History of El Salvador

The history of El Salvador begins with several distinct groups of Mesoamerican people, especially the Pipil, the Lenca and the Maya. In the early 16th century, the Spanish Empire conquered the territory, incorporating it into the Viceroyalty of New Spain ruled from Mexico City. In 1821, El Salvador achieved independence from Spain as part of the First Mexican Empire, only to further secede as part of the Federal Republic of Central America two years later. Upon the republic's independence in 1841, El Salvador became a sovereign state until forming a short-lived union with Honduras and Nicaragua called the Greater Republic of Central America, which lasted from 1895 to 1898.[1][2][3]

In the 20th century, El Salvador endured chronic political and economic instability characterized by coups, revolts, and a succession of authoritarian rulers caused by the intervention of the United States. Persistent socioeconomic inequality and civil unrest culminated in the devastating Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s, which was fought between the military-led government and a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups. The conflict ended in 1992 with a negotiated settlement that established a multiparty constitutional republic, which remains in place to this day.

El Salvador's economy was historically dominated by agriculture, beginning with the indigo plant (añil in Spanish), the most important crop during the colonial period,[4][5] and followed thereafter by coffee, which by the early 20th century accounted for 90 percent of export earnings.[6][7]

Pre-Colombian history

Before the Spanish conquest, the area that is known as El Salvador was composed of three indigenous states and several principalities. In central El Salvador were the indigenous inhabitants, the Pipils, or the Pipiles, a tribe of nomadic Nahua people that were settled there for a long time. The Pipil strongly resisted Spanish efforts to extend their dominion southward.[8]

The eastern region was populated and governed by the Lenca people, while the northern zone of the Lempa River was populated and governed by the Chʼortiʼ, a Mayan people. Their culture was similar to that of their Aztecs and Maya neighbors.

Several archaeological sites dating to 1400 years ago have been discovered preserved beneath 6 m (20 ft) of volcanic ash.[9]

Spanish conquest (1524–1525)

The first Spanish attempt to control El Señorío of Cuzcatlán failed in 1524, when Pedro de Alvarado was forced to retreat by Pipil warriors led by King Atlácatl and Prince Atonal in the Battle of Acajutla. In 1525, he returned and succeeded in bringing the district under control of the Audiencia of Mexico.

Spanish colonial period (1525–1821)

The eruption of Ilopango, 1891

After the Spanish conquest, the region became part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. Pedro de Alvarado was the first governor, a position he held until his death in 1541. The area was briefly (from 1538 to 1543) under the authority of a short-lived Real Audiencia of Panama, after which most of Central America was placed under a new Real Audiencia of Guatemala. During this period, the region was divided into the province of San Salvador, the province of San Miguel, and the province of Izalcos.[citation needed]

In 1579 the Province of San Salvador became an alcaldía mayor (great mayor's office). In 1786 it became an intendancy and in 1821 it became a province with a provincial council. In 1824, San Salvador and Sonsonate were united into the State of Salvador (within the Federal Republic of Central America).[10][11]

Struggle for independence (1821-1841)

José Matías Delgado y de León, intellectual leader of the Salvadoran independence movement

In the early 19th century, Napoleon's occupation of Spain led to the outbreak of revolts across Spanish America. All of the fighting by those seeking independence was done in the center of New Spain from 1810 to 1821, in what is currently central Mexico. After the viceroy was defeated in Mexico City in 1821, news of the independence was sent to all the territories of New Spain including the intendancies of the former Captaincy General of Guatemala.

The public proclamation was done through the 1821 Act of Independence of Central America. After the declaration of independence, the parliament of New Spain intended to establish a commonwealth whereby the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, would also be Emperor of New Spain, but in which both countries would be governed by separate laws and with their own legislative offices. Should the king refuse the position, the law provided for another member of the House of Bourbon to accede to the throne of New Spain. Ferdinand VII, however, did not recognize the independence of New Spain and said that Spain would not allow any other European prince to take the throne of New Spain.

Parliament proclaimed Agustín de Iturbide emperor of New Spain on 19 May 1822 and renamed New Spain as the Mexican Empire. The territory of the Mexican Empire included the continental intendancies and provinces of New Spain proper, including those of the former Captaincy General of Guatemala.

El Salvador, fearing incorporation into Mexico, petitioned the United States government for statehood. But in 1823, a revolution in Mexico ousted Emperor Agustín de Iturbide and a new Mexican congress voted to allow the Central American intendancies to decide their own fate. That year, the Federal Republic of Central America (FRCA) was formed of the five Central American intendancies under General Manuel José Arce. The intendancies became states under the FRCA.

