History Files


The Americas

Central American Colonial Settlements




Modern El Salvador
AD 1841 - Present Day

Located in Central America, the modern republic of El Salvador borders modern Guatemala to the north, Honduras to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the south, with a coastline that stretches the entire length of the country. The nation's capital and largest city is San Salvador, which was originally founded in 1525 in the abandoned native Pipil capital of Cuzcatlan. The Pipil name for the region in general was Cuzhcatl (a simple spelling variation of Cuzcatlan, meaning 'land of precious things'), but the Spanish christened it with a long-winded name which was abbreviated as El Salvador, 'the saviour [of the world]'.

From his base at the new colonial capital of Mexico City, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado explored and conquered territory to the south between 1523-1527. El Salvador was created a province in 1528 and, as with all of the territory which had been gained in southern Central America, it was initially incorporated into the kingdom of Guatemala. This consisted of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. These provinces passed onto the Federal Republic Central America after independence, but when that began to disintegrate in 1838, the five provinces were given permission to become independent states in their own right on 31 May (although this was already happening anyway). El Salvador was the last to officially leave the republic, only declaring its independence in February 1841 after the republic had ceased to exist in all but name and the head of state, General Francisco Morazan, had left El Salvador to lead Costa Rica.

Despite the failure of the federal republic, the new countries created out of its fall shared a common history and the hope that reunion would eventually come, as evidenced by their many attempts over the years. Now the most densely-populated state on the mainland of the Americas, El Salvador is highly-industrialised. In the 1980s, it was ravaged by a bitter civil war which was stoked by gross inequality between the overwhelming majority of the population and a small and wealthy elite, with the fighting leaving around 70,000 people dead. A United Nations-brokered peace agreement ended the civil war in 1992, ushering in important political reforms, but the country still suffered from the legacy of a divided society. Violent 'mara' street gangs have left El Salvador with one of the world's highest murder rates.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Nicaragua, the Land of Sandino, Thomas W Walker (Westview Press, 1981), from Central America Since Independence, Leslie Bethell (Ed), from Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador: The Insurrection of 1932, Roque Dalton, from Politics of Historical Memory, Héctor Lindo-Fuentes, Erik Kristofer Ching, & Rafael Lara Martínez (UNM Press, 2007), and from External Links: BBC Country Profiles, and The Biography, and EcuRed (In Spanish), and World Statesmen, and The Guardian.)


The Federal Republic Central America had been formed in 1823, and is also known as the United Central Provinces of America. It is based on the US model of a republic. It consists of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Fearing dominance by Guatemala City, long the dominant city in the region, the capital of the federal republic is now moved to San Salvador.

Map of Central America in the 1830s
The Federal Republic of Central America was formed of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This lasted from 1823-1841, by which time Mexico had grabbed much of Chiapas and the republic itself dissolved into the separate nation states known today - although Nicaragua did not control the independent Mosquito Coast until the end of the century, and British troops occupied eastern Belize (click on map to view full sized)

1838 - 1841

On 2 February, Los Altos, 'the highlands', becomes the federal republic's sixth state, consisting of the western highlands of modern Guatemala and Chiapas. With conservative elements in conflict with more liberal elements, the federal republic dissolves into civil war. On 31 May the republic's congress meets to declare that the provinces are free to form their own independent republics, although this is just official recognition that the break-up has already begun.

With Guatemala leading the anti-federalist revolt, Nicaragua leaves the federation on 5 November 1838, and then Costa Rica and Honduras follow suit. Los Altos also proclaims its independence. By this time, the federal republic has ceased to exist. El Salvador proclaims its own independent government in February 1841, officially bringing the federal republic to an end. Records for this confusing transitional period are poor, so the exact date is not known.

1842 - 1844

The attempt by General Francisco Morazan to establish the Confederation of Central America from Costa Rica leads to him being deposed and executed by his own people, but the confederation itself lingers on for two years.


A second attempt to recreate a federal republic is made with the formation of the Federation of Central America. This involves El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and is established in October 1852, although it lasts all of a month.


The rivalry between El Salvador's president and the Guatemalan leader, Rafael Carrera, leads to open war. Guatemala suffers a defeat at Coatepeque and agrees to a truce. However, with Honduras siding with El Salvador, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua siding with Guatemala, the war soon ends with Carrera occupying the Salvadorian capital.

