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El Salvador


The Oligarchy's Private Army, 1824-1931

The Salvadoran Army, like others in the region, developed from the city-based militia of the colonial period. Suppression of frequent Indian rebellions throughout the region and enforcement of tax, labor, and other obligations required of the Indians were principal functions of the militia and incipient armies during colonial times and carried over into the immediate postcolonial period. General Manuel Jose Arce, the first president of a regional federation called the United Provinces of Central America, which was established in 1823, created the first genuinely Salvadoran army in 1824 (see El Salvador and the United Provinces of Central America , ch. 1). He did this by consolidating a number of widely scattered cavalry units, which had fought against incursions by the army of the self-proclaimed Mexican emperor Agustin de Iturbide, and placing them under a central command. El Salvador's Armed Forces Day, called the Day of the Salvadoran Soldier, has been celebrated ever since on the date of the formal unification, May 7.

In 1825 two French military advisers helped to modernize Arce's militia, which saw considerable action in the internecine conflict between liberal and conservative forces. After the federation collapsed in 1840, newly independent El Salvador inherited most of Arce's troops. The resulting Salvadoran Army was basically a light cavalry with independent squadrons of dragoons. Unlike the region's other armies, most of which resembled bandit gangs during most of the nineteenth century, the Salvadoran Army had developed by the 1850s into a balanced and relatively disciplined force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Officers were almost exclusively criollos.

President Gerardo Barrios (1858-63) brought in another French military mission, which reorganized the militia into a Europeanstyle national army. Barrios also used Colombian advisers to improve the conduct, appearance, and discipline of the army and militia. In 1867 the French military mission assisted President Francisco Duenas (1852-58 and 1863-67) in establishing an officer-training school that eventually became the Captain General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy (Escuela Militar Capitan General Gerardo Barrios).

The military supported the coffee oligarchy that emerged in the 1880s by functioning as an internal police force to suppress frequent peasant rebellions. In return, the landowners protected the military's interests and underwrote its expansion and professionalization, thereby laying the foundations of what became the most powerful institution in El Salvador in the twentieth century. President Carlos Erzeta (1890-94) founded the Military Hospital in San Salvador, opened the Noncommissioned Officers School (Escuela de Suboficiales), and employed a German military mission to reorganize and train artillery units.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the military had a primarily internal security function and was involved in active hostilities on only one occasion, a brief war with Guatemala in 1906. A number of Chilean officers participated directly in El Salvador's campaign against Guatemala, forging a strong link between their country and El Salvador. The Chilean military attache, Carlos Ibanez de Campo, who later became president of Chile, personally led a legendary charge of the Salvadoran cavalry in one of the major battles, at Platanar.

President Manuel Enrique Araujo (1911-13) implemented some army reforms that had a permanent effect on the security system. For example, he reduced its police functions. He also helped to professionalize the army by creating a general staff, an army educational corps, and a relatively efficient army reserve system. In 1922 El Salvador formed the Military Aviation Service (Servicio de Aviacion Militar--SAM) by acquiring five Italian bomber-reconnaissance aircraft.

Beginning in 1929, the oligarchy relied increasingly on the military to suppress a series of major peasant rebellions in the coffee-growing areas of western El Salvador. President Arturo Araujo (March-December 1931) gave his vice president and minister of war, General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, a free hand to suppress the revolts. At the same time, however, Araujo alienated the military by slashing its budget and refusing to revise its pay procedures.

Data as of November 1988

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