In 1832, Anastasio Aquino led an indigenous revolt against criollos and mestizos in Santiago Nonualco, a small town in the province of La Paz. The source of the discontent of the indigenous people was the constant abuse and the lack of land to cultivate. The problem of land distribution has been the source of many political conflicts in Salvadoran history.

The FRCA was dissolved in February 1841,[12] and El Salvador gained recognition as an independent republic on 18 February 1841.[13]

Rise of the oligarchy

In the early 19th century, El Salvador's economy depended on the production of a single export crop, indigo. This led wealthy landowners to be attracted to certain lands while leaving other lands, especially those around former volcanic eruptions, to the poor and indigeneous communities for subsistence farming. In the late 19th century, natural indigo was replaced by synthetic chemical dyes. The landed elite replaced this crop with a newly demanded product, coffee.[14]

The lands that had been left by the wealthy landowners to the poor and indigeneous communities were suddenly quite valuable. The elite-controlled legislature and president passed vagrancy laws that removed people from their land and the great majority of Salvadorans became landless, as their former lands were absorbed into the new coffee plantations (fincas).[14] Historian Héctor Lindo-Fuentes asserts that "the parallel process of state-building and expansion of the coffee industry resulted in the formation of an oligarchy that was to rule El Salvador during the twentieth century."[15]

The coffee industry gave birth to an oligarchy in the late 19th century, which has controlled most of the land and wealth of El Salvador since that time. The Fourteen Families ("las catorce familias")—with names including de Sola, Llach, Hill, Meza-Ayau, Duenas, Dalton, Regalado, Quiñonez, Flores, and Salaverria—is a reference to this oligarchy.[16] For much of this time, this oligarchy acted in a manner similar to the overlords of the feudal system that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages. Although the constitution was amended repeatedly in favor of the oligarchs (in 1855, 1864, 1871, 1872, 1880, 1883, and 1886), several elements remained constant throughout.[17] The wealthy landowners were granted super-majority power in the national legislature and economy. For example, the 1824 constitution provided for a unicameral legislature of 70 deputies, in which 42 seats were set aside for the landowners. The president was selected from the landed elite. Each of El Salvador's 14 regional departments had a governor appointed by the president. The frequent changes in the constitution were mainly due to the attempts of various presidents to hold onto power. For example, President Gerardo Barrios created a new constitution to extend his term limit.[17]

From 1931 until the early 1980s, El Salvador was governed by various dictatorships, but these governments were subservient to the oligarchy, with some officials deriving “modest wealth from bureaucratic corruption”.[16] At that time, the oligarchy consisted of some 20 families which controlled more than 70 percent of El Salvador's coffee production and exports, sugar mills, banks, television and newspapers.[16] Since the end of that war in 1992, the oligarchic families of El Salvador have shifted their focus from agricultural exports to capital investment. Today, the majority of El Salvador’s capital is distributed among eight powerful business conglomerates. These companies (Grupo Cuscatlán, Banagrícola, Banco Davivienda El Salvador, Banco de Comercio, Grupo Agrisal, Grupo Poma, Grupo de Sola, and Grupo Hill) dominate the economy of El Salvador and they are largely owned by the descendants of the original 14 families of the coffee oligarchy.[citation needed]

Military dictatorships (1931–1979)

Brigadier general Maximiliano Hernández Martínez
The Aftermath of the 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising

Between 1931, the year of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez's coup, and 1944, when he was deposed, there was brutal suppression of rural resistance. The most notable event was the 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising headed by Farabundo Martí, Chief Feliciano Ama from the Izalco tribe and Chief Francisco "Chico" Sanchez from Juayúa, Izalco subdivision. The government retaliation, commonly referred to as La Matanza (“the slaughter”), which followed days of protest. In this 'Matanza', between 10,000 and 40,000 indigenous people and political opponents were murdered, imprisoned or exiled.

From 1931 until 1982, was ruled by either a military dictator or a joint civilian-military dictatorship and its economy was based primarily on the cultivation and exportation of coffee. These authoritarian governments employed political repression to maintain power, despite the appearance of democracy.

Throughout the 1970s, there was great political instability in El Salvador. In the 1972 presidential election, opponents of military rule united under José Napoleón Duarte, leader of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Amid widespread fraud, Duarte's broad-based reform movement was defeated. Subsequent protests and an attempted coup were crushed and Duarte was exiled. These events eroded hope of reform through democratic means and persuaded those opposed to the government that armed insurrection was the only way to achieve change.

