Dilemmas and paradoxes of El Salvador’s Armed Forces

What is at stake is not only the future of El Salvador’s Armed Forces, but also  of democracy itself, write historians Knut Walter and Otto Argueta. The excessive use of force – especially if it is unnecessary – delegitimizes the government along with the institution that exercises it, because it reveals an inability to earn the public’s respect and allegiance.

By Otto Argueta and Knut Walter*

Originally published in Revista Factum

Photos by FACTUM/Salvador Meléndez

Traslated by John Turnure/ Contracorriente


Embattled by a major pandemic, El Salvador’s political institutions find themselves at a juncture that will define the country’s social and economic development as decisively as the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords that ended the civil war. In the years since, the country’s two main political parties – ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista) and the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) have competed for mayoral offices, the Legislative Assembly, and the presidency. The country has experienced relative political peace, although it has been afflicted by high rates of social violence and a very low-growth economy. Perhaps the only positive indicator was an increase in remittances from abroad that kept many families above the poverty line, and also fueled the consumerist aspirations of the middle class. Much of that has changed in the last year.

El Salvador elected Nayib Bukele in June 2019, its first president from the post-war generation. Bukele’s election was the result of a non-ideological coalition of voters and overwhelming disenchantment with previous administrations. Although he began his political career with the FMLN, his expulsion from that party fostered an acute animosity towards the left, while he remained aloof from the pro-business right wing. In addition, he heads the first administration in which the president’s political party does not have a single representative in the Legislative Assembly, due to the different timing of presidential and legislative elections. At most, he can count on the support of 10 GANA (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional) party representatives, the party that nominated him as a presidential candidate. He is also supported by some minority party representatives and a few that have split from the ARENA party. However, the president’s supporters contend that his electoral victory — with just over 53% of the first round votes — authorizes him to govern wielding exceptional executive powers that contravene constitutional provisions and norms.

Perhaps the most visible feature of the new administration is the youth of its cabinet ministers and other top officials. There is a generational change that is reflected throughout the executive branch and the state enterprises, consisting of men and women roughly the same age as the president, who have risen to power with him over the last 10 years. He rightly proclaims that his is the first “post-war” administration, and that his team doesn’t much identify with the results or consequences of the war, such as the Peace Accords, the constitutional reforms, and the ideologies of the political parties who have ruled since the end of the war. 

This “post-war” mentality is also manifested in the roles and responsibilities given to El Salvador’s Armed Forces (FAES) in the new administration. Some of these roles are a legacy of the six previous administrations, especially regarding public security, but others suggest a more pronounced alignment with the programs and objectives of the presidency, as well as a more prominent political role. A little more than a year after Bukele’s inauguration, both the FAES and the presidency are two institutions that display little commitment to a past both would rather forget. How is their relationship playing out?


The journey to the current political zeitgeist is somewhat the same as the history of the FAES itself. The origins of the country’s modern military go back to the October 1979 coup d’état, when a group of young and veteran officers decided that General Carlos Humberto Romero’s administration was incapable of containing the growing social activism of labor unions, student associations, professional organizations and leftist groups that would soon evolve into guerrilla forces, operating at first in the country’s main cities and later in its rural areas. The overthrow of General Romero also put an end to nearly 50 years of military-led governments that held power through rigged elections and the occasional coup d’état.

But the decision to overthrow Romero didn’t lead to a consensus on how to face the rise in social activism. Some military and civilian sectors advocated a political rapprochement with the opposition, while others opted for more repression. There was agreement on a few fairly radical reforms in the economic arena (i.e. agrarian reform, nationalization of the banking system and foreign trade), as well as in the political arena (i.e. multi-party elections and constitutional reform). These reforms were supposedly a response to the public’s demands, while the military turned its attention away from direct government administration to focus on the counterinsurgency war that began to escalate after 1980.

During the 1980s, a close relationship between the FAES and the U.S. Department of Defense developed, not only in military affairs but also in the entire range of counterinsurgency operations and processes. Without external supplies and expertise, the FAES would probably not have been able to fight the various guerrilla forces that comprised the FMLN. Nor would the country’s economy have survived without the massive injections of foreign aid from the U.S., supplemented by the remittances that began to flow back home from the large contingents of Salvadorans who had migrated north.

