El Salvador: ‘To Change the World’ – They Did, and in More Ways Than They Imagined

Women Movements During the Armed Conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala

To change the world, one has to change the ways 

of making the world, that is, the vision of the world and 

the practical operations by which groups

 are produced and reproduced.

Pierre Bourdieu1

Thus, a triumphant revolution 

would then be one which alters 

the basic class structures of the state 

and the patriarchy with which women must wrestle 

even in the most “revolutionary” contexts.

Julia Denise Shayne2


The heroic images of young combatant females fighting alongside their male counterparts in the insurgent armed conflicts of El Salvador Nicaragua, Guatemala and Cuba, during the 1950s to 1990s, lead us to (re)examine the historical currents of gender inequality. The militant roles of women in the guerilla, combatants or non-combatants, run counter to the traditional wife and mother narratives. Certainly, their accomplishments serve to advance the argument that gender equality can be achieved as they’ve demonstrated in the battlefield and beyond. But, as in every instance, there are many stories behind the image; an historical context laden with facts and figures, analysis and perspectives. In the past, historians’ depictions of women’s roles in response to the call-for-arms were generally consequential or supportive, however, the recent works of scholars have yielded a vibrant profile of riveting insights on how women created their own space. Initially motivated by their ardent convictions that substantive changes must be structural in a society marked by blatant inequalities, revolutionary women progressively adopted a perspective as protagonists, confronting and calibrating changes in the injustices and gender biases relevant to their lives. 

            The discussion brings into focus these questions: 1) who were the women in the resistance and what specific roles did they play; 2) why is it important to recognize their struggles and challenges; and 3) why study the women and what can we learn from their stories. The first part of this article’ title: ‘To Change the World’ is a reference to the motivation that compelled so many women to join the guerrillas. There were other factors, of course, which are discussed in the corresponding paragraphs, but the women’s voices particularly stand out because they wanted a better future for themselves, their families, and their countries, specifically, their children. What sets the women in the resistance apart from other women seeking justice, such as the Western European and North American feminists, is the fact that the women in the armed resistance were concerned with issues beyond gender equality, for the greater good of the society, i.e., the fight for democratic freedoms, the right to live a life of dignity and free of violence, encompassing a far broader vision of equality. 

            We adhere to the corresponding ‘Feminist Ghosts,’ as a metaphor that represents the act of consciousness-raising that underscores the urgency to think responsibly and critically about how to advocate for change so that all women, regardless of where they live and who they are, and have the opportunity to fight for social injustices and inequality. One of the goals of this writing endeavor is to encourage the reader to embark on a personal quest in a journey toward greater understanding and participation in gender-related issues and problems. 

First let me tell you, a woman is never more equal

To a man than behind a .45 pistol.”3

The Gender-based Revolution: Collecting the Stories

One of many challenges of collecting historical, accurate numbers on the women that participated in the guerrilla is the lack of a single source for the depository of the data. In Nicaragua, a total of guerrilla members, men and women, range from 15,000 to 18,000.4 However, the Nicaraguan Revolution was a grassroots phenomenon that included the participation of 250,000 to 300,000 civilians.5 Many sources agreed upon the fact that the number of women in guerrilla increased as the revolutions progressed. Post-war or conflict demobilization data collected by external sources such as the United Nations offered yet another view. A general consensus, then, is that women combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolution (FSLN – Sandinist Front of National Liberation) consisted of 25 to 30 percent of the total number, about 5,000 or so. The Salvadoran armed conflict had a slightly lesser amount, about 4,400 or 30 percent of the total (around 15,000), although one of the guerrilla organizations, the ERP – Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, had as many as 40 percent female combatants.6 The Guatemalan armed conflict documents have the most inconsistent data base, perhaps due to the longevity of the war (36 years) and the high attrition rates among the women combatants. Guatemala’s united guerrilla, the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca), developed in the early 80s, included four different guerrillas. Of the overall total of around 6,000 participants serving as combatants, approximately 1,440 women or 25 percent served during the 1978-80 period of the war.7

Oral History in the Context of War

The women’s stories in this volume are genuine, at least to the extent that they could be appropriately verified. Thus, the primary sources for the research purposes were social scientists, e.g., anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. In addition to the work of scholars in the areas of gender studies, the primed sources came from writers that based their information on first-hand experiences. Indeed, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting authentic narratives about traumatic events that the subjects personally experienced should be examined with a critical eye and filtered through the contextual lens of unprecedented moments of enormous upheaval. Historian David Carey8 points out that interviewees’ past accounts of events, as difficult and heart-wrenching as they were, often attach meaning to experience, and that by remembering the events, a process of reconstruction is at play. Thus, their narratives can be expected to be imbued with some imagination, omissions, and embellishments. There is also the importance of dignity in the manner by which the interviewee refused to speak or share only parts of their stories because they felt shame, for themselves and their families. Silence as a coping strategy was used by women who endured horrendous torture by the state military forces.

Central America

At the very least an historical snapshot of the three countries is essential, and potentially contributes to our overall understanding of the evolution of change and circumstance. Before the European conquistadors conquered and colonized the Mesoamerican region of the Americas, from northern region of what is today México to the southern area that includes about half of Costa Rica, the population consisted of widely diverse indigenous groups. Scientists and scholars’ works have produced voluminous publications about the history, cultures, and languages, an immense undertaking that has brought to light the phenomenal accomplishments of a civilization dating as far back as fifteen thousand years ago. 

            It was in 1523, after the fall of the Aztec Empire when the Spanish army led by Pedro de Alvarado began its expansive expedition into the Central American region. The state of Chiapas in Mexico was included in the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and most of Costa Rica. In 1522, the Spanish explorer, Gil González, traveled from Panama with his cavalry to ascertain his country’s conquest of Nicaragua. The Spanish crown governed the entire region from 1609 until 1821 when the newly established state of Central America gained its independence from Spain (as did Mexico). In 1823, Central America seceded from Mexico and became the Federal Republic of Central America. When the countries – Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica – became autonomous entities in the course of gaining their independence from Mexico in 1838 (and later, El Salvador in 1841), they terminated their collective federation existence after 230 years. It’s arguable, then, that as a result of their experiences as a long-time federation they share similar patterns of post-colonial governance, the emergence of an economy established in inequality, and the social adherence to the accumulation of wealth by an elite segment of the society. From the outset, each country was rooted in an historical context of pitting the majority poor against the minority wealthy that was destined to lead into a series of revolts, some of major proportions. It’s through the lens of history and critique that I analyze the stories, struggles, and achievements of the women in resistance.

El Salvador


Gumercinda “Chinda” Zamora is one of the organizers of the peasant movement, the Union Trabajadores Campesinos (UTC) in Chalatenango, a department in northeastern El Salvador, along with three others – Facundo Guardado, José Santos Martínez, and Justo Mejía. 

Early 1970s

Chinda, a middle-age woman, married and mother of nine children worked as labor union organizer and midwife in the areas around the rural communities of La Ceiba and Las Vueltas. She relates one of her encounters with a National Guard soldier to Joaquín Chávez, author of the book, Poets and Prophets of the Resistance.9 At the time, Chinda was on the “blacklist” as a dangerous militant because of her work with the labor union. The Guard was stationed throughout the neighboring areas, on orders to conduct surveillance, threaten residents, and if the soldiers deemed necessary, they would detain, torture and even execute those that are suspected of being radicals or subversives. Chinda and the other leaders lived in secluded areas in the mountains to escape persecution but would return to the villages at night. Chinda used her midwife identity to disguise her labor union activities. On her walk home one night, she was stopped by Guardsman and proceeded to interrogate Chinda – what was her business and why so late at night. Chinda explained that she was on duty as a midwife and even opened up her bag of herbs she uses to deliver babies. The Guardsman seemed satisfied and then asked her if she knew a woman by the name of  Chinda Zamora. Chinda replied that she did know the woman, but she hadn’t seen her lately. Chinda was able to avoid capture this time, however, she was eventually arrested and imprisoned a few years later. 

            Chinda was by the State standards a very dangerous woman. She was one of the leaders that  created a forceful, unprecedented peasant movement whose militant members engaged in all aspects of the revolutionary efforts and through their accomplishments, formed a foundation for the major armed organization, the FMLN – Faribundo Martí National Liberation.   

The Armed Conflict Between the FMLN Guerrilla and the State Military

El Salvador entered into a very dark moment of history as two factions met in egregious combat for twelve years (1980-1992). The twelve year war caused devastation to a country already reeling from a debilitating economy, where approximately 75,000 civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives. Some of the cases of brutal repression and suffering are described in a report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, “From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador,” and the data speak volumes of the most horrendous, unspeakable tragedies: 22,000 human rights violations were documented along with 60 percent extrajudicial killings, 25 percent disappearances, 20 percent were tortured; and approximately 85 percent of civilian killings were attributed to state agents such as the military and death squads while the FMLN killed 5 percent. Additionally, about a million people experienced displacement as a result of the war, and many were survivors of massacres similar to the scorched earth tactics practiced by the Guatemalan military during the genocidal era of the late 70s and early 80s.

The El Salvador armed conflict, the 36-year internal armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996), and the Nicaraguan revolution (1978-79), were part of a regional conflict the erupted after the Cuban revolution (1953-59). Both the Cuban and the Nicaraguan wars meet the criteria as transformative revolutions, although Nicaragua’s success was truncated with the eruption of the Contra War (1981-1990).10 Guatemala’s and El Salvador’s armed conflicts came to an end in the most dismal of circumstances thereby losing their ability to negotiate in a true revolutionary fashion. It was the era of upheaval where other regions of Latin America were marred with violent conflicts that resulted in the deaths of thousands, and countless numbers of extreme cases of human rights violations.11 


The United States’ Dominant Role

One of the most notable features of the violent conflicts is the powerful influence leveraged by the United States, which undoubtedly is considered the world’s greatest military force. During the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) through Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), the United States played a dominant role in Latin America as the defense leader against the Soviet Union’s threatening menace as a nuclear power. Fearing that the “rebel” forces were aligned with the “communist bloc,” the Cold War, in geopolitical terms, the United States provided generously to strengthen the military might of the state governments thus, blocking the guerrillas from fully taking control. Even after Nicaragua’s triumph in 1979, the United States supported the “Contras,” the anti-Sandinistas, in their attempts to “take back” their government. Each of the three state governments -El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – had a huge arsenal of all-things military, for ground, naval and air assaults. The military aid transferred to the three state governments during the periods of armed conflicts totaled to billions, an extraordinary amount, especially during the Reagan presidency. The price tag for fighting the insurgency in El Salvador, as well as Guatemala and Nicaragua, amounted to billions USD, that included the funding of the counterinsurgency in each country, the militarization of Honduras, and the support for maintaining the state repression. The insurmountable support underscored the interventionist role of the United States, and greatly attributed to the state governments’ abilities to counter attack the insurgencies, which resulted in the staggering death toll amongst guerrilla combatants and non-combatant civilians.12  

Revolts, Electoral Fraud, and Coup d’état Waves

As a young girl, Chinda lived in and around the rural communities of La Ceiba and Las Vueltas, a region covered with rolling hills amid the two summits of Cerro Picacho and Cerro El Infiernillo in the volcano corridor of  Chalatenango Department. Families subsisted in farming corn, beans, and sorghum, and cash crops such as coffee and sugar. In 1931, the Great Depression had impacted the coffee industry, and the consequences were the most devastating for families like Chinda’s. Chinda’s parents were contemporaries of Augustín Farabundo Martí, the labor union leader whose reputation for his rebellious and tenaciousness had won over the support of thousands of campesinos. The rallying cry amongst the peasants was the same then as it was during Chinda’s leadership with the UTC labor union. Far from extravagant or even unreasonable, the demands were basic like decent wages and working conditions, and use of land, all necessary for sustaining a meager subsistence. But after sixty years since the inception of the Central American Congress of Workers organization in 1911, and the perseverance of leaders such as Martí and others, Chinda’s labor union demands were more radical and astute, calling for the restructuring of the capitalist society, politics, and political economy. They demanded justice: higher living wages, improved working conditions, access to clean water, and an end to the abuses perpetrated by landowners.13

Martí’s rebelliousness and courage were emblazoned in the memory book of Chinda’s family and friends. An entire generation came to know Martí as a folk hero, the legendary leader that represented the hearts and minds of struggling, hard-working peasants that for the first time began to think about a revolution. But before Martí there was Anastasio Aquino, in 1832, a hundred years prior, who had led a year-long revolt with 3,000 campesinos in protestation of gross injustices committed against mostly indigenous farmers. Aquino’s status as a cacique offered him an unprecedented voice amongst the powerful elite and wealthy oligarchs that took advantage of the hard-working peasanty to further their wealth and prestige. The slavery existence which the indigenous people had been relegated since colonial times was further exacerbated with the usurpation of the ancestral lands which rendered the poor peasants landless. The wealthy oligarchs, owners of the indigo monocrop economy, justified their actions by falsely claiming that their profits were used for the betterment of the country. The huge margin of profits were incrementally used for budgeting infrastructure projects, but none were allocated for anything other than for personal benefit, thus enriching themselves and neglecting the “good” for the Salvadoran people. The revolt ended with the capture and assassination of Aquino, who was decapitated with repressive force to demonstrate an example of punishment for any other rebels that dare to speak the truth. Like Martí, Aquino was considered a hero. Chinda’s parents and grandparents reminisce about Aquino’s bravery as one of their leaders whose violent death by decapitation signified a fight to the end, like a true revolutionary.  

Augustín Farabundo Martí was born in 1893, and although he lived in a community of hard-working, poor campesinos, his family was better off because his father was a moderate landowner. His father had adopted the surname of Martí from Cuba’s emblematic writer and one of the founders of the communist party, José Julián Martí Pérez. Farabundo Martí, nicknamed “el negro,” attended the university for a short time until his legal problems led to expulsion. He acquired learning experiences about the plight of the exploited campesino by living and working amongst the peasants in México and Guatemala. He eventually returned to El Salvador as a labor union organizer, and in 1928, then President Quiñones Molina, recognizing the activism in Martí, exiled him to Nicaragua. During the year in Nicaragua, he worked with Augusto César Sandino, whom he had met in México, in the insurgency efforts to oust the powerful, U.S. backed conservative faction of the Nicaraguan government. Martí was a devout Marxist and leader of the Socorro Rojo Internacional, while Sandino, who was two years older than him, was completely focused on nationalistic ideals. Both men dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights and freedoms of the working poor and their names became synonymous with heroism and hope.14 The leaders of the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan revolutions named their guerrilla organizations, respectively, the Farabundo Martí Front for Liberation (FMLN) and the Sandinist Front of National Liberation (FSLN), as a way to memorialize their heroes, and popularize their movement of armed insurrection. 

La Matanza, literally translated as “the killing,” involved the military in the mass killing on January 22, 1932 of thousands of so-called “communists,” but in reality they were mostly poorly armed peasants and university students protesting in a campaign for labor reform. Martí was not part of the group because he had been captured several days before the uprisings and was unable to send a communiqué to the protestors to inform them of the military’s intentions. They were gunned down with machine guns, and not just the protestors, entire towns were targeted as well. The most destructive and incisive massacres happened in El Canelo and Nahuilzalco. The point of the operation was to annihilate “communists,” but less than 10 percent killed were actually participating in the communist party.15 Extrajudicial executions continued for weeks and Martí was assassinated on February 1st. The official count of deaths is unknown, mostly because the crime was so shocking and the military and the wealthy elite scrambled to hide the truth. Some historians claim that at least 12,000 people were killed, others estimate that 40,000 lost their lives.16  

Many historians have remained fixated on the events that occurred before, during and after the “matanza,’ because of the horrendous tragedy but also for its overall impact and long-term consequences. A year before the “matanza” President Romero’s successor, Arturo Araujo was inaugurated and General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez was his VP. Araujo was a wealthy landowner who strived for an equipoise in governing on behalf of both the working class and the wealthy elite, but the oligarchy insisted on a governance hierarchy solely for themselves. Araujo’s selection of General Martínez as VP was a strategy to assuage their discontent. Within a nine month period, the oligarchy’s support for the military grew stronger which led to the eventual ousting of President Araujo, and General Martínez was allowed to take control of the government. The coup d’état was cautiously accepted by Martí and the organized protestors and supporters, but with a military official at the helm, they realized that their demands would never be heard. General Martínez proclaimed that “free elections” would take place in early January (1932), but his deception became obvious when he refused to certify the winners of the elections of the PCS (Communist Party of El Salvador) candidates. After the “matanza” there was little doubt that the military and the wealthy elite had created a bond of indisputable force.

