As already announced in my article about our highlights in Central America, in this article I would like to focus exclusively on the history and politics of Central America.
I am aware that each country in Central America has its own story worth telling and that there is much more interesting stuff than I have collected for you in this article, and when I was in the respective countries I also looked into it in more detail.
But on the one hand, I think it would be a bit too much if I were to write an individual outline of each of these countries (quite honestly, none of you would read it all) and on the other hand, there are many parallels and similarities in the histories and present-day realities of these countries. Indigenous peoples did not know today’s borders any more than the Spanish respected them.
It was precisely these parallels and similarities that I enjoyed highlighting during my time in Central America and, above all, that helped me to better understand and retain what I had learned. Independence Day on 15 September 1821, for example, has burned itself into my memory because most Central American countries share it.
But what do I actually mean by Central America? Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. In this case, I would like to include Mexico, at least for the history, although usually only the south of Mexico is counted as Central America, since the country and its history are closely interwoven with the rest.
I am deliberately leaving out the Caribbean here, not because I don’t see it as part of Central America, but because I have only been to a fraction of the Caribbean islands and have already looked at the history of the Dom Rep and Cuba individually. And Panama and Belize will only be mentioned in passing, since Panama was part of Colombia for a long time and Belize has only been an independent country for 40 years.
The article highlights the unfortunately diverse problems in Latin American politics that are still prevalent today, but that should not obscure the fact that these are all exciting countries in which one can safely move with a little caution. The people I met in Central America were incredibly friendly, fun-loving, helpful and wonderful.
When I write about parallels above, I would like to highlight them first in (colonial) history and then in politics since independence.