Salvadoran Civil War (1979–1992)

José Napoleón Duarte, 1987

In 1979 the reformist Revolutionary Government Junta took power. Both the far right and the far left political wings disagreed with the new government and increased political violence rapidly developed into a civil war. The initially poorly trained Armed Forces of El Salvador (ESAF) engaged in repression and indiscriminate killings, the most notorious of which was the El Mozote massacre in December 1981. The United States supported the government, while Cuba and other Communist states supported the insurgents—now organized as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The Chapultepec Peace Accords marked the end of the war in 1992, and the FMLN became one of the major political parties.

In accordance with the peace agreements, the constitution was amended to prohibit the military from playing an internal security role except under extraordinary circumstances. Demobilization of Salvadoran military forces generally proceeded on schedule throughout the peace process. The Treasury Police, National Guard, and National Police were abolished, and military intelligence functions were transferred to civilian control. By 1993—nine months ahead of schedule—the military had cut personnel from a war-time high of 63,000 to the level of 32,000 required by the peace accords.[citation needed]

By 1999, ESAF strength stood at less than 15,000, including uniformed and non-uniformed personnel. A purge of military officers accused of human rights abuses and corruption was completed in 1993 in compliance with the Ad Hoc Commission's recommendations. The new doctrine, professionalism, and complete withdrawal from political and economic affairs leave the ESAF as one of the most respected institutions in El Salvador.[citation needed]

More than 35,000 eligible beneficiaries from among the former guerrillas and soldiers who fought in the war received land under the peace accord-mandated land transfer program, which ended in January 1997. The majority of these also received agricultural credits.[18]

The democratic process in El Salvador is delicately balanced, since the Legislative Assembly decreed an amnesty after the Chapultepec Peace Accords. As a result of this amnesty, no one responsible for crimes carried out before, during and after the war has been convicted.

Post-war period (1992–2019)

Unveiling of Monsignor Romero's sculpture

The FMLN participated in the 1994 presidential election as a political party. Armando Calderón Sol, the ARENA candidate, won the election. During his rule, Calderón Sol implemented neoliberal policies, including the privatization of several large state enterprises. The FMLN emerged strengthened from the legislative and municipal elections of 1997, where they won the mayoralty of San Salvador. However, internal divisions in the process of electing a presidential candidate damaged the party's image. ARENA again won the presidency in the election of March 7, 1999, with its candidate Francisco Flores Pérez.

In the presidential elections of March 21, 2004, ARENA was victorious again, this time with the candidate Antonio Saca, securing the party's third consecutive term. In the same election, economist Ana Vilma de Escobar became El Salvador's first female vice president. The election result also marked the end of the minor parties (PCN, PDC, and CD), which failed get the 3% required by electoral law to maintain their registration as parties.

In the postwar period, El Salvador experienced problems with organized crime in the form of “maras” or gangs, mainly due to the deportation of Salvadorans from the United States. Two law enforcement programs created to combat this problem–La Mano Dura and Mano Superdura–have failed.

Currently, El Salvador's largest source of foreign currency is remittances sent by Salvadorans from abroad; these have been estimated at over $2 billion US dollars. There are over 2 million Salvadorans living abroad in countries including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Australia, and Sweden.

In the 2009 presidential elections, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, won the presidency. This was the first victory of a leftist political party in El Salvador's history.[19] Funes took over as President on June 1, 2009, together with Salvador Sánchez Cerén as vice president.

In 2014, Cerén took office as president, after winning the election as the candidate of the left-wing FMLN. Cerén had been a guerrilla leader in the Civil War and is the first ex-rebel to serve as president.[20][21] Under his leadership, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban the mining of metal on its territory, for environmental and public health reasons.[22][23]

Corrupt presidents

Former President Mauricio Funes fled to Nicaragua in 2014 after being charged with illicit enrichment and money laundering. In 2017, an El Salvador court ruled that Funes and one of his sons had illegally enriched themselves.[24] Funes was still living in Nicaragua as of 2019.[25][26] Funes was also sentenced in 2023 to 14 years in prison in absentia because of negotiations related to the gang truces he made while serving as president.[27][28] He was sentenced to an additional six years for tax evasion,[29] and he was also placed under sanctions by the U.S. State Department.[30]

In 2018, former President Antonio Saca was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to diverting more than US$300 million in state funds to his own businesses and third parties.[31]

In 2023, former President Salvador Sánchez Cerén was sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for "significant corruption by laundering money" during his tenure as vice president.[32]


Nayib Bukele talks at his inauguration ceremony

In February, 2019, Nayib Bukele, a Millennial who was not aligned with either of the major parties that had dominated the country since the Civil War, was elected president of El Salvador.[33]