During the counterinsurgency warfare of the 1980s, El Salvador’s Armed Forces were heavily criticized for human rights abuses against non-combatants. Several massacres of entire populations were reported in the media, and became part of the political debate in the United States regarding the validity and morality of providing continued support to the FAES. The U.S. Congress, controlled by the Democratic Party at the time, conditioned U.S. military and economic aid on biannual human rights certifications by the State Department. U.S. aid was also directly linked to El Salvador’s institutionalization of a democratic system of regular, pluralistic elections. This process began with the 1982 election of a constituent assembly, followed by presidential elections in 1984 and 1989, and legislature and municipal elections in 1985, 1988 and 1991. This amounted to an average of one election every 15 months, all held under a steady barrage of gunfire.

In short, the military, political and social developments of the 1980s resulted in a network of political, military and social forces that had never before been seen in El Salvador. These forces included a pro-business right wing directly involved in politics through the ARENA party; a center-left party (Democracia Cristiana) occupying the presidency and favoring democratization, but weakened by opposition to the counterinsurgency-related reforms and the long war; an insurgent left wing that later became a political party with broad popular support, but unable to win a presidential election until 2009; and a military obliged to accept the negotiated peace without having actually lost the war, and also forced to end its long, quasi-hegemonic political leadership of the country under the terms of the 1992 Peace Accords. Now, some loose ends that remained after the end of the Cold War and El Salvador’s civil war are clashing with the country’s new social, economic, political and geopolitical realities.

Soldiers from the Armed Forces Communications Command during a September 15 military parade. FACTUM file photo/Salvador Melendez

These loose ends can be described as an unresolved legacy of dilemmas and paradoxes. In other words, they are the outcome of a sequence or series of right and wrong decisions, and decisions that were never made. Dilemmas are problematic because they can only be resolved by choosing from equally good or equally bad options. A paradox, however, is a contradictory situation that often must be addressed by taking exceptional measures.

The first paradox has been around for decades: the main function of the FAES, and for which its officers and troops are trained, is the armed defense of El Salvador’s sovereignty and territory. However, there have been no wars between Central American countries since at least 1907, because of the United States’ interest in maintaining regional stability to protect its very large military and commercial investment in the Panama Canal. This led to the 1907 and 1923 peace and friendship treaties signed in Washington, D.C. by all the Central American countries. The only exception to this centuries-old American peace was the four-day conflict between El Salvador and Honduras in July 1969. This conflict had nothing to do with defending national territory, but rather with the tensions caused by the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Salvadorans who had emigrated to Honduras. All other armed hostilities in the 20th century involving Central American armies have been internal conflicts, and only Honduras survived the century without experiencing one.

The near impossibility of war between Central American countries is reflected in the lack of border disputes and the high levels of economic and social integration that have been achieved in the region since the end of the internal armed conflicts. In strictly military terms, no Central American country is capable of invading and defeating a neighboring army. Nor are there any plans for war or for conducting conventional war maneuvers. In other words, no Central American country, as far as we know, is thinking of invading another.

The 1992 Peace Accords and the corresponding constitutional reforms led to the complete elimination of a second paradox: The FAES was barred from the problematic role it had undertaken in 1931, controlling the executive branch and key ministries in governing the country. This political role became paradoxical after 1950, when successive military leaders claimed to defend the republic and democracy, while severely repressing the political opposition, especially leftist or reform-oriented groups and movements. This political regime that marginalized and excluded opposition groups was one of the main causes of the popular insurgency that broke out in the 1980s.

On an international level, this paradox of military-led regimes was manifested in their increasingly strained relationships with the liberal and democratic governments of the West. This rift surfaced even before the Cold War ended, and before the true magnitude of the human and economic losses caused by the civil war became known. In other words, the obsolescence of the authoritarian-military political model and the barbarity of the counterinsurgency war were clearly revealed, to the extent that a pluralist democracy and respect for fundamental human and civil rights were no longer resisted, except by extreme left and right-wing radical groups.

Although the current international environment has not enabled Central American armed forces to play direct political roles, other transnational issues have occupied them of late. Undocumented migration, smuggling, drug trafficking, and international gang networks are ongoing battles into which the United States has recruited Central American governments. This has opened up new opportunities to use armed forces to secure international borders, patrol migration routes, and disrupt drug trafficking and smuggling corridors.

