From the pre-Columbian period to the beginning of independence
El Salvador’s civilisation dates back to pre-Columbian times, around 1500 BC, as evidenced by the ancient structures of Tazumal in Chalchuapa.
The Spanish admiral Andrés Niño led an expedition to Central America and landed on the island of Meanguera, located in the Gulf of Fonseca, on 31 May 1522. This was the first Salvadoran territory visited by the Spanish. In June 1524, the Spanish captain Pedro de Alvarado began a war of raids against the native tribes of Cuzcatlán. In 17 days of bloody fighting, many natives and Spaniards died. Pedro de Alvarado was defeated and, wounded in the left hip, he gave up the fight and fled to Guatemala. He instructed his brother, Gonzalo de Alvarado, to continue the conquest of Cuzcatlán. Later, his cousin Diego de Alvarado founded the Villa de San Salvador in April 1525. King Carlos I of Spain (who also ruled what is now Germany as Charles V) granted San Salvador the title of city in 1546. In the following years, El Salvador developed under Spanish rule.
At the end of 1810, the criollos (people of European descent born in the Spanish colonies), long excluded from much of the real power in the colonies, wanted to overthrow the small elite of peninsulares (people born in mainland Spain) and the colonial administration. The moment to fight for independence from Spain came at dawn on 5 November 1811, when Salvadoran priest Jose Matías Delgado rang the bells of the Iglesia La Merced in San Salvador and called for an uprising. As with most former Spanish colonies, independence was made more likely by the fact that Spain was occupied by Napoleonic troops and the colonial administration was unsure whether to be loyal to the old king or the new king chosen by Napoleon. After many internal struggles and setbacks that made independence unlikely, the Acta de Independencia (Independence Act) of Central America was signed in Guatemala on 15 September 1821. Like the other four Central American states that gained independence on that day, El Salvador joined the short-lived United Provinces of Central America, the closest of the five countries to a meaningful form of political unity.
While independence brought greater political participation to the landowning (white) elites and the urban middle class (at least in theory), the indigenous population did not benefit at all and, on the contrary, continued to be disenfranchised and further dispossessed. By 1900, over 90% of the land was in the hands of only 0.01% of the population, a situation that was to threaten the political stability of the country for many years.
The rigged elections of January 1932 were the igniter of the social outbreak. Several polling stations were suspended in populations where the Communist Party had a strong presence. A new turmoil began. After the rebels carried out two unsuccessful attacks on the Cuartel de Caballería (Cavalry District), the government imposed martial law. Strict censorship of the press was introduced. In the following days, thousands of peasants and workers, armed with machetes and some “Mauser” rifles, attacked police stations, municipal offices, telegraph stations, warehouses and the properties of rich landowners. This uprising was put down. On 31 January, Manuel Antonio Castañeda sentenced Farabundo Martí to death. He was shot and killed on 1 February 1932. Another sad consequence of the uprising and its repression was “la Matanza”, a mass slaughter of indigenous people (many of whom sympathised with Martí, but many who did not) simply because they were indigenous, looked indigenous, wore clothes considered indigenous or spoke indigenous languages. Although not all indigenous people were killed, the massacre was a severe blow to indigenous culture, and even today less than 1% of Salvadorans identify as indigenous, the lowest number in all of Central America. While this is partly due to the fear of being discriminated against or stereotyped if one identifies as indigenous, there are also people of indigenous origin who have lost any connection to their ancestral culture and for this reason do not identify as indigenous.
Many coups followed in the decades that followed, including the one that overthrew General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez.
Relations with Honduras deteriorated in the late 1960s. In 1967, there was a border conflict and in July 1969, a four-day “guerra de futbol” (football war), as it was called by the international media, broke out after a FIFA World Cup qualifying match between the two countries. The war ended with a ceasefire, which came about as a result of pressure from the United States and the Organisation of American States. The Salvadoran forces that had invaded Honduras have withdrawn. They are only a few kilometres from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.
In 1974 and 1975, a movement of organised left guerrillas emerged in a context of increasing political violence. In 1980, three of these leftist organisations joined forces to coordinate a struggle against the government. This movement was called the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional. English: Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation). In March of the same year, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated during the celebration of Mass. It is widely believed that the order to execute him came from Major Roberto D’Abuisson, the founder and leader of the right-wing ARENA party. D’Abuisson is best known for his alleged involvement in the death squad killings. He died of cancer in 1992. On 16 January 1992, the government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed Los Acuerdos de Paz (Peace Accords) in Chapultepec, Mexico, ending one of the most painful chapters in El Salvador’s history. The 12-year armed conflict cost the lives of more than 75,000 people and caused hundreds of thousands to flee to the USA, Canada and other countries to escape the violence.
The FMLN is now a legal political party and did quite well in the last elections. In fact, some of the people who left El Salvador ended up in American prisons and were deported back to El Salvador after their release, bringing with them the American-style gang culture. Since many of these people were very young when they left El Salvador, their only source of identity was the gang culture, and dealing with these extremely violent groups was extremely difficult.
Today, El Salvador is stable, its economy is growing and it has left its painful history behind.