Dr. Sonja Wolf is a CONACYT research fellow with the Drug Policy Program at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. We asked her to comment on the 25th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Accords.
The Enduring Appeal of Gang Suppression in El Salvador
by Sonja Wolf
On January 16, 2017, El Salvador will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the peace settlement that ended the country’s twelve-year civil war. This conflict pitched the guerrilla forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) against the government army, propped up by billions of dollars in US military aid. While for the average citizen it is bound to be a day like any other, the administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén will mark the occasion with concerts and other festive events.
It has also announced, however, that it has asked the United Nations, mediator of the earlier peace negotiations, to help produce a new “National Accord”. This agreement is meant to unite all sectors of society, often at odds with each other, in order to tackle major challenges. The invitation comes at a critical time and, compared to the usual official rhetoric that the country is forging ahead, is a recognition that local actors have proved unable to create much-needed political consensus and public policies.
The somber climate stands in stark contrast to the optimism of the early nineties, when Salvadorans were hopeful that greater freedom and prosperity were laying ahead. The war, which had originated because peaceful social and political change was impossible, had left some 75,000 people dead and the economy shattered. The peace agreements mandated a series of constitutional, institutional, political, and socioeconomic reforms. While most transformations advanced only half-heartedly, the last of these never took off to begin with.
The FMLN and the ruling government of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a conservative party that defended the interests and privileges of the economic elite, embraced fundamentally different views and expectations of their country. Whereas the left felt that a democracy had never existed in El Salvador, and the peace accords were a means to build it, the right considered that the guerrilla had attacked an actually existing democracy and the task ahead was to restore the status quo.
With a powerful part of the population committed to ending the war, but not to pursuing the vision enshrined in the treaty, the country’s future was always going to be uncertain. The peace accords remain a watershed for El Salvador, but their reluctant implementation lies at the root of the problems that have beset it since. To be sure, it was no small feat to terminate the political violence, incorporate the FMLN into the political system, hold democratic elections, and restructure the security sector. But state institutions and the rule of law remain weak, corruption flourishes, poverty and inequality persist, and criminal violence has surged.