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Research by Janelle Larson

Ahauachapan is in the west of El Salvador, about 15 miles from the Guatemalan border. It's a mountainous region, and has been the center of Salvadoran coffee production since the 19th century. It's also a geothermally active region - geysers supply much of the electricity and a volcano erupted in October 2005.

Ahuachapan was founded by Pok'omame, a Mayan tribe, around the 5th century. The name Ahuachapan means 'City of Oak Houses' in Pok'omáme. At the end of the 15th century, the city was conquered by the Pipil (who were related to Aztecs). Spaniards arrived in El Salvador in 1522 and after several assaults led by various members of the de Alvarado family had control of the country by 1540.

The Spanish established large plantations and grew cotton, balsam, cacao and indigo (the primary crop) using forced labor of local indigenous populations. During the colonial era, society became stratified with a few wealthy European families at the top (known generally as the 14 Families). Under the encomienda system (used throughout Central America), colonists were given land and the right to labor from all those who lived on the land. This was meant to be in exchange for converting them to Christianity and providing basic care, but these duties were generally neglected. The indigenous population of El Salvador was estimated to be 500,000 at the time of the conquest, but because of diseases and conflict, there were only 10,000 left by 1578. El Salvador, and the rest of Central America, obtained independence from Spain in 1821 and became an independent country (no longer a part of the Central American Federation) in 1841.

The 19th century saw conflicts with neighboring countries and coups. Exports and prices of indigo plummeted in 1879 and coffee, though it had been cultivated for decades, rose to prominence. By this time, coffee exports generated nearly half of export earnings. The cultivation of coffee exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and set the ground for shocking levels of concentrated wealth and power. Ejido lands that had been set aside for indigenous communities were appropriated by private landholders for coffee cultivation. By the end of the 19th century, 0.5 percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the country's wealth. At this time, landowning cafeteleros could earn more than $200,000/year while their workers made barely $2.50/week. There was also limited investment in rural areas - little was spent on education, roads, sanitation, etc.

The Great Depression led to a collapse in coffee prices and a loss of employment and income in coffee producing regions (including Ahauchapan). Because of inequality and unemployment, support for leftist causes grew. In 1932 a peasant uprising was planned in the coffee-producing western departments. The government became aware of the plans and arrested several leaders, including Faribundo Marti, namesake of the FMLN (more to come). In spite of the government's actions, the uprising went ahead and about 100 wealthy landowners and government officials were killed. In retaliation, government forces and private militias organized by coffee producers killed some 30,000 civilians, nearly two percent of the population. This is known as the Matanza (Massacre) and the primary town was Juayua, near Ahuachapan.

Throughout the 20th century there was a symbiotic relationship between the oligarchy and the military in El Salvador. The military provided stability and adocile labor force for the oligarchy, and in return, a military career was about the only way for one to gain power and wealth. Any efforts to organize, especially in rural areas, were put down with brutal force.

In the mid 20th century, El Salvador entered a period of economic development and modernization. Wealthy individuals invested in factories and infrastructure such as roads and electricity in an attempt to diversify the economy away from coffee. This led to growth in a middle class, but the poor, especially in rural areas, were left behind. Cultivation of cotton and sugar cane expanded, further squeezing small farmers who lacked enforceable tenure rights and were forced off the land. By 1970, just over two percent of the population held nearly two-thirds of all agricultural land while most rural families lacked enough land to sustain themselves.

The centrist Christian Democratic Party (PDC) was founded in 1960 and became the first opposition party to win seats in the National Assembly (controlled by the right-wing PCN). At the same time, the military continued to gain political influence and became an independent power - beyond the control even of the political elite. In addition, other paramilitary groups were established. In 1972, PDC candidate José Napoleon Duarte ran for president and in spite of government harassment, won. After a hasty recount, the vote was overturned and the PCN candidate was installed. This blatant fraud led to a short-lived military coup.

As legitimate political opposition was essentially impossible, the left worked through grass-roots organizations including students, peasants and unions. By the end of the decade the situation was violent and unsustainable - there were widespread death squads, disappearances and killings.

