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Coping with the Legacy of the Civil War in El Salvador – The Truth Commission’s Work: Entitlement and Reality

3. Dezember 2011

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Introduction and Political Background

Between 1980 and 1991, El Salvador[1] went through a violent civil war which broke out when the introduction of new agricultural and social reforms failed. The reforms aimed at changing the unequal ownerships on the countryside and at the restriction of the small but mighty “cof­fee oligarchy”[2] so that the civil war was primarily a social class war fuelled by economic in­equality and a corrupt political elite. The Salvadorian military suppressed all (preceding) at­tempts to limit the power of this small elite group. As it became clear in 1980 that the latest striving for a reform failed, five communist and revolutionary groups joined together to a coalition named “Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional” (FMLN; National Li­beration Front Farabundo Martí). In 1981, the FMLN called up the people of El Salvador for an armed rebellion against the Salvadorian regime. The following civil war cost approx­imately 75,000 lives and led to the displacement and emigration of roughly 1.2 million people out of a population of six million.[3]

Under the patronage of the United Nations and in cooperation with the Colombian, Spanish, Mexican and Venezuelan Governments peace negotiations already started between 1988 and 1989. In the following three years of tough negotiations between the FMLN and the Salvado­rian Government several agreements were signed in order to reach peace and in which they agreed on reformation of the military and the police, the improvement of the legal and elec­toral system, as well as the official acknowledgement of Human Rights. By mediation of the United Nation (UN) Secretary-General at that time Javier Pérez de Cuéllar an extensive peace agreement called “Acuerdos de Chapultepec” (Agreement of Chapultepec) was signed on Jan­uary 16, 1992. The first post civil war election in March 1994 was won by the Nationalist Re­publican Alliance with 68% of the votes and Afredo Cristiani who was president since 1989, kept his position.[4]

Between 1979 and 1993, eleven Latin American countries passed through a transition from authoritarian to democratic governance. But every society that goes through a period of crimes against humanity will sooner or later face the diffi­cult challenge of how best to deal with the past if it enters a phase of transition. Seven of these countries have used a Truth Commission (TC) to work up the committed crimes[5].

Based on a proposal of the UN, the peace agreement also included the establishment of a TC to examine the “serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980…” committed by the Government and the FMLN “…and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth”[6]. The TC was called the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Comisión de la Verdad Para El Salvador, CVES) and operated between July 1992 and March 1993.

This paper examines whether the CVES failed in its main objectives or whether its work re­sulted in some sustainable and positive effects for El Salvador. Subsequent to the provision of some elementary background information about TC’s this assignment critically reviews the procedures of implementing the recommendations listed in the CVES’s final report[7], and dis­cusses especially the reformation of the legislative, executive and judicative branches, the official acknowledgement of the crimes and the victims by the Government and armed forces, the amnesty law and the paying of the reparations. Based on the assessment of the mode how recommendations of the CVES were implemented this analysis will elucidate that the CVES indeed partly failed but has also reached significant successes.

[1] Cf. Overview 1 for a map of El Salvador.

[2] During this period coffee was the most important agricultural export product but only a few families had access to the knowhow of the cultivation of coffee. Thus only fourteen families controlled and owned the coffee plantations, the coffee’s processing and trade. They as well controlled all bigger banks and invested big amounts into the industrial and service sector. Therefore a middle class or a strong work force could not been established. Cf. Zinecker (2004: 24)

[3] Cf. Paris (2007: 214)

[4] Cf. Ib. (2007: 214 – 16)

[5] Argentina (1984), Bolivia (1984), Uruguay  (1985), Chile (1991), Honduras (1993), El Salvador (1993), Haiti (1995)

[6] Cf. Report of the Commission on the Truth for E Salvador (1993: 12)

[7] „From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador”. The final report is available at:

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