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Coding Notes: El Salvador ’60-‘97

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Coding Notes: El Salvador ’60-‘97
These coding notes are based on the narrative for El Salvador ’60-‘97 in this website. See also, Journeys, Ch. 11, pp. 318-353, and the discussion on Coding Procedure in this website.

Karl's narrative is a good analytical account of the conflict in El Salvador emphasizing that dismal and unequal economic conditions prepared the ground for violent conflict, which eventually occurred when political and military repression increased. Similar to the case of Guatemala, it seems that the conflict was resolved when issues of democracy and human rights were settled, although the conflict was initially about issues of land reform. Unlike Guatemala, however, it is not clear when and what such a transformation entailed. Also similar to the case of Guatemala, Karl emphasizes the triggering role of the United States in the conflict. However, the Cold War constitutes one dimension of the conflict in which the civil war is embedded; while another much older one concerned the abolishment of a feudal system. Both are described as influences on the civil war. Consequently, we coded the Cold War and the traditional social system as background conditions and not, as would be desirable, as larger conflict episodes.

We graphed the conflict in El Salvador as made of two main episodes (1960’s – Mid 1980’s; Mid 1980’s – 1997), the first one ending with the decision of the Duharte government to negotiate with the FMLN (1984-1985); and the second one starting with a new offensive of the guerilla after the previous abatement phase (1984-1985 – 1997).
Episode 1: From land dispute to starting negotiations with the FMLN (1960’s-1984)
(Escalation 1-2-3-4-5)

The civil war can be described as entering a dispute phase in the 1960s when deteriorating economic conditions increased the claims for economic and political reforms (Phase 1: Dispute). These conditions further deteriorated after the "Soccer War" when more people had to share less land. It was in fact this war between El Salvador and Honduras that shifted the conflict into a crisis phase that was characterized by fraudulent elections in 1972, the formation of guerilla groups and popular mass movements that were repressed with military force (Phase 2: Crisis). Karl argues that observers at the time expected violence to break out. The US backing of these repressive measures shifted the conflict into a limited violence phase in which the government felt legitimated to crush any resistance (Phase 3: Limited Violence). Karl argues that the US action was an opportunity missed for the resolution of the conflict. It is difficult to imagine, though, that at a time when the Cold War reached another climax the US could have abandoned its Cold War policy towards Latin American insurgencies. The army attack was responded to with massive attacks by the guerillas, which shifted the conflict into a massive violence phase (phase 4). The newly elected Duarte regime offered negotiations but it remains unclear what triggered this decision. However, it can be asserted that the conflict shifted temporarily into an abatement phase (phase 5), which terminated the current episode.

Episode 2: From new guerilla offensive to final settlement (armed parties’ demobilization) (1984-1997)
While the first episode is remarkably linear in its the escalatory tendency, the second one starts on a higher conflict phase and oscillates between phases of massive violence for both parties, for thereafter deescalating with the commencement of negotiations helped by international mediators (Phases 5: Abatement and 6: Settlement) (1992–).
(De-escalation 4-5-4, 4-5-6 and Escalation 5-4-5)

The conflict resumed in a massive violence phase when the guerillas launched another offensive (Phase 4: Massive Violence). Yet while the government responds in kind and thus continues to operate within a massive violence phase, the guerillas propose a peace plan (Phase 5: Abatement). This information is extracted from the chronology. It is not clear why the guerillas proposed a peace plan shortly after having a massive attack on the government. However, it appears as if the rejection of the peace plan also brought the guerillas back into a massive violence phase (Phase 4: Massive Violence)

In the narrative, the shift into an abatement phase is attributed to exhaustion and a stalement (Phase 5: Abatement); i.e. the guerillas were not strong enough to take over power, and the government was not strong enough to defeat the guerillas. Many other factors are listed but not clearly related to the background conditions. For instance, the falling of the wall of Berlin and the victory of Victoria Chamorro in Nicaragua are listed as other factors, but it remains unclear how they relate to each other and to the civil war in El Salvador. Another dimension that is left unexplained is who supported the guerillas, eventually allowing them to sustain such a massive and protracted conflict. From the narrative one can conclude that exhaustion plus stalemate plus changing international conditions (e.g. end of Cold War, invasion in Panama, elections in Nicaragua) set the abatement phase on a track to settlement (Phase 6: Settlement). The settlement phase began when the El Salvador peace accord was signed in 1992 and was concluded with democratic elections in 1997, in which the former guerilla organization FLMN won.

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