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Remembering El Salvador’s Peace Accord: Why Was That Peace Elusive?

A painting celebrating El Salvador's bicentennial

Twenty years ago, on January 16, 1992, the protagonists to El Salvador’s twelve year civil war signed a peace accord. The United Nations mediators and outside observers, gathered at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, congratulated themselves for achieving this agreement. Then they went off to make peace in Bosnia. The Salvadoran government under President Cristiani and the Frente Faribundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) met euphoric citizens upon their return home, who welcomed the ceasefire as an indicator of a new peace. But was it for real? The Chapultepec Accords have lessons for international mediators, as well as the U.S. government, as we nudge nations towards resolving their protracted internal conflicts. This is the central focus of a Brookings Latin America Initiative event on January 19, 2012.

We have learned that pursuing the end to armed conflict is distinct, and may be in conflict with strengthening democracy. In El Salvador, ending the violence became the primordial drive. We focused on demobilizing opposing forces, decommissioning weapons and creating alternative livelihoods for combatants. In this rush, General Ponce Enrile succeeded in placing 1,500 soldiers from the most disreputable battalions into the new police force; a clear violation of the UN mediated peace accords, but no one had an alternative solution. Considerable emphasis was placed on creating a new civilian police and a Police Academy, but little attention was given to the quality of the training or the pre-requisites for police cadets. An equally important democratic reform was the agreement to remove the current Supreme Court justices, whose lack of independence made them a mere tool of the president. However, when that constitutional reform took place in 1994, the justices remained bound to political patrons. More recently, the struggle over the Supreme Court's independence was demonstrated in the government’s demand that Supreme Court decisions be unanimous, thus giving the president’s favored judge a veto. Admirably, civil society’s protest and insistence on judicial decisions by majority vote won over.

Second, we have come to accept that armed conflict will continue at the same time as peacemakers gather around baize tables to negotiate. Both the government and the UN mediator’s demand that the FMLN cease fighting before talks begin proved unenforceable. The only leverage that the guerilla forces had was their capacity to act militarily. Knowing this, they held onto weapons and kept their units readied for action. Meantime, President Cristiani and the FMLN comandantes entered into dialogue using the shuttle diplomacy of the UN mediator, Alvaro de Soto. Unusual at the time, the capacity to fight and to talk at the same time has become commonplace.

Third, we know that allowing socio-economic issues to fall to the bottom of an agenda risks leaving them unresolved and festering. The cause of El Salvador’s war was class based and directly related to glaring disparities of wealth. This could only be resolved by providing greater opportunities to an increasingly vocal middle and working class. The problem was that the FMLN’s socialist philosophy and the government’s commitment to free market principles clashed directly. The peace talks would have collapsed had they forcefully insisted upon their respective philosophies. Therefore, pragmatism required that each side would not insist on its political goals during the negotiation, but wait until elections to propose and introduce their preferred economic platforms. Outside mediators should have understood the reason for avoiding discussion of socio-economic issues and insisted on international funding for the necessary reconstruction of the country and the training of its people for peaceful, civilian lives.

Fourth, we have come to realize the limits of UN intervention and the need to restrict their presence to a brief number of years. As the Salvadorans struggled to implement the peace accords, UN officials in their white land rovers toured the country. Their purpose was admirable: collect evidence for a UN Truth Commission. However, overtime, the UN pullovers became synonymous with diminished sovereignty. Therefore, widespread cheers met the departure of UN personnel when they left in 1995.

Finally, peace requires a generational change. Those who fought the war in the 1980s remained embittered. They might have agreed to the peace, but their hearts retained revenge as demonstrated by the two national and competing newspapers in El Salvador. It takes the sons and daughters of warriors to consolidate the peace. However, in El Salvador, for want of job opportunities and advancement within the country, some of the next generation turned to gang warfare, identifying with one or other mara (a name used to describe a particularly brutal type of ant). For young men and women who grew up with violence, weapons and death, continued fighting was acceptable, if not preferable. As a young 15 year old Salvadoran told me on my last visit to El Salvador, “I prefer to live like a king for a year, than to grow old in the dragged out poverty of my parents.” Had we invested in the next generation through quality education and skills training, we might have mitigated the brutal violence of inter-gang rivalry that plagues El Salvador today.