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M A Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
War and Peace
Seeking Peace in El Salvador:
The Struggle to Reconstruct
a Nation at the End of the
Cold War
Diana Villiers Negroponte,
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012,
$90, hardcover, 258 pages.
Though it passed almost without
notice, Jan. 16 marked the 20th an-
niversary of the entrance into force of
the three agreements that ended El
Salvador’s civil war, a conflict that
lasted a decade and cost 75,000 lives.
How fast that bloody decade has
faded into the distant past! During the
administration of Ronald Reagan,
Washington’s firm support for the Sal-
vadoran armed forces stemmed from
concern that Central America might
follow Cuba into the Soviet orbit,
sending hordes of “feet people”
refugees swarming across our borders.
But as truth commissions in El Sal-
vador and Guatemala later made clear,
the greatest threat to American values
in the region didn’t come from the left,
but from the ruthless tactics of the
armed forces in suppressing any per-
ceived disloyalty.
As Diana Negroponte, spouse of
retired Ambassador John Negroponte,
observes in this book, there has been a
dramatic “threat inversion” in El Sal-
vador over the past 20 years. Whereas
in the 1980s “the challenge to citizen
safety came from a powerful state,
now the challenge comes from non-
state actors” — transnational crime or-
ganizations and maras (gangs).
Seeking Peace in El Salvador
lights the period from the late 1980s
through 1991, during which events
aligned to move the country toward
peace broke the stalemate in the civil
war. Foremost among the external
factors were Mikhail Gorbachev’s an-
nouncement at the United Nations
that the USSR would no longer sup-
port wars of national liberation, and
the pragmatic attitudes of Secretary of
State James A. Baker and Assistant
Secretary for Inter-American Affairs
Bernard W. Aronson.
Internally, both sides in the war had
been weakened: the Farabundo Martí
National Liberation Front (FMLN in
Spanish), by the failure of its Novem-
ber 1989 “final offensive;” and the Sal-
vadoran armed forces, by public and
international horror at the U.S.-
trained Atlacatl Brigade’s murder of a
would-be mediator, the rector of the
Jesuit University, along with five of his
fellow professors and two witnesses.
These events provided a window
for a formal United Nations mediation
effort headed by two Peruvians: Sec-
retary General Javier Perez de Cuel-
lar and Alvaro de Soto, his personal
representative to resolve the dispute.
Negotiations under de Soto’s aegis
began in early 1990, alternating
among sites outside El Salvador.
The Salvadoran government even-
tually signed on to a broad range of
changes: amendment of the constitu-
tion; creation of a U.N. truth commis-
sion and an internal ad hoc commis-
sion to vet the armed forces for human
rights violators; formation of a parlia-
mentary commission to draft enabling
legislation; a ceasefire and demobiliza-
tion of forces on both sides; an obliga-
tion to reform the security institutions
of the state; and reintegration of the
FMLN into civilian life.
After the ad hoc commission con-
cluded that most of the top com-
manders in the armed forces were
implicated in human rights violations,
U.S. chargé d’affaires Peter Romero
had the temerity to tell the assembled
commanders that the peace agree-
ments obliged them to retire. When
this was reported back to Washington,
as Negroponte relates, Romero’s
courage won him the admiration of his
State Department colleagues. But
Romero’s courage
won him the
admiration of
his colleagues.