The tragic events of 1932 marked a compelling chapter in the downward spiral of a history marred with extreme violence. At that point in history, revolution was not a viable solution for people who struggled with feeding their families, but there were signs that portended a massive revolt. First, despite their differences, the military and the wealthy oligarchs recognized their inimitable strength when they combine their forces against their common “enemy,” which fueled their authoritative, fascist rule. There were eight coup d’états within a five decade period (1931-1980); coups were commonly used by the military to select a new leader amongst themselves. And, Salvadoran voters became increasingly frustrated with frequent election fraud.17 Second, killing unarmed, innocent civilians was of no consequence to either the military or the wealthy elite; the massacres were intentionally planned to “cast a wide net” in order to kill a few guerrilla, and “scorched earth” tactics were meant to unabashedly bolster the deaths of civilians for their own distorted purposes. Third, the cumulative effect of the massacres could arguably be described as genocidal.18 The military force overly extended its destruction of entire indigenous communities, which not only resulted in catastrophic deaths but also created a culture of fear and silence amongst the survivors. The emotional pain, the trauma was a constant part of the victims’ suffering, and to erase the memories also meant to eradicate identity, language, and customs. The 1932 “matanza” set into motion a hatred for “everything indigenous,” and the systematic racism had the effect of engendering a slow but eventual death of language and culture. As in most cases of cultural contact there is arguably a certain amount of endogenous language loss and a decline in the use of customs among indigenous people; it is a tragic consequences of colonialization.19 However, the tragic horror, and shock wrought by the “matanza” had a collective impact on the  Nahuat-speakers, and what linguist call “language death” clearly exemplifies what happened to their language and culture.20 And fourth, in the intent to “kill off the Indians,” the perpetrators opened up pathways to planting the seeds for a revolution. The immense poverty, the persistent exploitation of the worker, the huge economic gap between the oligarchs who lived in luxury and the peasantry, that struggled every day and demanded nothing more than the opportunity to live a dignified life, all led to the fomentation of rebellion, and ultimately, to the revolution.21   

I was a woman who was never afraid.” Gumercinda “Chinda” Zamora.22

Chinda learned not to be afraid. Throughout her life she witnessed the brutal killings and mutilations of so many innocent people, and her clandestine lifestyle was due to the military repression that had steadily increased since the “matanza.” In the summer of 1974, in what is known as (the first) La Cayetana massacre, an organized group of peasants rebelled against the government’s refusal to support their negotiations for leasing land to cultivate corn and beans. They seized the land in protestation but the group’s leader was shot and killed by the soldiers. Four months later, National Guardsmen descended on the small town of La Cayetana (in San Vicente) and began killing the unarmed civilians. They captured the group behind the land occupation protest and corralled each member into a local church. The guardsmen proceeded to torture the men: they were ordered to lie down, face down, naked while the soldiers stomped on their backs. Six laborers were shot dead and their mutilated corpses were scattered in the streets. The Cayetano massacre sent shock waves among labor organizers because it was the first massacre that involved an entire community.23 Now, more than ever, the solidarity amongst campesinos was strengthened, and by joining the  UTC (Union de Trabajadores Campesinos) they recognized their strength in numbers.

Chinda experienced a deep, profound and tragic loss when her dear friend, co-founder of the UTC, and brother-in-law, Justo Mejia was tortured and assassinated on November 9, 1977. Mejia was captured by the paramilitaries in San Fernando, near Chalatenango. The torture was an inexplicable horror; he was beaten, and with his eyes gouged, and bleeding, the men forced him to walk until he collapsed. As they buried his body, the men told the crowd of onlookers that he was a thief. Two weeks later his body was exhumed and prepared for a proper funeral in his hometown of La Ceiba. Thousands of people – families, friends, acquaintances, and activists from Chalatenango and beyond attended the funeral to offer their respects, and to honor the man that was best known as a caring, dedicated teacher. Chinda remembers him in this remark: ‘He was such a helpful [colaborativo] and wise [alcanzativo] man. Nobody told him what to do. He knew the work that needed to be done. He came to my house often and said, I have a task [una tarea]. God willing we will be able to complete it.”24 Eight months later, in August, 1978, the paramilitaries led another massacre in the area, known as, La Ceiba massacre, which resulted in the killings of six children and two women, all relatives of Justo Mejía.

The Paramilitaries and the Role of the United States

By the end of the 1970s, the Salvadorans felt the extreme intensity of the repression. The ubiquitous paramilitaries had increased in size and their brutality was overwhelming. Chinda lived among communities where families were torn apart because of their allegiances to either the state paramilitary or the revolution. As many as 150,000 campesinos joined the Nationalist Democratic Organization (ORDEN), the military’s rural component of El Salvador’s counterinsurgency unit. They were outfitted with U.S.-provided equipment and automatic rifles, and their training was based on guerrilla warfare imported from the Green Berets, known for their extremist tactics to annihilate the dangerous and armed communists.   

ORDEN was a major paramilitary unit created in 1963 under the auspices of General Médrano, the head of the National Guard and the Armed Forces High Command.25     

  Special funding was provided by the United States as part of the Alliance for Progress (ALPRO), a regional initiative by the Kennedy administration in response to the threats posed by the Soviet Union under the specter of the Cold War. El Salvador received generous U.S. funding, and the aid was stipulated for modernizing and economic restructuring as well as for labor and education reforms.26 And although the ALPRO support was also earmarked for the development of a counterinsurgency apparatus as a contingency, the military/oligarch government of El Salvador relished the opportunity to use the funds to create a U.S.-style, world class military force. The United States State Department, including the CIA, had a direct influence on its development, providing specialized training, military equipment, and funds to maintain its operations. It was part of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, a complex, broad network of military units and intelligence agencies. The intelligence branch was the Salvadoran National Agency (ANSESAL), which collected personal data on individuals deemed as the subversive or communist leaders. The Security Forces included the National Guard, Treasury Police, National Police, and the Customs Police, which carried out the abductions, tortures, and assassinations, at first with cautious deliberation, but eventually these evolved into the “death squads.”27

The death squads’ murderous activities were sustained largely by the wealthy oligarch families and military personnel, representing the extreme far-right political faction. Their targets varied, but they clearly sought to eliminate the leadership amongst the religious and lay members of organizations such as the Christian Based Communities.28 With every tool of warfare at their disposal, and together with guerrilla warfare battalions such as Atlacatl, the death squad machine, committed the most brutal, heinous, and extreme violence against non-combatant civilians and entire communities and towns.29 The Salvadoran government denied its people agrarian, labor, and education reforms as stipulated and agreed upon by the ALPRO. And one of the most disconcerting facts is that death squads continued to terrorize Salvadorans after the Peace Accords of 1992. Their targets expanded to include gang members without substantial evidence of crimes committed; some were killed as part of a “social cleansing” mission.30

 The question remains on why the Salvadoran government agreed to the ALPRO terms, and whether the intent was to first and foremost benefit from the United States’ generous support and funding, and then, to deny culpability or responsibility for any wrongdoing.

Guerrilla Organizations and the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL)

While Chinda and other UTC leaders worked indefatigably to organize their efforts in Chalatenango, guerrilla groups began to emerge, especially in response to the intense military repression. Salvador Cayetano Carpio, a former communist party leader, studied “the revolution” in the Soviet Union for a couple of years and later, in 1970, founded the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL). The FPL guerrilla eventually recruited 1,500 to 2,000 troops, and enjoyed the support of tens of thousands of campesinos in the Chalatenango Department.31 Carpio, also known by his nom de guerre, Marcial, believed in the North Vietnam revolutionary example of a prolonged war with camp bases established in the guerrillas’ mountainous strongholds, while other guerrilla organizations preferred the alliance with the Cuban revolution (1953-1959).32 Between 1979 and 1981, in a crucial moment of dire need, and in order to counter the forceful and powerful attacks by the U.S. backed Salvadoran forces, the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL), established an alliance with the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the umbrella of a broad network of organizations, as well as Cuba, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and México. The FMLN also harnessed the support of the European community. The integration of the existing five guerrilla organizations into the FMLN completed the consolidation process. On January 10, 1981, the FMNL-FDR launched its initial offense from its military stronghold in the Department of Chalatenango. The five guerrilla organizations united in solidarity were: the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), Revolutionary Popular Army (ERP), Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), National Resistance (RN), and Party of the Salvadoran Revolution (PRTC).33

Chinda was among the thousands that believed in revolutionary change. And although Chinda did not use any armed weapons, she was nevertheless arrested, detained and interrogated by the security forces for alleged subversive behavior. But the next generation of women took bolder steps in their participation as revolutionaries.  

The Gendered Guerrilla Movement

As early as 1962, a few Salvadoran women were integrated into the “feminine column” of the guerrilla organization, the United Front of Revolutionary Action (FUAR), coordinated by Schafik Handal and Castellanos Figueroa.34 FUAR was the first of its kind to promote an armed revolution after the 1932 “massacre.” From 1951 to 1964, the leadership of the Salvadoran Communist Party created networks in the rural communities that worked in harvesting coffee in the western regions, and in the cotton plantations in the eastern region. The campesinos tried to set up unions, but their attempts were swiftly deterred by paramilitary troops. Instead, many chose to join FUAR. The popular guerrilla organization generated a couple of thousand followers within a two-year period, however, the leadership was split over whether the group should take up an armed insurrection. Marcial (Carpio) criticized the leaders for creating a scenario that he claimed would fail because a revolution requires much more than one guerrilla organization.35 FUAR did not evolve as the leaders planned, but the decision to grow a revolution from the Left had planted the seeds of determination.  

At the core, front and center of the Salvadoran Civil War was the phenomenal social movement that amassed thousands of people from almost every corner of the country. Indeed, the long-standing, dire deficiencies in the social and economic conditions in a country governed by the super wealthy and a military infatuated with power created the revolutionary climate: ripe,  where just about anyone could become motivated to participate. The leaders that emerged from the New Left movement were deeply critical of the injustices perpetrated against the campesino families that consistently experienced land insecurity and the essential basics for a dignified life. The economic hardships pushed some women to urban migration, especially single women with children. The new leaders rejected the constant lies of politicians that mostly represented the wealthy elite and the military bourgeoisie, the numerous electoral frauds, and the utter absence of basic democratic freedoms. And as the gut-wrenching war dragged on for years and with brutal intensity, everyone was deeply affected by the horrendous killings of thousands of innocent people. Although the communist ideals of Marxism and Leninism initially formed the guerrilla organization framework, the ideas and thoughts emanating from internal consciousness-raising processes eventually gave way to the transformed peoples’ revolution.  

Stepping Into the Revolutionary Role

The women’s voices featured herein are selected from the scholarship of researchers that witnessed first-hand the testimony of former female guerrilla members. Without their rigorous and dogged investigations, historical accounts of this and other revolutions would certainly comprise an incomplete and biased narrative. And of course, our scope of understanding would be limited in regard to the contributions by women and the impact of their work on our lives. 

              By and large, many authors allude to their findings that women joined the guerrillas because they believed it was an act of doing social justice, of performing a duty based on their principled beliefs, and that their specific actions would lead to a society that serves everyone, especially the historically marginalized, poor people.36 There were other reasons, of course, such as to be with family members or to escape repression. But the women’s testimonies exclude the notion that their gender was a reason for participating.37 Before, and even during the Salvadoran War, women’s issues were politically framed within the broad context of societal needs and struggles, and the term “feminism” did not hold a functional key toward equality. It was in the post-war 1990s that women gained a collective vision of gender equality, and began to successfully roll out a social and political discourse on feminism.    

Organizing the Women in the Guerrilla

Researchers Vasquez, Ibañez, and Murguialdy worked out a scheme by which to organize the former guerrilla female members that they interviewed.38 They identified five groups as the following:

1)  The young revolutionaries from urban sites. These women were under twenty years old when they enlisted in the guerrilla fronts, living in the clandestine camp sites.

2)  The young revolutionaries from rural sites. Like the women from the urban areas, they were under twenty years old when they joined the guerrilla front. 

3)  The adult revolutionaries from urban sites. The women in this group were from urban sites. They were over twenty years old when they enlisted and they had one or more children.

4)  “Comandos urbanos.” These revolutionary women participated in the urban commands in San Salvador.

5)  Collaborators of the guerrillas. These revolutionary women collaborated with the FMLN in control zones. They lived normal lives as citizens but carried out guerrilla activities in secret. 

Karen Kampwirth provides a strong research basis by which to deduce that the female revolutionaries entered into the guerrillas via student and/or social organizations.39 Kampwirth’s extensive interviews with former female revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua focused on social and educational backgrounds.40 The Salvadoran guerrilla women tended to have more educational experiences then their male counterparts, and although many originated from the rural areas of the country, some chose to migrate to the urban areas. Educational opportunities played a major role on whether the females had attended school, and the women had greater access in urban centers.

Revolutions are made successfully by 

social movements above and beyond the 

parameters of guerrilla movements.

Julia D. Shayne41

Many of the “pre-existing networks,” as author Karen Kampwirth refers to the social/educational organizations, where the revolutionaries’ aspirations were developed and nurtured, were sponsored by the Church, i.e., the Archdiocese hierarchy, priests, religious, and laity. At the public university, the Salvador University Catholic Action and the Catholic Student Youth organizations spearheaded some of the major groups that served to educate revolutionaries, including the women: Christian Democrat Party (Partido Democrático Cristiano, PDC) – 1960; Committee of Representatives of General Studies (CRAC) – 1967; and the People’s Revolutionary Movements of the 1960s and 70s.42

Many student activists that turned insurrectionists, became actively involved through the University of Salvador (UES), the country’s national (public) institution. Since the 1918 reforms at the University of Cordoba in Argentina, many Latin American universities, including in Central America, sought to follow a similar path of democratization of the academic curriculum, essentially creating an autonomous university. In 1963, the UES’s rector, Fabio Castillo, a proponent of educational reform and later in 1976, served as Minister of Education, administered a four-year plan that included the substantial improvement of the quality of the university curriculum, and a huge boost in student enrollment, enhanced with the availability of scholarships for students who needed them.43 The student enrollment jumped exponentially. The 1960s era was a unique moment in the university’s history; thousands of students, many of whom would not have had the opportunity to attend, were not only learning about democratic ideals, but practicing democracy within their autonomous learning environment. However, within a decade, the repressive state of the Salvadoran government, with callous and indifference, retaliated with brutish force. 

The October 1960 (Double) Coup D’état

After President Lemus was overthrown in a coup d’état in October 1960, the transitional power of the Governmental, Civic-Military Junta was used to pre-establish conditions for the next government. Among the proposed guidelines were the renewed emphasis on the democratic process of holding free and completely open elections, and on the development of a stronger social program aimed at suppressing illiteracy and raising educational levels for all students. These and other similar ideals were immediately questioned by the military leaders, particularly because they perceived the unusual membership of civilians amongst the junta members as threatening, namely  Fabio Castillo, a Cuban Revolution supporter.44 As predicted, in just three months (by year’s end in 1960), the military officers in San Salvador took charge of a revolt that essentially proclaimed the ousting of the current junta and the replacement of a military junta led by Col. Rivera. The assertion was that a military intervention was necessary to maintain a control on communists and supporters of the Cuban revolution. 

The PDC: A Groundswell of Support 

(El Partido Democrático Cristiano – Christian Democratic Party)

Against the background of the military revolt by a junta and its leader, Col. Rivera, in November 1960, was the emergence of a new political party whose party members shared a strong bond with Catholic Action, an international movement that embraced “Social Christianity.” The Partido Democrático Cristiano, or the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), was founded by three broad groups: a) Salvadoran students in the University’s Catholic Action branch, Acción Católico Universidad or ACUS; b) Catholic intellectuals that had turned away from the “old conservative guard” of the Catholic Church; and c) the Confederation of Latin American Christian Trade Unions (CLASC).45 Catholic Action represented a radically unique, positive and progressive vision of a social reality unlike the dominant conservativism espoused by the Catholic Church for decades. The Christian Democratic Party’s broadly-based composition of students, Catholic intellectuals, priests, teachers, and middle-class non-communist populace produced a threat amongst the military and the wealthy elite, and also among members of the Communist Party (PCS). As a major political party, the PDC achieved the phenomenal task of creating an inclusive attraction rarely experienced in the country’s history. Students that adhered to the Catholic Action principles actively engaged in the PDC to promote an agenda for a nonviolent social revolution in El Salvador. 

