El Salvador’s Military Massacres Civilians Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The massacre of up to thirty thousand peasants by the Salvadoran army ended a radical reform movement in the countryside and ushered in fifty years of repression and military rule in El Salvador.

Summary of Event

Social relations in El Salvador in the first decades of the twentieth century were characterized by a wide division in power. The peasant masses, who had once enjoyed communal property rights as part of an ancient landholding system, had seen these rights taken away in the late 1800’s by a powerful clique of coffee planters. Behind a shield of “liberal” legislation, these growers had succeeded in expanding their holdings to encompass nearly all of the country’s arable land. They modernized the economy by tying their fortunes to the exclusive cultivation of coffee, for which a large international market existed. [kw]El Salvador’s Military Massacres Civilians (Jan.-Feb., 1932)[El Salvadors Military Massacres Civilians (Jan. Feb., 1932)] [kw]Military Massacres Civilians, El Salvador’s (Jan.-Feb., 1932) [kw]Massacres Civilians, El Salvador’s Military (Jan.-Feb., 1932) [kw]Civilians, El Salvador’s Military Massacres (Jan.-Feb., 1932) Massacres;El Salvador El Salvador;la matanza[matanza] [g]El Salvador;Jan.-Feb., 1932: El Salvador’s Military Massacres Civilians[07960] [g]Latin America;Jan.-Feb., 1932: El Salvador’s Military Massacres Civilians[07960] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Jan.-Feb., 1932: El Salvador’s Military Massacres Civilians[07960] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan.-Feb., 1932: El Salvador’s Military Massacres Civilians[07960] Farabundo Martí, Agustín Hernández Martínez, Maximiliano Araújo, Arturo

The peasants, most of whom were Pipil Indians, had an almost mystical reverence for their cornfields. The disestablishment of their communal system had a psychological as well as a material effect on their lives. Without access to land, they had no options other than to work on the coffee plantations as colonos, receiving in exchange tiny plots for their own subsistence along with miserable wages, often issued in kind. Once-independent peasants were thus reduced to debt peons.

For their part, the members of the coffee growers’ oligarchy took advantage of a seemingly limitless world demand for their product. The coffee boom, Coffee industry, El Salvador which lasted throughout the 1920’s, stimulated urbanization, brought railways and telegraph lines to the interior, and widened the economic gap between the oligarchs and the peasantry. The wealthy lived in regal splendor while the poor seethed in their poverty.

The rural environment of El Salvador had little in it of philanthropy. The planters kept wages low, and they paid almost no taxes that might support social services. As a consequence, discontent among the poor was widespread, and isolated uprisings occurred frequently. The rural constabulary and the national guard crushed all of these movements. As time went by, the oligarchs came to rely more and more on coercion to maintain the status quo in the countryside.

The coming of the Great Depression Great Depression;El Salvador in 1929 provided the catalyst for a social explosion. The demand for coffee on the world markets collapsed. With prices falling, the colonos lost the opportunity to find work. Wages fell 60 percent. In the cities, the Depression gave rise to a period of intense political discussion, with younger members of the oligarchy expressing some doubts as to whether the traditional order could contain the social crisis. A few individuals looked to reformist solutions.

Among their number was Arturo Araújo, an admirer of Britain’s Fabian Socialists. Araújo was something of a wild card in Salvadoran politics, and the Partido Laborista he founded reflected an eclectic blend of mysticism, anti-imperialism, and what was termed vitalismo mínimo–the idea that every citizen deserved a “vital minimum” of goods and services necessary to a happy life. Such sentiments appealed to many, especially in the cities, where trade unionists and middle-class professionals lent avid support to Araújo.

The Communist Party of El Salvador also favored this wayward son of the oligarchy. In this instance, however, the party’s support was conditional, because the Communists, led by veteran activist Agustín Farabundo Martí, feared that Araújo’s popularity might overshadow their own plans to carve a measure of power from the country’s difficulties. As it turned out, they needed to fear something far more sinister.

