Trocaire in El Salvador – A Potted History

As you might have gathered by now, I’m currently in El Salvador exploring climate change with Irish charity Trocaire. I thought that given that I’ll be documenting the experience fairly extensively over the coming days, it would be nice to have a little bit of background on the charity’s history over here, to give a little context to the examples I’ll be giving. All the information below is transmitted via the extremely impressive Trocaire El Salvador director Jose Adan, as reliably as I can manage from my own notes. Adan made an extremely moving historical introduction on our first morning, explaining the history and Trocaire’s work in what must be one of the most consistently difficulty-hit countries in the world. Trocaire’s been in El Salvador for 24 years so far; here are the key developments and angles to date:

1978-1992: “Solidarity In Times Of War” (1978 –  Trocaire arrive in El Salvador, approximately five years after the charity was formed.)

When Trocaire arrived in El Salvador, the country was in the midst of a full-blown civil war. El Salvador was governed by fourteen ruling-class families, a group prepared to use heavy force to protect their own extensive land ownership and defend their rule. They controlled the country by fusing the military and the government, using the army to forcefully get their way. Prior to the outbreak of war, any human rights efforts or protests were met with violent resistance. The rights of the peasant workers were assisted heavily by the Catholic church, particularly through church leader Archbishop Oscar Romero, who would eventually be assassinated by government death squads while giving mass due the strength of his anti-government support.

Around 80,000 were killed during the conflict, around 80% of whom were civilians. This was from a population of close to five million, and another half a million were forced to flee and became refugees, either in their own country (but away from home) or by crossing the border into Honduras. Adan highlighted two particular events as being notable examples of the government’s behaviour. The first is the Sunpal Massacre, which took place in 1980. A large number of families attempted to flee across the Honduran border and were massacred by government forces whilst trapped by a river, killing 300. In 1981, the Mosote Massacre saw the assassination of 800 peasant workers, 499 of whom were less than 14 years old. The figures for these massacres come from a Trocaire support group that sees public information on the war and acknowledgement of the suffering as a key part of the recovery process.

During the war Trocaire’s role was in three different areas:

– Denouncing of the violent nature of the leadership publicly, both in Ireland and El Salvador and financial support of the church in doing the same. This included the rebuilding of a church radio station, which was bombed regularly as a result of its public support of the resistance movement. This also included raising awareness in Ireland, who sent a host of delegations in support throughout the war years.

– Support through groups that were acting against the recession, through teaching, help for the peasant farmers and trade union assistance.

– Help in more direct terms with the diplomatic and refugee situation, which extended to hundreds of thousands of people. Humanitarian support included food and shelters in both El Salvador and Honduras.

Potrayal of the El Salvador civil war in the movie "Voces Inocentes"

1992-2001: Solidarity in times of democratic construction

A peace agreement in the El Salvador civil war was signed in 1992, and implemented/ not implement to mixed results over the years that followed. Sadly, the agreement also involved an amnesty for everyone involved in the fighting, which meant that while the actual fighting was over, the 12 year long heavy repression of sectors of society had very few consequences for the perpetrators. Trocaire’s angle was a combination of a belief that some kind of closure was needed and support in the aftermath of the devastation:

– Support of civil society efforts, especially in pressurizing those in power to complete the agreements put in place as part of the peace agreement.

– Support efforts to clarify crimes against the population, examining exactly what took place during the war. The El Salvador government post peace agreement and amnesty essentially took the view that ‘the past is the past’, and wanted to focus only on looking forward. Other organizations, including Trocaire, felt this wasn’t possible and might lead to a re-ignition of the conflict; that those who suffered needed to be dignified with some acknowledgement. This lead to measures to identify and clarify those involved in the conflict, both those involved through direct aggressive actions and through their political actions.

– Supporting the return of displaced people and assistance in re-establishing their lives.

2001 – present: solidarity in times of disaster.

In early 2001 (January and February), two major earthquakes caused hugely extensive damage across El Salvador, and required a new approach to the reconstruction of people’s lives. While work continued on the human rights and civil society aspects as needed, physical reconstruction and reduction of environmental vulnerability became greater focuses. Today, extreme climate events in El Salvador are more frequent (five in the past two years compared to just one in the entire 1960s), and also typically more extreme. I’ll be talking about a list of issues as long as your arm over the next week or so, so let’s stick to the main areas for now. There are two key areas of focus:

– The capacity of communities to adapt to climate change, which focuses mainly on food and agriculture, including ensuring access to food and drinking-quality water.

– Partnered work and advocacy pushing for global climate change, divided as follows:

– Putting pressure on developed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

– Requiring economic support from developed countries to poor countries, as a consequence of climate change caused by developed countries.

– Playing a strong role in localized climate change agreements within El Salvador, including negotiations on the construction of climate change policy.

– Support of the most vulnerable to climate change in the poorest areas of the country.

The aftermath of a landslide caused by the 2001 Earthquakes in El Salvador

El Salvador has essentially been assaulted in a number of different ways over the past few decades, and the way Trocaire has interacted with the country has adapted to suit. I was particularly impressed with the way Adan was able to put across the key areas and issues in a factual and occasionally emotionally way that focused more on situation rather than his own experiences.

In the cities and on the streets near to our hotel, El Salvador’s problems aren’t immediately obvious, though if we were to hang around the heart of the city too long large levels of gang violence would soon put paid to the idea that even the rich areas of the cities are problem free. That might be why the hotel security guard holds a shotgun outside the door. What’s quickly becoming clear, though, is that while the war might be over, El Salvador’s problems – particularly in rural areas – are in large parts out of the country’s control and may yet be just beginning. In the context of the impressive record above, I could hardly be more delighted to be a small part of it.

Expect a large handful of case studies to follow shortly, here.


Take a small but vital step in helping with  Trocaire’s vital climate change work in El Salvador: signing their petition, here.

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