Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle over Memory

Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle over Memory

Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle over Memory

Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle over Memory


El Salvador's civil war began in 1980 and ended twelve bloody years later. It saw extreme violence on both sides, including the terrorizing and targeting of civilians by death squads, recruitment of child soldiers, and the death and disappearance of more than 75,000 people. Examining El Salvador's vibrant life-story literature written in the aftermath of this terrible conflict--including memoirs and testimonials--Erik Ching seeks to understand how the war has come to be remembered and rebattled by Salvadorans and what that means for their society today.

Ching identifies four memory communities that dominate national postwar views: civilian elites, military officers, guerrilla commanders, and working class and poor testimonialists. Pushing distinct and divergent stories, these groups are today engaged in what Ching terms a "narrative battle" for control over the memory of the war. Their ongoing publications in the marketplace of ideas tend to direct Salvadorans' attempts to negotiate the war's meaning and legacy, and Ching suggests that a more open, coordinated reconciliation process is needed in this postconflict society. In the meantime, El Salvador, fractured by conflicting interpretations of its national trauma, is hindered in dealing with the immediate problems posed by the nexus of neoliberalism, gang violence, and outmigration.


Something remarkable happened in a Boston courtroom in August 2013. El Salvador’s former vice minister of public safety, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, was held partially accountable for his actions during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. Unable to be tried criminally for those actions in a U.S. court, even though he was living here, Montano was found guilty of lying on his application for protected status, which granted him humanitarian status to remain in the United States after having left El Salvador in 2000. Among other falsehoods, he failed to indicate on his form that he had served in the military or received military training. In order to prove that Montano lied, the prosecution had to demonstrate not only that he falsified his application by failing to reveal his military service, but also that he had engaged in activities that would have contradicted his request for humanitarian status. Therefore, in a roundabout way, Montano’s case became a public accounting of El Salvador’s civil war.

The expert witness for the prosecution was Terry Lynn Karl, a professor of political science at Stanford University. She provided a painstakingly researched exposé on Montano and the Salvadoran army during the war. The cornerstone of Karl’s argument was that the Salvadoran military had perpetrated heinous crimes during the war, and that it had done so under a strict chain of command. She showed that troops followed the orders of their commanding officers, and that those officers had the authority to curtail their soldier’s abusive actions. One of the pivotal events under examination was the assassination by the military of six Jesuit priests in November 1989 at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in San Salvador. Karl argued that Montano was part of the military’s Alto Mando (high command), which had ordered the murders, and that he was present in the meeting when the decision to execute the priests was delivered.

The key witness for the defense was retired General Mauricio Vargas, another high-ranking official in the Salvadoran army, who had both commanded troops in the field and served in the Alto Mando. The crux of . . .

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