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Updated 12/22/2007

Civil Conflicts and U.S. Intervention in Central America in the 1980s

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In the 1980s Central America was one of Washington’s Cold War battlegrounds, and Honduras served as its base of operations. Civil conflicts raged in the three countries bordering Honduras. In Guatemala and El Salvador, leftist insurgents fought against the forces of repressive military-backed governments, while in Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolutionary government battled forces of the former military dictatorship, which sought to reestablish power. Claiming that the Sandinista government and the Guatemalan and Salvadoran insurgencies posed a Communist threat to the hemisphere, the United States intervened by channeling military aid, training, equipment and intelligence resources into the region. However, despite its ideological justification, the United States also sought to protect its economic interests, which were threatened by the land, labor and political reforms that these leftist movements supported.

 

Guatemala

In 1954, a CIA-backed military coup overthrew Guatemala’s popularly elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, and triggered a civil conflict that would last more than three decades. The United States saw a threat in Arbenz, who had legalized the Guatemalan Communist party and initiated reforms to redistribute land owned by the American-based United Fruit Company to the mainly indigenous peasant population. Largely a struggle for land rights, the internal armed conflict ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords between the Guatemalan government and the armed opposition, grouped together as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit. The U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission found that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the murder or disappearance of more than 200,000 Guatemalans and concluded that groups of the Mayan population were victims of genocide from 1981 to 1983.

El Salvador

Discontent over social inequalities, a poor economy and a repressive dictatorship led to the outbreak of civil war in El Salvador in 1980 between leftist guerilla groups, who united under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, and the country’s brutal military regime. Ignoring serious human rights violations on the part the military, the United States provided billions of dollars in aid to the Salvadoran government. During the 12-year war, 75,000 Salvadorans—mostly civilians—were killed, and thousands more fled to refugee camps in Honduras and made their way north to the United States as illegal immigrants.

Nicaragua

In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua overthrew the 40-year U.S.-supported dictatorship of the Somoza family and took control of the country, ultimately winning an election that was certified as free and fair by international observers. The Sandinistas had formed in 1961, and over the years had turned to Cuba for advice and support. Once installed as the new government, the Sandinistas continued to rely on Cuba, as well as the Soviet Union, for political, military and economic assistance. The new regime’s ties with the Soviet bloc made for uneasy relations with Washington, but the final break came in 1981 when the United States learned that the Sandinistas, under Cuba’s urging, were helping to supply arms to the Salvadoran insurgency. Nicaragua denied involvement, but U.S. funding was nevertheless cut, leaving Nicaragua more dependent on Soviet bloc aid and fearful of U.S. aggression.

Meanwhile, former members of Somoza’s national guard had been gathering their forces across the border in Honduras and Costa Rica. Col. Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, chief of the Honduran armed forces, believed the guardsmen could be used to prevent the tide of revolution from flowing into Honduras by overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Alvarez approached Washington with a plan to organize the guard into a counter-revolutionary force, whereby the United States would provide financial support and Honduras would provide the territorial base of operations. In November 1981 Washington funded and organized the new paramilitary force, which became known as the Contras. The Contra war, which lasted until 1988, resulted in more than 25,000 deaths and 700,000 refugees and displaced people.

Honduras

Although Honduras faced no civil conflict of its own, it served as a staging ground for U.S. efforts to fight the insurgencies in Guatemala and El Salvador and to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Honduras’ geographically central location made it a convenient base of operations for the Contras and a center of training and supply for the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries. From 1980 to 1984, U.S. military aid to Honduras jumped from $3.9 million to $77.4 million, flooding the country with U.S. military bases, personnel and weapons.

 

While the United States used Honduras as a base from which to fight outside threats, it also helped the country to fight “internal enemies,” namely those who criticized the government or advocated social change. With training from the United States, Honduran security forces—including the notoriously abusive military intelligence Battalion 3-16—kidnapped, tortured and "disappeared" journalists, progressive church leaders, and student, labor and political organizers.

In 1987, the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica signed an agreement to create conditions for peace in Central America, which became known as the Esquipulas Agreement. Although the Cold War and the region’s civil conflicts have ended, the United States still maintains a contingent of troops and advisers at a large military base outside the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Since the early 1990s, some Honduran government officials have attempted to obtain information about human rights abuses of the ‘80s and prosecute those responsible, but the process has been slow and the results few. Most information in U.S. government files about human rights abuses and the extent of U.S. involvement during that period remains classified despite numerous requests for its public release.

For more information 

“Open the Files: A Chance to Aid Demilitarization in Honduras.” Adam Isacson and Susan Peacock. Center for International Policy, 1997.

“Inside Central America: Its People, Politics and History.” Clifford Krauss. Summit Books, 1991.

"In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years." Tomas Carothers. University of California Press, 1991.