These new causes and expressions of social and criminal violence are resurfacing perhaps the most important paradox affecting El Salvador’s Armed Forces. For most of the 20th century, up to the 1992 Peace Accords, the FAES was entrusted with public security. Inspired by the Spanish National Guard, El Salvador’s National Guard (Guardia Nacional) was established in 1912 as a rural police force. It has always been under the administrative and operational management of the Ministry of War (later the Ministry of Defense), while the National Police (Policia Nacional) was established as an urban police force and became part of the Ministry of Defense in 1946. Accordingly, with the exception of counterinsurgency war, the FAES’ most important role before the Peace Accords was the command of the entire public security force, including urban and rural police, via career military officers. This “militarization” of public security was viewed positively by those who believed that the Salvadoran population needed a firm hand to maintain the current social order. However, the public respect for a police authority that was based more on fear than legitimacy eroded steadily until it was directly challenged with the onset of armed conflict.

The 1992 Peace Accords and the corresponding constitutional reforms  relieved the FAES from public security functions, which were assumed by the new National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC.) This civilian force had its own police academy, called the Academia Nacional de Seguridad Pública, along with an Inspector General and financial administration. However, shortly after the Peace Accords were signed, new challenges arose for the PNC that it was unable to properly mitigate: social and community violence associated with gangs and organized crime, on top of the perennial common crime. The country has experienced, on and off, one of the highest homicide rates in the world. This convinced various Salvadoran presidents of the need to use the FAES to beef up the PNC’s street patrols, which was justified by Article 168 of the Constitution when “normal means for maintaining internal peace, tranquility and public security have been exhausted.”

The public security crisis and military repositioning

The years from 1992 to 2003 were a revolving door through which El Salvador’s Armed Forces entered and exited the country’s political sphere. Just as reforms were implemented to reduce the FAES’ role, size, and functions in Salvadoran society, the public security problem grew as gang murders and extortion exploded. Although gangs existed before the war ended, their increased numbers and violent activity became post-war phenomena neglected by the first peacetime administrations. Attention was instead focused on the political and economic stabilization of the country and rivalries between political parties.

Francisco Flores (1999-2004) was the first president to focus his administration’s attention on the gang problem. This attention was not only late, but ran contrary to the democratic principles that El Salvador was seeking to establish. The Flores government identified the gangs as a major problem and declared them a threat to national security. The measures taken to combat gangs were punitive and militaristic, an approach adopted by every president that followed Flores.

The punitive and reactive “mano dura” (iron fist) approach was first applied by the Flores government in July 2003 with its Mano Dura Plan. This led to the Super Mano Dura policy of Antonio Saca’s administration (2004-2009.) This approach included the enactment of anti-gang laws, the widespread imprisonment of youth assumed linked to gangs because of their appearance or places of residence, and the deployment of soldiers to conduct joint operations with the PNC.

After the crackdown began, the homicide rate rose to even higher levels. From 2003-2006, while the “mano dura” measures were being implemented, the annual homicide rate rose from 36 to 65 deaths per 100,000 residents.

The punitive “mano dura” measures were punctuated by the government’s war-like rhetoric. A government media campaign heightened the perception of insecurity, and placed the blame on gangs. According to various studies like “Public Security Policies in El Salvador” (“Las políticas de seguridad pública en El Salvador,”) by Jeannette Aguilar, the “mano dura” policies had more of an electoral and public opinion impact, and was less effective as a security policy.

During the two FMLN administrations that followed, the military took on an even more prominent role in public security than it did under the ARENA administrations. Under Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), anti-gang laws were strengthened during an unprecedented rise in murders and violent crime that shocked the public, such as the June 2010 burning of a bus full of passengers. The “National Policy for Justice, Security, and Coexistence” (Política Nacional de Justicia, Seguridad y Convivencia) proposed by the Funes government was never properly implemented, and instead a repressive expression of public security was imposed, formalizing the increased use of military forces. According to the aforementioned Aguilar study, when Funes took office in June 2009, only 1,975 military personnel were assigned to public security. By the end of his first year in office, this number had increased to 6,500. By 2014, the number of military personnel assigned to public security functions was 11,200, and by the time Funes left office later that year, the FAES had grown larger (24,799) than the PNC (23,000.)  

Paradoxically, that massive military deployment was initiated by the same administration that negotiated the so-called gang truce (2012-2013), the only initiative that led to a significant drop in homicides. The truce stirred up a controversy that is still polarizing, but provides an opportunity to discuss some important observations. The first is that the truce presented an opportunity for a different approach to the public security problem. However, political manipulation and a lack of transparency blocked efforts to take advantage of the truce to reduce violence and achieve substantive change. The second is that the truce demonstrated that “mano dura” policies,  anti-gang rhetoric, and demonstrations of zero tolerance are a political necessity for electoral success in El Salvador. The truce proved to be an effective and non-violent means of reducing violent crime, but it was also susceptible to the campaign rhetoric of candidates running for public office. In the meantime, an official narrative was constructed that undermined the PNC and justified the need to give the FAES a more prominent role in the anti-gang effort. This resulted in even more war-like rhetoric and a nullification of the truce.