(Colonial) history

When you go to history museums in Central America, you often get the impression that the history of Central America begins with colonisation, because that is exactly the first thing that is often (there are exceptions) mentioned in the museums. The many millennia before that are just as concealed as the atrocities committed by the Spaniards and the many sufferings that the indigenous people and slaves brought in from Africa had to endure. Obviously, the history of people, civilisations and cities in Central America begins much earlier and today we know that much of what the Spanish told about the Indians was not true. For example, indigenous peoples were portrayed as much more barbaric and less civilised than they actually were in order to justify oppression and exploitation.
A good example of the highly civilised peoples of Central America are undoubtedly the Maya, of whom about 6 million still live in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They built impressive temples, developed their own complex language and an extremely accurate calendar. They were as gifted in mathematics as they were in arts and crafts and agriculture. Without the Maya, who knows if we would have corn cultivation or chocolate today? And who knows how far we would be in science today if much of the Maya’s impressive knowledge had not been lost? By the way, the Spanish did have a share in this, but the great advanced civilisations and cities of the Maya had already perished before the Spanish claimed every stone and every labour force in America for themselves.
It remains a mystery, not yet completely deciphered, why the Maya empires perished, but one assumption is becoming more and more solidified: the overexploitation of nature was the Maya’s undoing. They needed many raw materials for their ever-growing cities. Severe droughts and other environmental events then led to famine crises and the fall of the Maya rulers. However, because they had not shared their knowledge with the people in order to preserve their position as omniscient deities, much of it was lost.
However, there were and are many other indigenous peoples before, beside and after the Maya, which would certainly go beyond the scope of enumerating and examining them in more detail, for example the Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs, Nahua and Caribs. In addition, some mixed peoples developed over the millennia, of which perhaps the best known today are the Garifuna, who evolved from the Caribs and West African slaves and today mainly inhabit the Caribbean coast of Central America. The first settlers reached Central America at least 10,000 years ago. It is assumed that they migrated via North America.
And even though some of the Central American peoples were at war with each other again and again, this is out of all proportion to the suffering brought by the Spanish, which affected all these peoples, albeit to varying degrees.
When the Spanish arrived, some of them were organised into large civilisations and others, such as Nicaragua, were characterised by many independent tribes (with a cacique as head). What they all had in common was that they did not appreciate the arrival of the Spaniards and the resulting consequences. Some were directly hostile to the newcomers, others befriended them, only to be betrayed and oppressed later.
As already explained in the articles on the Dom Rep and Cuba, the peoples were largely murdered, enslaved or exploited. Many fell victim to introduced diseases and Spain tried mercilessly to squeeze as much raw material, gold, etc. out of the colonies as possible.
In a few decades, the Spanish conquered Central America both from Panama in the south and from Mexico in the north. The Viceroyalty of New Spain was founded and, with the exception of Panama, the territories of all today’s Central American states belonged to New Spain, while Panama belonged to the Viceroyalty of Peru (and later, for a long time, to Colombia), which is why we exclude Panama somewhat here.
The Viceroyalty of New Spain was divided into 4 administrative districts (Real Audiencias): Santo Domingo (from 1511), Mexico (1527), Guatemala (1543) and New Galicia (1548, also called Guadalajara). While Santo Domingo was initially responsible for all conquered territories, this changed with the founding of the other Real Audiencias, so that Santo Domingo was finally responsible for the Caribbean. The administrative region of Mexico corresponds to today’s Central Mexico, Northern Mexico and several of today’s US states were under New Galicia. The administrative district of Guatemala included present-day Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
The administrative districts are important because it was precisely from them that the new states were first created:
Haiti was the first country in Latin America to gain independence in 1804. A decisive influence on the wars of independence was the French Revolution of 1789. When, from 1808 to 1814, Spain was de facto cut off from its colonies due to the Napoleonic Wars, because all forces were needed in Europe, the independence movements got the decisive push.
In Central America, it was the Real-Audiencia Mexico and New Galicia that were the first to proclaim their independence as the common state of Mexico. When the Spanish administration discovered the independence movement around Miguel Hidalgo in September 1810, he felt compelled to proclaim Mexico’s independence in the night of 15 to 16 September 1810 in the small village of Dolores in the mountains. To this day, Mexicans celebrate the beginning of their independence on 15 and 16 September with the grito (shout). However, many years passed before they gained their independence. Hidalgo’s grito marked the beginning of a bloody war of independence that claimed the lives of Hidalgo’s leaders Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama as well as thousands of insurgents. The war of independence did not end until August 1821.
However, Mexico’s hard-won and expensive (in terms of money and, above all, human lives) independence was not only fought for Mexico. For driven by Mexico’s success, the Real-Audiencia Guatemala also sought its independence in 1821, which this time the Spanish agreed to without bloodshed. On 15 September 1821 (good to remember, because of the gritos in Mexico), the Central American Federation proclaimed its independence. So this is the Independence Day of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Belize alone remained a colony of England until 1981! It was a colony of England, which had only finally driven out the Spanish in a battle in 1798 and claimed the country for itself. Belize also became independent in September, but only in 1981.
After independence from Spain, the Central American Federation joined Agustin Iturbide’s newly founded state of Mexico. But they soon realised that the disadvantages of this union outweighed the benefits, and in 1823, after the fall of Iturbide, they separated from Mexico again (again without bloodshed). Only Chiapas remained with Mexico as a new federal state.
Two camps quickly emerged in the Central American Federation, as they did in many other Latin American countries: Liberals and Conservatives. While the conservatives naturally wanted little to change the political system, the liberals sought immediate reforms such as the separation of church and state and the separation of powers.
In the following years, internal power struggles and civil wars developed in the very federally structured state, so that the Central American Federation disintegrated between 1838 and 1841 and the present-day states of Nicaragua (1838), Honduras (1838), Costa Rica (1838), Guatemala (1839) and El Salvador (1841) were founded. To this day, they share Independence Day and the colours blue & white in their flags. Only Costa Rica added red to its flag, making it difficult to distinguish the flags of Central America. Today, by the way, they organise themselves together again as the Central American Integration System (SICA), although of course as independent states.

