In discussing the problem of violence and terrorism in Central America, it is important to avoid the trap of suggesting that there is something in the Central American character that makes Central Americans more violent than other peoples. Indeed, despite the high crime rates in several of these countries, there is no reason to suppose that Central Americans have a greater disposition to personal violence than do New Yorkers. Statistically, they have a good deal less in some categories. Nor, despite the prevalence of terrorism in Guatemala and El Salvador, can anyone claim that terrorism is a Central American characteristic. Such a suggestion would be very amusing to a citizen of Belfast or Beirut.
Rather, it should be noted that there are specific features of violence, both personal and organized, that do have their roots in the cultural formation of the Central American peoples, and that Central America represents a microcosm of Latin America. I will consider, for this purpose, two aspects of the social character of the Spanish Americans of this area: their concepts of manliness and their religion, as these affect both rich and poor, and how these contrast with the attitudes of the Indian community.
I would like to focus my attention on the three neighboring countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and exclude from consideration Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the former because violence there has largely become institutionalized in its governmental processes and the latter because an entirely different set of economic and cultural circumstances have left the Costa Ricans to a certain extent immune to the malady of violence. I should further like to focus on that type of violence associated with political life in the twentieth century: ideological violence.
Ideological violence in Central America begins with the organization of left-wing labor movements in the 1920s. In 1924 the first Guatemalan Communist party was organized, and this was followed by the organization of similar groups in Honduras and El Salvador. Early in 1932 the Communist party of El Salvador led the first organized Communist uprising in the western hemisphere. The revolt began among the peasants in the western part of the country, spread rapidly, and was then drowned in blood by the military. Some 20,000 people were killed. Most of those killed were victims of the military repression that followed the revolt's failure, the Matanza, which