Revolutionary Groups

El Salvador Table of Contents

During the 1960s and 1970s, some of the population sought expression and perhaps eventual redress for their problems by becoming involved in a wide variety of "mass organizations" (also known as popular organizations), such as those included in the Revolutionary Coordinator of the Masses (Coordinadora Revolucionaria de las Masas--CRM). These groups, once tens of thousands strong, were heavily urban oriented and included a range of trade unionists, teachers, clergy, professionals, students, and other middle-class and urban lower-class workers interested in social and economic reform. The tactics of the mass organizations included strikes, street demonstrations, mass rallies, and occupation of public buildings (churches, government buildings, and embassies), factories, and farms.

In the countryside, the mass organizations found some support among landless campesinos mainly in the hills around the central valleys and in the northern mountains (the departments of Chalatenango, San Salvador, Cuscatlan, Cabanas, and San Vicente). Laborers on the coastal plain, where estate owners and administrators exercised greater influence, showed less enthusiasm for the mass organizations.

Whereas some of the rural poor hoped to exert pressure for change through participation in the popular organizations, others joined the ranks of more conservative, officially sanctioned organizations. One of these, the Salvadoran Communal Union (Union Comunal Salvadorena--UCS), begun in 1966, sought to address the needs of small farmers through limited programs of technical assistance and credit facilities. By 1980 the UCS claimed 100,000 members.

Another peasant organization, the Nationalist Democratic Organization (Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista--Orden), claimed as many as 100,000 members in the late 1970s. Established in the 1960s under military rule, Orden had close ties to the GN. In return for cooperation with the GN in areas such as intelligence and civil defense, members of Orden were eligible for benefits such as favorable credit terms on government agricultural loans, priority consideration for permanent estate jobs, and employment on public works project. Orden was disbanded officially by a decree of the first 1979 junta government, but some observers believed that it continued to function unofficially after that date.

In the 1970s, activists from mass organizations joined the ranks of various guerrilla organizations. Guerrilla membership was diverse and included trade unionists, students, teachers, other disaffected members of the middle class, urban workers, and peasants.

In early 1981, Salvadoran guerrilla groups who were united under the banner of the FMLN estimated that they controlled 10 percent of Salvadoran territory. By 1983 the FMLN's claims had risen to 30 percent. Although guerrilla forces exerted influence over certain areas, they had not achieved control in the sense of being able to secure territory against concerted efforts, usually "sweeps" by at least battalion-sized units, by government forces to reestablish access. Generally, the guerrilla movement was most active to the north and to the east of the Rio Lempa, in the departments of Chalatenango, Cabanas, Morazan, Cuscatlan, San Vicente, and Usulutan. Guerrilla activities were less frequent in the more affluent western half of the country, roughly to the west of the Rio Lempa.

From the guerrilla perspective, El Salvador was seen as divided into three different "fields of struggle" depending on the nature of their activities there. The "liberated areas" or "zones of control," in the north and east, were areas where communications with the rest of the country had been cut off, where the government and the military had not established a permanent presence, and where strings of guerrilla camps exerted influence over the local population. The so-called "disputed" areas in the central part of the country were contested by guerrilla forces living among the rural population and by government forces stationed in towns. The third area, the cities, experienced comparatively little open antigovernment violence, although sporadic terrorist actions by both rightist and leftist groups persisted after the mid-1970s.

In the isolated "zones of control," as in other rural areas, amenities were few: no electricity, water taken from streams and springs, and no sanitation facilities. Agricultural production on family plots and collective farms provided food for guerrilla combatants as well as for local residents. According to sympathetic foreign observers, the guerrillas provided some social services, including at least rudimentary medical care, using both modern and traditional herbal methods, and education programs. Although supplies were either limited or nonexistent, literacy programs for all ages, using sticks to scratch in the earth in lieu of pens and paper, and education in first aid and basic sanitation measures were conducted. These courses served to provide basic education to a largely illiterate population and to prepare them to provide medical and logistical support to FMLN combatants. Town meetings were held to discuss issues of local concern and to elect councils with representatives responsible for agriculture, health, education, and information. Religious activities compatible with the tenets of liberation theology were encouraged. Security and early warning of armed forces operations in the area were provided by local militia drawn from the pool of younger residents.

Another aspect of the guerrillas' ideology stressed equality for women as comrades in the political-military struggle. This, in many cases, represented a considerable and sometimes difficult adjustment for people from a culture that placed an exceptionally strong value on machismo, where women traditionally were regarded as inferior. Discrimination against women was further reinforced in Salvadoran rural life, particularly in the area of labor. Government wage scales either excluded women from permanent labor positions; set a lower minimum wage for women, along with boys under sixteen and the handicapped; or did not pay women at all if they worked in a men's crew. Educational opportunities for girls were also more limited because of the need for their assistance at home at an early age. In territory influenced by the guerrillas, however, some observers reported that wife-beating was discouraged, an effort was made to assign tasks more equitably, and men were taught to view women as companeras (comrades). Thus, men might cook and wash clothes, while women fought, or directed development projects, or did construction work. In fact, 40 percent of leadership and 30 percent of combatant roles were filled by women in guerrilla zones. Yet even in these communities, there were limits to change; tortillamaking , for example, remained a female task.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress