By Jeannette Aguilar
For most of the twentieth century, until the coup d'état of 1979, El Salvador lived under military regimes in which the military elite directly exercised political power. Since the eighties, the military elite formally allowed the rise of civilian governments through elections. Despite these reforms, the military continued to have enormous power in the Republic, derived from the omnipresent armed control they exercised in all areas of national life until the end of the civil war in 1992. Moreover, their alliance with the oligarchic bloc and their armed capabilities made them the “gatekeeper of the status quo.” This status allowed the Military to hold significant political power, even when they no longer exercised it directly.
In this way, the Military has been more than a judge between economic power groups and political sectors. For most of the last century, until the Peace Accords, it was the most powerful institution in the country. Samour (1994) makes this point when talking about the excessive militarism that has characterized Salvadoran political history. The military’s supremacy in the political sphere was such that it turned the military into a de facto power above any other factual power. This role has negatively influenced the Salvadoran political process and its possibilities for democratic development.
The military has influence in the political and social sphere, and an important role in creating governability for the ruling elites at different times in history, because of its ability to use armed power as a tool for political action. For decades, that political power preserved privileges, guaranteed impunity, and delivered enormous economic benefits to the military leadership and the officers on duty, enriching many military members. In this way, the military establishment’s control of internal security has been key to preserving both its power and “military prerogatives.” The constitutional reforms derived from the peace agreements sought to eradicate the military prerogatives by changing the mission and doctrine of the military as an institution. “The hegemonic control that the military maintained over security allowed them to manipulate perceptions of threats to public order and become essential for political power. When the loss of control over internal security reduced the military's capacity for manipulation, they lost the fundamental instrument they had to make themselves necessary” (Costa, G., 1999, p.217).
Until the political reforms of the peace accords, keeping public order and law enforcement was part of the ordinary mission of the Salvadoran Military (FAES). Internal security and political repression was the primary function of the Salvadoran army throughout the last century (Stanley, W, in Costa, G., 1999) within the framework of the National Security Doctrine. Since the mid-sixties, with the United States government's support, the FAES, together with the security forces and paramilitary structures, constituted an internal security system used for the political persecution of any opponent.
From the war’s beginning, the military took a leading role in counterinsurgent security policy. The main focus was the defense of the State or ‘internal security,’ which resulted in brutal and indiscriminate persecution of anyone who fit into the vague category of “domestic enemy.” The transition from a more selective paramilitary repression to more severe and indiscriminate repression involved massive bombings of the civilian population in the countryside and hundreds of massacres within the framework of the so-called Scorched Earth strategy, which displaced millions of Salvadorans and forced them emigrate internally or internationally. During the armed conflict in El Salvador against the civilian population, the military's grave human rights violations were part of the repressive machinery to exercise social and population control. The report of the Comisión de la Verdad put together by the United Nations after the war revealed that 95% of the complaints of serious human rights violations were attributed to the military, former security forces, and paramilitary groups (composed of military and police) which acted with the acquiescence of the military (UN, 1992).
The demilitarization of the State, and the rethinking of its constitutional mission, were core to advancing the process of democratic construction that began with the signing of the Peace Accords. As Costa argues (p.97), “the most important thing about the military reform was not its quantitative reduction, but the adoption of a new mission and doctrine” that constitutionally removed the military from its political role and the field of civilian law enforcement. The Accords’ drastic reduction of the military’s power sought to give the military its rightful place in a democratic society, that of guarantor of national defense. In addition, “this allowed Salvadorans the broadest development of their potential, by freeing them from the restrictions imposed by the population control system of the old regime and from a discriminatory institutional framework” (Costa, p.103-104). In other words, peace was possible, provided the military abandoned its political role and control of security and dismantled the legal and illegal repressive structures that led to serious human rights violations.
However, this process was not without its shortcomings and threats. Although there were essential advances on crucial issues, the military’s efforts to delay, distort and hinder compliance with the Agreements as far as possible are widely documented. From the beginning, the military sought to ensure significant interference in the newly established police force (Aguilar, J., 2016). Opposition and threats from military leadership group (the “Tandona”) to the Peace Process’s advancement weakened with the approval of high pensions for their retirement. In the case of lieutenants and captains, their bargaining chip ensured their entry into the new police force.
Three decades after the most ambitious military reform in Salvadoran history, empirical evidence reveals severe failures by the military to adhere to its new mission and doctrine. These failures created a severe reversal of the proposed demilitarization process, which has gradually and progressively favored a new rise of the military in different spheres of civilian life and its return to a political role. Under the justification of a massive increase in crime, the various postwar governments perpetuated and normalized, in clear violation of the Constitution, the participation of the military in civil security tasks. This favored them moving into this arena to such an extent that today, the military has civil security as part of its ordinary and strategic role. Today, there is no doubt that guaranteeing public safety has once again become the military’s leading role. Postwar governments’ weak legitimacy and their inability to solve the severe civil security challenges favored progressive military involvement in civilian law enforcement. This involvement has allowed the military to seep more and more into civilian roles, favoring a new rise in militarism.
In 2019, an authoritarian autocratic government arrived in El Salvador and quickly dismantled the democratic advances made after the war’s end. Since then, the military left behind its apolitical nature and violated the Constitution by attacking democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. One example of these attacks is the military’s takeover of the Legislative Assembly and the illegal replacement of the magistrates of Congress. This favored the subsequent authoritarian capture of the judicial branch, the serious abuses, and the arbitrary detention of thousands of people during the Covid-19 quarantine. More recently, in March 2022 the military participated in a policy of mass detentions producing severe human rights violations during the State of Exception that the Legislative Assembly mandated at the President's request. These extreme events show that three decades after the signing of the Peace Accords, the military continues to obstruct democracy in El Salvador.
This work uses a definition of militarism proposed by Samour (1994). We should understand militarism as the “excessive influence of the military on social and political institutions.” In contrast, the remilitarization of security is understood as the progressive return and increasing direct participation of the military in civilian law enforcement, at both the operational level and in managing the agencies responsible for security.
In this context, we assume that the remilitarization of security began before the signing of the Peace Accords had ended. Still, to protect their corporate interests, the military needed to become indispensable to the ruling politicians and to recover their power and capacity for political influence. This report seeks to show, with available empirical evidence and verifiable indicators, the reversal of the demilitarization process established by the signing of the Peace Accords. The latter is demonstrated by an increase in the military class, which goes beyond the increase in numbers to showcase the military’s intervention in civilian law enforcement affairs and other areas of civilian life, including the political arena. Although the analysis focuses on the leading indicators over the last decade, it includes a historical look at the post-conflict period, allowing us to understand where the ambitious military reform failed. Additionally, it examines the relationship between the official narrative around the domestic enemy as a justification for a more significant military presence in public and civilian life, and the impact that remilitarization actually has had on vulnerable groups and sectors.