1871 - 1876

General Santiago González Portillo leads the Liberal Revolution of 1871 which deposes the elected government and replaces it with a short-lived military leadership. Democracy returns in 1876 with fresh elections, but the conflicts which are frequently erupting in the country over the expropriation of land for ever-increasing coffee growing force the formation of a strong army which also provides useful in warding off the attentions of Guatemala.

Coffee revolution
The coffee revolution was to an extent inspired by improved production methods by countries such as El Salvador, although supplies to Europe may have been occasionally interrupted by the frequent Central American revolutions

1871 - 1876

Santiago González Portillo

Army general. Led the revolution of 1871. Replaced by 'elections'.


A diplomatic approach fails between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in regard to forming a fresh union of Central American states. President Rafael Zaldívar of El Salvador is against the idea despite his predecessors being well disposed towards it. Now the president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios, attempts to reunite the states of the former federal republic by force of arms, but is killed in battle against El Salvador. In the same year, Zaldívar is removed from office during a coup which is led by General Francisco Menéndez. The army remains in command of the country for more than two decades.

1885 - 1890

Francisco Menéndez

Army general. Provisional president until 1887. Deposed by Ezeta.

1890 - 1894

Carlos Ezeta

Army general. Deposed by Gutiérrez & fled the country. Died 1903.

1894 - 1895

General Rafael Antonio Gutiérrez overthrows Carlos Ezeta in a coup on 9 June 1894. He is assisted by Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and fellow countryman and close friend General Tomás Regalado. The coup becomes known as the Revolution of the 44. Rafael is a supporter of a Central American union, and he moves El Salvador towards such an achievement.

1894 - 1898

Rafael Antonio Gutiérrez

Army general. Deposed by Regalado.

1896 - 1898

The Pact of Amapala, signed on 20 June 1895, heralds a new attempt at creating a union between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The build-up to the Greater Republic of Central America takes two years. When its constitution comes into effect in 1898 it is rechristened the United States of Central America, but it doesn't survive a military coup by General Tomás Regalado in El Salvador in the same year. Regalado immediately pulls El Salvador out of the union and it collapses.

1898 - 1903

Tomás Regalado

Army general. 'Elected' in 1899. Left office voluntarily. Died 1906.

1903 - 1907

Pedro José Escalón

Army general. Hand-picked by Regalado.

1903 - 1907

Despite being the hand-picked successor of General Tomas Regalado, and a military man himself, Pedro José Escalón oversees a marked increase in democracy in the country. His accession is peaceful, itself an unusual event, and he leaves the country more politically stable than it has been in years. His successor in office is an elected civilian.

1917 - 1918

Unlike many of its neighbours in Central America, El Salvador remains neutral during the First World War against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Most of the others side with the USA and Great Britain against Germany, but only late on in the war, when the outcome has become more obvious.

1921 - 1922

One more attempt is made at creating the Greater Republic of Central America between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A provisional federal council is formed, made up of delegates from each state, but that is as far as the project goes.

El Salvador
El Salvador's topography offers some dramatic challenges but its climate and growing conditions are excellent for coffee production, something which has created periods of economic boom for the nation

1931 - 1944

In a coup d'etat which involves Colonel Osmín Aguirre y Salinas as an organising force, General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez comes to power, removing the elected president, Arturo Araujo. Hernandez uses brutal methods to suppress rural opposition the following year during a peasant uprising. La Matanza (or 'the massacre') is led by Farabundo Marti, but is crushed by Hernandez at a cost of 30,000 casualties. On 8 December 1941, El Salvador joins the Second World War as an ally of the USA and Great Britain against Japan, Germany, and Italy.

1931 - 1944

Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez

Army general and virtual dictator. Deposed. Murdered 1966.


For planning to violate the constitution by declaring a third term of office without holding elections, Hernandez is forced to deal harshly with the Palm Sunday Coup. Soon afterwards, in May, he is deposed anyway during the 'Strike of Fallen Arms'. Students lead the passive movement against him which paralyses the country by encouraging everyone to remain at home. It soon escalates into a general strike. The movement spreads to neighbouring Guatemala, where another military dictator, Jorge Ubico, is removed from office. However, El Salvador continues to be ruled for the most part by army officers with few elections which are far from free or fair.

