Between 1980 and 1991, the Republic of El Salvador was immersed in a war that plunged its society into violence. On January 16, 1992, the parties reconciled and signed the Peace Agreement in the Castle of Chapultepec, Mexico.
Problems and Purpose
In the 1970s, growing public support for leftist movements in addition to government repression created unrest in El Salvador and other Latin American states. In 1980, a number of failed military juntas came into power but failed to settle the unrest. Throughout the 1980s, the conflict between the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military forces and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) led to intervention by the U.S. Congress and the UN, which eventually helped mediate a resolution. On January 16, 1992, the U.N.-brokered peace agreements mandated the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, which was set up in July.
The mandate sought to examine systematic atrocities since the human rights violations had not only been executed by the members of the armed forces but also by the insurgent forces. According to the peace agreements, “the Commission shall have the task of investigating serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980 and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth” . The truth, therefore, was to be made public for the purpose of justice, which the Commission sought to facilitate.
Background History and Context
Between 1980 and 1983, violence became systematic in El Salvador, thus causing distrust among the civilian population. According to the report, “the fragmentation of any opposition or dissident movement by means of arbitrary arrests, murders and selective and indiscriminate disappearances of leaders became common practice” . In 1980, the FMLN was formed, and in January 1981, the first large-scale military offensive left hundreds dead . Civilian and military groups began a systematic murder campaign and State institutions did not get involved .
Between 1983 and 1987, human rights violations continued to occur in urban centers of El Salvador. The FMLN increased its military strength, in which it executed large-scale operations and exercised territorial control over various parts of the country . At this time, the armed forces viewed the civilian population as “legitimate targets for attack,” which transpired as aerial bombings, artillery attacks, and massacres against Salvadorans . By 1984, there were reported to be 500,000 displaced persons within El Salvador and 245,500 Salvadoran refugees abroad .
Between 1987 and 1989, though President Duarte signed the Esquipulas II Agreement, there was a resurgence of violence and an increase in attacks on groups such as the labour movement, human rights groups, and social organizations .
Between 1989 and 1991, the conflict reached its tipping point, in which the Salvadoran government declared a state of emergency following the biggest offensive of the war. The UN became involved and initiated the signing of Peace Agreements.
The Commission registered more than 22,000 complaints of serious acts of violence in El Salvador during the war . The accused were mostly members of the armed forces, security forces, and the State .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Commission was brokered by the United Nations.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Commission consisted of three appointed commissioners: Belisario Betancur, former president of Colombia, Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart, former foreign minister of Venezuela, and Thomas Buergenthal, former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Each Commissioner is connected with the government or an academic institution.
The Commissioners required the help of a number of advisors and aides. In addition, more than 20,000 witnesses made the report possible with their testimony.
Methods and Tools Used
The Commission utilized witness reports, testimony, newspaper and magazine articles, and books as forms of documentation of violence in El Salvador . Over 2,000 primary sources, such as books, pamphlets, and research, referring to more than 7,000 victims; information from secondary sources regarding more than 20,000 victims; information from official bodies in the United States and internationally; and information from government bodies and the FMLN not only helped the Commissioners but offer a cohesive account of El Salvador’s contemporary history .
In their investigation, the Commission considered three additional factors to its mandate:
- It must investigate serious acts committed by both sides, and not just one of the Parties
- It must pay special attention to acts of violence committed by officers of the armed forces which had previously gone uninvestigated or unpunished
- It was given six months to perform its task, while the conflict had lasted twelve years
In order to evaluate each of the cases brought forward, the Commission would specify the degrees of certainty of each. First, overwhelming evidence is when the case contained conclusive of highly convincing evidence to support the Commission’s finding. Second, substantial evidence is when the case contained very solid evidence to support the Commission's finding. Last, sufficient evidence is when the case contained more evidence to support the Commission’s finding than to contradict it . Fact-checking and research-based verifications ensured that the Commission gathered reliable evidence.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The mandate sought to investigate serious acts of violence, inform the public of the truth, and evaluate the impact of the atrocities to eventually achieve reconciliation . The Commission, then, was given two powers. First, to investigate, and second, to make recommendations.
The Commissioners and their professional aides successfully overcame obstacles that made finding the truth difficult. The Commission was afforded a brief period of time – only six months – to embark upon a large task. As a result, the Commission had to distance itself from events that could not be verified and accept any possible testimony from Salvadoran society, institutions, and individuals familiar with the violence that took place . To do this, the Commission placed announcements in the press, on the radio, and on television, and written statements were taken at Offices of the Commission in various departmental capitals .
The Commission established an open-door policy for hearing testimony and a closed-door policy for confidentiality, which ensured that witness testimony was recorded in great detail. However, the list of victims is incomplete, as it was compiled within the short time frame that the Commission was afforded to operate .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Commission issued a set of legal, political, and administrative recommendations under the terms of its mandate.
First, the mandate issued a series of general conclusions. These emphasized the need for judicial, legislative, or executive government reform to prevent military societal control . The Report asserts that the government “institute full and indisputable civilian control over all military, paramilitary, intelligence and security forces” . Then, the Commission issued a series of further recommendations to ensure that this was feasible.
The Commission’s recommendations are based on democracy, participation, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, in which national defense, public security, and civilian authority would be prioritized.
The civilian government and the armed forces ended up rejecting the Commission’s recommendations and, in turn, no follow-up organization was established. A number of human rights trials were conducted in the wake of the report, however, they did not result in many convictions.
200 senior officers were removed from the army, but high command officers were retired with full honours and benefits. The government passed a blanket amnesty law, but it was deemed unconstitutional in 2016 and thus war criminals can now be prosecuted. The government has not provided reparations to victims or survivors. The U.S. government and the Salvadoran death squads were not investigated closely enough, and the Commission did not call for the prosecution of incriminated perpetrators.
In 1992, a Monument to the Constitution was created to memorialize the new era of peace, and another was erected in 2003 with the Monument of Memory and Truth, a granite wall engraved with 30,000 names or missing or murdered victims from the civil war.
 From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (United States Institute of Peace, 1993): 4.
 Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 19.
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 24.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 30.
 Ibid, 35.
 Ibid, 36.
 Ibid, 8.
 Ibid, 9.
 Ibid, 17.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 5.
 Ibid, 6.
 Ibid, 163.
 Ibid, 164.
From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador. United States Institute of Peace, 1993.
The first version of this case entry was written by Sarah Slasor, McMaster University.