Politics after independence

The camps that had already emerged in the Central American Federation, namely liberals and conservatives, also shaped post-independence politics. Different parties developed in the various countries, but their ideas were oriented towards the conservative or liberal ideas, and in many countries this duality shaped the political system until deep into the 20th century, as in Honduras or Nicaragua. The vast majority of political conflicts in Central America after 1821 can be traced back to the clinch between conservatives and liberals.
But what exactly was the clinch? In the final analysis, it was about the political reality of the newly founded states, and the opinions of the two camps could hardly be further apart: The conservatives on the one side favoured leaving power in the hands of a few (the elite) and granting this elite, centralised as far as possible, access to all powers. The privileges of the church, the military and landowners were to remain untouched and no other religion besides Catholicism was to be permitted.
The liberals, on the other hand, advocated a clear separation of powers and the separation of church and state. Freedom of religion was as much a part of their programme as freedom of expression, civil marriage and free state education. They also wanted to promote federalisation.
Interestingly, many liberal ideas became established in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, while conservatives ruled much more. But why is that?
In my eyes, this shows on the one hand that many liberal ideas were supported by the population and that conservative governments had to bow to them in order to stay in power. But why then were liberals not elected from whom these ideas came? The background to this goes much further and has mainly to do with the Conservatives’ proximity to the powerful elite. Thus, the Conservatives benefited from the influence of the elite in order to stay in power. Financed election campaigns, vote buying and even fake elections were common practice in almost all countries of Central America. And if that was not enough, violence or dictatorship could be the last resort. Politically motivated murders mostly took place against liberal politicians.
And often the USA interfered, too, as they quickly feared that liberal governments would “slip” into socialism. For example, in Guatemala in 1954, after 10 years of democratic and liberal reforms, they helped overthrow President Arbenz and installed dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.
While the conservatives mainly cultivated relations with the commercial elite, landowners and other rich people, the liberals were closer to the idea of “ordinary” citizens. But this should not hide the fact that the liberals were also part of the elite and often used their power to increase their wealth. Corruption was already one of the central problems in politics back then and it still is today.

Manifestation of inequality

The existing property relations from the colonial period were thus generally defended by the political elite.
For example, in El Salvador around 1900, 90 % of the country’s goods were in the hands of 0.01 % of the population. The majority of the peasants were landless and lived in extreme poverty. In Nicaragua, the Sogamozo family in particular used several disasters during their long family dictatorship to increase their holdings – a common pattern in Central America. For example, they organised the reconstruction after an earthquake in 1931 and a major fire in Managua in 1936 in such a way that they were able to increase their land holdings considerably. After another major earthquake in 1972, they sacked much of the relief money and even sold donated relief goods to increase their fortune. Even today, parts of the city centre and the cathedral have not been rebuilt, for which part of the relief money was intended.
In addition, there have been numerous attempts to prevent measures that would reduce inequality. In El Salvador, when Article 105 limited land ownership to 245 ha in 1983, sections of the big landowners tried to prevent the reform by death squads. The most prominent victim was Archbishop Óscar Romero.
It took a long time for “normal” citizens to have a politically successful career. And what could happen if they tried is shown by the example of Jorge Gaitan in Colombia, but more on that soon in the context of Colombia’s history and politics.
Even today, rich people in Central American countries have much better chances of occupying high office.
In fact, it took until long after independence for the first democratic elections to be held in Central America: in Guatemala, for example, in 1944.
The 19th and 20th centuries were characterised by oligarchies (rule by the few), dictatorships and military coups. Changes of government were commonplace. Honduras clearly takes the cake: from 1821 to 1876, 85 governments alternated, and in the first 150 years of the state of Honduras there were 125 military coups. To this day, Honduras in particular has the image of being a “banana republic”, although most of the neighbouring countries did not fare much better, except that the changes of government were not quite as frequent.

Dictators (often conservative but also liberal)

Dictatorships, along with oligarchies, were the most common form of government in the unstable countries of Latin America. At this point, it should be mentioned that the instability was by no means an expression of the Central Americans’ incompetence. Rather, it can be directly traced back to the long rule of Spain, which left a devastation on the continent, especially in political terms. For centuries, the people of Central America were oppressed – without any possibility of self-determination. And the people who finally fought for independence were usually not indigenous people who had owned the land before the Spanish arrived, but descendants of the Spanish or had mixed ancestors. This situation made it particularly difficult to develop a common national identity, and to this day many political struggles revolve around precisely this issue.
The large number of dictators makes it impossible or even boring to list them all here, but a few are briefly mentioned.
The conservative José Rafael Carrera y Turcios, for example, became popular in Guatemala shortly after it seceded from the Central American Federation because he successfully fought against confederates. In 1944, at the age of 30, he became president of Guatemala and used his popularity and close contacts with the military to expand his power. In 1954, he declared himself president for life in Guatemala and thus significantly shaped the understanding of conservative rulers in Central America. In general, it can be said that the elites of the Central American countries remained in contact even after the split and that the various political processes strongly influenced each other. Most of the political conflicts of the last two centuries in Central America were within the states and hardly between them.
In 1865, Carrera handed over the presidency to Vicente Cerna, followed 6 years later by a military coup by liberals and Justo Rufino Barrios came to power. He pushed ahead with many reforms such as freedom of the press and religion and the nationalisation of church property. Guatemala also got a constitution. But the liberals also had many dictatorial features. Barrios dreamed of the reunification of the Central American Federation and after negotiations failed to progress, he declared the federation restored and himself commander-in-chief. Less later, he died in armed conflict with El Salvador, which did not recognise the self-declared federation.
With Jorge Ubico, Guatemala had another liberal dictator. Ubico came to power in 1931 through presumably rigged elections and quickly became a dictator who persecuted intellectuals, journalists and writers who criticised his government.
In El Salvador, special mention should be made of the dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, who, as defence minister, used a military coup in 1930 to come to power. This again shows the enormous power that the military and its allies had, especially in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
Costa Rica, which is overall rather a positive example of a stable democracy in Central America, also had some violent periods. From 1917 to 1919 there was a military dictatorship under Federico Alberto Tinoco Granados, which was not recognised by the USA but was supported by the powerful United Fruit Company. The enormous power of the United Fruit Company and other companies like Chiquita and their enormous influence on politics are worth a separate blog article when the time comes.
Other “notable” dictators were: Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the current dictator Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Tiburcio Carías Andino and Juan Manuel Gálvez in Honduras, who acted as stooges for the United Fruit Company. Manuel Noriega, who ruled Panama with the help of the military after the mysterious death of Omar Torrijo in 1981.

Civil wars

There have been many civil wars in Central America over the last two centuries, most of them arising from the conflict between liberals and conservatives, which has been the subject here several times now. The differences have been so great since the beginning of independence that the losing party often saw no other means than to take up arms, and conversely the governments often took up arms and involved the military to keep the opposing side and the population under control. I will also refrain from giving a complete overview of the civil wars and will only give a few examples that give a good representation of the motives and behaviour of the various parties.
In Nicaragua, a first civil war began as early as 1856, in which the liberals called the American adventurer William Walker to their aid, who intervened with a small private army and gave the liberals an advantage, but at a high price: Walker sought power not only in Nicaragua but in all of Central America. Only the combined forces of the Central American states could stop Walker, who later made two more attempts at conquest and was executed in Honduras in 1860.
In Costa Rica, after violent elections and electoral fraud, there was a six-week civil war in 1948 with about 2000 deaths. In 1949 there was a peace treaty and a short time later Costa Rica abolished its military.
In Guatemala, a bloody civil war began in 1960 and lasted until 1996. After the liberal president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was violently overthrown by conservative forces in 1954, one conservative military dictatorship after another followed, reversing all liberal reforms (such as the partial expropriation of the United Fruit Company). In 1960, the oppressed liberals saw no other option than to go into armed resistance, which emanated especially from the indigenous regions of the country. The military reacted harshly, bombing its own people a few times. Paramilitary groups were formed and, especially under General Efraín Ríos Montt, the fight against the insurgents developed into genocide against indigenous people in particular. The war cost at least 200,000 Guatemalans their lives and made over 1 million refugees. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, government troops and allied paramilitaries were responsible for 93% of the deaths, while 3% were attributed to guerrilla movements.
In El Salvador, too, severe repression by a conservative military dictatorship led to a civil war in 1980 that lasted until 1991. The armed guerrilla troops united under the name FMLN and fought against the government and paramilitaries. 1 – 2 million left El Salvador, many of them for the USA.
Of the at least 75,000 deaths, 85% are attributed to the military and pro-government death squads and only 5% can be attributed to the FMLN guerrillas. The civil war ended in 1992 with the peace treaty of Chapultepec and the FMLN was formed into a party that won the presidential elections in El Salvador twice in 2009 and 2014.

