement. This massacre, known as La Matanza, wiped out El Salvador’s last vestiges of indigenous Pipil culture, and created an intensified climate of fear and hatred.

In the 1960s and 1970s, pressure was mounting to somehow address the vast poverty of most Salvadorans and the rampant government corruption. Antigovernment strikes and demonstrations were met with increasingly violent repression. The presidential elections of 1972 and 1977 were rigged to keep reformists out of power. Archbishop Oscar Romero became a spokesperson for the rights of the poor, and in 1980 he was assassinated. His killing was planned by a group including Roberto D’Aubuisson, leader of the ARENA political party which represented Salvadoran elites. Several anti-government guerrilla groups converged to form the Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). By 1980, open warfare had begun.

The U.S. government, under Ronald Reagan, was concerned that the leftist Salvadoran guerillas would move El Salvador toward communism if they took power, and therefore intervened in the civil war by providing the rightist Salvadoran government with military and financial aid, military training in the U.S. and U.S. military advisers on the ground. The Reagan Administration chose to overlook persistent abuses against civilians committed by the Salvadoran army and its affiliated paramilitary “death squads.” After the war, the United Nations Truth Commission found that the U.S.-supported Salvadoran army and its paramilitary were responsible for 90% of war-time atrocities, including the assassination of religious leaders, “death squad” executions of countless civilians and the massacres of entire villages, including women, children and the elderly. (UN Security Council, From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, S/25500, 1993.) One particularly horrific example was the torture and massacre of about 500 men, women and children, many under age 2, in the village of El Mozote in December 1981 by U.S. trained government troops. (See Mark Danner's excellent New Yorker article on the El Mozote massacre: http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people/Danner/1993/truthelmoz01.html). The report held the FMLN responsible for 5% of atrocities, with the remaining 5% undetermined.

During the civil war, entire villages were driven out of their homes. Fearing for their lives, civilians fled their land to escape the brutal fighting. For many years they were forced to live in overcrowded refugee camps, the largest of which was the Mesa Grande camp in Honduras. Groups of villagers began to organize in order to better advocate for their rights. The Association of Communities for the Development of Chalatenango (CCR) was founded to help people return to the province of Chalatenango, where Teosinte is located. The sister organization CRIPDES, helped people to plan returns to other regions of El Salvador. Thus began the “repopulation” movement.

The decision to return was fraught with danger and challenges. Homes and farm lands had been devastated by bombs and there was little infrastructure in place to rebuild. Furthermore, the Salvadoran Army pursued a “scorched earth” campaign, considering these villages to be bastions of potential support for the guerillas, and continued to target them via bombing, raids, forcible recruitment of youngsters into the army, and cutting off their supply routes. The coordination provided by the CCR and CRIPDES was essential to these villages’ survival, as were the systems of mutual aid they put in place to share whatever resources they had.

Starting in 1986, the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities movement began to organize as a partner to CCR/CRIPDES. Communities in the United States, like Arlington, were paired with “repopulated” communities in El Salvador. These U.S. communities raised money to send to their struggling sister villages, and lobbied Congress for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Many U.S. citizens visited their sister communities, bringing supplies and moral support, and bearing witness to the human rights atrocities taking place.

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