Like so many developing nations throughout the world, El Salvador’s recent history has been tarnished by civil war. For over a decade, guerrilla militias took to the jungles and battled the military-backed government in a horrifically violent affair. Over 80,000 Salvadorans were slaughtered during the conflict, and a further half-million fled the country.
While visiting the highland town of Suchitoto, I had the opportunity to wander the precarious landscape of former guerrilla camps. And visited the jungles that, just 30 years ago, were one of the most treacherous places on earth.
A Brief History of the Salvadoran Civil War
For years, tensions rose between the government and the Salvadoran working class. Due to the vast majority of wealth owned by a minuscule percentage of the population, social and economic inequality was rampant. Between the displacement of farmers due to The Cerron Grande Hydroelectric Dam, and wealthy landowners paying slave-like wages to many, people became desperate.
As unions formed and political groups vied for change, little changed. Following a highly-contested election in 1977, protests ensued. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators, massacring hundreds of civilians — many of whom were innocent bystanders.
Guerrilla operations from several groups grew in strength and numbers during these years. The military realized that the government, in its current state, could not hold control of the precarious situation. And in on October 15, 1979, a coup d’etat occurred, leaving the military in command of the country.
Attacks from both sides escalated. The US-backed military junta took extreme measures, killing anyone who remotely spoke out in support of the guerrillas.
In early 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke out against the junta and plead with soldiers to stop killing their civilian countrymen. The following day, on March 24th, while Romero was giving mass; a sniper fired a single bullet through the open doors of the church, striking him directly in the heart, killing him instantly. One week later, on March 30th, during the Romero’s funeral in the heart of San Salvador, the military opened fire; killing dozens of civilians and wounding hundreds more.
Though the war technically began on the day of the coup, many Salvadorans recognize the Romero Funeral Massacre as the moment the gloves came off. And for the next twelve years, the Salvadoran civil war destroyed a country and a generation.
A Civil War Tour in Suchitoto
On a far lighter note, things have improved drastically since the end of the conflict. And Salvadorans want nothing more than to continue pushing forward, without forgetting their past. And locals are keen to share the beauty of their country while educating those fortunate enough to visit.
I was able to join up with a small tour and explore the beautiful hills surrounding Suchitoto, through the former jungle strongholds of the FMLN guerrillas. After arriving at one of the largest nature reserves in El Salvador, just outside the town of Cinquera, we made our way into the lush, green jungles.
Hiking in the Footsteps of Guerrillas
The hike itself was fairly easy. We walked well-groomed trails, crossed trickling streams and examined all kinds of colourful flora. The surroundings almost distracted from the seriousness of their history. Our guide, Daniel, dropped a ton of information on us. Everything from how the guerrillas cooked, to where they slept, how they trained, the functioning of their rudimentary emergency room, and even the psychedelic flowers that were used when the time came for celebration.
A Physical and Mental Cooling
After around an hour of hiking — mostly uphill — we arrived at a large swimming hole fed from a waterfall. The cold plunge was well-needed in the 35-degree heat.
Here, the group floated in the cool water for around 20 minutes while chatting about everything from where everyone is from, to current politics around the world. It was a nice breather before getting back into the story of war.Want to take this tour yourself?
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Words of Experience and Wisdom
Following the swim, we met up with Raphael, a local park ranger and tour guide in these parts. He’s also a former FMLN guerrilla, who fought through the entirety of the civil war.
This was the most interesting part of the entire hike. It’s incredible, hearing stories and experiences from this tragic conflict, from the mouth of someone who lived it. It doesn’t matter how many books or articles you read, or how knowledgeable your tour guide is, hearing someones first-hand account of the war gives a perspective like no other.
Before returning to Suchitoto, we spent several minutes in the nearby town of Cinquera. This former guerrilla stronghold was home to devastating bombings and horrible massacres. There are several monuments here, relics from those horrible years.
On display in the main square is the tail of an American-provided helicopter and the rifles used by the guerrillas that shot it down. As well, a colourful mural depicts the history of the region, and pays tribute to some of those who lost their lives.
Final Thoughts on the Civil War Tour
I would highly recommend this tour for anyone curious about the awful conflict that plagued El Salvador for over a decade. It was wildly informative and hiking through the jungles, and a dip in the waterfall, made for a great morning.
The important thing to realize is that the tour is very one-sided. It’s biased towards the guerrillas, and paints them as the innocent victims of an oppressive regime; martyrs for their cause. And while this is, for the most part, exactly the case with the Salvadoran civil war, the rebel forces were not entirely guiltless. Though on a much smaller scale, they too were responsible for many horrible atrocities of this bloody struggle.