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How Violence has Unexpected Repercussions

By: Kealsi Fanter

El Salvador has a long history of violence and issues within their government. Much of this violence had unexpected repercussions that still echo the continent today. Many of the tragic events that had happened are due to political up rest and war between the left wing and right-wing political groups and from all walks of life. El Salvador’s violence escalated during the civil war that started in September of 1980. This civil war had many precedence’s that finally called the war to break out. Other countries had even gotten involved at one point or another. The United States became involved when they created the school of Americas and provided training for the paramilitary forces of the right-wing groups in El Salvador that were terrorizing the public and enacting great violence which the left-wing guerilla forces retaliated against the paramilitary, as well as providing financial aid to the government.(1)

 Violence and Unrest

            The violence in El Salvador has been going on since way before the civil war that broke out in 1980 was even a thought. The gap between government and citizens has been an ongoing issue that eventually escalated to people being tortured, raped, and killed. Disappearances were also very common. The Main group that instigated this violence was the right-wing paramilitary groups and the Government. The left-wing groups also caused some violence with their guerilla warfare, however, the paramilitary violence surpassed anything the left-wing did. Much of the violence was unleashed upon the common people and was particularly aimed towards teachers, students, and the clergy. Death squads were groups that enacted the most violence towards the El Salvadorian population.(2)These squads became largely known in the 1970s. (3) Oppression between classes and of those in rural areas also led to many of these people being involved in the left-wing groups.

 Left-wing and Right-Wing Groups

Many people, especially the Right -wing, considered the left-wing groups to be “terrorists”. (4) Both sides considered each other to be terrorists, however, the right-wing groups were primarily government groups and paramilitary, whereas the left were more rural guerilla forces made up of rural populations, students, and the clergy. Much of the left’s leadership was run by Catholic Groups.(5) The right-wing paramilitary forces, mainly the national guard, were trained by the School of the Americas. President Molina attempted to do coercive control using the Nationalist Democratic Organization, which was created partly in secret and provided counter insurgency training.(6) Which was a school taught by the United States. Many people in the 1970s decided to show their support for the left-wing groups because the right wing was becoming extremely violent and increasingly more corrupt. The right-wing groups formed death squads and took out their violence on the common public to get ahead in the government. Death squads were originally created for anti-communist liberation.(7) A major political figure on the left-wing side was Archbishop Oscar Romero. Many right-wing groups, who were said to be led by the right-wing government officials, called upon coercive labor, slavery, debt peonage, or compulsory wage labor in order to further other agendas and to keep the common people oppressed. (8) Carlos Romero was the last leader of the military government in El Salvador.(9) One major group on the left was the FMLN, which was established in rural communities in September 1980. The FMLN wanted the groups that committed the killings and disappearances, the death squads, to be prosecuted.(10) The right-wing groups made people believe that the left were communist groups and were enacting terrorism, which was far off from what the leftwing groups actual were and what they were trying to accomplish. The United States supported the right-wing government because they had hopes of defeating “communist” FMLN.(11)

 Events Leading to War

El Salvador had been on the path to civil war decades before it actually broke out. Political corruption and attempts for reforms were both major factors of the beginning of the civil war. Both corruption and reform have erupted in violence and clashes between right wing and left-wing groups as well as the poorer populations of El Salvador. We can visualize these events by looking at a timeline of them and seeing how many major violent acts on the public and people of the clergy made before everything boiled over.

Right wing began using extreme measures of oppression in the 1970s, using their death squads that would kill much of the public. Much of their training was facilitated by the School of Americas, run by the United States. There was a tenfold increase in political assassinations, a tripling of prosecutions of “subversives”, and a doubling of disappearances between 1972 and 1979. Failed coups also ensued in 1972. The violence that ensued in the years leading up to the civil war also included the violence that happened during many of the antigovernment protests, one example being the shots that were fired at the crowds of a demonstration in July of 1975 and February of 1977. The event that took place in February of 1977 was a major event. Thousands of people attended the Plaza Libertad to protest the election of Carlos Romero. The demonstration ended with at least 50 protesters shot and killed by the paramilitary forces of the right. (12) In that same year, the government passed a law the eliminated just about every legal restriction on using violence on citizens.(13) Violence ensued on smaller levels continuously. On January 22nd, 1980, a mass rally was fired upon by police and ended with 24 people being killed.(14)

Perhaps the main event that turned El Salvador onto its dead certain path to war was the assassination of Archbishop Romero. He was one of the biggest voices in the left-wing groups and was influenced strongly by liberation theology.  He was very appalled by the brutality of the government against the people, especially those that were a part of the clergy.(15) He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 in the Chapel of the Divine Providence. The reports dictated that a group of gunmen can into the church but was later changed to a single gunman.(16) The accused person behind this attack was said to be Roberto D’ Aubuisson who was a part of a right-wing terrorist group from Cuba. It was made known that the group was in El Salvador a week before the assassination took place.(17)

Another devastating event that took place after the civil war had kicked off, was the rape, torture, and murder of the four United States church women who were doing a mission in El Salvador’s’ rural areas. On December 3rd, 1980, they were on their way back from picking up their fourth member when they were stopped by a right-wing paramilitary group and killed. We know that the right wing targeted many people who were in the church and so this attack on the women was most likely in retaliation to them being from the church. This caused uproar in the United States and made out involvement more prevalent. Many pleaded with the US Government to pull aid from El Salvador and to get justice for the church women. Aid was eventually temporarily cut off.(18) These events have shown how unexpected violence can be and how devastating the consequences are.


Reforms were a big part of what many leftist government groups tried to accomplish. Reforms did not last and kept failing until well into the Civil war and towards the end. There were some reforms that were attempted before and in the beginning of the civil war. Many of these reforms were surrounding agriculture, labor, and land. Elite landowners grew angry at these reforms and the right-wing groups caused these to fail. There were more than one “junta” and the all of them failed. Archbishop Romero urged the PDC to pull out of the first junta but could not say anything more about the other ones due to passing away.(19) On October 15, 1979, a coup was led against Carlos Romero and successful, followed by a civil junta.(20) The first Junta resigned due to being unable to control the paramilitary forces. The Second Junta also failed due to not being to control the military as well.(21)



  1. “El Salvador.” Belize. Accessed November 12, 2019.
  2. “El Salvador”. CJA.
  3. John Pike. 2017. “El Salvador Civil War”. Global Security.
  4. See John Pike 2
  5. See john pike 3
  6. See john pike 4
  7. See john pike 5
  8. Stanley W. 1996. The Protection Racket State. Temple University press, Philadelphia, PA.
  9. Peceny, Mark, and William D. Stanley. "Counterinsurgency in El Salvador." Politics & Society 38, no. 1 (2010): 67-94. Accessed September30, 2019. doi:10.1177/0032329209357884.
  10. “History of El Salvador.” Teaching Central America. Accessed November 12, 2019.
  11. See “history of El Salvador
  12. See John Pike, much of the entire paragraph comes from this source.
  13. See John Pike
  14. See John Pike
  15. See John Pike
  16. Central Intelligence Agency. 05/1987. Background on Assassination of Archbishop Romero.
  17. See Central Intelligence Agency, scanned document online, Background on Assassination of Archbishop
  18. See John Pike
  19. See John Pike
  20. See Counter insurgency in El Salvador
  21. See Counter insurgency in El Salvador
  22. “A Kind of Victory.” Columbia Journalism Review. Accessed November 21, 2019.