1944 - 1945

Osmín Aguirre y Salinas

Army colonel. Deposed and fled. Assassinated in 1987.

1945 - 1948

Salvador Castaneda Castro

Army general. Deposed.

1948 - 1950

The regime of Salvador Castaneda Castro has been even more repressive and bloody than that of his predecessors. He has managed to turn the general strike into an armed uprising against him, followed by it being mercilessly crushed. Now he is removed from power during a coup (the Revolution of 1948) which is organised by a large number of junior army officers.

For a time - 15 December 1948 to 14 September 1950 - the country is governed by a revolutionary council rather than yet another military dictator. Elections in 1950 are, to an extent, democratic even though the only two contenders are military officers. The new president, though, oversees a regime which quite quickly becomes repressive in nature.

1960 - 1967

The term of office of the second democratically-elected (relatively so) president since the Revolution of 1948 is brought to an end by a bloodless coup in 1960. A short-lived junta which consists of a split of three military and three civilian members takes over. The junta gives way in 1961 to the hybrid Civic-Military Directory, followed by a provisional government in 1962. In that year a new president is elected - yet another military figure but seemingly with most of the trappings of a level of true democracy in place. This arrangement also continues over to the next president in 1967, with the democratic trappings becoming more visible and truly democratic.


Border tensions between Honduras and El Salvador erupt into war following preliminary matches between the two nations for the forthcoming football World Cup. El Salvador launches an attack on Honduras on 14 July, but just six days later the Central American states negotiate a ceasefire. The one hundred hour conflict later becomes known as the Football War or (to the USA) the Soccer War, or even the 100 Hours War.

Football War, 100 Hours War
Migration, trade, and simmering land disputes on the border between El Salvador and Honduras all conspired to spark social unrest between the two, but it wasn't until the best-of-three World Cup qualifiers in 1969 that the tipping point was reached


Jose Napoleon Duarte is elected president, but the military capture and torture him. When the chance comes, he is forced to flee the country.


Guerrilla activities by the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) intensify amid reports of increased human rights violations by government troops and death squads. After several seemingly fairer elections, General Carlos Romero is 'elected' president, another in a long line of military figures who are little more than dictators with a thin sheen of legitimacy.

1977 - 1979

Carlos Humberto Romero

Army general and virtual dictator. Deposed.


General Romero is ousted in a coup which is launched by reformist officers who then install a military-civilian junta. However, this fails to curb army-backed political violence. Accusations of rigged elections continue to plague the country, but now the candidates are largely civilians with ideological rather than military backgrounds.

1980 - 1992

The country experiences a second peasant uprising which leads to the Salvadoran Civil War. Supported by the USA, the government fights a coalition of four left-wing groups and one communist group which are supported by Soviet Russia, making it a playground of the Cold War. Atrocities are committed by the National Guard and government-related death squads. Especially horrific to the outside world are the murders of Catholic missionaries and religious aid workers (shown to horrific levels of detail by the 1986 film, Salvador), and a total of 180,000 casualties are claimed in all. The violence doesn't end until the Chapultepec Peace Accords are signed in January 1991. The guerrilla factions then form their own political party in order to contest elections for president.


Lying as it does within the Pacific's ring of fire, the country suffers from frequent earthquake activity. On 13 January, El Salvador is rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter Scale. Just a month later, on 13 February, a second earthquake destroys great swathes of the country's infrastructure.

Suchitoto Church
Suchitoto's church, Iglesia Santa Lucia, is a fine example of colonial era building in the country with this southerly town being one of the first sites of post-colonial occupation in the region - from 1528


In March the OAS human rights court votes to re-open an investigation into the 1981 massacre of hundreds of peasant farmers in the village of El Mozote, an incident which is regarded as one of the worst atrocities of the civil war. In October of the same year thousands flee as the Ilamatepec volcano, also known as Santa Ana, erupts. Days later scores of people are killed as Tropical Storm Stan sweeps through.

2008 - 2012

By 2008, El Salvador is the most heavily populated Central American country, with a total population of 5.8 million. It also has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas, perhaps due in part to the US policy of deporting thousands of Salvadorian citizens in the nineties. By 2012, a year-long truce is agreed between the street gangs. It reputedly saves the lives of thousands but violence rises again in subsequent years.