Gangs and drug mafia as a continuation of violence

In recent years, the violence of the ideological clashes has found its continuation in the proliferation of the gangs (called maras in some countries) and drug mafias. As in Mexico, where drug crime has become the main problem in the last 50 years, many hostile gangs developed in Central America, fighting violently for power in the drug market, but also against governments for power.
This situation escalated in El Salvador in particular, so I would like to use El Salvador as an example in this case.
After the civil war and peace agreement of 1992, many of the former guerrillas and paramilitaries were unemployed and quickly found the drug business as a niche where their “skills” and ways of doing things were useful. At that time, there were at least 1 million weapons in circulation in El Salvador. In addition, there were many repatriated Salvadorans who had “failed” in the USA and thus no longer found a home in their country of origin. It was precisely this home that the maras gave them, so that the cruelly acting gangs quickly found an influx. From some local reports I heard that initiation rituals into the maras often consisted of the new member standing in a circle and being beaten up by those present. In other gangs, you had to murder at least one person to belong to the gang.
Thus, violence in El Salvador escalated until it reached its (statistical) peak in 2015, when the murder rate in El Salvador rose to over 100 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Although it decreased somewhat in the following years, the situation remained out of control. Some Salvadorans told me about that time: Millions of them had to pay protection money to the respective mara (there were different gangs controlling different parts of the country). Here, protection money meant not so much that the maras protected you from others, but rather that they did not kill you. For example, one taxi driver told me that he had to pay 10 dollars a week, which is a lot of money for him. Others told me that being found in another town could be enough for the gang to kill you on the spot because you were not from there.
In 2019, Nayib Bukele was elected president in El Salvador. During the election campaign, he had announced a rigorous fight against gang crime. However, he had concealed from the population that he already had agreements with the maras that he would leave them alone if they behaved more inconspicuously and less murderously. Such agreements had been tried by other presidents before him and Buke’s attempt only reduced the violence for a while. After a very bloody weekend with over 80 deaths in March 2022, Bukele did a 180° turn and declared war on the maras. He had parliament declare a state of emergency, which he will only end when all the maras’ members are in prison. He tightened the conditions in the prisons and imprisoned thousands of people who were even associated with the maras. For example, I was told that it was enough to have a fake tattoo, the identifying mark of a gang, to be put in prison without trial. Human rights organisations criticise Bukule’s actions and estimate that at least 3000 innocent people are in prison. And the conditions are degrading. Bukele promised several times that the gang members would “never see the daylight again” in their lives and the pictures he posted from the prisons on social media went around the world. Relatively speaking, no other country has as many people in prison as El Salvador: 1086 per 100,000 inhabitants.
But the murder rate and crime in El Salvador fell drastically last year! The protection money from the gangs has disappeared, millions of people feel safe again and see that tourism is also making its way back into their country. Internationally, Bukele’s actions are the subject of much debate, and inevitably the difficult question arises as to whether the end justifies the means. I don’t want to allow myself a personal opinion here, but the population answers the question quite clearly: over 90% are in favour of the measures and support Bukele. His popularity is so enormous that he is increasingly becoming an authoritarian ruler. Like so many Central American presidents before him, he has a taste for power and will try to overturn the law that prevents his re-election next year: In Central America, the re-election of presidents is traditionally forbidden by law, a fact that many rulers have refused to acknowledge. It remains exciting to see how El Salvador will develop in the next few years and what the international reactions will be. The USA in particular has many interests in El Salvador and has historically often interfered in Central America when a development did not please them. However, they should like the developments of the last year, as the economy in El Salvador is flourishing (there are many US companies in El Salvador) and a safer El Salvador may enable them to deport more Salvadorans.

