1980-1992: The Salvadoran Civil War

For twelve years El Salvador suffered a brutal civil war and some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin American history. The military repression provoked massive northern migration to the United States.

Salvadoran civilians flee government bombing, San Salvador, El Salvador, 1989. Copyright © Donna De Cesare. Ciudadanos civiles salvadoreños huyen de los bombazos del gobierno, San Salvador, El Salvador, 1989. Derechos reservados || Donna De Cesare.

In the 1980s El Salvador was an obsession of United States foreign policy. As a brutal civil war raged on the ground, Washington’s cold war concerns ensured massive and continued U.S. support for the Salvadoran government and military against the guerrilla forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Determined to avoid a Salvadoran version of the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua, the US government denied and colluded in covering up some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin American history. The assassination of the Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the murder and rape of 3 US Catholic nuns and a lay church worker, the massacre of the entire village of El Mozote, the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter represent a handful of the documented cases of murder planned and perpetrated on civilians by Salvadoran government forces.

The intensity of the repression provoked massive migration. By the mid 1980s nearly one-fifth the population of El Salvador was living in the United States. Salvadoran immigrants organized protests and were joined by US religious and human rights groups in calling for an end to US military aid to El Salvador.