Christine Wade |Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016
|Soldiers guard a corner in a gang-controlled neighborhood in Ilopango|
The surge in murders was just the latest sign that a truce negotiated between the government and gangs that held from 2012 to 2014 has failed to deliver the long-term respite from violence that so many Salvadorans seek. Since 2014, when it became clear that President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s government would not negotiate a new truce, violence between and among gangs, state security forces and some more sinister elements has spiraled out of control. Stories of extortion and systemic impunity, as well as the images of dead bodies that flood the Salvadoran media daily, clash with the country’s image as one of the United Nations’ most successful cases of postwar peacebuilding.
For two years leading up to the peace deal that brought an end to civil war in 1992, the U.N. assisted the parties in negotiating a comprehensive settlement. Among the most important reforms, the accords placed the military under civilian control, eliminated nefarious security forces, and created a new national police. The FMLN became a viable, left-wing political party. Building on its success at the local and parliamentary elections, the FMLN won presidential elections in 2009 and 2014.
But the accords were not without their own problems. In particular, key aspects of institutional reform lacked specificity and were trusted to later processes. Additionally, socio-economic issues that were a priority for the Salvadoran public were not sufficiently addressed. Yet implementation of the agreements, though plagued with problems in security reform, was generally considered successful. In 24 years, the cease-fire has never been broken.
Despite these relative successes, a majority of Salvadorans believe that things are either as bad or worse than they were during the war and express little to no satisfaction with the country’s democracy. The high crime rate and stagnant economy have consistently been identified as the chief problems in public opinion polls over the past two decades. Both of these have driven record emigration: More Salvadorans have left the country since the end of the war than during it. Corruption and impunity undermine support for democratic institutions, and Salvadorans consistently support heavy-handed, authoritarian solutions to crime and violence. Political parties are polarized, and most Salvadorans see them as self-serving anyway, rather than as a means of political representation.
More Salvadorans have left the country since the end of the war than during it.
To date, there has been no transitional justice process in El Salvador beyond the country’s truth commission, which assigned the vast majority of the responsibility for the abuses committed during the war—95 percent—to state and paramilitary forces. But days after the truth commission’s report was released in 1993, the Salvadoran government passed a sweeping amnesty law, shielding those who committed crimes from prosecution. The legacy of impunity and the failure of reconciliation have had a serious impact on the rule of law, contributing to the criminality that now overwhelms the small country of just over 6 million people.
Reckoning with the past has come slowly to El Salvador and only gained traction following the elections in 2009, when the FMLN came to power with President Mauricio Funes. In 2010, on the 18th anniversary of the accords, Funes issued the first state apology for crimes committed during the war. The truth commission’s report was published for public circulation in 2014, more than 20 years after it was released. Earlier this month, the Salvadoran government agreed to the extradition of 17 soldiers to Spain in connection with the 1989 murder of six Jesuit scholars, five of whom were Spanish, along with their housekeeper and her daughter—one of the most publicized atrocities of the civil war. Whether the recent beatification and impending sainthood of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by death squads in 1980, will propel investigations into crimes committed during the war remains to be seen.
Despite all this, by U.N. peacebuilding standards, El Salvador is considered one of the most successful cases. For the U.N., the cessation of conflict is the main criteria for a mission’s success, and approximately one-third of all peace settlements collapse within five years. Moreover, U.N. peacebuilding missions rarely deliver the liberal, democratic governance envisioned by the international community. Christoph Zürcher’s analysis of 19 major peacebuilding operations found that fewer than half resulted in liberal or electoral democracies, and even fewer met basic standards for rule of law or economic development.
Elevated homicide rates are also common in post-conflict societies; El Salvador is hardly alone on that count. Dozens of countries recovering from bloody civil conflicts and wars become trapped between war and peace, dictatorship and democracy. Many Salvadorans have referred to this gray zone as “not war,” though the recent spike in homicides, militarized policing, economic stagnation and mass emigration increasingly make the country look like a war zone. Success in peacebuilding, it seems, is a paradox.
While much of the scholarly criticism of peacebuilding outcomes has been directed at the international community, local elites have a significant impact, too. Elites can shape the content of negotiations and manipulate the implementation of agreements to preserve their own interests. They control key state resources and patronage networks, especially if they are incumbents during the process. This was very much the case in El Salvador, as I argue in my new book, “Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador,” though it was also evident in cases ranging from Guatemala to Cambodia.
There is much that other countries, and peacebuilders, can learn from the Salvadoran experience—especially nearby Colombia. In March, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are expected to finalize a peace agreement to end the 51-year civil war. Drawing on the knowledge of more than two decades of negotiated settlements, the parties have reached important agreements on political participation, land restitution, reparations to victims and the creation of a truth commission. They have also agreed that there will be no amnesty. Both parties recently requested the assistance of the U.N. to monitor the disarmament process.
While any meaningful assessment of the content of the accords will have to wait until the parties produce a final, formal agreement, Colombia appears to have addressed issues of transitional justice that have plagued El Salvador. But Colombia’s conflict is far more complicated than El Salvador’s, and attempts at peacemaking have eluded Colombians more than once. If there is one lesson from El Salvador, it is that real peace can be elusive, even when a peace deal seems like a success.
Christine Wade is associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Her new book, “Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador,” was recently published by Ohio University Press.