Two students walk past Salvadoran soldiers guarding the intersection of Residencial La Gloria and the entrance to San Roque in San Salvador. FACTUM file photo/ Salvador Melendez.

During the second FMLN government (2014-2019), the gang prevention and rehabilitation measures that had always been a part of various plans and policies were ruled out. Rather, President Sánchez Cerén amplified the rhetoric of war, and the truce became another casualty of the electoral battlefield. A new policy called “Extraordinary Security Measures” (Medidas Extraordinarias de Seguridad) extended the mano dura policies by expanding the military role in public security and tightening the laws and special provisions pertaining to gang prisons, leading to numerous reports of human rights violations.

The Sánchez Cerén administration created several new FAES battalions that were specifically dedicated to public security. A visual image that illustrates this period in El Salvador’s democracy is that of armored vehicles patrolling the streets of poor urban neighborhoods. It’s an image full of symbolism that masks its ineffectiveness in enforcing security. In fact, the violence experienced in El Salvador began to change in 2016. Violent crime dropped but was redirected towards confrontations with the country’s security forces.

Bukele’s presidency

No president starts with a clean slate. When Nayib Bukele took office, he inherited a government with an established approach: a repressive public security regime in which the FAES plays a special role. It’s the product of an investment of resources and publicity that would present a dilemma to any incoming president: transform or imitate.

The new president’s administration began with an order to the military. “The Armed Forces are ordered to immediately remove the name of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa from the Third Infantry Brigade Headquarters in San Miguel,” said Nayib Bukele in a post to his Twitter account on June 2, 2019, one day after taking office. According to the UN Truth Commission, the name that the president ordered removed belongs to an officer who led the Atlacatl Battalion in the early days of the civil war, and one of those responsible for the 1981 El Mozote massacre.

This order signalled that Bukele’s administration was staking out a position regarding the dilemma of whether to support the war victims’ demands for justice, the UN Truth Commission’s findings, and the investigations of the El Mozote massacre (at least 800 people were killed), or whether to politically disassociate itself from these issues and avoid the bumpy road towards justice and memories of the war. For the most part, the two previous FMLN governments chose to ignore the issue and the victims’ demands.

Every decision has consequences, produces reactions, and reveals various paths that can be taken. For many people, President Bukele’s order to the military was a break from a past when presidents demonstrated clear loyalties to one side of the civil war or the other, and put the government on the side of healing, justice, and remembrance. This convinced many to give the benefit of the doubt to a president and cabinet that presented itself as a fresh start, unfettered by the ideological positions that had dominated El Salvador’s politics.

Later on, other events consistent with that initial order unfolded. In November 2019, the judge presiding over the El Mozote massacre case (which dealt with the role of the FAES’ high command in the massacre) ordered President Bukele to hand over all military documents related to the case. As commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the president has authority over the Minister of Defense. In addition, a judge’s order to a president is binding. In other words, Bukele had the authority to release the documentation, and was also required to do so. Although Bukele repeated what various governments have said since 1990  — that no documentation on military operations like El Mozote exists — he issued an order for the military archives to be made available to the team of experts investigating the massacre.

Another presidential decision that departed from tradition was the appointment of the current Minister of Defense, Rene Merino Monroy, who was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Navy at the age of 55. This is the first time that a Navy officer has been appointed Minister of Defense, and most of his military service happened during times of peace. As such, he is a relatively young military man who does not represent the powers historically connected to the country’s civil war.

While these decisions showed signs that the president was leaning towards one side of the military relationship dilemma, they also revealed what later became a paradox: signs of democratic change — a new generation, changes vis-a-vis institutional relationships to historical memory — that reinforce undemocratic practices. From the early days of the new administration, the Minister of Defense was one of the main advocates of deploying the military for public security. This practice began with past administrations and is now part of President Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan, one of his administration’s most important initiatives.

The objective of the Territorial Control Plan is to combat the criminal groups operating in the country; it has been allocated $575.2 million in funding. President Bukele credited this initiative with reducing the country’s number of homicides, a claim that has been questioned because the downward trend in homicides began in 2016, while the Territorial Control Plan was implemented at the end of June 2019. According to PNC data, there was an average of 18 daily murders in 2015, 14 in 2016, 11 in 2017, and as of July 2019, the country averaged eight murders per day.