In 1972, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and two other political parties (MNR and UDN) rallied their support around a popular San Salvador mayor running for president, José Napoleón Duarte. After the election, a fiery argument erupted over the counting of votes. Although Duarte and his opponent, the right-wing favorite, Col. Molina, each declared victory, the National Assembly ruled that they would call the election. However, the Assembly declared Col. Molina the winner, and two days later, a revolt ensued led by Col. Mejía and a group of rebel soldiers. Col. Mejía claimed a short-lived victory by declaring that the San Salvador capitol city’s military guard was supporting him. In fact, he grossly miscalculated the aggression by the Salvadoran government’s military force. After a bloody battle, Mejía gave up on the coup d’état, and Duarte was exiled, as were Mejía and his collaborators.46

The New Left Student Movement

The Salvadoran president, Col. Molina, targeted the University of El Salvador (UES), claiming the students were Marxist and as such, revolutionary and subversive. But what Molina perceived as subversive rebellion was actually part of the New Left led by students throughout the world, protesting in solidarity with each other and calling for revolutionary change. It was during the1960’s era of television and radio when the New Left student movements created repetitive shock waves as people watched and listened to the violent confrontations between police and student protesters in México, Spain, North Vietnam, and France. Student activists in Latin American countries such as Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil brazenly touted their New Left revolutionary rebellion. The Salvadoran university student activists were enrolled in a specific  degree program known as General Studies and thus, formed a cohesive group with common views about the New Left revolution in their country.47

President Molina proceeded to deal with the students’ activism in the usual repressive manner. Much to the dismay and horrified student body, he ordered government troops into the university campus to control all student protests. After a year, the troops were finally retired. But two years later, in September 1975, more than 2,000 UES students marched peacefully from the university to the downtown Plaza Libertad, where they were met with military-style gun fire by the National Guard, killing thirty-seven students and “disappearing” dozens more.48 Specifically, the UES students were furious over the government’s decision to spend an exorbitant amount ($30 million) in hosting the Miss Universe Pageant. But as a result of the massacre, the reasons for the protest faded as more and more student voices clamored for an armed insurrection.49

Both Col. Molina’s fraudulent election and crackdown on university students were fodder for activism that continued on a rapid spiral toward an armed insurrection. The unintended radicalization of students had consequences that the Salvadoran government would respond with even more repressive tactics. 

“There will never be a deep change

in the country’s structure until we devote ourselves

to educate in all aspects our men from the countryside.”50

In the rural towns and communities, the Archdiocese of San Salvador sponsored the Escuelas Radiofónicas (1960s & 1970s), a grassroots educational network of volunteer teachers/community leaders that taught daily literacy classes to adults; “radio students” that attended daily classes; and specialized subject teachers that taught primary children. In the same period, the Salvadoran Catholic Church developed “Peasant Universities,” or “Centers for the Promotion of Peasants,” with the goal of graduating hundreds of students from nine rural areas (in Chalatenango, 1967-77, a total of 15,000 students had attended). Social organizations multiplied as a result of the grassroots networks, allowing people access to education and for many, it was their first time to set foot in a classroom. A collective vision had emerged; education as key to a greater societal change was a belief that the populace readily embraced. This quote, by the priest, Martin Barahona, in charge of a school in Chalatenango expresses the popular sentiment: “There will never be a deep change in the country’s structure until we devote ourselves to educate in all aspects our men from the countryside.”50  

Schools were the prime socialization hubs for the communities. Part of the educational change processes were literacy campaigns that engaged hundreds of volunteers as teachers. Many women from diverse backgrounds joined the literacy/political movement. One of them was Lil Milagro Ramírez, a member of “El Grupo,” the predecessor of the guerrilla, ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo). 

Lil Milagro Ramírez was among a handful of female university students at UES (University of El Salvador) that created La Masacuata, (Nahuat for deer-serpent), a group of revolutionary-minded, Social Christian activists, and poets. La Masacuata eventually evolved into El Grupo in 1969. El Grupo laid the foundation for the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization in 1972, in the relatively same period that Cayetano Carpio and others founded the FPL guerrilla (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación) in 1970. Lil Ramírez’ story is not well-known, in fact some sources of information lack consistency in her date of birth, either in 1945 or 1946. Some sources indicate that she was assassinated by the Salvadoran military in 1979, after having been detained and tortured since she was captured in 1976. Although Ramírez was not known as a “feminist” she was described as someone that was an intelligent poet, and loyal to the revolutionary movement. She was also the “traditional” woman that cooked welcomed meals for her fellow comrades, or the consoling mother that offered compassion and understanding.51    

Ramírez and others in El Grupo were among the first to not only promote an armed insurrection but also to create alliances with the burgeoning groups of activists in the countryside. 

Ramírez witnessed the state repression first hand when she participated in the 1968 ANDES (teacher union) strike. She helped her fellow comrades to safety during the violent milieu when the military opened fire at the crowd. Several were killed. She wrote the following letter to her father before she went into hiding:

Do you remember we were there during the first ANDES strike? I was one of the most committed to that struggle and my feelings of frustration and impotence began to take shape when I saw the helpless people who were asking for justice and got repression and death in response. I will never forget the morning when we took the dead bodies of the workers killed by the Guard to the cemetery … those were the first times that I reflected on this country and its political conditions … at that point I thought we had to find another way.52   

The threads that compelled the urban and the rural alliances toward coalescence were constructed by three transformative events that occurred during the same time period. First, as described above, the success of the Christian Democratic Party with its Social Christianity emphasis and the support of the Catholic Action demonstrated that the Salvadoran people from widely diverse segments of the population were eager to collectively participate in a the establishment of a democracy, without the determent of the power regime pushed by the military and the wealthy elite. Secondly, the renewed identity of the Catholic Church created a unprecedented opportunity for the poor and marginalized populace to become fully integrated into the democratic process, and be able to participate in shaping theirs and their children’s future. And thirdly, the adoption of Paulo Freire’s philosophy and method for teaching literacy, especially to adults, was highly compatible with the delivery of homilies promoted by liberation theologians, combining learning to read and write with an understanding of self in society and becoming liberated from oppression. 

A Major Political Event of the Century

Known as the Second Vatican Council of 1962 and the Second Episcopal Conference of 1965, it was called, as a religious entity, the major political event of the century and its consequences could not have been greater than in all of Latin America, including of course, Central America.53

The proclamations in the Second Vatican Council documents of 1962 framed the Church in a very different historical perspective: the Church’s role, it declared, belongs within the community and its entire mission is contextual, not only spiritual. The Church exists in a communal environment and the sacrament of baptism deems every member as “equal.” At the Second Episcopal Conference in Medellín, Bogotá in 1965, the bishops took a bolder step and asserted the actions that were at the core of their proclamations: “the call to defend the rights of the oppressed; to promote grassroots organizations; to announce the unjust action of the world powers that work against the self-determination of the weaker nations.”54       

The extraordinary transformation of the Church must have seemed ultra-revolutionary to many Salvadorans that were already contemplating the need for drastic change in their society. But, of course, those that were rigorously opposed to the Church’s new role were the conservative military, oligarch sectors that perceived the change not only as antithetical to their religious beliefs, but as a threat to their power as an authoritative regime. Although the Church had consistently worked against the incorporation of secular ideologies such as socialism or communism in the 1930s and 1940s, the Second Vatican Council chose not to condemn communism, but instead stood firmly in favor of the critics of capitalism abuses. In 1979, Archbishop Romero expressed his sentiments concerning the disunity that existed among Catholics in Latin America: “I believe that the path to unity lies in a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ …-we found Jesus Christ among the poor and there was no problem-… .”55

In the late 1960s, Lil Milagro Ramírez participated as a volunteer teacher of adult literacy classes in Cojutepeque, a city just East of the capitol city of San Salvador. At the time, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) had yet to be formalized. As a member of El Grupo, she was keenly aware like everyone else that the education of the masses was a prerequisite for a successful  revolution. The collaboration with the campesinos in the formation of a combined urban/rural front guerrilla was an imperative undertaking by the student activists. With extremely high illiteracy rates among the campesinos, an effective educational process had to address the urgency to educate as many people as possible within a limited time frame, and at the same time help them construct a meaningful knowledge base that allows for critical thinking and the building of self-confidence. Additionally, volunteers had to be trained on a wide scale in order to carry out this campaign. 

The renewed identity and function of the Catholic Church was vigorously accepted by the poor and marginalized populations in the rural areas of the country. Within a few years starting in 1968, Christian Base Communities, known as CEBs, were organized and developed through the pastoral work of religious clergy. Dozens of CEBs cropped up in several areas, across various departments. The initial team usually consisted of a priest and a nun, but once they began their work, community members took on leadership roles. Education was at the center of their mission. The Bible was at the forefront of every lesson, but oral discussions dominated the mostly illiterate groups of adults. Certain messages resonated more than others; amongst these was the meaning of “liberation,” not the kind of being liberated at the time of death, but the liberation that anyone can achieve (with God’s blessing) during a lifetime. Liberation is within reach if one is willing to struggle for it.56

The literacy work that Lil Ramírez and other student activists engaged in were part of an extension of the pastoral mission by the Church. They joined the Center of Social Studies and Popular Promotion (CESPROP), founded by a sociologist, Father Juan Ramón Vega and Catholic students, and were trained on how to help adults become literate using the pedagogy popularized by Brazilian Paulo Freire that integrates consciousness-raising (conscientização) with literacy development. The pedagogy is student-centered; beginning with an understanding of their reality and through “problematizing” and didactical conversations, the learners acquire a different perspective of how the power structures result in inequality, and most importantly, how and why they are victims of long-standing and debilitating poverty. The learners continuously generate familiar words and expressions as they learn to read and write. Gradually they build meaningful frameworks for literacy development. Rather than a dispenser of information, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator/observer, challenging learners to think critically and independently.

Ramírez and dozens of other university and high school students associated with Catholic Action were highly active in CESPROP. Many of their students became activists and some later joined the armed insurrection. The government authorities became suspicious of their work, and in some municipalities, the Catholic Church was prohibited from teaching protest songs to their students.57

The Teacher’s Revolution (and Casualties)

While the children of the wealthy elite and military hierarchy enjoyed pricey educational schooling such as in private schools in San Salvador, the United States, or Europe, the majority of children, many living in extreme poverty, attended state-run schools in deplorable conditions. Newly graduated teachers were assigned to these schools unless they had some connection with a high ranking military official, or were affiliated with the correct political party. The Salvadoran government’s regard for the teachers’ services was evident in their low-paying salaries (about $80. per month), without benefits. A few teachers took issue with the government’s ineptitude and decided that the best option was to organize themselves. Within a two-year period, the teachers had their own organization, becoming the first autonomous teacher union in the El Salvador’s history.58

The organization was called the Asociación Nacional de Educadores Salvadoreños (ANDES) (officially recognized on June 21, 1965) and among the leaders was a teacher, Mélida Anaya Montes. The organization drew from its collective strength of fourteen thousand primary school teachers to demand that the government protect their legal rights and improve their working conditions with decent salaries and medical care.59 Beyond the essential stipulations that addressed their working conditions, the ANDES members established proposed curricular changes which were specific to working with children and their families in marginalized contexts. Their proposal called for specific instructional approaches, such as Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy, the teaching of critical thinking skills; a renewed focus on El Salvador’s history and on the construction of democracy. 

The government’s lack of an adequate response compelled the ANDES members to deliberate their next steps with bold strategies. 

In ANDES’ first confrontation with the government of President Sánchez Hernández in 1968, nearly four hundred teachers, mostly from the Department of Chalatenango, participated in a two-month strike as they camped outside the Ministry of Education building in the country’s capital. The message inherent in their narrative was a call for dignity: “la dignificación del magisterio.”60 The government’s concessions were woefully inadequate, and ANDES organized a larger strike in 1971. Thousands of teachers, students, and supporters protested in the capital and throughout the country. Military, security forces, and ORDEN (paramilitary) forces attacked the demonstrators in different locations, including Chalatenango, Santa Ana, and Chalchuapa.61 Many suffered mild and severe injuries, while at least one university student, an engineer, and two university professors were killed, including a Mexican professor, Luis Quezada, who had survived the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in México.62

Mélida Anaya Montes was appalled at the disastrous and egregious assaults on teachers, and speaking on behalf of herself and ANDES she declared that their only option was to counter the repressive forces with violence since words were not sufficient or powerful against a viciously armed regime.63 Many teachers joined the guerrilla as did Anaya Montes, who eventually became a high ranking member of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), while others chose a path of stability by becoming affiliated with the national political party PCN (the Partido de Concilación Nacional).64   

The Church’s Revolution (and its Casualties)

By the late 1960s, the repressive forces of the Salvadoran military had affected thousands of non-combatants, but by and large the targets were students, teachers, labor and social movement leaders, even government officials. The memory of thousands killed in the 1932 “la matanza” still haunted those that had been most affected such as family members or close friends. The people killed by the Salvadoran regime were deemed the subversives, the “internal enemies.” But the shock value was elevated to new heights when members of the clergy were assaulted and killed, as if they were “enemies” as well, and were no longer protected by their religious affiliation. 

The first targeted priest was Father José Inocencio Alas who was abducted by ORDEN (or similar paramilitary force) shortly after he had given a speech at the Agrarian Reform Congress in 1970. Fr. Alas was a member of clergy that had strong connections with the campesinos in rural areas and fully supported agrarian reform that would bring much needed aid to the families. The response by governmental, military and business representatives was predictable – the least of concessions was most acceptable to these stakeholders, and Father Alas stood in diametrical opposition to their positions. He was eventually released and left for dead on a mountain cliff south of San Salvador. The archdiocese’ radio station, YSAX, had broadcasted his abduction around the clock, and listeners were asked to pray for Father Alas. To everyone’s relief, their prayers were answered and Fr. Alas was found, injured but alive.65

Father Nicolas Rodríguez’ dismembered body was found days after his abduction by the National Guard on January, 1972. Incredulously, the Church accepted the military’s explanation that Rodríguez had been killed by unknown assailants.66

Father Rutilio Grande’s assassination was particularly impactful because of his work with the CEBs and his relationship with the Archbishop Oscar Romero. Upon his arrival to San Salvador as the newly elected Archbishop, Romero was welcomed and briefed by Fr. Grande. Just three weeks later, Fr. Grande and another priest, Fr. Alfonso Navarro, were assassinated while traveling with other parishioners to celebrate Mass in a nearby town. Archbishop Romero recognized how Fr. Grande had been instrumental in organizing the community of Aguilares (in the department of San Salvador), developing thirty-seven CEBs and training 326 catechists. Within an eight-month period, the community had created their own grassroots leadership, mobilizing laborers to join with the Christian Federation of Salvadoran Campesinos (FECCAS) in 1973. The organized group had considerable success in May, 1973, when workers at the Aguilares’ La Cabaña sugar mill set up a peaceful six-hour strike, demanding the promised salary increase that the management had reneged. Although the strikers were able to recoup some of their earnings, not all of the salary increase, the strike was nevertheless considered a success. The infuriated oligarchs and their government supporters attributed the development of the labor organization and its outcome to the work of Fr. Grande and his grassroots leadership, despite the fact that he and all clergy members worked within the confines of a strictly pastoral agenda. The Aguilares example, along with other similar developments, attained an historical commendation in Latin America for its collaboration with the Church, touting its evangelizing efforts’ direct influence on the community and grassroots organizations.67

The persecution of priests and laity continued: between 1977 to 1981 eleven priests were assassinated and at least sixty priests were exiled, some forcefully. What was once considered the assassination or even the mistreatment of a priest as an anomaly, was now a systematic, deliberate strategy perpetrated by the military and wealthy elite.68

The 1980 assassinations and attempts of religious clergy were particularly impactful and tragic. In January, 1980, two Mexican nuns were abducted and taken to the National Guard barracks. They were released several hours later, only after Archbishop Romero had intervened and demanded their release. In June, a Salvadoran nun was severely beaten with a machete, receiving blows and cuts to her face and neck.69 Then, in March, 1980, the unthinkable and tragic assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while saying Mass sent the entire country into total disarray. Archbishop Romero had deepened his connection with the Salvadoran people, especially the marginalized masses afflicted with poverty and social injustices. His sympathizers clung to his every word; his Sunday sermons broadcasted on YSAX were rarely missed since everyone was tuned in. At the same time, he symbolized “the internal enemy” by the powerful Salvadoran military regime and wealthy elite.70

When four American “churchwomen” were reportedly raped and murdered on December 2, 1980, the international community expressed horror and disbelief that this could possibly happen to the women who were in the country to fulfill their missionary duties. The case was investigated because family members of the women insisted, and although the government tried to cover-up the crime, the findings revealed that the military was involved in the planning and execution of the murders. The Commission on the Truth report concluded Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark were returning from Nicaragua to return to Chalatenango, and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donavan, staying in La Libertad, went to the airport to pick them up. After the four drove away from the airport, they were stopped by Sergeant Colindres Alemán and four National Guard members. They forced the women to an isolated area, where they were raped and shot execution-style. The next day they were buried in shallow graves in a nearby municipality and their vehicle was torched. A day later, the U.S. ambassador discovered the graves and ordered their bodies exhumed and taken to San Salvador.71 Needless to say, the religious community was particularly saddened but angered over the murders of the four women. But the U.S. government was not sympathetic according to Raymond Bonner, who quoted Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick upon learning of the women’s heinous murders: “They weren’t just nuns. They were political activists on behalf of the Frente.”72

Please see the iMAGE gALLERY for background information on each of the four women.