Traditionally the Catholic Church had been apolitical or complicit in the social divisions of Latin America - the poor were told to bear their burden and look to a better place after death. However, many priests who worked with the poor, especially Jesuits, began to take their side. Archbishop Romero was killed in the spring of 1980, under the orders of Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of the far-right wing ARENA party. (See the film 'Romero.') By October 1980, five guerrilla groups united under the banner of the Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Civil War began. When four US nuns were raped and killed in December, the US temporarily suspended aid, but it was resumed shortly after Reagan's inauguration.

The FMLN had initial success in northern and eastern El Salvador. They targeted the economic infrastructure - bridges, power lines, dams and roads. However, these attacks alienated much of the population and limited popular support.

Fear of communism led the US government under Reagan and Bush to fund the military - over the 12 years of the war we supplied some $6 billion (this is not adjusted for inflation - it would be significantly more in today's dollar). In 1985 alone we gave more than $500 million. We also supplied jets, giving El Salvador the most powerful air force in Central America. These planes were critical to continuation of the conflict. In addition, the US trained military personnel in anti-guerrilla techniques, both in country and at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, GA. The recent documentary, 'Innocent Voices' shows the effects of the war on civilians and children.

Peace talks began in 1989 then broke down. In November of that year the killings of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at UCA (University of Central America) took place. For more information on this event, see the documentary 'Enemies of War.' Final peace accords were signed in January 1992 and led to significant changes in Salvadoran political institutions. Military officers and judicial officials were purged; the National Guard and Treasury Police (both implicated in death squad activities) were disbanded and the mission of the military was shifted to external threats rather than internal ones. In addition, the FMLN became a political party. A UN Truth Commission was also established. The report of this Commission, published in '93 and available at: http://www.usip.org/library/tc/doc/reports/el_salvador/tc_es_03151993_toc.html found that 85 percent of the atrocities of the civil war were carried out by the State or its agents. An estimated 75,000 people were killed during the war and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Post War
The political environment is now fairly stable. ARENA won the presidential election in 2004; however, the FMLN has the largest block in the Legislative Assembly and governs towns including some 65% of the population.

Economic growth was strong in the first half of the '90s but has since slowed. Overall economic growth averaged 6 percent a year from 1990-1995, but it slowed to 2.8 percent from 1996-2002, resulting in no real per capita growth. This early growth did reduce poverty, but it is still widespread, especially in rural areas. In addition, the poorest did not benefit from growth, increasing inequality. Levels of education and access to water are still low by Central American standards. Slow growth since the late '90s was caused in large part by the fall in coffee prices, slower economic growth in the US and globally, and by two major earthquakes in 2001.

The Internal Coffee Agreement broke down in 1989 and prices have plummeted since (falling by half or lower). Many farms have stopped investing, reducing production and employment. From 1999 to 2004, Salvadoran coffee production fell by 50 percent. The coffee crisis (as it is known) has particularly affected coffee-producing regions, including Ahuachapán, which have higher rates of poverty and malnutrition.

The per capita GDP of El Salvador is $2,277 (2003) or $4,781 based on purchasing power parity (PPP). El Salvador is ranked 104th out of 177 countries in the 2005 UN Human Development Report. Life expectancy is 70 years and the adult literacy rate is 80 percent. Eighteen percent of the population lacks access to safe water and 10 percent of children under the age of five are underweight while 19 percent are under height for their age. International agencies generally use two standards of poverty - those living in extreme poverty earn less than $1/day (31 percent of the population in El Salvador) and 'standard' poverty includes those earning less than $2/day (58 percent). The war took its toll, as per capita GDP still has not reached the level it was in 1978.

While primary school enrollment is quite high (90 percent of children in the age group), it falls dramatically in secondary school (49 percent). Only 69 percent of children who start school complete grade 5.

Inequality is still widespread. The poorest 10 percent of the population earns only 0.9 percent of all income, while the wealthiest 10 percent earns 40.6 percent of all income. The Gini index is commonly used to measure inequality - 0 indicates perfect equality and 100 indicates perfect inequality. The value for El Salvador is 53.2. As a comparison, Sweden's is 25.0, the US's is 40.8, and Brazil's is 59.3.

A 2005 World Bank study of poverty in El Salvador found that education, ownership of land or other assets and access to basic services (water, health care) and roads are key factors in households' ability to participate in economic growth. This highlights the importance of 'our kids' getting a good education!

More Information About El Salvador
- About Ahuachapan
- Covenant Relationship with Roca Eterna
- VIM in El Salvador
- About El Salvador
- Geography of El Salvador
- El Salvador Atlas