The plan purportedly has seven phases, but only three phases have been publicly communicated. The first phase is called Territorial Control; it authorized military and police deployment to prisons, and imposed a state of emergency in prisons, actions that are similar to those ordered by the two FMLN governments. The second phase is called Opportunity; it addresses the reconstruction of the social fabric by mobilizing all aspects of government to prevent young people from joining gangs. The third phase is called Modernization; it includes the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment for the Armed Forces and the PNC. Phase 3 was officially launched in August 2019 with a budget of $210.1 million. President Bukele requested a $109 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to purchase the Phase 3 equipment.

The Legislative Assembly’s foot-dragging in approving the Phase 3 funding was the main reason cited by President Bukele for storming into the Legislative Assembly flanked by military and police units on February 9, 2020. This happened after several weeks of media attacks by the president against the legislature, threats to close down the Assembly, and warnings that he would spearhead the “people’s wrath” against the legislators.

In the weeks that followed, the president’s incursion into the Assembly was reviled nationally and internationally as one of the most serious recent attacks on El Salvador’s democracy and political institutions, becoming a topic that monopolized the public debate. Significantly aggravating the assault on democracy, specifically against an independent branch of government, was the use of the Armed Forces and the PNC, and the mobilization of public servants to apply pressure on the Assembly.

President Bukele flanked by soldiers after the takeover of the Legislative Assembly’s Blue Room on February 9, 2020. FACTUM archive photo/ Salvador Melendez

In April 2020, President Bukele announced his intention to ignore the Supreme Court ruling that ordered a halt to the forcible detention and jailing of those violating the quarantine mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic emergency measures. Like other countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle, El Salvador’s measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 included curfews and states of emergency that gave the Armed Forces and police the power to restrict the public’s mobility. After the Legislative Assembly opposed the President’s extension of the state of emergency on the grounds that human rights violations had been committed while it was in effect, the president threatened to sue the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging that these entities violated the Salvadoran public’s rights to health and life. Because the president proceeded to extend the state of emergency without authorization, the Supreme Court invalidated the extension and asked the Constitutional Court to determine whether the state of emergency was constitutional.

Other accusations of human rights violations occurred after President Bukele authorized the use of lethal force by public security personnel to counteract the spike in murders between April 24-26. Sixty people were murdered over those three days, crimes that the authorities blamed on the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the two factions of the Barrio 18 gang. This sharp increase in murders happened shortly after the daily average dropped to two on April 14, and zero murders on April 15. The downward trend in the homicide rate continues and is a hopeful sign for a society that has been battered by violence for decades.

President Bukele’s authorization of lethal force was the same measure applied by the previous FMLN government to counteract the increase in homicides in 2015. Shortly after taking office, Bukele ordered a state of emergency in some of the country’s prisons, a step also taken by the FMLN government as part of its so-called “extraordinary measures” directed at the country’s prisons. The crisis peaked on April 26 with the announcement that gang members would be imprisoned together (regardless of their gang affiliation), and placed in complete isolation. The images of thousands of half-naked gang members closely packed together in prison yards were criticized around the world because they eliminated the traditional separation of imprisoned gang members initiated in 2004 with the ARENA mano dura policy, and also because they violated all the biosecurity protocols mandated to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bukele administration’s decisions discussed above can be analyzed from the perspective of the media sensationalism they produce, which fades away after a while or is eclipsed by another news story that grabs the media’s attention. However, when viewing these decisions in conjunction with other aspects of the current administration after a year in office, it becomes  increasingly evident that the FAES’ role in Salvadoran politics is growing. This is demonstrated by the recent 52% increase in military spending (from $145 million in 2019 to $220 million in 2020), the largest percentage increase since the 1992 Peace Accords. The FAES’ 2020 budget grows even larger after adding 50% of the $109 million CABEI loan allocated to the military for its deployment to public security functions, part of Phase 3 of President Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan.

A year after President Bukele’s first decision to remove Colonel Domingo Monterrosa’s name from the Third Infantry Brigade barracks, the FAES has figured prominently in Bukele’s decisions regarding public security, pandemic containment, and political pressure on other branches of government. The paradox is now obvious. An administration that arose out of a broad political movement and replaced the traditional political powers dominating El Salvador’s democracy over the last 30 years, is now strengthening its position by resorting to unconstitutional measures with the support of an institution — El Salvador’s Armed Forces — whose separation and independence from political involvement is fundamental to a strong democracy.