Despite the misgivings of most oligarchs, the government held free elections in January, 1931. Five presidential candidates, most of whom represented conservative coffee interests, entered the field against Araújo. The latter went on to win anyway and took office at the beginning of March. Problems plagued Araújo from the beginning. The Depression hit the country people very hard. Although he had made vague promises as to land reform, the new president simply could not deliver on these while simultaneously safeguarding the privileges of the elite.

The lack of direction displayed by Araújo was evident from the beginning. The oligarchs, who had previously thought Araújo merely risky, now saw him as positively dangerous and looked to anyone who might deliver them from his influences. The peasants and the trade unionists also became disillusioned. Seeing that their support had brought them repression and not reform, they began to consider more radical solutions, particularly those espoused by Farabundo Martí and the Communists. Several strikes by colonos in April and May were brutally put down by forces under War Minister (and Vice President) Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Widespread rebellion now seemed likely.

Of all the groups opposed to Araújo, clearly the most willing to act on its grievances was the military. The president had tried to reduce the army’s budget by 25 percent and tried to retire a number of senior officers. Most crucial, however, was his inability to pay his soldiers. In normal times, export duties paid the greater part of government expenses, but with coffee exports at rock bottom, Araújo’s administration was delinquent in its payments to all officials.

The end came swiftly. On December 2, 1931, army units loyal to General Hernández Martínez seized control of San Salvador and other major cities. Only Araújo loyalists initially condemned the attack. Most political parties, including the Communists, gave their tacit approval. They felt reassured when Hernández Martínez announced that municipal elections scheduled for January, 1932, would go forward. The Left then organized meetings and street demonstrations, distributed leaflets, and prepared for the elections. Few doubted that Hernández Martínez would keep his word.

The general, however, had his own ambitions. A man of a mystical frame of mind who would later conduct seances in the presidential palace, he felt certain that he acted with divine aid. Having identified all opposition organizers, he cancelled the elections and began a massive repression. Realizing that they were moving in the eleventh hour, the Communists launched an urban revolt on January 22, supposedly set to coincide with a rural insurrection in the western departments of Santa Ana, Ahuachapán, and Sonsonate. The Indian leaders of those areas had tenuous ties to Farabundo Martí, even though they had no use for Communists generally. They nevertheless decided that a revolt offered them their last chance of deliverance.

They were wrong, tragically so. The army quelled the urban uprising in a matter of hours, police agents having already penetrated the revolutionary cells. They had previously detained Farabundo Martí. A policy of summary execution began that included even suspected members of opposition groups. Martí received unusual treatment: He was given a brief trial before he faced the firing squad.

The rural districts experienced the full fury of the repression. The peasant rebels, armed with machetes, managed to hold out for forty-eight hours. They killed some fifty policemen. The army and the irregular forces set up by the landowners exacted an awesome revenge in what Salvadorans still refer to simply as la matanza, the massacre. The army regarded anyone with Indian features as being automatically guilty and liable for the ultimate penalty. Whole villages were razed. Hospitals were checked and the wounded dragged out and killed. Women, children, and dogs were shot along with men. The corpses soon became so numerous that they could not be buried and were simply left in ditches along the roads. As one witness later observed, only the vultures ate well that year. Before the violence had run its course in February, as many as thirty thousand people had died. The massacre left a legacy of violence in Salvadoran politics that was overcome only decades later.


La matanza left a deep scar in Salvadoran society. Virtually every family in the western part of the country lost someone to the army terror. The effects of the repression went even further, however, than the loss of life. There were cultural losses. Because Hernández Martínez and the army chose to identify the Pipil Indians as part of a wide Communist conspiracy, most Indian survivors rushed to deny their Indian identity. They abandoned the use of native garb, which they saw as a provocative symbol of resistance likely to bring down the wrath of the police. Indians encouraged their children to avoid speaking Pipil except at home, and then only in hushed tones.