The eventual convictions of the perpetrators and the international attention on El Salvador’s human rights violations did not deter the military from committing more assaults  against the religious clergy. A case in point was the execution style murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by the Atlactl battalion in 1989.73 One of the priests, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, had been an advocate for social justice; his voice particularly significant since the assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980.74

The Catholic Church’s transformation during the critical period of the revolution throughout El Salvador impacted the lives of the entire populace. Faced with the stark inequalities wrought by abject poverty and opulent wealth, the Church fittingly decided to work alongside the people who most needed their help. Liberation Theology and its core message of advocating for change for the good of the parish and its parishioners, was subject to a wide array of opinions. Although the message of justifiable use of violence was not explicit in Liberation Theology, it was nevertheless part of the messaging inherent in the fight for liberation. Author Gustavo Gutiérrez discusses the Liberationist’s responsibility to support the revolutionary efforts of Christians “in spirit at least if not in action.”75 His book, A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971, introduced diverse and controversial topics that at the very least, highlighted the challenge of the Church’s renewed identity. For the revolutionaries seeking to fight in the frontlines, the call to action was a call to an armed insurrection.76   

‘The Other Matanzas’ – Massacres in the Countryside and More Human Rights Violations

The United Nations report: From Hope to Madness: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (2001) detailed some of the egregious assaults on the non-combatant civilians that highlighted the patterns of human rights violations which the Salvadoran military regime was deemed largely responsible. But it should be pointed out that without the immense and consistent (or persistent) support by the United States government, the Salvadoran military would not have had the means by which to commit the military actions on such a massive and destructive scale.  

El Salvador was perceived by President Reagan as being critical to the security interests of the United States. In his first year as president (1981-82) he allotted $82 million to El Salvador, almost five times what the country had received from the United States in a thirty-year period (1946-1979). From 1980 to 1982, the Salvadoran government received $354 million, and between 1984-85, another $312 million. President Reagan understood somewhat the inhumane reign of terror that the military regime inflicted upon its non-combatant civilians, and although the Salvadoran government promised to halt human rights violations, he insisted on demonstrable proof in order to certify the allocation of additional aid. In 1982, Salvadoran President Magaña’s assurances on land reform progress satisfied President Reagan, however after the six-month certification was signed and the aid was distributed, the Salvadoran government continued committing the violations. After the fourth time that the certification was issued to the Salvadoran government, and then, again finding the claims of progress to be false, it became clear to the United States that the certification process was a complete farce. However, President Reagan insisted that the United States continue its military support to El Salvador. In a joint session of Congress in 1983, President Reagan praised the Salvadoran government for “making every effort to guarantee democracy, free labor unions, freedom of religion, and a free press…”77  

During the first six months after the inauguration of President Reagan, 7,152 Salvadorans were killed, over half were unarmed peasants, some of them taken from their homes and killed.78

 In all, approximately, 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives; 85 percent of the killings were committed by the Salvadoran government forces. As many as a million people were displaced throughout the 12-year war. President Reagan allocated billions of dollars in helping the Salvadoran government fight the guerrilla forces.79 The U.S. government provided El Salvador with the very best, world-class military equipment and training, but to the great dismay of many, the resources were used for the worst reasons. A case in point is the massacre in El Mozote, a rural community in the Morazón Department, where up to a thousand non-combatant civilians, entire families, women and children included, were murdered between December 11-13, 1981.80

Despite the aid, the Salvadoran government could not declare a clear victory, greatly frustrating the Reagan administration.81The Salvadoran armed forces increased from 10,000 to 1979 to 24,000 in 1982 to 56,000 in 1987. And although the FMLN insurgency had the capability of defeating the Salvadoran military, the United States’ intervening arm prohibited this possibility through its enormous support that enabled El Salvador to sustain a war indefinitely. 

The Tragedy of the Honduran Partnership with the United States

The chart below, “Massacres During the Salvador Civil War,” includes the information on assaults perpetrated against non-combatant civilians by both the Salvadoran and the Honduran military forces.82 But some in this list were not included. Specifically, the “River Massacres” detail how civilians caught in the crossfires of the Salvadoran military forces attempted to flee to the Honduran border, and upon crossing the river that delineates the boundary, were attacked by Honduran troops. The Honduran government played a supportive role in the Salvadoran Civil War because of the aid received from the United States. Raymond Bonner writes about top secret information shared with the National Security Council on 1983, which revealed CIA operatives in Honduras that included patrols into El Salvador for the purpose of destroying guerrilla bases.83 The Reagan administration supported the Honduran military in 1983 with $31.3 million dollars along with generous amount of military hardware: “helicopters, counterinsurgency planes, mortars, howitzers, communications equipment, and patrol boats.”84 Bonner describes the United States’ intervening role in Honduras as the case of transforming a “banana republic” dominated by the United Fruit Company into a military base developed by the United States and ruled by Ambassador Negroponte and the Honduran Minister of Defense, General Gustavo Alvarez.”85 Mercenaries were bankrolled to perform military services such as piloting planes to ferry soldiers to their posts. Clandestine jails with torture chambers were set up in Honduras to “give Honduras the ugly face of El Salvador.”

The revolutionaries who felt any hesitancy in joining an armed insurrection became angry and embittered over the atrocities executed by the Salvadoran government forces. If ever there was a reason to fight, to pick up a weapon it was then, and the more the killings, massacres, disappearances, and assassinations unleashed by the repressive regime, the greater the likelihood that women would become compelled to participate in the revolution. 

Massacres During the Salvadoran Civil War

March 1981 
(Note: investigation incomplete)
El Junquillo, MorazánAt least 55 mostly women and children, few men – killed execution styleMilitary operation consisting of Cacaopera civil defense and soldiers attacked the inhabitants on night of March 11th, killing each in execution style, raping some of the females, even the little girls. Then, they burned their homes and stole their food. They had full knowledge that the guerrillas were not present in the area. 
December 1981El Mozote, Morazán; and five surrounding villages/townsIn El Mozote 200 killed execution style; investigations led authorities to conclude that in all around 1,000 civilians were assassinated.Atlacatl Battalion entered El Mozote on Dec. 11th. Men were tortured and executed, then, the women, then children. In the next two days, the military continued killing civilians in nearby areas: La Joya, La Ranchería, Los Toriles, Jocote Amarillo, Cerro Pando.
River Massacres
  May 1980
Chalatenango on Sumpul River border300-600 civiliansAbout 250 Honduran soldiers stood guard on their side of Sumpul River; when hundreds civilians attempted to flee across the river to Honduras, Salvadoran soldiers shot and killed 600 civilians; Honduran soldiers, collaborating with Salvadoran government pushed the civilians back to El Salvador. 

March 1981Department of Cabañas bordering Lempa River with Honduras.20-30 killed; 189 reported missing4,500-5,000 campesinos forced to flee their homes and cross the Lempa River to Honduras for safety. Air assaults by U.S. helicopter gunships targeted the civilians during their flight.
October 1981Same area as above.147 killed, including 44 children. Civilians attempting to cross the river to safety. 
November 1981Same area as above – Department of Cabañas bordering Lempa River with Hondurans.50-100 civilians killed.Another counter-insurgency operation by the Salvadoran military kept 1,000 civilians under attack for 13 days.
May 1982Eastern Chalatenango, Sumpul River*Belloso Battalion unit of Salvadoran military fired at civilians crossing the Sumpul River as they fled toward Honduras for safety.
August 1982El Calabozo, San Vicente, alongside the Amatitán River
Over 200 men, women and childrenIn a military operation meant to hunt down guerrilla members, some 6,000 Salvadoran troops swept through an area inhabited by civilians. The families, fleeing from the military, tried to hide in El Calabozo but were discovered by the Atlacatl Battalion and taken prisoners. They were assassinated.
Around the Countryside
May 1982
Hundreds of civiliansIn military operation using scorched-earth tactic, soldiers kill habitants and burn their homes and destroy their crops.
January 1982Nueva Trinidad and Chalatenango150 civilians killedGovernment forces in land and air military operations sought to regain control of populated areas where the guerrilla was stationed. 
August 1982San Vicente300-400 civilians killedMilitary operation in a campaign for “pacification” purposes.
February 1983Las Hojas – Department of Sonsonate16 non-combatant civilians killed execution styleSalvadoran military unit, Jaguar Battalion and a civil defense unit sought members of Las Hojas cooperative of the National Indigenous Association, who were beaten, bound, executed.
1982-1984Throughout the Country; Guazapa received the most intense attacks.Various deaths due to bombardments, mostly indiscriminate attacks on towns where guerrillas presumably were hiding.Consistent, regular bombardments on civilians, including air attacks by U.S.  A-37 jets, Huey helicopters, Cessna spotter planes.
July 1984Cerron Grande, Chalatenango68 members of the Christian Base Community, including 27 children.In a 3-day operation, Atlacatl Battalion and other military units used land and air power to attack and kill civilians, where presumably guerrillas were hiding.

*Not enough data to provide an approximation.

Women Join the Guerrilla Forces

One can argue that the majority of women living in the embattled zones throughout the country were part of the twelve year civil war. The revolution was the bonding agent, however, the extent to which women participated, and under what circumstances were decisions made by the individual woman.86 The underage children had less leverage in the decision-making, especially if their entire family joined. As described by Vásquez, Ibañez, and Murguialdy (2020) and Kampwirth (2002), the women who joined the guerrillas were organized into five categories: 1) Women originating from urban sites and under age twenty; 2) originating from rural sites and under age twenty; 3) originating from urban sites and had at least one child and was over the age of twenty; 4) originating from rural sites and had at least one child and was over the age of twenty; and 5) women that collaborated with the guerrilla and lived in the FMLN-controlled zones.  

Kampwirth describes the former guerrilla women that she interviewed as having had substantial contact or had participated in relevant organizations which she labels as “pre-existing organizations.” Their participation in these organizations included key moments in which the women became convinced that joining an armed insurrection was the right choice. If there’s a pattern in this decision-making process it’s that each decision was complex and personal. Kampwirth’s research reveals that young women made very difficult choices, and many opted to put aside their ambitious goals to fulfill what they regarded as their “calling.” But at the same time, in taking on tasks that they never imagined before, some of the women were able to find pathways toward new futures. For instance, among the new opportunities that allowed women to learn were grassroots organizing, how to advocate for human rights nationally and internationally, leadership skills, and many others. Some women became feminists and proudly lent their voice to women’s rights and calling an end to the myriad of injustices long perpetrated by a patriarchal system and judicial practices that deterred the advancement of women. 

The table below, FMLN 1980, lists the guerrilla organizations, and the approximate year that each one was formalized; the organization(s) that were closely aligned with the guerrilla that served as its armed body; and the approximate numbers of women in each organization. The data also include some information about the roles that the women held. All information and data is based on approximations for lack of a systematized collection process. 

FMLN 1980 (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) – FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front)   

    1992 – 1993 United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) Data: 30 – 40 percent were female **

Guerrilla (Year Founded) Major Organiz. connected w/ Guerrilla Numbers of female members*
FPL – Fuerzas Populares de Liberación, 1970BPR – Bloque Popular Revolucionario; (1975) FTC – Federación de Trabajadores del Campo696 (Had most political cadres.)
PRS -Partido de la Revolución Salvadoreña  (Armed Forces: Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo – ERP, 1972) LP-28 – Ligas Populares Febrero 28754
RN – Resistencia Nacional (Armed Forces: Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Nacional -FARN, 1975)FAPU (1974) – Frente de Acción Popular Unificada1,549 (Had the highest number of women in the ranks.)
PRTC – Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos, 1976 MLP – Movimiento de Liberación Popular1,056 (Had the lowest numberof women in the ranks.)
 PCS – Partido Comunista Salvadoreño  (Armed Forces: Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación – FAL, 1979)                                                                UDN – Union Democrática Nacionalista334

*The numbers changed during the course of the war.

** Note: this is not a comprehensive list.

Total number of FMLN members in 1984, 10,000; in 1994: 15,000; 

Grand Total number of female members: 4,402

Ages:  90 percent between ages 14 and 40

Demobilization data: 8,552 total processed: 2,485 females (29.1 percent)

The Lacuna in the Chronicles of the Revolution

The alliances between the urban sector (the New Left) and the peasant movements in rural regional areas of Chalatenango, San Vicente, and Morazán formed the extraordinary strength of the insurgency, and if it constituted the “backbone” of the movement as posited by Chávez,then the women’s roles were at the heart and soul of the revolution.87Several sources have documented that the number of women in the guerrilla was at 30 percent of the total members. However, the exact numbers of women that participated as combatants compared to non-combatant brigadistas, or members of the rearguard, working in various combatant and non-combatant roles is next to impossible to discern. 

Women’s roles in the guerrilla evolved from a “liberation” ideology rather than a “revolutionary” structure.88 Front and center of the much touted “liberating vision” was the goal of creating the alternative society that constituted the proposed Revolutionary Democratic Government (GDR, Gobierno democrático revolucionario). But liberation was a national concept inclusive of the entire family: women, men, children. The consensus amongst the populace was that the struggle for liberation included the eradication of hunger and illiteracy, the development of basic economic structures such as decent housing, access to clean or potable water, and the establishment of democratically run government. The grassroots organizations that civilians had developed and maintained for decades were part of the organizing efforts and practices of the communities in the control zones of the FMLN. In the task of “normalizing civic life,” women were central to the administering of these social and economic needs as stated in the description provided by María Caminos:

“There are literacy campaigns and clothes-making. There are councils of elders who know all about popular and traditional medicines and who are teaching university-education doctors how to cure certain illnesses. This is one example of how the revolution recovers the values of its people. A ‘glass of milk’ campaign intends to give every child under seven one glass of milk per day – something that has never been done in El Salvador.”89

Guazapa: The Stronghold

Constant bombardments from A-37 planes and Huey helicopters that enveloped the small town of Guazapa rendered the lives of the inhabitants in an absolute survival mode. Guazapa, in the department of El Salvador, just twenty miles north of the capital, was targeted by the Salvadoran military between 1983 to 1985 because it was considered a guerrilla-controlled zone. Journalist Raymond Bonner recalls that in the spring of 1983, the elite U.S. trained Atlacatl batallion terrorized the Guazapa Volcano area, killing residents and destroying everything in its path. The remains of people buried in shallow graves revealed the atrocities committed by the troops. Men, women and children had been executed with guns and machetes. On the bare adobe walls were graffiti scribblings by the troops, congratulating themselves for their anniversary work.90

As in other guerrilla-controlled zones, Guazapa inhabitants organized their communities in the most practical and efficient manner. Chalatenango followed a structured organizational plan per the encouragement by the FPL guerrilla commanders, facilitating the development of a Local Popular Power (PPL) whereby residents created their own local government. In San Vicente, Cuscatlán, and Usulután, the PRTC organization  encouraged a well-structured local revolutionary government that included a ‘self-defense’ section that helped the residents employ emergency security measures.91 Guazapa men and women campesinos formed collectives and cooperatives that led to greater assurances that everyone had the basic essentials, at least as much as possible.92 

The cattle cooperative provided milk for the vulnerable members of the community. The agricultural cooperative addressed food insecurity. Civil disputes were managed by an elected commission. Literacy classes were organized and children attended school. Medical care became available, and, alcohol and illegal drugs were banned.93 Women created novel inroads in their involvement. In 1981, an all-female battalion was organized in Guazapa. There were support roles such as doctors, medics, nurses, cooks, radio operators, and farmers, but women were also combatants. Women assumed tasks and leadership roles that had never been available to them. It was ‘liberating’ to a certain extent, compared to stifling experiences in their previous life. However, their struggle for equality within the context of a deeply-entrenched, traditional patriarchal society was ironically, a steep, uphill battle.   

Regardless of how much the women in the guerrilla tried to convince the commanders that gender equality should be upheld and administered, their pleas were in vain. The guerrilla organizations were primarily concerned with the revolution agenda, and women were encouraged to participate because they were needed to fill in the numbers. 

Women in the Rural Areas: To Join or Not to Join

The twenty-two Salvadoran women interviewed by author Ilja Luciak shared their personal stories that reflect profound sadness and even tragic circumstances by which they were compelled to weigh the decision on whether to join the guerrilla.94 The table below: “Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas” lists the women and a brief excerpts or descriptions of their (selected) stories. Many women were beyond their combatant years, having had children who served in the guerrilla and killed in combat. They chose to participate in the rearguard, as cooks, for examples. Some women felt they had no choice because they were driven by the threat of being killed by the government forces. Others like Rosa, Mirta, and Vasilia were young enough to participate in the frontlines as combatants, medics, or radio operators. Whatever their circumstances in sorting out their decisions, the women shared a life of great suffering and the inescapable sentiment that their lives would never be the same again.

Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas in the Rural Areas -1970s-1980s (Luciak, 2001)

San José Las Flores, Chalatenango (p.70)
NameReasons for Joining
Doña AvelinaHaving lost her husband and young son while they were fleeing from their home as government military soldiers attacked them, and after four brothers and four nephews were killed in the war, Doña Avelina joined the guerrilla as a cook to help out the troops.
Doña AntoniaDoña Antonia joined the guerrilla because of the repression – and she had no land. Many women in the guerilla believed that after the war they would be granted the right to own land.
Doña AmparoDoña Amparo joined because she wanted change: “The people didn’t have jobs, and organized we could effect change.” 
Doña Cecilia(The war gave the women few choices.) “We had no other alternative than this one.”
Doña Carmen“I joined out of fear that the armed forces were in the area persecuting people. Many people died. This made one afraid.”
Doña Rosa  Doña Rosa joined the guerrilla movement at the age of seven. She felt it was her obligation: “Since my father joined, so did I. If my father had been part of ORDEN (a right-wing paramilitary organization}, I also would have been part of it. “
Doña MirtaDoña Mirta joined “to follow my brothers. There were three of them, and all died in the war.”
Doña RaquelDoña Raquel joined, she “was part of a massive incorporation. They said it would be only for three months but it became more.” (Sometimes entire villages were integrated into the guerrilla.)
Doña Abigail“Well, they told us that if we didn’t go voluntarily, they would take us along by force. So I joined voluntarily.”
Doña María“We organized because the FMLN told us to, We didn’t know why. They told us that those who did not join – who knows what would become of them? At best, they would be killed by one group or the other.”
Doña ReynaDoña Reyna worked as a cook in the guerrilla. She was very ill and by joining the guerrilla she was able to get healthcare. “I was only bones. I joined, and I cured myself.”
Meanguera, Morazán (p.71)
Doña Lucía“The party [FMLN] told us that they were joining forces to improve the situation and that if we won, there would be a government with the participation of all, and there would be equality.”
Doña PurificaciónDoña Purificación wanted to “help and support the muchachos in their just war. 
Doña DoraDoña Dora wanted to help the guerrillas. She cooked and fed the FMLN fighters starting in 1979 and continued to serve throughout the war.
Doña BartolaDoña Bartola joined to escape the army’s repression, particularly “the massacres and bombardments that happened in the community.”
Doña Miriam“The army killed my family, and they threw bombs. One of them fell on my house, and I was left with nothing. They burned everything.”
Doña AngelaDoña Angela joined because she was afraid and, “because they forced us.”
San Esteban Catarina, San Vicente (p.72)
Doña Flora“We were recruited by force. And yes, my husband stayed with the FMLN and he was killed. “ 
Doña Felicita  Doña Felicita joined “because there was so much suffering and because they killed my two brothers in cold blood – they hanged them.”
Doña RomiliaDoña Romilia joined “because they were fighting for us  –  the poor – and to escape the poverty, but things got worse.”
Doña Fidelina(cooked for the guerilla troops for 13 years) –  “ I loved my people, and this is the only reason for me. There was no clothing nor money or anything, only love for my people.”
Doña VasiliaDoña Vasilia was a combatant in the guerrilla forces. She joined in 1977 at the age of 12, “because I wanted to fight and because of my mother who had been killed by the army.” 

Young Women in the Urban Sites Join the Guerrilla

Karen Kampwirth’s research on former female guerrilla members reveal a particular pattern of lived experiences that she believes predisposed them to become involved in the armed struggle.95 Research conducted around 1996 of thirty-five Salvadoran women tell their personal stories; many women’s names are pseudonyms. The table below, “Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas,” lists four women whose lives illustrate the specific background experiences in Kampwirth’s research. Sonia Aguinada was raised by her grandmother who was politically involved, and would take little Sonia with her to political events.96 In her late teens, Sonia became actively involved in organizations such as the Young Communists and eventually, joined the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization. Bianca was also in her late teens when she joined the guerrilla underground. As a high school student, she had been a member of the Revolutionary Brigade. Ana Guadalupe Martínez became politicized while participating in the student movement at her university. She was a medical student for four years and then, made the decision to join the guerrilla organization for humanitarian reasons. She was one of the few women in the guerrilla to achieve rank, and in post-war politics was elected to the Legislative Assembly. Finally, Gloria was deeply affected by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. She was a university student when she decided to join the guerrilla organization. 

Initially, a few young women joined the guerrilla. But the numbers steadily increased as the struggle escalated and women began to find their niche in the guerrilla organization. As previously mentioned, by the end of the war, a third of the total number of guerrilla members were women. 

Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrilla – (Kampwirth, 2002: pp. 59-81)

Soñia AguinadaSoñia attributes active involvement in the guerrilla to her grandmother’s influence. Her grandmother “raised her” from the time she was an infant since her mother was sixteen when she was born and her father passed away before her birth. As a little girl she participated in demonstrations with her grandmother who was a founding member of the Communist Party’s Women’s Fraternity (Fraternidad de Mujeres). Her grandmother, who read the daily newspapers, knew what was happening in the country’s politics, and related to Soñia her experiences and knowledge about the 1932 Matanza, Farabundo Martí and Communist Party founder, Miguel Marmol. One of her uncles, a union activist, was killed in 1968; she continued to demonstrate alongside her grandmother in support of the teacher’s union, and she joined the Young Communist’s Organization (Juventud Comunista) at the age of thirteen. Soñia joined the ERP guerrilla organization when she was seventeen years old. This was a momentous decision that caused a rift between her and her family. The 1972 electoral fraud that cost (candidate) Duarte the presidency greatly affected her decision to join the guerrilla. 
BiancaAt nineteen year old, Bianca was active in the Revolutionary Brigade of High School Students (Brigada Revolucionaria de Estudiantes de Secundaria), and when her parents found out, they were extremely concerned. At the time, death squads were terrorizing communities, instilling fear in families. Bianca’s parents pressured Bianca to leave the organization, but instead, Bianca left home and joined an urban guerrilla cell, and engaging in dangerous activities such as “distributing literature and making bombs.” She eventually became a combatant. (Kampwirth p. 62)
Ana Guadalupe MartínezAna was born in an agricultural community on her grandparent’s farm. She was the oldest daughter of four children; her father was a retired military officer. The family moved to the city of Santa Ana so that the children could attend high school and college. While in high school, Ana learned about the teacher’s strike because one of her teachers was part of it. Going on strike to protest inequality or unfairness was the first lesson that Ana learned on the meaning of engagement in the democratic process. Although her parents discouraged her to participate in the teachers’ strike, her aunt’s involvement in the Teacher’s Union exemplified the kind of engagement that Ana wanted to follow. In1969, she began her studies in medicine at the University of El Salvador. She participated in various demonstrations as part of the university student movement, and then, began to participate in the ERP guerrilla organization activities. After four years of medical school, Ana decided to pursue a path of humanitarianism, to help others like her mother had encourage her to do so. She went underground and became dedicated to the revolutionary struggle in the ERP. Fast forward several years and Martínez eventually achieved the rank of second in command in the guerrilla, and then, in the post-war era she was elected to the Legislative Assembly. 
GloriaGloria was eleven years old when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in 1980. His murder profoundly affected her and her family. It was tragedy that she could not forget and years later, as a college student, Gloria went underground and became an active ERP guerrilla member in late 1980s. 

‘La Montaña’ Social and Political Experiment

Life in the guerrilla encampments was extreme and dangerous. Besides the violent assaults emanating from the state military, the constant maneuvering through the mountainous terrain presented many environmental hazards. A large percentage of the organizations included young men and women. Kampwirth’s research suggests that at least one fourth of the women were students at the time they joined, and, more likely, women were on the average more educated than the men.97 Although the diversity amongst the groups was staggering, the revolutionary agenda required the same standards of performance for everyone. Women took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them to engage in novel activities where they could excel. Educated women had a greater advantage over those that had not attended school or were poorly educated. Thus, the women who emerged in the ranks were generally better educated. The guerrilla commanding units made an effort to promote the message of “equality” between men and women, however, in reality, women experienced the kind of discrimination and machista attitudes that was prevalent in Salvadoran society. 

Many reports from the related research point to the discrimination that women experienced, although the complaints on gender-based mistreatment were non-existent.98 The interview data show how some women rejected the fact that discriminatory practices were based on gender. Even ranking females in the guerrilla dismissed women’s gender-based concerns. Women who persisted in filing complaints were reprimanded, sometimes re-assigned elsewhere. Clearly, the women had not reached a level of consciousness that allowed them to analyze how they were being discriminated against based on their gender. 

Kampwirth relates the story of how women’s organizations inside the guerrilla promoted female empowerment, which produced unexpected positive results for the women but created tensions amongst the male comrades. The story was told by one of Kampwirth’s interviewees, Yamilet.99 One of the male commanders suggested that women form their own organizations as a way to reduce the stress levels caused by strained relationships between men and women. Eventually, the women learned to use their collective strength to acquire certain products specifically for them such as sanitary napkins and woman’s underwear. They gradually gained self-confidence and in one case, the women were so bold as to call out one of the commanding officers that constantly used his privilege to “use” women for his pleasure. The commander that had insisted that the women form gender-based organizations claimed that the women were using the organizations against “them” and ordered the dismantling of the groups. But, women used their experiences in “la montaña” to understand about sexual harassment and other ways that discriminate against them, and how they could remedy their situation. But their gender-based agenda was sidelined as the guerrilla organizations became more militarized and vertically hierarchical, especially right before the final offensive in 1989. The common sentiment was that the situation would change after the revolution, and the women would be able to stay the course and pursue their feminist agenda. Nevertheless, the revolution was the portal of opportunity, transforming the lives of women as they advanced novel ideas, creating a political and social space for feminist thought and action. 

The Road Toward Feminism – One Step at a Time

The war raged for eleven years until the Peace Accords, signed on January 16, 1992, marked an ending to the violent confrontations, although not the killings. But the struggle continued for women who believed that the liberation process was far from over. The women that took initial steps to organize themselves around issues and concerns sought to accomplish goals that were relevant to all of Salvadoran society, not specifically addressing gender issues. For example, CO-MADRES, an organization founded by women who had lost a relative, presumably a victim of the repression, and most likely killed, disappeared, or incarcerated by the State. This organization, founded in 1977, continued to be active beyond the war. Many other groups were founded for particular purposes and functions, and by mapping out the trajectories of these within a time frame, we can draw certain conclusions about how feminist organizations evolved, despite the obstacles and hurdles that impeded their progress.

The table below is based on the research archives that Lynn Stephen and others have analyzed, from the First Wave of Salvadoran women’s movement (1957-early 1970s) to the Second Wave (1975-1992).100 During the First Wave, the Women’s Fraternity was active from 1957 to 1969. The organization boasted a membership of 1,500 women, mostly market vendors, professionals, teachers, and nurses. The women organizations active in the 1960s to early 70s focused on issues that were of interest to labor and professional sectors.  

Stephen’s list of organizations is divided into three phases: First Phase, (1975-1985); Second Phase (1985-1989); and Third Phase (1990-1992). The First Phase organizations continued in the similar vein as those in the First Wave, except that in the mid-1980s, the focus turned toward topics related to women survivors of the war such as economics, human rights, health, and literacy.

In the Second Phase, starting in 1985, the organizations featured two important characteristics. In the first instance, there’s an expansion in the scope of the organizational goals and objectives. CONAMUS (1986) delivered on the creation of clearinghouse, setting up a broadly based information center that includes a variety of women’s groups. Secondly, the emergence of an organization that exclusively addresses the interests and issues of indigenous women marked the beginning of a new approach to feminism. The women behind these organizations worked in conjunction with feminist groups from other countries in Latin America and Europe, and gradually, a confluence of ideas and thoughts evolved and were incorporated into the organizations’ missions and goals. A series of conferences were instrumental in bringing women together to share ideas and advance creative ways for achieving their goals. For example, in 1985, the United Nation’s Women’s Conference was held in Nairobi; three Latin American and Caribbean Feminists ENCUENTROS were held – in Bogotá, Colombia (1981); in Lima, Peru (1983); and Bertioga, Brazil (1985).101 Women like Norma Guirola de Herrera, a founder of IMU (Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women) were well-versed on feminism, and their work contributed to the foundation of a burgeoning feminist movement. Norma Guirola was assassinated in 1989; her family and supporters, feeling indignant over the killing, were even more determined to carry out her work. In 1991, they founded CEMUJER (Centro de Estudios de la Mujer “Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera” ) to offer training and grassroots organizing assistance to women’s groups. 

Finally, the emergence of CONAMUS (Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Salvadoreñas) played an important role in the opening of the first women’s shelter in the country in 1989, which was perceived as a formidable accomplishment that addressed the social and legal aspects of gender-based violence.  

The Third Phase (1990-1992) in Lynn Stephen’s research was a critical period of development, characterized by the influence from the strong feminist waves and movements throughout the United States, Europe, and even in Latin America. As more women became involved, their voices and self-confidence gained strength. Women were empowered and demanded change, but they also attracted rebuke from a broad range of critics. Salvadoran social attitudes toward women hardly changed after 1989, and the most vocal anti-feminist critics came from the dominant conservative and traditional sectors of a patriarchal and homophobic society. Women leaders that became feminists received the brunt of the backlash, but were undeterred in their determination to institute changes. The language and messaging were focused on the tenets of feminism. The CEF (Centro de Estudios Feministas – Center for Feminist Studies) proudly focused on “feminist” issues and themes; MAM (Movimiento de Mujeres “Mélida Anaya Montes” – Mélida Anaya Montes Women’s Movement) named after the leader of the powerful teacher’s union in the late 60s and 70s and later a ranking member of the FPL guerrilla organization, and adopted the term, “feminist autonomy”; and in 1992, the Colectivo Lésbico Feminista Salvadoreña de la Media Luna – Half-Moon Salvadoran Lesbian Feminist Collective was organized as the first self-proclaimed lesbian organization in the country.

SECOND WAVE PHASES—(Stephen, L.1997, pp. 67-84) 

CO-MADRES  – 1977Comité de Madres de Reos y Desaparecidos Politicos de El Salvador Monseñor RomeroGrassroots organization, founded in 1977 in response to extreme levels of repression and in defense of human rights. CO-MADRES was one of two organizations that remained active throughout the war and beyond.
AMES – 1979 Asociación de Mujeres de El SalvadorIts work was directed toward market vendors, maids, and urban slum dwellers. Emerged from FPL; was greatly affected by deaths of Anaya Montes and Carpio.
CUMS – 1980sComité Unitario de MujeresFounded by Salvadoran women exiled in Costa Rica.
ASMUSA – 1983Salvadoran Women’s AssociationOrganizations that focused on issues related to women: economics, survival in the war, human rights, health and nutrition, literacy, and housing. ORMUSA remained active after the other two were dismantled in the 1990s.
FMS – 1984Federación de Mujeres 
ORMUSA – 1985Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas
CONAMUS – 1986Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres SalvadoreñasOriginally set up as a clearinghouse for other organizations, it opened up the country’s first women’s shelter in 1989.
IMU – 1986Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women – Instituto para la Investigación, Capacitación, y Desarrollo de la MujerIMU facilitated the development of grassroots organization in the areas of communications, legal rights, and education. Its founder was Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera, a well-known pioneer on feminism, assassinated in 1989.
AMIS – 1986Association of Salvadoran Indigenous Women – Asociación de Mujeres Indigenas SalvadoreñasFirst organization of its kind to address the concerns and issues of indigenous women in El Salvador.
COM – 1989Coordinación de Organismos de MujeresFirst national coordinating organization of its kind that included five women’s organizations. 
CEF – 1990Centro de Estudios Feministas – Center for Feminist StudiesCEF was focused on the dissemination of feminist materials.
DIGNAS – 1990Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida – Women for Dignity and LifeThe organization was founded by members of the National Resistance (Resistencia Nacional – RN) as part of a strategy to broaden their support for women and to be able to receive international funding. RN was one of the five political parties/guerrilla organizations (FARN) that constituted FMLN and had the highest number of women in the ranks. In 1992, DIGNAS broke away from their affiliation with the RN and became an autonomous organization. 
CEMUJER – 1991Center for Women’s Studies – Centro de Estudios de la Mujer “Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera”Founded with a feminist agenda that provided technical assistance to women in legal aid and on training in grassroots organizing.
IMC – 1991Iniciativa de Mujeres Cristianas – Christian Women’s InitiativeTheme-based feminist agenda.
MUES – 1991Mujeres Universitarias de El Salvador – Salvadoran University WomenTheme-based feminist agenda.
CMPDI -1991Concertación de Mujeres por la Paz, la Dignidad, y la Igualdad – Women’s Coalition for Peace, Dignity, and EqualityOriginally formed in association with the RN, the CMPDI became an organization that welcomed groups seeking an identity independent of their political party affiliation. It focused on coalition-building efforts. It served as an umbrella for 24 organizations. 
MAM – 1992Movimiento de Mujeres “Mélida Anaya Montes” – Mélida Anaya Montes Women’s MovementThe founders (Lorena Peña and others) maintain that MAM is an autonomous organization even though Mélida Anaya Montes was a ranking member in the FPL guerrilla organization. They adopted the term, “feminist autonomy.”
CLFSML – 1992Colectivo Lésbico Feminista Salvadoreña de la Media Luna – Half-Moon Salvadoran Lesbian Feminist CollectiveEl Salvador’s first self-proclaimed lesbian organization.

