Why Care About El Salvador?

Why should people in the United States care about El Salvador? The short answer is, because they always have. Decisions made in the United States have had a formational impact on life in Central America for centuries. El Salvador is one of the United States’ closest geographical neighbors, and the United States has had a special interest in El Salvador and surrounding countries since the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton dreamed of someday conquering Central America and claiming the territory for the United States. (LaFeber, 1984).

Central America's Northern Triangle

Central America's Northern Triangle


After Central America freed itself from colonial Spanish rule in 1821, the United States began exerting more political and economic influence in the region. In 1907, the United States encouraged the creation of the Central American Court of Justice to promote peace and stability. However, over the next nine years, the U.S. ignored multiple rulings from this court, effectively neutralizing its power. Throughout the twentieth century, private U.S. companies like United Fruit gained extraordinary power in Central American economies. Cash crops like coffee and bananas took over thousands of acres, their success largely dependent on North American demand and price-fixing. (LaFeber, 1984).

During the Cold War, the United States went to great lengths to prevent a Communist regime from taking root in El Salvador. During the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan preached about the importance of human rights while funneling financial and military resources to the authoritarian Salvadoran regime. (LaFeber, 1984). In 1980, the same year Salvadoran armed forces and right-wing death squads killed an estimated 8,000 civilians, the Carter administration publically lauded the country’s progress toward human rights standards (Schwarz, 1998).

In December 1981, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion conducted a systematic massacre of men, women, and children in and around the village of El Mozote in northern El Salvador. Post-war exhumations have recorded death tolls of 1,000. About 60% of the victims were children. The massacre at El Mozote was part of a strategy to eliminate any possible support for guerilla groups operating in the region.

A man looks through the ruins of a church in El Mozote after the massacre

A man looks through the ruins of a church in El Mozote after the massacre


Just days after the massacre, United States journalists Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto risked their lives to travel through the Salvadoran war zone to El Mozote. Their photos and stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post in January 1982 were the first public reports of the massacre. Later, Mark Danner reported the massacre in detail, first in The New Yorker and later in his book, The Massacre at El Mozote, published in 1994. His account includes detailed reporting on the cover-up carried out by the Salvadoran government and the Reagan administration.

If not for activists shining a light on human rights violations in El Salvador, U.S. involvement in the Salvadoran civil war could easily have escalated even further. The advocacy work of church groups, nonprofits, and concerned citizens in the States was instrumental in eventually decreasing U.S. money and human resources invested in the war.

Many Salvadorans fleeing the war migrated to the United States. The number of Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States increased fivefold during the 1980s, reaching 465,000 by 1990 (Terrazas, 2010). Today, the United States is home to roughly 2 million Salvadoran immigrants (López, 2015).

Today, there is again widespread violence and insecurity in Central America.

In 2014, about 69,000 unaccompanied Central American children arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border (Shah, 2016). President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis (Shah, 2016). The majority of these children expressed credible fears about returning to their home countries, indicating a need for international protection (UNCHR, 2014). In 2015, the murder rate in El Salvador spiked 70% to reach levels not seen since the end of the civil war (Beltrán, 2017).

Photo: Global Eyes Media

Photo: Global Eyes Media


In the face of these emergencies, United States citizens mobilized. Lawyers offered pro bono support to minors in need of protection. Churches opened their doors to families who needed shelter and support. Advocate groups spoke out against the Obama administration’s practice of deterring and deporting Central American immigrants. Their activism resulted in an expansion of Central American migrant acceptance programs (Davis, 2016).

From the Founding Fathers to modern presidents, U.S. attitudes and policies have shaped life in Central America for centuries. If North Americans choose to, they can use this influence to create positive change. This week, Cristosal is hosting a Global School seminar where participants from El Salvador and the United States are coming together to learn how to do just that. Check back next week to learn more about the Global School.

Use your voice to promote justice and human rights for all people. Our Fall Advocacy Training kicks off this week. Sign up today at www.cristosal.org/advocate.



Beltrán, A. (2017, February 21). Children and Families Fleeing Violence in Central America. WOLA. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from https://www.wola.org/analysis/people-leaving-central-americas-northern-triangle/

Davis, J. H. (2016, July 26). U.S. to Admit More Central American Refugees. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/27/us/politics/obama-refugees-central-america.html

LaFeber, W. (1984). Setting up the System. In Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (pp. 19-83). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

López, Gustavo. 2015. “Hispanics of Salvadoran Origin in the United States, 2013.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, September.

Schwarz, B. (1988, December). Dirty Hands. The Atlantic. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/12/dirty-hands/377364

Shah, S. (2016). The Crisis in Our Own Backyard: United States Response to Unaccompanied Minor Children from Central America. Harvard Public Health Review, 7. Retrieved from http://harvardpublichealthreview.org/the-crisis-in-our-own-backyard-united-states-response-to-unaccompanied-minor-children-from-central-america/

Terrazas, A. (2010). Salvadoran immigrants in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/salvadoran-immigrants-united-states

The UN Refugee Agency. (2014). Children on the Run: Unaccompanied children leaving Central America and Mexico and the need for international protection. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/56fc26d27.html

Hannah Rose Nelson