According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) 2020, the homicide rate in El Salvador declined by as much as 60 percent since Bukele became president in June 2019. This phenomenon could be related to the informal “non-aggression agreement” between the government and certain of the maras.[34]

President Nayib Bukele remains very popular among the citizens. According to a survey, 96 percent of respondents said he was doing a “good” or “very good job.[citation needed] El Salvador's legislative elections was an important breakthrough in February 2021. Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas)—the new party founded by Bukele—won around two-thirds of votes with its allies (GANA-New Ideas). Nuevas Ideas won a supermajority of 56 seats in the 84-seat parliament. This supermajority enabled President Bukele to appoint judges and pass laws (for example, to remove presidential term limits).[35][36] In September 2021, El Salvador's Supreme Court decided to allow Bukele to run for a second term in 2024, despite the constitution prohibits the president to serve two consecutive terms in office. The decision was organized by judges appointed to the court by President Bukele.[37]

In January 2022, The International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged El Salvador to reverse its decision to make cryptocurrency Bitcoin legal tender. Bitcoin had rapidly lost about half of its value, meaning economic difficulties for El Salvador. President Bukele had announced his plans to build a Bitcoin city at the base of a volcano in El Salvador.[38]

In 2022, Salvadoran government initiated a massive fight against criminal gangs and gang-related violence. State of emergency was declared on 27 March. It was extended on 20 July. More than 53,000 suspected gang members were arrested.[39][40] This has resulted in significant declines in homicide, extortion, and other gang-related crimes.[41]

On 4 February 2024, President Nayib Bukele, won re-election with 83% of the vote in general election.[42] His party Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) won 58 of the El Salvador parliament's 60 seats.[43]