Nosotras, las mujeres (We, the Women): Las Dignas Organization and the Salvadoran Feminism

Y empezamos a re-descubrir el mundo,

a leerlo y verlo de otra manera, 

a ver las otras mujeres, a vernos nosotras…102   

Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida or Las Dignas was formally introduced at a summit, el Encuentro de Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida on July 14, 1990. It was at the end of the twelve-year civil war and one of the FMLN guerilla organization, Resistencia Nacional (RN), proposed the idea of a woman’s organization to bolster the guerrilla’s political party appeal, and even attract international funding. A group of former combatants including Morena Herrera, started their organizing efforts with the immense networks of the RN’s Concertación de Mujeres coalition that included 24 women organizations. These were organizations in departments controlled by the RN, mostly in rural and semi-rural areas of Cuscatlán, Cabañas, La Libertad, Santa Ana, and San Miguel.103 The initial charge was to unite the women, but remain well enough independent to initiate their own agenda. The women leaders, accustomed to combat in the front lines soon realized that to take on such a responsibility they would need to follow the “militant’s bible” and stay loyal to the principles of the ‘revolution,’ adhere to the rigors of discipline, concretize the information to carry out the mission in exact terms, practice the ultimate sacrifice, and fight to the death. But instead, they discovered that by applying the principles of feminism for which they ascribed, their lives would be utterly transformed. As feminists they learned to think critically, to analyze their experiences against a feminist theory in order to understand the inequality and hierarchical relationships between men and women. They realized  how the political institutions subordinate women, and about the power relations that perpetuate inequality. By confronting their past political practices they created possibilities for the construction of a new reality, more “horizontal and democratic.”104

The following statement from Gloria Castañeda de Zamora exemplifies the incredible journey of discovery, for most of the women: 

When I first heard the word feminism, it was like speaking about the devil. I didn’t know what it was about, but they had told me that it was bad…. Now we have been learning that there are different currents of feminism and that feminism is simply the revindication of women… It’s still very hard for us women to have the ability to speak openly about ourselves. It’s a process. There are still a lot of individual interest, political interests, party interests…. 105

The historical account of the first decade of LAS DIGNAS chronicles the difficulties in the process of uniting a very diverse group of women at a national level. One of the first challenges the group encountered was the decision to break away from the Resistencia Nacional, the guerrilla organization, and become an autonomous body. Without the organizational and financial support of the RN, LAS DIGNAS had to find a new identity and support base.106 Not all women wanted to join LAS DIGNAS unless they would receive something in return. The different sectors, urban and rural, each had their own unique situations and specific needs. It was an enormous challenge and almost impossible to conquer. But, the group persisted in working with the women; at every turn of events, LAS DIGNAS re-grouped and tried yet another approach. They realized that a “strategic” approach to addressing the issues and problems was not enough; the circumstances of women who were drowning in poverty and lacked sufficient literacy skills, for example, required a “practical” approach that allowed women to work and learn simultaneously. Eventually, LAS DIGNAS decided against the division of strategic vs. practical, and instead opted for the creation of a wide-ranging platform whereby women can organize and take on their own projects. 

The Women’s Revolution (Continues)

The wide array of issues and problems related to extreme poverty and other social factors persisted after the war.107After the war, the poverty rates decreased slightly from 65 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 1998; extreme poverty fell from 34 percent to 26 percent. Adult literacy and life expectancy rates remain the same or worse than before the war. During the same time period, rural farmers or campesinos experienced declining wages and the price for agricultural goods declined, worsening poverty levels. Between 1994 and 1995, the crime rate soared to 138 per 100,000, exceeding the rate at the height of the war – 55.3 per 100,000. No doubt these and many others served as obstacles in the work of LAS DIGNAS during their initial ten years, but in their own practical terms, the organization worked out a plan based on their specific criteria. Their vision was global, connecting with the international community of feminists, as well as local, building on grassroots organizing by key members of the communities. Their ideas and recommendations were (and still are) inclusive of all women, of all ages. The platform that they developed and disseminated as a result of the series of coalition-sponsored events and debates in the “Mujeres ’94,” which led up to the 1994 elections, included issues that overlapped with the United Nations Beijing Platform for Action of 1994-95.108

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

The United Nations General Assembly adopted CEDAW in 1979 with specific guidelines that focus on action plans to end discrimination against women.109 It’s framework includes definitions of discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex.” Additionally, its major work includes the development of assessment protocols on various countries’ progress in the areas that constitute the Convention’s articles. The most recent periodic report submitted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to El Salvador (“Concluding Observations on the Combined Eighth and Ninth Periodic Reports of El Salvador”) elaborates on the progress and achievements of the Salvadoran administration, as well as some of the most pressing areas of need. The document specifies the acceptability of the action plans that the government has committed to develop and implement, e.g., areas in institutional and legal framework, as well as access to justice. The report considers recommendations of major importance, such as the following: 1) the need to provide women who were victims of the armed conflict with reparation measures; 2) to improve the quality and speed by which to investigate and prosecute acts of harassment, discrimination, violence, and assassination of women human rights defenders, and offer remedies and reparation to the victims; 3) allocate sufficient resources to the implementation of policies and action plans to ensure a violence-free life for women; 4) to improve an action plan to prevent and combat trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls, particularly in gang-related situations; 5) to improve efforts to eradicate illiteracy, especially among women and girls in rural areas; and many others.

Salvadoran women who seek abortion care do so through clandestine circumstances, and are often exposed to unsafe procedures. Women are at great risk of suffering blotched abortion procedures, and if they seek emergency care, the hospital staff is required by law to report the women to the authorities. Women are prosecuted and imprisoned if found guilty of having an abortion or even a miscarriage if the judge is convinced that an “abortion” was committed. It is the absolute criminalization of abortion and is perceived to be extraordinarily unjust for Salvadoran women.110 Clearly, the Salvadoran authorities reject the charge that criminalizing abortion is discriminating against women, or if they acknowledge the injustice, then women are blatantly denied justice. 

Feminists understand the politics of injustice. As long as the revolution exists,

the question remains: when will the women finally win the revolution?

Their Memories, Words, Courage…

…fuimos mujeres, las mujeres-montañas,

las montañas con recuerdos de mujer.111

(…we were women, women-mountains, the mountains with the memories of women).

In post conflict El Salvador, a new chapter of suffering and chaos ensued. Despite the Peace Accords of 1992, demobilization and reintegration efforts into civil society, the women that participated in the guerrillas were left behind: as a social group they received the least benefits in war reparation and compensation, and suffered deteriorating health consequences.112    

Las Dignas recognized the need to address the mental health issues that burdened women who had experienced profound loss of a loved one, and psychological trauma. They developed a program of support groups, allowing women to begin the healing process by making “the pain visible, what the war had made invisible” (“hicimos visible el dolor invisible de la guerra”).113 At first, the participating women hesitated to even attempt to recall their painful lived experiences during the war. The process was gradual; the women created their own narratives to help them release the emotional pressure. The mountains where they had spent so much time and endured the torturous explosions of war evolved into a metaphorical symbol of “mother earth” protecting and nourishing their struggle: “las montañas nutrientes de la lucha, no fueron entes abstractos, fuimos mujeres, las mujeres montaña, las montañas con recuerdos de mujer.”114

The mental health program (programa de salud mental) achieved considerable success in its first few years. Not all of the participating women adopted the feminist ideals encrusted in Las Dignas’ philosophy but there transpired an overwhelming perception that the riveting women’s stories are essential to our understanding on how the revolution impacted women. Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibáñez, and Clara Murguialdy (and Morena Herrera) organized the research project and published their work, titled Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras del FMLN. 115

The women’s stories included in the Mujeres-Montaña are organized by themes. In the following section are twelve stories (selected) from the publication to illustrate a sample of the collection. The stories are written in the original Spanish language. However, to facilitate the English language reader, an English translation is provided by the bilingualfrontera.com author.    

Female Child Soldiers. Following the stories from Mujeres-Montaña are narratives of two women – “Griselda” and “Digna” collected from the research work of Alan Henríquez Chávez.116 These stories represent the harrowing experiences of young girls that entered the guerrillas as children. 

Their life experiences are marred with the kind of unbearable suffering that any adult can possible endure, yet as children they had to face the consequences. The war took away a part of their life that can never be regained; if amongst the groups that were victims that bore the extreme consequences of war in scale and depth were women, then female child soldiers were doubly victimized. And yet, in the post conflict era, research reveals that the needs and rights of child soldiers were largely ignored.117

STORIES from Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras del FMLN

1.  Gloria Castañeda, Resistencia Nacional – (RN)


No quedaba ningún chance de reflexionar, era la euforia, un contagio, un ir haciendo y hacienda acciones y no pensar, simplemente te dejas ir y vives ese instante con gran fuerza y te entregas a él sin medir consecuencias. Dejábamos a los hijos en cualquier lado, entrenábamos de noche, hacíamos cualquier cosa, no había limites ni condiciones en la entrega, queríamos hacer cuantas cosas se pudiera, no importaba qué ni cómo. La reflexión vino cuando ya estábamos bien zampadas y no había camino de regreso.


We got caught up in the euphoria, a contagion, to take immediate action without considering the consequences. We would leave our children with family or friends. We would train at night. There were no limits. We wanted to do everything we could. It didn’t matter how. When we realized what was happening, there was no point of return.

2.  Margarita Villafranco, Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos – (PRTC)


A mi me reclutó una compañera muy buena y me entró con el discurso de que teníamos que sacar al imperialismo yanqui de El Salvador, me comenzó a generar conciencia antimperialista y clasista y me atrajo; también por mi conciencia religiosa yo era muy sensible al aspecto del sufrimiento humano.


My girlfriend who recruited me told me that we had to get rid of empiricist yanqui. I reflected upon my conscious against imperialism and inequality. And insofar as my religious consciousness I thought logically about the aspect of human suffering.

3.  Silvia, orphaned at a very young age; enlisted in the guerrilla at age 18


Yo desde muy jovencita estaba en grupos de la iglesia y ahí estudiábamos, hacíamos muchos cursos de lo que llamábamos realidad del país y me acuerdo que Monseñor Romero nos explicaba cómo teníamos que vivir la Biblia en la vida real. Así aprendíamos, los pasajes de las Sagradas Escrituras los aplicábamos a la realidad y entonces era que entendíamos de política. Fue por medio de la Iglesia que decido meterme en la vida política y cuando me incorporo plenamente al partido, todas las reflexiones que habíamos hecho en ese grupo me ayudaban a entender lo que se decía. Era más bonito y la gente entendía más si le hablabas de la palabra de Dios y de cómo estábamos cumpliendo con la lucha sus mandatos.


When I was growing up, I participated in church sponsored youth groups. I had many classes where we discussed the reality in our country. I remember Monsenor Romero explaining to us that we had to live the Bible, in real life. That’s how we learned, by applying the sacred scriptures to reality and that’s how we understood politics. It was through the church that I decided to enter into politics. And when I became part of the political party everything we had discussed in that group helped me better understand the political discussions. It was beautiful the way people understood when we talked about the Word of God and how we were accomplishing the mandates.

4.  Milagros enlisted at age 24 through her church


Había unos seminaristas en la parroquia que nos hablaban de las injusticias y los problemas que había en la sociedad, de los niños que no asimilaban en la escuela porque estaban mal alimentados….Nos decían que en América Latina estaban ocurriendo grandes cambios, hablaban del Che Guevara y de la revolución cubana, decían que en El Salvador se podría dar una situación igual porque había mucha injusticia y desempleo, porque no había respeto a las personas. Me invitaron a participar en seminarios con el enfoque de la Iglesia y después dijeron que en el país se iba a dar un cambio social, que era para construir una nueva sociedad y un nuevo hombre con un pensamiento diferente y me dijeron que era importante que yo participara en ese proceso.


There were some catechists in our parish that would talk to us about the injustices and problems in our society that children could participate in school because they were malnourished. They would tell us that Latin America was going through some big changes; about Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, that the same could occur in El Salvador because of so many injustices and unemployment and the lack of respect for the life every human being. I was invited to discuss the role of the church and then, I was told that there would be a social change in our country so we would be able to construct a new society, the New Man with a  different perspective. And they told me it was important for me  to participate.

5.  Lorena, a medic, enlisted at age 27


Mi mama, como muchas mujeres de esa época pese a que eran muy tradicionales, se metía en cuestiones políticas. De ella fue que escuché que teníamos que estudiar y prepararnos, pero no para ganar dinero solamente sino para ayudar a la gente que no tenía nada. Los ricos siempre pueden comparar salud o lo que quieran, nos decia, pero los pobres son los que necesitan y no tienen cómo.


Even though my mother was very traditional like so many others during her era, she was nevertheless interested in politics. She told us that we had to study and prepare ourselves not only so we can maintain ourselves but so we can help the people that don’t have anything. The rich can buy healthcare or whatever they want, but the poor are the ones in need and they don’t have the means.

6.  Alejandra, se incorporó a le edad de 14, y a los 21 años como combatante


Nos incorporamos porque mis papas se metieron en eso, como ellos se metieron también nosotros. Yo tenía 9 años. Mi mamá daba catequesis y decían que ella era guerrillera, que la iban a matar y entonces ya no vivíamos tranquilos porque ella estaba con ese miedo. Primero murió mi papa, después en un operativo mataron a mi mamá. Yo vine a San Salvador porque me mandaron a reunirme con mis hermanas y para que diera testimonio de lo que habían hecho en ese operativo, pero ese no era mi lugar. Al fin en el ’86 dije me volvía a la zona y me fui.


We got involved because of our parents, and just like them we got involved. I was nine years and and my mother taught catechism. They said she was a guerillera [revolutionary] and she was going to get killed. Then, we lived in fear just like my mother. First, my father died. Then, in a military operation they killed my mother. I came to San Salvador because I was told to reunite with my sisters and that I should give testimony about my role in that military operation. But that wasn’t my place. Finally, I left at the end of 1986; I returned to the zone.

7.  Elvira, se incorporó en un frente guerrillero a los 18 años 1989


Lo que pasa es que la vida de ellas giraba alrededor de la guerrilla y la guerra y vivían una situación tremenda porque la gente no hallaba ni siquiera cómo mantener a sus hijos, entonces las muchachas, niñas de 10 o 12 años, en vez de estar aguantando hambre en su casa, o tal vez ya ni casa tenían, se iban a los campamentos donde por lo menos tenían la comida asegurada y los zapatos y su vestido y ahí estaban seguras aunque les tocara trabajar un poquito.


Some little girls as young a twelve years old joined the guerrilla refugee camps out of necessity. They came from very poor homes where a parent or both parents were gone. The lack of food was a dominant problem. At least in the refugee camps the young girls had food, a pair of shoes, and clothes, even if they had daily chores.

8.  Rosario, joined the student movement in 1985 and eventually served as part of the guerrilla’s urban command.


Cuando me incorporé a la lucha ya había pasado por un proceso de cambios enmi manera de pensar y veía las diferencias entre los ricos y los pobres, entre los trabajadores y los que no trabajan; luego, la repelladita que me dieron en la iglesia me ayudó bastante. Me incorporé de manera consciente y creo que si no lo hubiera hecho no me lo hubiera perdonado en toda la vida. 

Era distinto el caso de otras que se incorporaron porque sus papas os sus hermanos ya lo habían hecho porque vivían en el frente o en el refugio y ahí las reclutaron, quizás con 12 o 15 años. Ellas se comportaban distinto a quienes habíamos entrado por conciencia … nos dolía mucho cuando malgastaban las cosas que les mandábamos desde aquí, pero uno pensaba qué se les puede pedir a esas cipotas que en realidad su vida ha sido la guerra….


By the time Rosario had joined the struggle her way of thinking and perceiving had changed dramatically, which she acknowledges was due to the influence by the church. She understood inequality that existed between the poor and the wealthy. She alone experienced a level of consciousness that transformed totally and if she hadn’t she would not have forgiven herself. Rosario joined as a result of conscious-raising unlike the young girls who sought shelter in the refugee camps because their older siblings and/or parents had joined out of necessity.

