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CRSV: El Salvador (1979-1992)

This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

The Salvadorian Civil War took place in El Salvador for a period of 12 years, starting on October 15, 1979, and ending on January 16, 1992 (Wood, 2003). The war was fought between the government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was a coalition of left-wing groups (Wood, 2003). On October 15, 1979, a coup was followed up by government-led killings of anti-coup protesters, marking the start of the civil war. During the conflict, over 75,000 people were killed, and over 8,000 people were forcibly disappeared (UN, 1993). As many as 525,250 people fled to neighbouring countries to escape the conflict (UNCHR, 2004).

As many as 85% of the atrocities were carried out by the Salvadoran security forces, which were backed by the US during the Cold war. Records show that the Carter and Reagan administrations offered nearly USD 1-2 million on a daily basis in the form of economic aid to the Salvadoran government (Uppsala University, n.d.), alongside military training and equipment to the armed forces. In May 1983, it came to light that US military officers worked closely with the Salvadoran High Command, making strategic decisions around the conflict (Wood, 2003).

Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Data on the prevalence of rape and sexual violence during the conflict in El Salvador are few. Whereas the 1993 Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador mentions a few cases (Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 1993), an unpublished appendix presents several instances of rape (Toombs, 2006; Bogen, 2016). In 1981, a battalion trained and armed by the United States conducted a violent operation and killed and raped over a thousand citizens (Chomsky 2002). According to Tutela Legal (Archdiocesan Legal Aid Office), after segregating women and men in the 1981 El Mozote Massacre, Salvadoran soldiers raped about 25 women and girls repeatedly before executing them (Toombs, 2006; Bogen, 2016).

Some of the other documented instances include the rape of four women from a church (Toombs, 2006; Bogen, 2016), the rape of women and girls in the course of attacks on communities in El Salvador (Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 1993), and rape and sexual violence committed by guerrillas against the nurses they abducted (Toombs, 2006; Bogen, 2016). People in detention faced sexual violence and rape, as well (Toombs, 2006; Bogen, 2016). Further, women combatants in the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Farabundo Marti (FPL), an offshoot entity under the FMLN, protested the sexual exploitation of women in guerrilla camps (Toombs, 2006; Bogen, 2016).

Basis of Sexual Violence

The Salvadoran state used rape and sexual violence as a method of torture and intimidation targeting male and female detainees (Bergsmo et al., 2012). The FMLN cadres did not deploy rape to target civilians; government soldiers and security forces engaged in rape targeting those they suspected of supporting the insurgency. These individuals were held on official and secret detention sites (Wood, 2009). The FMLN’s decision to not deploy sexual violence and rape was in line with its overall approach of influencing civil society to join their ranks. However, they used sexual violence to target women combatants within their ranks as a form of exploitation and show of power.


  1. Bergsmo, Morten, Skre, Butenschon Alf, and Elisabeth J Wood. (2012). “Understanding and Proving International Sex Crimes.” Forum for International Criminal and Humanitarian Law – Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher. 12:389-419

  2. Bogen, K. W. (2016). Rape and Sexual Violence: Questionable Inevitability and Moral Responsibility in Armed Conflict. Scholarly Undergraduate Research Journal at Clark, 2(1), 6.

  3. Chomsky, Noam. (2002). What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Odonian Press.

  4. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1993); Wood, E. J. “Sexual Violence During War: Explaining Variation”, Order, Conflict and Violence Conference, Yale University, New Haven, 30 April – 1 May 2004.

  5. Tombs, D. (2006) “Unspeakable Violence: The UN Truth Commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala” in Reconciliation, Nations and Churches in Latin America, Maclean, I. S. ed., Aldershot and Burlington, Ashgate,

  6. United Nations, Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador (Report). United Nations. 1 April 1993.

  7. Uppsala University, El Salvador, In Depth: Negotiating a settlement to the conflict, Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University.

  8. USIP (1992). "Truth Commission: El Salvador". 1 July 1992.

  9. Wood, Elisabeth Jean. 2009. “Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When is Wartime Rape Rare?” Politics & Society, 37(1): 131-162.

  10. Wood, Elizabeth (2003). Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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