See also



  1. ^ Roy Boland (2001). Culture and Customs of El Salvador. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-313-30620-4.
  2. ^ Maureen Ihrie; Salvador Oropesa (20 October 2011). World Literature Spanish: An Encyclopedia [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 332. ISBN 978-0-313-08083-8.
  3. ^ Jeanne Haskin (2012). From Conflict to Crisis: The Danger of U.S. Actions. Algora Publishing. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-87586-961-2.
  4. ^ Tommie Sue Montgomery (1995). Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace. Westview Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-8133-0071-9.
  5. ^ Kevin Murray (1 January 1997). El Salvador: Peace on Trial. Oxfam. pp. [https://archive.org/details/elsalvadorpeaceo0000murr/page/8 8. ISBN 978-0-85598-361-1.
  6. ^ Roy Boland (1 January 2001). Culture and Cufkornstoms of El Salvador. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-313-30620-4.
  7. ^ Thomas L. Pearcy (2006). The History of Central America. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-313-32293-8.
  8. ^ "El Salvador - Spanish Conquest and Colonization". countrystudies.us.
  9. ^ "El Salvador". Archived from the original on 2003-07-20. Retrieved 2004-08-18.
  10. ^ Carlos Pérez Pineda y Óscar Meléndez, El nombre oficial de la República de El Salvador, Primera Edición, Dirección de Publicaciones e Impresos, San Salvador, El Salvador, 2015, p.37.
  11. ^ Herrera Mena, Sajid Alfredo (2013). El ejercicio de gobernar: Del cabildo borbónico al ayuntamiento liberal. El Salvador colonial, 1750 - 1821 (in Spanish). Castellón de la Plana, Spain: Publicacions de la Universitat Jaume I. ISBN 978-84-15443-13-1.
  12. ^ Foster, Lynn V. (2000). A Brief History of Central America. New York: Facts on File. pp. 134–136. ISBN 0-8160-3962-3.
  13. ^ FitzGerald, David Scott (2014). Culling the Masses. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 363. ISBN 978-0-674-36967-2.
  14. ^ a b Paige, JM. "Coffee and Power in El Salvador." Latin American Research Review, v. 28 issue 3, 1993, p. 7.
  15. ^ Lindo-Fuentes, Hector (1990). Weak Foundations: The Economy of El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century 1821–1898. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  16. ^ a b c Hoeffel, Paul Heath (6 September 1981). "The Eclipse of the Oligarchs". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 February 2024.
  17. ^ a b "El Salvador". countrystudies.us. Retrieved 2023-03-14.
  18. ^ "Background Note: El Salvador", U.S. Department of State (accessed February 3, 2010).
  19. ^ "El Salvador elects its first leftist president, TV host Mauricio Funes". Los Angeles Times. 2 June 2009.
  20. ^ Sánchez Cerén: de guerrillero a presidente de El Salvador. BBC (17 March 2014)
  21. ^ "Ex-rebel sworn in as El Salvador president".
  22. ^ Lakhani, Nina (March 30, 2017). "El Salvador makes history as first nation to impose blanket ban on metal mining". The Guardian – via www.theguardian.com.
  23. ^ "El Salvador mining ban a victory for democracy over corporate greed". 30 March 2017. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  24. ^ "Salvador court finds ex-president Funes illegally enriched himself". Reuters. 28 November 2017.
  25. ^ "Régimen no entregará a Mauricio Funes al nuevo gobierno de El Salvador". La Prensa. February 5, 2019.
  26. ^ "Fugitive Salvadoran Former President Given Nicaragua Citizenship". Voice of America. 30 July 2019. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  27. ^ "Ex-El Salvador President Mauricio Funes sentenced to 14 years for negotiating with gangs". AP NEWS. 2023-05-29. Retrieved 2023-05-29.
  28. ^ Renteria, Nelson (2023-05-29). "El Salvador court sentences ex-President Funes to 14 years in prison". Reuters. Retrieved 2023-05-29.
  29. ^ "El Salvador sentences former president to 6 years in jail – DW – 07/06/2023". dw.com. Retrieved 2023-07-06.
  30. ^ "State Department sanctions 2 former Salvadoran leaders, dozens of officials in Central America". ABC News. Retrieved 2023-07-20.
  31. ^ "Salvadoran Ex-President Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison".
  32. ^ "State Department sanctions 2 former Salvadoran leaders, dozens of officials in Central America". ABC News. Retrieved 2023-07-20.
  33. ^ Palumbo, Gene; Malkin, Elisabeth (February 3, 2019). "Nayib Bukele, an Outsider Candidate, Claims Victory in El Salvador Election". The New York Times.
  34. ^ "The El Salvador President's Informal Pact with Gangs". 2 October 2020. Retrieved 21 February 2024.
  35. ^ "El Salvador midterm election: Bukele gains legislative assembly supermajority - The Washington Post". The Washington Post.
  36. ^ Dyde, James (1 March 2021). "El Salvador Legistative Elections 2021 | www.centralamerica.com". Central America. Retrieved 21 February 2024.
  37. ^ "El Salvador's Bukele gets greenlight to run for re-election". France 24. 4 September 2021.
  38. ^ "IMF urges El Salvador to remove Bitcoin as legal tender". BBC News. 26 January 2022.
  39. ^ "El Salvador gangs: State of emergency extended again". BBC News. 20 July 2022.
  40. ^ "Ending El Salvador's Cycle of Gang Violence". United States Institute of Peace.
  41. ^ "Inside El Salvador's brutal gang crackdown". unHerd. 11 January 2023.
  42. ^ "El Salvador: Bukele confirmed as president after final count – DW – 02/10/2024". dw.com.
  43. ^ "El Salvador votes must be recounted, says electoral court – DW – 02/06/2024". dw.com.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Thomas P., Matanza ; El Salvador's communist revolt of 1932, Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1971
  • Grenier, Yvon, The Emergence of Insurgency in El Salvador: Ideology and Political Will, University of Pittsburgh Press 1999
  • Hammond, John L., Fighting to Learn: Popular Education and Guerrilla War in El Salvador, Rutgers University Press 1998
  • Knight, Charles, ed. (1867). "Republic of San Salvador". Geography. English Cyclopaedia. Vol. 4. London: Bradbury, Evans, & Co. hdl:2027/nyp.33433000064810.
  • Lauria-Santiago (Herausgeber), Aldo, Leigh Binford (Herausgeber), Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society, and Community in El Salvador, University of Pittsburgh Press 2004.
  • Lindo-Fuentes, Héctor. Weak Foundations: The Economy of El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century, 1821–1898. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1990.
  • Sabin, Joseph, ed. (1889). "Republic of San Salvador". Bibliotheca Americana. Vol. 18. New York. OCLC 13972268.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Shayne, Julie D. The Revolution Question: Feminisms in El Salvador, Chile, and Cuba, Rutgers University Press 2004
  • Stanley, William, The Protection Racket State: Elite Politics, Military Extortion, and Civil War in El Salvador, Temple University Press 1996
  • Tilley, Virginia Q., Seeing Indians: A Study of Race, Nation, and Power in El Salvador, University of New Mexico Press 2005
  • Wood (Herausgeber), Elisabeth J., Peter Lange (Herausgeber), Robert H. Bates (Herausgeber), Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador, Cambridge University Press 2003
  • Woodward, Ralph Lee. El Salvador. Oxford, England ; Santa Barbara, Calif. : Clio Press, c1988.

External links

  • Spanish Colonization
  • El Salvador Early Inhabitants
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