9.  Elizabeth enlisted at age 18 and spent 8 years in the camp, she never attended school but learned to read and write while in the guerrilla


¿Por qué me animé a participar? Bueno, ellos nos daban bastante charlas, nos decían que esto iba a cambiar, que ya no íbamos a estar sumergidos por los yanquis, a nosotros nos hacían ver eso y dijimos, ‘vamos a morir o a vivir mejor’, porque esa era la consigna, además nos decían que eso iba a durar un día o lo más una semana y que después podíamos regresar a seguir estudiando y que la educación iba a ser mejor, gratis. Bueno, nos presentaban un montón de oportunidades y yo me la creí, mi familia también.


Why did I decide to participate. Well, we had many discussions and they told us that we would not succumb to the yanquis; we would ask ourselves: are we going to die and live better? And, they would tell us that it [revolution] would last a day or a week and afterwards we could return and continue our studies. And our education would be better and free. Well, they presented at lot of opportunities and I believed them and so did my family.

10. Esther, age 27, began as a collaborator with the guerrilla when she found out her husband had deceived her.


A mi, lo que hacía que siguiera participando es que nos decían que ya no iba a existir el guaro (licor), que lo iban a tratar de erradicar un poco, porque en mi comunidad a cada paso se encontraban las ventas de guaro y no se podía vivir con los hombres bolos (borrachos). Yo por eso trabajé con muchas ganas, éramos cinco los que ellos pusieron de directivas, pero solo las dos mujeres nos mantuvimos.


For me the reason I continued to participate was because they told us that they would eradicate the guaro (liquor) because in my community you can find a liquor store in every block and no one can live with drunk men. That’s why I worked so hard.

11. Ana, collaborator in the rearguard front for 14 years; six of her children died during the war.


Usted sabe que uno por los hijos da la vida así que cuando ellos me dijeron ‘mama, nosotros no queremos morir con los brazos cruzados ni masacrados, nosotros nos vamos a la lucha y al lado de usted se queda el pueblo,’ yo me di a la tarea de ir a los campamentos a moler. Como mis hijos estaban en diferentes organizaciones, yo me iba un mes donde el campamento del ERP y otro al de las FPL y luego al de la RN. Mi corazón de madre no entendía de divisiones.’


You know that when children are your life, when they tell you Mama, we don’t want to die with our arms crossed, or in a massacre. We are going to fight and by our side are the people; I decided to work in the guerrilla camps to grind corn and since my children were in guerrilla camps, I would go to the ERP camp, the FPL camp, and then, the RN. As a mother my heart could not distinguish between the divisions.

12. Alma was active in the guerrilla for 14 years and was a combatant for a time until her partner was killed, and she remained in communications.


Yo quise especializarme en el manejo de armas y aprender el arte militar, ese era mi objetivo, pero no me dejaron, me pusieron en comunicaciones. Yo estaba convencida de que podía ser una buena combatiente, de que podía llegar a ser jefa de un pelotón, pero me cuentearon sobre la importancia estratégica de las comunicaciones y no me quedó más remedio que pasar 10 años en eso.


I wanted to specialize in the use of weapons and learn the military arts. That was my objective. But they didn’t let me. I was assigned to communications. I was convinced that I could become an effective combatant and eventually achieve the rank of squad leader. But they pointed out the important strategy of communications and I didn’t have any other option so I stayed there for ten years.

STORIES from “De la locura y a la esperanza truncada: memorias de desarme, desmovilización y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto.”118

According to Beth Verhey’s research, a follow-up survey completed by UCA/UNICEF includes the data on the ages of the young recruits in both the FLMN and the FAES (Salvadoran Armed Forces). The median age for FLMN children recruits is 12 years old, while the FAES reported a median age of 15.8 years. The majority of the children in FMLN guerrilla were in the “less than 10 years-old and between 10 and 14 years old” brackets, which adds up to 93.4 percent. The majority of the children in the FAES were “15 years or older.” Both armed forces recruited children but the FMLN had the younger ages. About 92 percent in the FMLN group reported that they joined voluntarily, compared to the FAES group’s responses that only 47 percent joined on their own volition. Considering all age groups in both armed forces, 60 percent of the children that joined were between 7 and 13 years old.  Reportedly, the FMLN had more female soldiers, all ages, than the FAES.

Griselda and Digna


When I didn’t have my family anymore, a friend of my mother, Albertina said, I’m going to take her with me. But- I thought she was taking me to her house, but she brought me here, for the war. She dropped me off here in Las Vueltas, with the guerrilla. I was ten. I was introduced to the comandante who told me: you’re very young but here you will stop growing up. It was around 1987 or 88 and I was here. What was sad for me was that I had to attend this school for 6 months. It was so hard going to that school because we would practice all day long, and then also at night. The exercise was very heavy. It got to the point where I couldn’t bend down to go to the bathroom because I was sore all over. After we finished school in 6 months we had to decide what job we wanted: to cook, to help as a brigadista or a combatant. But since I’ve never been to school I couldn’t sign up to be a radio operator or a medic, so I was either a cook or a combatant. And I don’t like to cook because those poor cooks would walk around with pots on their heads. So, that’s why I decided to become a combatant. 


The first time I was in combat to prove myself according to them, they would order us to go fight. No more than 5 of us and I remember that time when I stood by a tree and started to cry. I said, here I’m going to do it, here they’re going to kill me. What should I do? And one of my compañeros told me either you fight or they kill you. He pushed me down to the ground and that’s where I started to feel brave. Time went by. And when I was twelve I started to fight because at 12 years old you are a combatant. When I was twelve we spent days in this little mountain, here in the frontline, looking out all day long. The ‘posta’ we called it. And one day I stepped on a mine. It felt as though something had exploded like I had flown away up in the air. But I acted quickly and I stood up and I couldn’t see any of my compañeros. Then, I saw them come out from hiding in the tall grass, they thought the soldiers had attacked us. They just kept looking at me. 

They had to carry me for eight days, then, we came up against the Atlactl battalion and they decided they couldn’t carry me anymore; that they would be killed. So, they found a tunnel nearby and left me there for four days. They left me a bottle of water. After four days I heard my compañeros returning. One of them said that they would probably need to bury me in the tunnel. But then, they saw that I was still alive and were very surprised. They said, she’s alive, she’s alive! But my wounds were like molded cheese with little worms coming out. It was full of worms. They cleaned up my wounds and I felt better after two months,. Then, I went back to the front lines but when they ordered me back to the little mountain I started to tremble. I just couldn’t go back. I was afraid I would step on another mine. They got mad at me because I wouldn’t go there. I was twelve at the time. 


WHEN I was 13 my friends would tell me “look now you’re really pretty and it’s time that you find a boyfriend to get together because maybe here we’re going to die. You don’t know if you’ll be alive the next morning. When I had my period for the first time I was 13 yrs. old. I didn’t know what it was. Then, they explained it to me but I didn’t know until then. Well, that happened and then I had a boyfriend who was the father of my daughter and I was with him. Then, my period stopped and I thought maybe it was supposed to come once a year. Then I found out I was going to have a child. I was happy because I felt that I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I was pregnant, I didn’t know how many months. I didn’t know anything. I would still go on patrols with him, fighting even though I was pregnant. He was happy but when I was seven months pregnant he was killed. I had left to go stay at Los Ranchos cabañas. I was seven months pregnant when he was killed. And eight days later, my daughter was born. 


I enlisted not because I wanted to, well I did but because I had to. We started to organize ourselves in 1979 because my sisters were killed in 1980. So I was eleven years old when they killed my sisters, After that my father started to organize and I went with him. I was in the guerrilla because I was twelve but afterward I started going with the father of my two daughters. He was a combatant. We were all there with him, then I returned to Chalatenango with him. Then, I was fully enlisted in the guerrilla. I didn’t enlist to fight as a combatant, I joined to work with the militias, preparing their food. My husband organized the militias. It was dangerous because we were with the troops. I helped out taking care of the wounded soldiers because there was a hospital in a tunnel where we could all hide from the aerial bombardment. When they wounded the compañeros I would cover their mouths because they were screaming with pain.


I was a medic. I saw that my compañeros needed the help. Perhaps, God gave me the strength and I learned how to give injections to heal. I would treat the wounded because there were so many accidents here and I ‘m not afraid to treat the wounds. But I don’t like to be in hospitals. I don’t like it. It’s that I suffered because I was a medic in the front lines. But I also worked in communications for several years. But then I went back to being a medic, that’s always been my main function. But I was a combatant first, but then I saw how someone needed help. So being a medic was the most for me. Being a combatant is fine also because you’re defending but maybe being a medic is the most important job because you’re saving a lot of people’s lives. Also a radio operator because if you’re treating a wounded compañero you can use the radio to call for help. The two jobs are the most important because you’re saving lives. But being a combatant is important too. Maybe the best work I did was when I laid down beside a wounded compañero with bullets flying all around us. But maybe God gave me the strength because I was not afraid. What motivated me to stay in the guerrilla, I think like I said, I saw how they killed two of my sisters all at once. I was eleven. And maybe that gave me the strength because its incredible to see that they’re killing your family and there’s nothing you can do at the time. Maybe that’s it. I didn’t feel hatred but I felt so badly because they killed my family. And almost killed me. But maybe that’s what motivated me to keep fighting. 

Ana Guadalupe Martinez Menéndez served as ranking member of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization. She became involved in politics while a student at the University of El Salvador and after the electoral fraud of 1972, joined the ERP. She was captured by the Salvadoran military in 1976 and spent nine months in clandestine prison, enduring painful, humiliating torture. She chronicles this experience in her book: Las cárceles clandestinas (see below)She was released in a prisoner exchange between the military and the guerrilla. She rejoined the ERP in 1978, and toward the end of the war, travelled throughout Europe on a mission to inform others of the Salvadoran war. After the war, Martínez returned to her medical practice and also, was elected to the National Assembly with the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC). You can listen to an interview conducted by Jean Krasno (translation provided). (Also, Karen Kampwirth interviewed Ana Guadalupe, included in this volume.) Listen to interview by Jean Krasno

Books: Las cárceles clandestinas de El Salvador 1978 and A Woman from the Liberation Front Testifies

Nidia Díaz was studying Psychology at the University of El Salvodr in 1975 when she joined the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (PTRC) guerrilla organization. She had been part of the social movements opposing the military government, and was influenced by the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (political party). As a commander, she directed guerrilla units between 1981-85 in San Vicente and San Miguel departments. She was captured by the Salvadoran forces in April, 1985 and detained and tortured for six months. In her testimony concerning her detention and torture, she recalls the presence of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez. This information is also documented in the work by researcher/author Ilya Luciak. The matter of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez and his conduct deserves scrutiny, and he should be punished accordingly. Rodriguez took into possession a piece of clothing from Nidia Diaz who at the time she was being detained and tortured; he took her brassiere and displayed it in this home, as if to display a trophy. This reveals Rodriguez’ disrespect, misogynism, and unprofessionalism.  FMLN Reflections, 20 Years LaterAn Interview with Nidia Díaz by Esther Portillo-Gonzales. Books: Nunca estuve sola and I Was Never Alone.

Lorena Guadalupe Peña Mendoza enlisted in the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) guerrilla organization at the age of 17. She was a ranking member of the FPL and directed two fronts between 1980 and 1990. Lorena, also known as “Rebeca,” was part of the Comisión Polítco Diplomática (CPD) between 1990 and 1992, and participated in the peace negotiations of the Peace Accords of 1992. She served as president of the National Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa de El Salvador) in 2015-2016. Known as a feminist, Peña was instrumental in forming the Movimiento de Mujeres Mélida Anaya Montes (Las Mélidas). See Los Retos de la mujer dirigente, interview by Marta Harneker, July 1994. Her book is titled: Fragments from My Life: Testimony of a Salvadorian Revolutionary

“Political activist, mother, ex-guerrilla commander, and architecture student” – is how Lynn Stephen describes Morena Herrera in her interview, a chapter in her book entirely dedicated to Herrera’s life. (“Morena Herrera: Women for Dignity and Life” in Women and Social Movements in Latin America, 1997.) Herrera and other women founded the feminist organization, known as Las Dignas in 1992, right after the war’s demobilization and reintegration process began. Morena was a child when she would go with her mother to political demonstrations such as the teachers’ strike in 1968. As a high school student she participated in Catholic youth group activities and then, joined Revolutionary Action of Secondary Students (ARDES). At this time, the Salvadoran military repression against civilians increased, and Morena witnessed first-hand the brutality. She remembers the shock in learning about the 1977 massacre that took place after a huge demonstration downtown San Salvador.

Then, the first time she was physically involved in a milieu; she and her school mates yelled at the National Guard who chased them with tear gas. She joined the Resistencia Nacional (RN) guerrilla organization and became a leader as a military and political strategist. Her life changed dramatically with Las Dignas. She embarked on a journey of self-discovery, and realized her passion in working with women and feminism. Her participation in the women’s conference in Argentina (1990) was particularly transformative. She enthusiastically shared everything she had learned with women, who in turn, shared their newly found awakening with other women.   

Mélida Anaya Montes – 1929 – 1983

Mélida Anaya Montes, known as Comandante Ana María, was second in command, after Salvador Cayetano Carpio, of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL). She was also a commanding officer in the FMLN. Montes was an educator and is best known as the founder of ANDES-21, the national teacher union that was a powerful force in the social movement during the war. After the 1972 national teacher strike, Anaya, who had witnessed the brutality of the repression against teachers, declared that she would be personally involved in the armed insurgency, since there was no other option. She joined FPL. Anaya was murdered in Managua, Nicaragua on April 6, 1983, and soon afterward, Carpio was accused of ordering her killing, and committed suicide. Her book is Ana María, combatiente de la vida.

Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera – Assassinated in 1989

In 1986, Norma Guirola founded el Instituto para la investigación, capacitación, y desarrollo de mujer (the Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women, or IMU). Guirola is a pioneer in the feminist movement in El Salvador. IMU provided support and training to women’s organizations in the areas of communication, legal rights, and education. She was killed in 1989, but supporters and family continued her work with the opening of Centro de estudios de la mujer “Norma Guirola de Herrera’ or CEMUJER. The organization is rooted in feminism and continues to support women’s efforts in the areas of technical assistance, legal aid, and training for grassroots organizations. 

Febe Elizabeth Velásquez – Killed in 1989

Febe Elizabeth Velásquez, secretary general for the trade union, Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (FENASTRAS) was an outspoken leader and advocate for trade union activities, which the Salvadoran military fiercely opposed. The federation had become a  very powerful, organized labor front since its inception in 1974. The headquarters were bombed twice in 1989, but the last one, on October 31, claimed the life of Velásquez and nine others. The October bombing occurred under President Cristiani’s watch who at the time was in the middle of peace negotiations with the FMLN. As a consequence of the bombing at FENASTRAS and COMADRES headquarters, the FMLN suspended the peace talks under the protestation that the government was insincere and deceptive. The courage and bravery of Velásquez and her colleagues serve as a testament to the dedication of the federation to protect and advance the rights of the working class, especially the campesinos, in the country. 

Watch a brief video clip of Velásquez’ during an interview with a reporter prior to her death.

Alicia Panameno de García1945 – 2010

On July 30, 1975, Alicia Panameno de García, a nurse at a maternity ward in a hospital, witnessed the brutal massacre of students peacefully protesting on the street in San Salvador by the National Guard. Afterward, her brother, amongst the student protestors did not return home that day; the family learned that he had been “disappeared.” In the course of searching for her brother, she encountered other families who had also lost their loved ones. She never located the remains of her brother, but she and others organized COMADRES, the Committee of Mothers for People Who Have Disappeared. Her remarkable story is available here (scroll down), in English with a Spanish translation. 

Marianella García Villas, an attorney, served in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly for two years (1974-1976). In 1979, she began to document the human rights abuses and disappearances that were reported by families of the victims. Her documentation included photographs and archival information, which she presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She was conducting field work with displaced refugees when she was assassinated by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. She was posthumously awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights in 1984.

Clara Elisabeth Ramírez (Eva) was born in 1949 into a middle-class family. According to Chávez (2017) Ramírez was a university student activist, who along with two other classmates, José Alejandro Solano and Andrés Torres, were co-editors of the notorious Red Star (Estrella Roja), a publication that advanced the ideology and strategy of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) guerrilla organization. The three students were part of the first generation of armed militants (early 1970s) in the FPL to engage in guerrilla warfare in urban sites. They were committed to the armed struggle because, according to Eva’s sister, Victoria, “that was the path; there was no other path” (p.166).  On October 10, 1976, the three activist/militants were cornered by the military forces in San Salvador’s neighborhood of Santa Tecla. A gun battle ensued, and clearly outnumbered, the three made a suicide pact rather than face the inevitable capture, detention, and torture. 

