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The long road to guerrilla governments in El Salvador. The supportive social environment of the armed left during the seventies

Conflict
Latin America
Political Violence
Alberto Martin
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Alberto Martin
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Abstract

Between 1980 and 1992, the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of five armed leftist groups emerged during the 1970s, kept a protracted struggle for state power. During the war, the FMLN managed to control large areas of the north, east and centre of the country - about 25% of the Salvadoran territory-. In spite of the fact that the armed forces were capable of moving in and out of these guerrilla-controlled territories, they could not settle for long without risking unacceptable casualties. These areas became alternative centres of power - guerrilla governments as Wickham – Crowley (1987) called them - that claimed exclusive legitimacy, thus creating a situation of multiple sovereignty. This was the case in large areas of the departments of Chalatenango, Morazán, Cabañas, San Vicente and Cuscatlán, where the FMLN had the support of what Malthaner and Waldmann (2014) called a “radical milieu” made up in this case of large networks of peasants and rural workers. The social support of the Salvadoran guerrillas was the subject of some ethnographic research carried out in the eighties and nineties (Cabarrús, 1983; Pierce, 1986; Wood, 2003) that provided valuable empirical evidence on the reasons for peasant support for the guerrillas. However, due to their own characteristics, these works did not extensively analyse the patterns of relationships that the armed groups had previously established with the strong social movement organizational infrastructure that emerged in that country in the 1970s. It was precisely the connection of the armed groups with this organizational infrastructure, which explains the capacity of the former to establish political control of important sectors of the population during the war in the 1980s. The legitimacy of “guerrilla governments” in the guerrilla - controlled territories was built through different mechanisms that ranged from the construction of hegemony to the provision of safety. Likewise, and this has rarely been mentioned in the literature on this topic, the territorial control of the guerrillas was also built on an early use of coercion, including the elimination or harassment of political adversaries such as landowners, public officers and paramilitaries. To help fill the gap in our knowledge of the relationships between Salvadoran armed groups and their supportive environments this paper analyses how these relationships were forged and developed during the 1970s. These relationships were dynamic, changing over time in response to the evolution of the political environment. Also, these links followed different patterns in each of the armed groups which were the result of their different strategies and also of the inter - organizational competition established between them. These factors largely determined the social groups with which each of the armed groups was able to connect, the breadth of these connections and their geographical distribution.