Photo Source: AFP
Thirty years ago, on January 16, 1992, the Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed a historic peace agreement that ended the country’s brutal civil war. The accords not only were the first to be mediated by the United Nations in one of its earliest forays into peacebuilding, but they also have the distinction of being the longest lasting peace settlement of that era. Countries that later negotiated peace settlements, including El Salvador’s neighbor Guatemala, learned from the lessons—better or worse—of El Salvador.
Peace agreements that followed El Salvador’s were generally more detailed, comprehensive, and inclusive. Still, given how few UN peacebuilding missions result in success, it is remarkable El Salvador’s ceasefire has lasted nearly thirty years. The peace accords ushered in an era of democratic elections where former rebels could compete in and win elections, trading bullets for ballots as is often said.
Yet last week, El Salvador’s legislative assembly voted not to commemorate the anniversary of the peace accords, which President Bukele has previously referred to as a “farce” that failed to generate any benefits for the Salvadoran people. Bukele, who had not commemorated the peace accords since his election in 2019, has frequently criticized the accords as a pact between the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA, the party in power during the peace negotiations) and the FMLN that ushered in a new era of corruption. In its vote last week, the assembly established the Day of the Victims of the Armed Conflict in recognition of those who lost their lives and those who lived with “the false idea of a fairer society that never came.”
To be sure, El Salvador’s peace has been an imperfect one. Opinion polls from the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) have repeatedly shown that a majority of Salvadorans felt that things were the same or worse as during the war. In my book, Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador, I wrote about the ways in which political elites can manipulate the implementation phase to suit their desired outcome or at least minimize damage to their agenda. The results of ARENA’s machinations were an exclusionary peace, one wanting for economic, social, and transitional justice. And while there were some important steps towards reconciliation under FMLN leadership—including a state sanctioned apology, publishing the truth commission report, and the establishment of a Historic Crimes Unit—Salvadorans could hardly be blamed for believing that the peace accords had not measurably improved their lives.
Bukele is mistaken if he believes that erasing the past will build a better future. If anything, it is the failure of past administrations to sufficiently reckon with the past that has brought El Salvador to this point.
Bukele is at grave risk of repeating mistakes of the past because he refuses to learn from them. Among the chief achievements of the accords: restructuring and reducing the armed forces and placing them under civilian control, creating a new civilian police force, and dismantling other security agencies. In other words, the accords sought to depoliticize the armed forces. While early ARENA administrations generally adhered to the letter of the accords on reductions in force (with some notable exceptions), successive administrations expanded the military’s role in policing—a violation of both the letter and spirit of the accords that the FMLN continued. Yet Bukele’s outward embrace of the armed forces for political gain, use of the military as a prop for political spectacle, and his recent pledge to double the size of the armed forces in the next five years stand apart and risk elevating the armed forces’ role in politics.
Bukele also fails to understand the link between impunity for crimes committed during the war and present-day impunity. Impunity in El Salvador is the norm. The vast majority of crimes in the country, well over 90 percent, are never investigated or prosecuted. This culture of impunity is deeply rooted in the country’s 1993 amnesty law, which prevented investigations or prosecutions for crimes committed during the war. The law, which was passed days after the release of the truth commission’s report, shielded the Salvadoran armed forces and civilian leadership from accountability from their conduct during the war. Thirty years on, Salvadoran families and communities still await justice for themselves and their loved ones.
In 2016, El Salvador’s supreme court struck down the amnesty law, paving the way for investigations into past crimes. That year, victims and their families reopened the case of the El Mozote massacre, one of the largest and most notorious massacres of the war. The case, which was originally filed in 1990, had been shelved due to the amnesty agreement. For four years the judge in the matter, Jorge Guzmán Urquilla, has presided over the case, still in the evidentiary phase, against 15 former military officers. These proceedings have yielded remarkable contributions to El Salvador’s historical memory, including powerful testimony about U.S. presence near El Mozote at the time of the massacre.
In contrast to his new declaration for the Day of the Victims of the Armed Conflict, Bukele himself has stood in the way of justice for victims of the war. With his help, the military has repeatedly blocked a court order for access to military archives. On August 31, 2021, the legislature passed a law forcing all judges over the age of 60 or those with more than 30 years of service to retire. Guzmán was 61 at the time. His forced retirement may well end the El Mozote proceedings—which was likely one of the legislature’s motivations for passing the law.
Finally, Bukele’s contentious war on independent journalists and civil society significantly undermines a hard-won victory for political space in post-war El Salvador. State repression and surveillance silenced the opposition during the war. Civil society and a free press are essential to democracy, not impediments to it. Yet Bukele has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for criticism of his government, from barring news outlets from press conferences to attacking his opponents on Twitter. Several of his policies, including last summer’s Bitcoin law, have generated anti-government protests. A new foreign agents law, which bears striking similarities to a law in Nicaragua, requires a 40 percent tax on foreign donations. As in Nicaragua, the law will effectively silence many organizations. Last week, investigators revealed that Pegasus spyware had been installed on the phones of dozens of Salvadoran journalists and activists. A representative for Bukele has denied responsibility for the attacks, adding that members of government were also targeted.
Even an imperfect peace holds lessons for the future. Forgetting is condemnation to repetition. Eliminating official commemorations of the peace accords is effectively state denial, and the Salvadoran state has repeatedly shown that it still has much to learn.
Christine J. Wade is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College, author of Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador (Ohio University Press, 2016), and co-author of Understanding Central America (Routledge, 2020) and Latin American Politics and Development, 10th edition (Routledge, forthcoming 2022).