There were social losses. With the members of many families serving in the army or among the rebels, the repression could not help but have a divisive impact. It became impossible to trust anyone. All of the traditional foci of rural authority and trust—the church and, more important, the socioreligious brotherhoods (cofradías)—lost the popular support they once had enjoyed. Fear dominated the peasant landscape. Only the oligarchs could claim that la matanza had increased the level of solidarity in their ranks. It also taught them the false lesson that class solidarity outweighed national reconciliation and that their survival depended on the subordination of the peasants.

Finally, the repression brought political losses. General Hernández Martínez followed la matanza with a twelve-year dictatorship that brooked little opposition, even from the oligarchs. Although civilian vigilantes conducted much of the 1932 slaughter, that event’s political outcome confirmed the army’s claim on power. Hernández Martínez was only one of many military presidents who were to rule El Salvador during the twentieth century. As an institution, the Salvadoran armed forces consistently resisted pressures to make room for civilian participation in politics. When open application of force was inadvisable, the military acted in collusion with the oligarchs to create death squads.

For their part, the peasant masses in El Salvador became caught between two polar extremes in the late twentieth century. They could either join the ranks of the army and the elites, who perceived the struggle as an anti-Communist crusade, or they could join with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas, the ideological descendants of Martí, and fight to establish the kind of Leninist regime that had been repudiated throughout the Eastern Bloc. In either direction, death threatened the average citizen. The greatest and most frightening legacies of la matanza were the effects that it left in the popular mind and the knowledge that it could happen again. However, a peace settlement reached in 1992 between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN paved the way for these fears to be alleviated in a spirit of national reconciliation and a new democratic process for a nation too long torn by civil war. Massacres;El Salvador El Salvador;la matanza[matanza]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Thomas P. Matanza. 2d ed. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone Press, 1992. Considered the classic English-language account of the repression. Thoughtful treatment draws on extensive interviews with participants and previously little-known manuscript materials. Includes map, footnotes, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalton, Roque. Miguel Marmol. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone Press, 1987. Unique and fascinating account of la matanza based on extensive interviews with an active organizer of the Salvadoran Communist Party who was himself shot and left for dead in 1932 and who later spent many years in exile in the Soviet Union. Marmol’s Stalinist attitude dates him, but his comments about sacrifice and struggle still ring true. Dalton, an important poet and member of the revolutionary underground, was murdered in 1975 by a rival leftist faction. Includes three letters from Marmol as well as an October, 1986, interview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holden, Robert H. Armies Without Nations: Public Violence and State Formation in Central America, 1821-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Examines how Central American states have exercised public violence as a way of maintaining authority. Includes discussion of la matanza in El Salvador. Features photographs, endnotes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClintock, Michael. State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador. Vol. 1 in The American Connection. London: Zed Books, 1985. Thorough examination of U.S. military and economic aid to El Salvador contains some useful information on the 1932 massacre, including some of the comments of the American military attaché in San Salvador at the time. Includes endnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montgomery, Tommie Sue. Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Insightful history of the Salvadoran struggle for justice focuses more on the 1970’s and 1980’s than on la matanza but provides a detailed account of the antecedents of the quagmire of the 1990’s, making it a key source for those seeking to understand modern El Salvador. Includes photos, maps, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">North, Liisa. Bitter Grounds: Roots of Revolt in El Salvador. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1985. Brief but concise treatment of Salvadoran politics in the twentieth century, especially strong concerning economic questions. Chapter 3 covers the 1932 peasant revolt and its bloody aftermath. Includes maps, tables, notes, bibliography, appendixes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parkman, Patricia. Nonviolent Insurrection in El Salvador: The Fall of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988. Valuable, well-researched account of the Hernández Martínez regime focuses more on his ouster in the mid-1940’s than on la matanza. Based largely on materials drawn from the archives of the U.S. Department of State and on interviews. Includes maps, illustrations, endnotes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Philip L. El Salvador in Crisis. Austin, Tex.: Colorado River Press, 1984. Like most “committed” historical works, this study favors a leftist solution for the Salvadoran problem. Provides a thorough treatment of the 1932 bloodbath. Includes maps, tables, illustrations, graphs, endnotes, bibliography, and index.

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Categories: History