Tensions Persist in Postwar El Salvador; Economic Recovery Not for All, Experts Say

By Wirpsa, Leslie | National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 1995 | Go to article overview

Tensions Persist in Postwar El Salvador; Economic Recovery Not for All, Experts Say


Wirpsa, Leslie, National Catholic Reporter


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- There are no artillery tanks or army personnel carriers haunting the streets of San Salvador anymore. The roads are jammed, though, with spanking new Toyota Camrys boasting San Antonio, Texas, license plates; green Mitsubishi Diamantes toting Florida tags; Corollas from California and Nissans from New York. Vehicles wind like joints in a dragon's tail over streets built to respect San Salvador's hilly, volcanic terrain. Mushrooming along the streets in upscale sections of the city are newly constructed U.S. trademarks: Wendy's and Burger King restaurants, Ace Hardware stores and Pizza Huts, Texaco Starmarts, Chili's grills, and the like, abound.

"There is money floating around here. They (the U.S. chains) are all making money," commented U.S. Maryknoll priest Bill Boteler, a veteran missionary in El Salvador, as he eased his pickup through the city. "The people who got a break are getting a better break. The problem is, none of that is getting to the poor majorities."

The dilemma Boteler described is the core issue facing El Salvador today. Just as there are no neat quadrants on the San Salvador street map, there are no easy solutions for economic, political and social reconstruction in this tiny country, torn from 1979 until 1992 by one of the bloodiest civil wars -- and one of the most brutal counterinsurgency strategies -- in the contemporary history of Latin America. The war claimed the lives of at least 75,000 Salvadorans; more than 1 million people were forcibly displaced, many seeking refuge in neighboring countries and the United States.

In 1992, representatives from the government of El Salvador and guerrillas from the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, signed historic peace accords in Mexico City's Chapultapec Palace that successfully curbed open combat between rebel and army troops. The country will face a stringent test of the effectiveness of the peace process when U.N. observers, who have been monitoring the Chapultapec accords since 1992, depart at the end of April. Meanwhile, a myriad of tensions -- military and economic alike -- trouble postwar El Salvador.

Military threat

The Salvadoran army, known for merciless counterinsurgency tactics like the massacre in 1981 of at least 1,000 civilians in the village of El Mozote, was reduced from 60,000 to 30,000 troops under the Chapultapec agreements.

But, analysts, church officials and human rights advocates warn that the army's repressive apparatus is still intact. They point to repeated, organized riots by former soldiers between December and February as evidence of the army's strength. The ex-soldiers, many of them of middle and lower ranks who organized allegedly to demand land and other benefits promised to them under the peace agreements, took over the legislative assembly in December for eight hours, detaining the president, Supreme Court justices, the defense minister, assembly representatives and members of the diplomatic corps.

"For me, this was technically a military coup," said sociologist Rafael Guido of the Jesuit Central American University. "For eight hours, there was no one at the helm of the government. This indicates that we have an imminent danger present."

Guido said the soldiers' organization, known by its Spanish acronym ADEFAES, is part of the "old security structures" that were not dismantled by the peace accords. "We don't know who finances or directs it. People say that before their last protest, ADEFAES leaders were seen in the military garrisons. This is very dangerous," Guido said.

Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino agreed with Guido. Because Sobrino was out of the country at the time, he survived the November 1989 army massacre that took the lives of six Jesuit priests and two women from the Central American University..

"It is not the same as before," Sobrino said, "but we still cannot say that militarism has been overcome here. …

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