In The After: Reflections on El Salvador’s Long Postwar

After years of mainstream media silence El Salvador is back in the news. Heralded as a success story in the early 1990s, El Salvador was celebrated as a model of a “negotiated revolution” (Karl 1992) with the signing of United Nations brokered Peace Accords on January 16, 1992 between the right wing Salvadoran government and the insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). More than twenty years later, a different story erupted. By the summer of 2014, U.S. President Barak Obama declared the unaccompanied border crossings of minors an “urgent humanitarian situation” as the number of detentions were dramatic and on the rise. Indeed, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the capture of 68,541 unaccompanied minors in 2014, a 77% increase since 2013. Of these children, 75% are from what policy makers are describing asthe “Northern Triangle”—the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And then, by the spring of 2015 attention once again turned to El Salvador with the trope of more alarming numbers, 635 homicides in May and by June 677 murders. Reports highlight that this number is the highest since the end of the war. 4,7000 homicides are projected by the end of the year. Significant discussion focuses on gang violence: the failure of a truce between leading gangs and the former FMLN Mauricio Funes administration; the dehumanizing depiction of Salvadorans as producers of barbaric violence, gangs as equivalent to ISIS; the courageous reporting by El Salvador’s online newspaper, El Faro, that uncovers the hidden violence perpetrated by El Salvador’s police forces, and the very real coverage of the everyday anger and insecurity felt by Salvadorans who see no solution outside of the former Mano Dura policy. There is no humanitarian project here. Resoundingly, El Salvador is depicted as a contemporary, bloody, terrifying and insecure place more than twenty years into postwar. Most importantly, this chaos threatens to “leak” into the United States—those disheveled and panicked kids and the transnational gangs organizing crime and violence across borders.

My work, though not squarely focused on violence or the displacement of young bodies across borders can offer another kind of reading and point to the ways in which people live through the everyday of aftermaths and violence. Since the early 1990s, I have been writing about El Salvador’s now long postwar. My anthropological research took me to the former conflict zone and department of Chalatenango in 1993, a year after the signing of the peace accords. In my book,Everyday Revolutionarie (,71.aspx), I provide a peopled account of the entangled aftermaths of war and displacement, aftermaths that have produced postwar deception and disillusionment and an "obligated" migration of former everyday insurgents—Salvadorans who were the backbone of popular organizing and armed struggle.

Recently, I published an article ( in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. With this piece I pondered what doesn’t get said about post war El Salvador and why. Specifically, I initiated a conversation on the relationship between humanitarian logics and projects and explored a discursive shift in El Salvador that enunciates a history of militancy. This interest stems from my long-term fieldwork and academic engagement with postwar El Salvador and as such I am invested in thinking through analytic and methodological conversations on longitudinal research and what it means to return to the field.

For those unfamiliar with El Salvador, the article briefly highlights key texts and thematics that have guided scholarship on El Salvador as a central and comparative case for the study postwar reconciliation. It takes as its point of departure and as its ethnographic subject a 2012 historic conference organized by the Unit of Investigations about the Salvadoran Civil War (UIGCS) of the Universidad de El Salvador. The conference, “History, Society and Memories: The Armed Conflict on the 20th Anniversary of the Peace Accords,” brought together a range of Salvadoran and international scholars to discuss the study of the civil war and its aftermath. The critiques and conversations that emerged illuminate the political spaces that have opened in a postwar El Salvador that many still experience as polarized. I juxtapose this event with my positioned return to Chalatenango, to the rural repopulated community of my original doctoral research. It is in this juxtaposition that I raise questions about what is silenced.

First, I ask us to consider why El Salvador’s war, aftermath and ongoing violence isnot understood, in academic and policy circles, as a humanitarian issue. As Didier Fassin (2012) elaborates, “humanitarian reason,” a moral economy of compassion, characterizes our contemporary period. I argue that the Salvadoran case disrupts humanitarian politics that rely on urgent and bounded crisis and that produces the eruption of the suffering and traumatized body. My fieldwork, in contrast, reveals the ways in which trauma has been elided in El Salvador’s postwar trajectory, and from many sectors. Recall, trauma creates victims and that troubles the metanarrative of heroic collective action. Indeed, postconflict democratization in El Salvador did not as a rule build upon the category of “victim.” The suffering—social, economic, embodied—I suggest is temporally different. It is “chronic and cumulative” and both personal and structural (Bourgois and Schonberg 2009:16).

Why then, in 2012, at that conference, were scholars talking about the traumas of war, the sequelae of trauma, and interestingly enough, the arcs of militancy? The terms militanteinsurgente abounded. I argue that this is a significant discursive shift, a revisiting and rethinking of practices and histories of violence. As such, I read the historic conference ethnographically and call attention to the claiming of militancy in the archive, rather than the earlier, coded, postwar terminology of gente colaboradoragente conciente, and compañero/compañera. I am not suggesting that “militant” was an irrelevant or singular category. Indeed, as Ralph Sprenkels highlights, the category was deeply linked to clandestine insurgent organizations and thus its use framed by these relationships (2014). As a result, one of the key questions that I seek to open up in my article surrounds the relationship between enunciating trauma of war as a way to reclaim the historical narrative of militancy. I ask us to consider the dependency of the one for the other.

To think through this finding on militancy, the article shifts to the intimate spaces of long-term fieldwork that attend to Salvadoran’s unfolding narratives of their long postwar. Here the structural and the personal entangle through chronic lives that contest humanitarianism’s logic. I take up Ralph Sprenkels’ work on the unintended limitations of the Truth Commission and historians Rey Tristán and Lazo (2011), who describe postwar El Salvador as following “a model of reconciliation via impunity” that spawns “una reconciliación sin reconciliados” (reconciliation without the reconciled). I introduce readers to my relationship with Elsy, a former everyday revolutionary and postwar waxing and waning women’s community leader, and her shifting interpretations of postwar logics that catch her in the bind between humanitarian and militant projects. These produce possibilities (remittances from migrant kin) and pain (decade long separations and estrangements). The article seeks to foreground Elsy’s biographical life that is silenced in the humanitarian logic of our period.

Ultimately, my work continues to raise more questions than offer steady answers or policy prescriptives. In a nation with more than 6 million people within its borders and more than 1 million in the diaspora, I do believe that a humanistic anthropology attendant to people’s everyday lives, the longue durée and intimacy of ever shifting postwar processes is one way out of a flattening of regional histories that simultaneously erase larger geopolitical forces and condemn a nation and a people for the production of outlawed bodies. 


Rey Tristán, Eduardo, and Xiomara Lazo. (2011) Es la justicia el precio de la paz? Logros y limitaciones del proceso de paz salvadoreño. In Conflicto, memoria y pasados traumáticos: El Salvador contemporáneo. Eduardo Rey Tristán and Pilar Cagiao Vila, eds. Pp. 211–240. Santiago: Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.

Sprenkels, Ralph.  (2012) La guerra como controversia: una reflexión sobre las secuelas políticas del informe de la Comisión de la Verdad para El Salvador. Identidades 2(4):68–92.

---------------------. (2014) Revolution and Accommodation: Post-Insurgency in El Salvador. PhD Thesis, Utrecht University.

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