US interference

Not only in El Salvador is the influence of the USA enormous, but actually everywhere in Central America there are many US-American companies, such as mining companies, which have become so widespread in the last two centuries since independence that in Honduras, for example, there has been some talk of a colony-like dependency. Often, the North American companies were lured by generous concessions and the US government ensured that the respective rulers profited from the profits of the US corporations or otherwise received US support.
Thus, the USA interfered everywhere it could and decisively shaped the course of history in Central America in its favour.
In doing so, they did not miss any opportunity to intervene militarily in the countries if this could be justified internationally to some extent.
In Nicaragua, for example, the US Marines saved the conservative government of Diaz from the rebellious liberals in 1912. Only a year earlier, Diaz had borrowed millions from US banks and given the US direct control over Nicaragua’s customs revenues as collateral. The Marines remained in the country until 1933, supporting the conservative governments against liberal rebels until a peace treaty was signed in 1933 between the government and liberal leader Augusto Cesar Sandino, who had dealt the Marines some stinging defeats in the years before. Sandino and his men laid down their arms and the US left Nicaragua (not without first training the National Guard). Sandino and his generals were assassinated shortly afterwards and the Somoza family (close associates) were able to establish their family dictatorship.
It was not until 1979 that Somoza’s rule came to an end and the liberal movement “Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional” (FSLN) came to power, creating a new constitution and whose socialist programme was initially well received by the population. But it did not take long for the USA to intervene. Ever since the Truman Doctrine in the Cold War, the USA had been trying to overthrow any government that even appeared to be socialist in order to limit Russia’s influence. With illegal arms sales to Iran, the USA made money that it gave to the so-called Contras in Nicaragua, who were fighting against the socialist government – the so-called Iran-Contras affair, which older readers here may still remember. And the plan worked, the instability created (also due to a US embargo) caused the FSLN to lose the 1990 presidential elections. Incidentally, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contras affair, the US was fined $2.4 billion by the International Court of Justice, which the US has still not paid.

Another prominent example of US interference is the PBSUCCESS mission in Guatemala. The overthrow of the above-mentioned Guatemalan president Arbenz, whose liberal reforms were detrimental to US companies among others, was largely engineered by the USA. To this end, they stationed soldiers in both Honduras and Nicaragua, who willingly made their territory available and from there supported the military coup of the later dictator Carlos Castillo Armas. Several unidentified aircraft that bombed Guatemala City in 1954 were subsequently identified beyond doubt as US planes. The United Fruit Company may also have had a hand in the war against liberal reforms, since they were restricted by them, but CIA documents published after the fact make the UFC’s influence seem rather slight. But more on this in a blog article about the UFC, Chiquita and Co. in due course.
A last of many other examples of US military interventions in Central America and the resulting economic interests is the Panama Canal. When the USA wanted to continue the construction of the canal, which had been left fallow by France, at the beginning of the 20th century, Colombia, to which Panama belonged at the time, did not agree. Without further ado, the USA sent its military to Panama and supported Panama in its independence. In the process, they secured all the rights and profits to the canal, which they did not relinquish until the year 2000! You can read more about this in my article on Panama.

A short side fact for German readers: In 1878, there was a German military intervention in Nicaragua after an attack on the German consul in León, the so-called Eisenstuck Affair. However, this was not about economic interests or long-term influence in Central America, but about a family feud.