Lil Milagro Ramírez  1946 – 1979

Ramírez was a student at the University of El Salvador when she became involved with a student group of poets and activists. She was one of the few female students involved, but she was committed to the revolution and was willing to risk her life. She was captured, detained, and tortured in a clandestine prison, where she died. You can read about her life and her writing here.

Sister Maura John Clarke  1931 – 1980

Sister Maura was 19 years old when she joined the Maryknoll Order. After graduation from the Teachers College and teaching in the Bronx for five years, Sr. Maura was assigned to Nicaragua on a mission to help people in the aftermath of the 1972 earthquake. She left in 1976, and after an absence of three years, she returned to Nicaragua. After Sr. Carla’s death she decided to join Sr. Ita in her ministry in El Salvador. The two sisters had attended a regional meeting in Nicaragua, and upon returning to El Salvador were met at the airport in San Salvador by Sr. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.

Jean Donovan   1953 – 1980

Jean Donovan was 26 years old when she traveled to La Libertad, El Salvador (1979) to work as a Caritas Coordinator, in the distribution of food for the needy. Her passion for working as a humanitarian was noteworthy since she gave up her (well-paid) accountant job in Cleveland to dedicate her life to helping others. One of her dreams, along with Sr. Dorothy Kazel, was to open up an orphanage/clinic to care for the children victimized by the war. 

Sister Ita Ford 1940-1980

Sister Ita Ford was 21 years old when she joined the Maryknoll community in 1961. Sr. Ita worked in Chile from 1973 to 1980, then, responded to Archbishop Romero’s call to serve in El Salvador. She arrived in El Salvador in 1980 shortly after his assassination, and worked with the Emergency Refugee Committee in Chalatenango with her colleague, Sr. Carla Piette. In a tragic accident, Sr. Carla Piette died in August, and four months later, Sr. Ita was killed.  

Sister Dorothy Kazel  1939 – 1980

Sister Dorothy Kazel joined the Ursuline Sisters Order in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio, where she was born. In 1974, she joined the Cleveland Diocese’s mission team in El Salvador where she participated in the development of CEBs (Christian Base Communities).  

Madeleine Lagadec  – Killed in 1989

Madeleine Lagadec was an international volunteer (French) working as a nurse for three years at a mobile FMLN hospital in the eastern El Salvador front. Celia Díaz was a radio operator and literacy instructor, María Cristina Hernández was a radio operator and nurse, and José Ignacio Isla Cásares was a doctor from Argentina. When the air strikes began, everyone evacuated except for the individuals including Lagadec who refused to leave their patients behind. All five were killed including one of their patients, Juan Antonio. The Truth Commission report details the attack and includes an autopsy summary report on Madeleine Lagadec, probably because it was demanded by her family in France.  

The Truth Commission report indicates that on April 15, 1989, two U.S. made A-37 aircrafts bombarded the hospital, which initiated the evacuation of the area. In addition to the A-37, the following military vehicles participated in the attack, all made available by the United States: three UH IM helicopter gunships, a Hughes-500 helicopter and a “Push-Pull” light aeroplane. The bombardment lasted for 15 minutes. Then, six helicopters carrying unknown number of paratroopers armed with M-16 rifles arrived on the ground. Lagadec was shot six times, twice in the head, two in the torso area and one bullet in each thigh. Her left hand was amputated, probably while she was alive. The report concludes that the State failed in its responsibility to investigate the case and punish those responsible for the heinous killings.  

Dra. Begoña García Arandigoyen Killed in 1990.

At 24 years old, Dra. García had worked as a doctor for the FMLN for a year. According to the Truth Commission report, Begoña García Arandigoyen, a medical doctor from Spain, was captured along with other survivors of a unit of the ERP guerrilla. The circumstances surrounding how she was among the guerrilla is unknown but she was unarmed and not in uniform. In fact, the report states that the Salvadoran military soldiers that captured her and others knew that she was a “foreigner” and a non-combatant. The autopsy performed by the Salvadoran forensic doctor omitted in its findings that Begoña had been shot close-range in the head. The military report had falsely concluded that she had been shot from a distance as if to suggest that she was caught in the cross-fire as the soldiers and the guerrilla engaged in a gun battle. The cover-up of Begoña’s death was part of a pattern that the Salvadoran military devised to obfuscate their problems with human rights, which they frequently violated.


         1.   Pierre Bourdieu, In other words: Essays towards a reflective sociology. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 137.

         2.    Julia Denise Shayne, “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” (Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26, 1998), p. 32.

         3.    The quote was originally published in Omar Costa, “Los Tupamaros,” (México: Colección de Ancho Mundo, 1971), re-quoted in Jane S. Jaquette, “Women in Revolutionary Movements in Latin America,” (Journal of Family and Marriage Vol. 35, No. 2 [May 1973]), p. 351.

         4.    Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. (Boulder: Westview, 2003).

         5.    John Foran, Taking power: On origins of third world revolutions. (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

         6.    Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, 

Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

         7.    Ibid.

         8.    David Carey, Oral history in Latin America: Unlocking the spoken archive. (NY: Routledge, 2017). 

         9.    Joaquín M. Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (NY: Routledge, 2017).

         10.  See Jeff Goodwin, No other way out. (UK: Cambridge, 2001).

         11.  Armed conflicts have erupted in the following: Chile, 1973; Argentina, 1966; Bolivia, 1969; Peru, 1968.

         12.  Cate Buchanan and Joaquín Chávez, Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008); Raymond 

Bonner, Weakness and deceitU.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984) .

         13.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).

         14.  Marti was born on May 5, 1893 and died on Feb. 1, 1932; Sandino was born on May  18, 1895 and died Feb 21,1934; both were assassinated. 

         15.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 37.

16. See “Scar of Memory,” Documentary (Cicatriz de la memoria), (San Salvador: Museo de la Palabra y de la Imágen).

17.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press1995)chapters one and two.

18.  Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, To rise in darkness: Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 219.

   19.  See discussion on Rappaport’s research in Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, To rise in darkness; Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931. (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press),  p. 258: (“What is unique about the Salvadoran experience is that the decisive cultural changes took place against the backdrop of the massacres of 1932.”); and Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press1995) , p.37: (“Anyone in Indian dress or anyone running from the security forces was fair game.”).

   20.  Alejandro Ramiro Chan, “The Resilience and Resistance of the Nahuat Pipil People of El  Salvador.” (Cultural Survival, May 8, 2020).

   21.  See Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador (NY: Times Books, 1984), p.52. For example: 90 percent of the wealth of the country is held by about one half of one percent of the population. Thirty or 40 families own nearly everything in the country. 

22.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017) p. 84.

23.  See Dara Kerr, “Ghosts of El Salvador,” (UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism) Also, “Memorias bajo el volcán,” (San Salvador: Museo de la Palabra y de la Imágen).

         24.   Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017)p. 162.

         25.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 54.

         26.   See Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984). In 1960 adult literacy was at 49 percent and 30 percent in rural areas; World Bank reported that only 8 percent of rural children, ages 13-15, were in school in 1970s.

         27.  See Richard C. Haggarty, El Salvador: A country study, (Library of Congress, [November, 1988]). The Anticommunist Wars of Elimination Liberation of Armed Forces (FALANGE) emerged in 1975. The exact number of death squads is unclear, but one group took the name of the former dictator/president, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anticommunist Brigade. The General admired the fascist leaders of his era and sent his officers for training in Germany, Italy, and Spain. The consequences of this alliance could not have been more tragic: twenty years later when, between 1979 and 1983, the U.S. supported the Salvadoran military’s brutal crackdown on mostly non-combatant civilians, and was largely responsible for the killing of 30,000 people,. The right-wing, death squad terrorism peaked during 1980-1982 when murders numbered about 700-800 a month. (pp. 32-36; and p. 235).

         28.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press1995). The most notable assassinations were Catholic priests Nicolás Rodríguez, Rutilio Grande, and Alfonso Navarro; Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980.  

         29.  For example, see Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote. (NY: Vintage Books, 1994).

         30.  See Laura Pedraza Fariña, Spring Miller, and James L. Cavallaro, No place to hide: Gang, state, and clandestine violence in El Salvador. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010). 

         31.  Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984)p. 171.

         32.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (U.K.: Oxford University Press), p.8.

         33.  Ibid.p. 13. 

         34.  Ibid., p. 45.

         35.  Ibid.

         36.  Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 11.

         37.  Ibid., p. 13.

         38.  Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibañez, Clara Murguialdy, Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras de FMLN. (San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador, 2020).  

         39.  Karen Kampwirth, Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

         40.  Ibid., Kampwirth notes that 25.5 percent of her respondents were students.

         41.  Julia Denise Shayne, “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” (Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26, 1998), p. 24.

         42.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 63.

         43.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace.  (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 60.

         44.   Ibid., chapter two.

         45.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 55.

         46.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

 (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 64.

         47.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 64.

         48.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace.   (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 67.

         49.  Ibid.

         50.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 80.

         51.  Ibid., chapter six.

         52.  Alberto Martín Alvarez and Eudald Cortina Orero, “The Genesis and Internal Dynamics of El Salvador’s People’s Revolutionary Army, 1970-1976.” (Journal of Latin American Studies, November, 2014). Lil Milagro Ramírez’ poems are in this site. “Twelve Poems by Female Fighters.” (Guernica, 2020). 

         53.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 83.

         54.  Ibid.

         55.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

      (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 85.

         56.  Ibid., p. 84.

         57.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 61.

         58.  Ibid., p. 138.

         59.  Ibid., p. 139.

         60.  Ibid.

         61.  Ibid., p. 142.

         62.  Ibid.

         63.  Ibid. p. 148.

         64.  Mélida Anaya Montes was murdered on April 6, 1979 in Managua, Nicaragua. The “war economy” consequences included: Between 1980 and 1984, 4,500 teachers left El Salvador; over 1,200 primary schools were shuttered; illiteracy rate grew to 65 percent and in some rural areas – 90 percent. See Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From

civil strife to civil peace (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 169 and p. 190.

         65.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

      (Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 82.

         66.  Ibid., p. 97.

         67.  Ibid., p. 99.

         68.  Ibid.

         69.  Ibid., p. 97.

         70.  In the United Nations document: From “Madness to Hope: Report on the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador,” Major Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

         71.  In 1984, Sergeant Colindres Alemán and the four guardsmen were charged, convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison; later, Col. Vides Casanova was charged for his involvement. 

         72.  Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador (NY: Times Books, 1984), p. 634.

         73.  From Madness to Hope,” report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (2001) details the following: 22,000 human rights violation complaints; 60 percent extrajudicial 

killings; 25 percent disappearances; 20 percent tortured. 85 percent of all deaths and 

disappearances attributed to the government forces of El Salvador and 5 percent attributed to

the FMLN.

         74.   Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 257, N44.

         75.  Bryan Manewal and David Stark, “Religion in the Trenches: Liberation Theology and 

Evangelical Protestantism as Tools of Social Control in the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).” (McNair Scholars Journal, 2007), p. 53.

         76.  Ibid.

         77.  Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984), p. 598.

         78.  Ibid., p. 545.

         79.  See Cate Buchanan and Joaquín Chávez, Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations. (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008). 

Approximately six billion USD spent by the United States on the Salvadoran Civil War. 

         80.  It was known as “Operación Rescate” and the Atlacatl Battalion, the elite, highly trained and equipped by the United States with machine-gun helicopters and heavy artillery, stormed into the area, destroying everything in their path.

         81.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

(Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 149.

         82.  See “Madness to Hope: Report on the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.”

         83.  Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984), p. 478.

         84.  Ibid.

         85.  Ibid., p. 480.

         86.  See Lisa Baldez, Why women protest: Women’s movements in Chile (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

         87.  Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 68.

         88.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

(Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 125.

         89.  Ibid., p. 121.

         90.  Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984), p. 561.

         91.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

(Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 120-121.

         92.  See photo album, Guazapa.

         93.  Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. 

(Boulder: Westview Press1995), p. 122. 

         94.  Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

         95.  Karen Kampwirth, Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba.

(University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

         96.  Kampwirth includes Aguinada’s real name because she is a public figure, having run for office and elected to Congress in 1994 representing the FMLN.

         97.  Karen Kampwirth, Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba.

(University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), pp. 137-155.

         98.  See Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and 

Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 15; and Leigh Binford,  

“Hegemony in the Interior of Salvadoran Revolution: The ERP in Northern Morazán.” (Journal of 

Latin American Anthropology, 1999), pp. 24-27.

         99.  Karen Kampwirth, Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba.

(University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

         100. Lynn Stephen, Women and social movements in Latin America: Power from below. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1997). 

         101. Sonia Alvarez, Elisabeth Jay Friedman, Ericka Beckman, Maylei Blackwell, Norma Stoltz 

Chinchilla, Nathalie Lebon, Marysa Navarro, and Marcela Ríos Tobar, “Encountering Latin 

American and Caribbean Feminisms.” (Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2002).

         102. Las Dignas, “Una década construyendo feminismo.” (El Salvador: Las Dignas, 2000), p. 21. 

         103. Lynn Stephen, Women and social movements in Latin America: Power from below. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1997), p. 72.

         104. Ibid., p. 25.

         105. Lynn Stephen (Ed.), Hear my testimony: María Teresa Tula, human rights activist of El Salvador. (Boston: South End Press, 1994), p. 210.

         106. See Las Dignas for information on their work and sources of international funding: 

         107. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent collective action and civil war in El Salvador (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 260.   

         108. United Nations Beijing Platform for Action of 1994-95 can be accessed here

         109. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) can be accessed here.

         110. See nbcnews.com article, “A Woman Lost Her Pregnancy But Was Jailed For Abortion. She Later Died.” 

         111. Las Dignas, “Una década construyendo feminism.” (El Salvador: Las Dignas, 2000), p. 63. 

         112. See Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

         113. Las Dignas, “Una década construyendo feminismo,” (El Salvador: Las Dignas, 2000), p. 63. 

         114. Ibid.

         115.  Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibañez, Clara Murguialdy, Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras de FMLN. (San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador, 2020).  NOTE: In their analysis, 60,000 women participated in the war; out of the 13,000 men and women mobilized in the guerrillas, 30 percent were women. The number of women reportedly killed in the war is a staggering 5,293. 

         116. Alan Marcelo Henríquez Chávez, “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto.” (México: Instituto Mora, 2018), Tesis. 

         117. Beth Verhey, “The demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers: El Salvador case study.” (World Bank, 2001). Verhey acknowledges gratitude to José Simeón Cañas Universidad Centroamericana, UCA, specifically José Miquel Cruz, Rubi Esmeralda Arana and María Santacruz Giralt. Also, UNICEF El Salvador, Ximena de la Barra and Jean Gough, and Rädda Barnen, and Jon Skurdal; and ACISAM, Ernestina Chávez, Ilene Cohn, Father Jon Cortina, Suleyna Durán, Marcelo Fabre, Homies Unidos and Andrew Russell. 

         118. Alan Marcelo Henríquez Chávez, “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto” (México: Instituto Mora, 2018), Thesis.Author conducted interviews in 2017 and 2018.


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15. Henríquez Chavez, A.M. “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto,” Thesis,  Instituto Mora, México City, 2018.

16. Jaquette, J. 1973. “Women in Revolutionary Movements in Latin America,” Journal of Family and Marriage35(2):351.

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19. Las Dignas. 2000. “Una década construyendo feminismo.” El Salvador: Las Dignas. http://www.lasdignas.org.sv Web page accessed on January 1, 2021.

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22. Martín Alvarez, A., and E. Cortina Orero. 2014. “The Genesis and Internal Dynamics ofEl Salvador’s People’s Revolutionary Army, 1970-1976.” Journal of Latin American Studies 46(4):663-689.

23. Montgomery, T.S. 1995. Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. Boulder: Westview Press.

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26. Stephen, L. 1994. Hear my testimony: María Teresa Tula, human rights activist of El Salvador. Boston: South End Press.

27. ____ .        1997. Women and social movements in Latin America: Power from below. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

28. Vásquez, N., C. Ibañez, and C. Murguialdy. 2020. Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y  colaboradoras de FMLN. San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador.  

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Additional Resource

María’s Story

“It is El Salvador, 1989, three years before the end of a brutal civil war that took 75,000 lives. María Serrano, wife, mother, and guerrilla leader is on the front lines of the battle for her people and her country. With unprecedented access to the FMLN guerrilla camps, the filmmakers dramatically chronicle María’s daily life in the war.”

María Ofelia Navarrete, aka María Chichilco, currently the Minister of Local Development, spent 12 years in the guerrilla. She was a labor union organizer prior to joining the FMLN in 1980.

One thought on “El Salvador: ‘To Change the World’ – They Did, and in More Ways Than They Imagined

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