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
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”
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