In the 1980s the small Central American country of El Salvador made world headlines as a key site of struggle in the cold war, and in consequence of its leftist revolutionary movements and civil war (conventionally dated 1980–92) that left some 70,000 dead and the economy and society ravaged. The long-term roots of the crisis have been traced to the country’s history of extreme poverty, economic inequality, and political oppression of its majority by its landholding and power-holding minority. Important antecedents include the 1932 Matanza (Massacre), in which the military and paramilitaries killed upwards of 30,000 people, ushering in an era of military dictatorship that continued to the 1980s. The 1969 Soccer War with Honduras is also cited as an important antecedent. By the mid-1970s numerous leftist revolutionary groups were offering a sustained challenge to military rule, groups that in April 1980 came together to form the revolutionary guerrilla organization Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, or FMLN).
Open civil war erupted soon after July 1979, when the leftist Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Fearing a similar outcome in El Salvador, the U.S. government increased its military aid to the Salvadoran regime, which launched an allout assault against revolutionary and reformist organizations. From 1979 to 1981, approximately 30,000 people were killed by the military and associated rightwing paramilitaries and death squads. On March 24, 1980, a right-wing death squad assassinated the arch- bishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, after his numerous public denunciations of the military regime and its many human rights violations. In December 1980 centrist José Napoleon Duarte assumed the presidency, the first civilian to occupy that post since 1931. Interpreted by many as a civilian facade installed to obscure a military dictatorship, his administration failed to staunch the violence. Especially after Ronald Reagan became U.S. president in January 1981, U.S. military and economic assistance to the Salvadoran regime skyrocketed. Framing the issue as a cold war battle, and despite much evidence to the contrary, the Reagan administration claimed that the FMLN and its political wing, the FDR (Frente Democrático Revolucionario), were clients of Cuba and the Soviet Union. It also alleged Sandinista complicity in funneling arms to Salvadoran revolutionaries, thus legitimating U.S. support for anti-Sandinista forces in the contra war.
In 1982 the extreme right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA), won the presidency in an election marred by violence and fraud. The rest of the 1980s saw continuing civil war waged under a series of ostensibly civilian governments dominated by the military. In 1991, following United Nations–sponsored talks, the government recognized the FMLN as a legal political party. In January 1992 the warring parties signed the UN-sponsored Chapultepec peace accords, and in 1993 the government declared amnesty for past violations of human rights. The civil war and its aftermath left an enduring legacy throughout the country and region.