Seeking Peace in El Salvador

The Latin America and Hemispheric Studies Program at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University hosted an event on September 19, 2012 entitled “Seeking Peace in El Salvador.”

Dr. Diana Negroponte and Héctor Silva led a discussion about the successes and failures of the 1992 UN brokered Peace Accord that ended 12 years of civil war in El Salvador. In the discussion, the panel suggested that the while shortcoming of that peace process twenty years ago may contribute to today’s violence there are lessons learned that may make the current efforts to end gang violence more successful.

The speakers at the event have a lot of experience in the region. Dr. Negroponte is a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Seeking Peace in El Salvador: the Struggle to Reconstruct a Nation at the End of the Cold War.” She is also married to John Negroponte who was ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s and facilitated the U.S. government’s support for the Contras in Nicaragua. After a long career as a journalist in El Salvador, Héctor Silva Avalos is currently serving as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington DC.

The conversation began with a discussion of the emergence of youth gangs in El Salvador at the end of the civil war. Both panelists drew a direct connection between today’s marginalization of youth and the unfinished peace process of the civil war. Dr. Negroponte reviewed various tenants of the peace accords, pointing out that El Salvador remains the only country to have maintained a UN brokered peace agreement. She also pointed out that while UN Commission on Truth in El Salvador published a report naming those responsible for the worst acts of violence, including massacres, the amnesty program protects them from being punished for their crimes. While the stated policy was to move the country forward and out of war, the amnesty left a legacy of unresolved tension and unfinished business.

Dr. Negroponte also pointed out that demobilized FMLN combatants were not offered skills training or other educational opportunities as they put down their guns. Land reforms provided former combatants with small plots of land, but many did not want to be farmers so they either sold it or let it lay fallow. Dr. Negroponte said the lack of adequate reintegration plan left many youth, who had grown up with a gun in their hands, looking for new ways to continue doing what they had done for so many years – fight.

Over the past several months, gang leaders have been calling on the government and civil society to provide the same kind of education and job training that was lacking during demobilization in the early 1990s. Dr. Negroponte says it will be important for the government to do a better job with reintegration this time around.

The memory of the war and violence continues to have an affect on El Salvador’s collective conscious. The memories are not easy to forget, especially when former combatants transition into positions of power in the government and private sectors. Mr. Silva stressed that El Salvador has a long history of war and that it has become an ingrained part of their culture. Prior to the civil war, El Salvador did not have a strong political culture, just fear and repression. The Peace Accords helped solidify a new national state, a new civilian police force, and a new political system. The newer generations are not as influenced by the civil war and bellicose terms like guerrilla and communism (or anti-communism) that are still thrown around.

Mr. Silva agreed with Dr. Negroponte that gray areas from the peace accords continue to affect the El Salvador. Amnesty and the lack of resolution for many of the most egregious crimes committed during the war is mentioned frequently – more than twenty years after the peace accords were signed. A lot of people argue that those responsible for crimes ought to be brought to justice. Along these lines, Mr. Silva recommended that El Salvador consider a second generation of reforms to the constitution and police force.

The panelists did not discuss the Culture of Peace Program that the UNESCO tried to implement in the years following the Peace Accords. Colette Hellenkamp explains in her recent report on the Culture of Peace in El Salvador, that UNESCO attempted to facilitate post-war reconciliation among people who had recently been enemies in the war, “through joint collaborative processes to design and implement projects that would benefit the entire society in areas such as culture, communication, science, and education.” After years of preparation funding for the Culture of Peace Program never came through and only a couple of the projects were ever implemented. The program also created opportunities for dialogue for people to come together to share their experiences and discuss future possibilities for peace. Though the topic was absent from last week’s discussion at GWU, the Culture of Peace Program is worth considering in light of the gang truce, and integrating youth into society.

Over the years, the country has demonstrated its ability to grow, heal and develop, and it will continue to do so as new generations inherit and improve the current political system. The truce between the gangs is an example of that ability to grow and heal. But to ensure that it is a lasting peace, the government must balance the same kinds of issues it faced twenty years ago. While providing Salvadoran society, which has been traumatized by years of violence, with sense of justice and closure, the government and civil society has to work with gang youth to ensure they are appropriately integrated.

This was an excellent event with interesting analysis about the Peace Accord and its legacy in El Salvador. Both speakers had excellent academic and personal insight into these matters. It will be interesting to see how El Salvador moves forward in the elections and with the gang-truce and what lessons they can take from the past Peace Accord into the future of these two issues.

 

 

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