In summary, El Salvador’s Armed Forces have been excluded from playing a direct role in managing public security since the end of the civil war in 1992.  It has tried to overcome this limitation by redefining the concept of security, by addressing new threats to national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and by its interpretation of certain powers granted to the FAES by the current constitution. One of these constitutional provisions, common to almost every country in the world, allows the government to use its armed forces in extraordinary circumstances and during national emergencies that cannot be adequately managed by other government institutions. The Salvadoran Constitution also allows the three branches of government to use the FAES to enforce the provisions of their respective constitutional jurisdictions, as established in Article 212. This is problematic if two branches of government are in conflict and both call on the FAES to enforce their own positions. The outcome could resemble past coups d’état that applied military force to gain power, but that now can be robed in the legitimacy of constitutional legality.

Regardless of the problems associated with the existence and functions of the armed forces in Central America, all governments face the perennial challenge of how to distribute scarce financial resources to satisfy a surfeit of needs. These needs include financing the armed forces. The budgets allocated to El Salvador’s Ministry of Defense since the 1992 Peace Accords have indeed been the lowest in the last 100 years. But as a percentage of the gross domestic product, it’s a budget that must be fully justified using effectiveness and efficiency criteria, just like any other government entity.

It is not clear how the paradoxes and dilemmas discussed above will be resolved. However, it’s certain that in El Salvador, the FAES’ involvement in areas beyond its normal functions and authority will continue to cause controversy, especially regarding the legality of using military force in areas that are the purview of other properly equipped and enabled civilian entities. It sometimes seems as if El Salvador’s Armed Forces can be used for any purpose if a government official thinks they will get better results than another government entity.

On the other hand, El Salvador’s constitution guarantees the existence of the FAES as a permanent government institution. As such, any debate on substantial cutbacks or dissolution of the military is not relevant. However, the functions, powers, and prerogatives of the FAES must be defined as precisely as possible to prevent its manipulation and misuse by political forces or competing branches of government, which may negatively affect its apolitical and non-deliberative character. In general, El Salvador’s Armed Forces should be ready to assist when required without altering their military role, but then should return as soon as possible to the conventional functions assigned to it by the Constitution.

At stake here is not only the future of the FAES, but of democracy itself. The excessive use of armed force — especially when unnecessary — delegitimizes both the government and the institution that exercises it because it reveals an inability to earn the public’s respect and allegiance. The level of commitment and affinity of a democracy’s most important political powers must also be considered. ARENA and the FMLN both emerged from anti-democratic or undemocratic political traditions. Their commitment to a negotiated end to the war was based on a vision of democracy and a package of reforms enacted years before the Peace Accords, including the 1983 Constitution. In fact, the only political power historically identified with liberal democracy was the Christian Democratic Party, which ended up worn out and defeated at the ballot box as the war came to an end.

Therefore, it can now be argued that democracy needs unconditional friends who support it as a system of electing governments, and also as a process of negotiation and dialogue with the objective of reaching agreements that benefit the entire nation. Almost 30 years after the Peace Accords, much of the population still lives in precarious economic circumstances exacerbated by social violence and the COVID-19 pandemic. The formalities of democracy — its institutions and processes — have yet to demonstrate that they are capable of responding effectively and quickly to the host of urgent threats facing the population. Added to this is the shameful record of corruption and embezzlement that has stained all those who have risen to political power in recent decades. A democratic system meets its worst fate when it becomes paralyzed or embroiled to the extent that popular disenchantment ends up destroying it altogether.


Knut Walter. Historian and instructor at universities in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the United States. He is the author of several essays on modern Central American history, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua, and has coordinated the development of textbooks on Salvadoran and Central American history.

Otto Argueta. Historian and PhD in Political Science from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Regional coordinator of the Alianza para La Paz. His research focuses on issues of criminality and violence with special emphasis on gangs, organized crime, drug trafficking, and police forces, as well as political systems and government development processes.

This article is part of a regional research project conducted by the Alianza para La Paz, with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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Sobre el autor
Historian and PhD in political science from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Research associate at the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies in Hamburg. His research focuses on crime and violence, with a focus on gangs, organized crime, drug trafficking and police, as well as political systems and the development processes of nation-states. In the field of peacebuilding, he focuses on social change processes, the study of conflicts and their relationship with socio-political contexts as a basis for institutional learning. His book, Private Security in Guatemala: Pathway to Its Proliferation, addresses the issue of private security in Guatemala.

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