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In 1992 the United Nations-backed Chapultepec peace accords brought decades of civil war in El Salvador to an end.
Now, 25 years after the peace accords, El Salvador still faces the challenges of social divisions, high crime rates, and controversial amnesty laws.
A recent event in London examined the legacy of the conflict and the deep-seated problems still facing Salvadorean society.
Peace is more than the absence of war
Professor Jenny Pearce of the LSE emphasized the nature of the social movement that led to the FMLN guerrilla movement taking on successive right-wing military and elected governments backed by the United States.
The social movement began in the 1970s and was focused mainly in rural areas, breaking down the traditional frameworks, including the practice of clientelism.
The Catholic Church also played a significant role , encouraging literacy and democratisation inspired in part by liberation theology that had been gaining influence in Latin America since the 1960s.
By 1990, the conflict came to what Pearce described as a ‘hurting stalemate’, which led to both sides agreeing to peace negotiations, with the peace pact being signed in 1992.
Pearce emphasized the limitations of the talks: although they may have ended a war, they did not bring about peace, and ideas of punishment, historical memory, and amnesty were absent.
Nor could the peace resolve the structural issues that had led to the war, and modernization of the economy, which had led to rapid urbanisation and migration of the poor, weakened the agreement.
Most significantly, there the peace comprised no obligations for the elites, which meant that there could be little change in society.
Pearce did show some signs of optimism, noting that El Salvador’s peace provided a lesson for Guatemalan and Colombian peace processes.
Justice vs political stability
Manuel Melendez, whose research focuses on political parties, political institutions, and non-state violence in El Salvador and Latin America, expanded on the 1993 amnesty laws that were passed in conjunction with the Peace Accords.
During the conflict, 75,000 people were killed, 8,000 ‘disappeared’, and 12,000 injured, according to Menendez. It is estimated that the Salvadoran armed forces and death squads such as ‘Mano Blanca’ were responsible for 85 percent of civilian murders, compared to the 5 percent attributed to the FMLN.
The first, and highly ambiguous, amnesty law forgave political crimes but not major acts of violence.
A second amnesty law superseded this, giving a blanket pardon to all of the parties involved in the conflict.
The definition of peace, Mendelez argued, has significant implications for the law: if peace is defined by human rights, the amnesty law is the antithesis of peace, but if peace is based on political stability, then the law is a necessary precondition since almost every, if not every, administration since has included someone protected by this law.
On 13th July 2016, the Supreme Court ruled the second law unconstitutional since it prevented the state from investigating crimes against constitutional human rights.
This ruling was interpreted in two ways: either it would facilitate a much wider and better application of justice or, as anticipated by the defence minister, it would pave the way for a witch-hunt.
There were three potential outcomes to the ruling: a witch hunt would have been good for justice but crippling for political stability; a few emblematic cases would have been pursued, with little impact on either justice or political stability; or the ruling would remain unenforced, leaving little changed and having a negative impact on justice while maintaining political stability.
It soon became evident that the third possibility was the most likely to prevail.
Dialogue vs Mano Dura
Celia Szusterman of the Institute of Statecraft explained further the effect of the war on current Salvadoran society and the struggle between ‘Diálogo’ and ‘Super Mano Dura’.
El Salvador today faces what Szusterman described as ‘real, big problems’ of youth violence, gangs, social exclusion, and an increasing gap between state and society.
She blamed the problem on the global phenomenon of young men lacking prospects and struggling for a sense of identity.
Since the 1992 Peace Accords, there has been a staggering increase in the number of young gang members imprisoned in El Salvador.
The gang problem arose when large numbers of Salvadoreans, made refugees by two decades of intense conflict at home, settled in Los Angeles. There many became involved in local gangs and were deported for their involvement in gang-related crime. On their return to El Salvador, they brought with them the culture of drugs, gangs and crime.
El Salvador’s ‘Mano Dura’ approach means that it is illegal to be a member of a gang, which has led to a spike in both the rate of imprisonment and homicide.
Despite having a total capacity of 8,000, El Salvador’s prisons currently hold 37,000 of whom 15,000 are gang members.
As a result, inmates face humiliating conditions and treatment, which, Szusterman argued, will only leave them more brutalised upon their release.
For many of the gang members, crime is the only source of income, as shown by its disorganised nature.
In Szusterman’s view, the Salvadoran government must open a dialogue with the gangs and listen to them, rather than perceiving and treating them only as criminals.