Conflicts between the countries and union against Walker

Most of the (warlike) conflicts since the peaceful disintegration of the Central American Federation have been within the respective states, but there are also individual examples of wars between states – mostly over the interpretation of borders and interests in the border area.
In 1863, Guatemala joined forces with Costa Rica in a border conflict after suffering a severe defeat in the war with El Salvador. El Salvador sought support from Nicaragua and Honduras, but was unable to prevent Guatemalan troops from entering the capital San Salvador. Guatemala strengthened its then supremacy in Central America, but San Salvador lasted only for a short time.
In February 1921, a dispute between Costa Rica and Panama escalated, with Costa Rican troops capturing the town of Coto from Panama, whose allegiance had not been clarified since independence. Since Panama did not have an army at the time, policemen were used to push back the invaders. After some minor fighting with casualties, the USA ended the war, called “Guerra de Coto”, with the arrival of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. This so-called gunboat policy was especially popular in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century: by the appearance of one or more gunboats and the accompanying threats, superior states such as the USA demonstrated their power and, as a rule, conflicts were ended in this way before the gunboats were actually used. Incidentally, this is also how Germany ended the “Eisenstruck affair” mentioned above. Costa Rica reported 31 dead soldiers and one civilian casualty in the short Coto war, Panama reported only casualties.
In 1969, there was the “100-hour war” between El Salvador and Honduras, this time not a border conflict, but about 300,000 small farmers who had emigrated from El Salvador to Honduras and were increasingly a thorn in the side of the Honduran government. In 1969, Honduras gave the migrants 30 days to leave the country. El Salvador protested, mainly because the small country is much more densely populated than Honduras. On the Honduran side, the paramilitary terrorist group “Mancha Brava” formed, which increasingly hunted Salvadorans. After a World Cup qualifying match between the two countries in Mexico City, there were riots with several fatalities, as a result of which war broke out, also called the “football war”. The Salvadoran troops quickly advanced far into Honduras. But the looming defeat of Honduras was prevented by the Organisation of American States (OAS), which intervened in the war and singled out El Salvador as the aggressor. The Salvadoran military was forced to retreat without their most important demand, the cessation of persecution of Salvadorans, being met. In the following years, tens of thousands of Salvadorans returned to their homeland.

Repression and killing of indigenous people

Not only did the indigenous people in Central America have a hard time, as they were almost exterminated by the Spanish during the colonial period and their identity (cities, temples, cultural sites) was partially destroyed, but also after independence from Spain, the indigenous people, who were clearly outnumbered, were repeatedly oppressed and fought against as such a minority. The process was often similar, although of course not identical: the rural population and especially indigenous people were hardly taken into account in politics (even today, politics in Central America is extremely city-focused). When conditions became unbearable, the indigenous people revolted and their uprisings were put down. The uprising was then subsequently instrumentalised by the government and military to justify further persecution and murder of indigenous people.
In 1881, for example, in Nicaragua, an agrarian reform for privatisation forced many indigenous people into forced labour, so they fought back with an uprising from Matagalpa, which was brutally put down by the conservative government.
Under the conservative dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez mentioned above, there was a bloody suppression of the indigenous Pibil uprising in 1932, which marked the end of indigenous cultures in El Salvador! The Pibil were wiped out by the military and it was reported that people were killed solely because of language or dress.
In Honduras, the fight against indigenous people was not so open, but Battalion 316 in particular was accused of serious human rights violations, torture and murder against hundreds of Hondurans during the conservative dictatorship. The battalion was trained by the CIA, among others.
But it was not only conservative forces that oppressed the indigenous people. The Sandinistas, who came to power through the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, established torture, disappearances and mass executions of Miskito indigenous people. A general forced labour system was also put in place for the indigenous population.

Today’s situation

Finally, I would like to give a brief overview of the current political situation in Central America.
Not only El Salvador under Nayib Bukele is drifting further and further towards autocracy/dictatorship, but also in Guatemala such a development towards right-wing authoritarianism can be observed in the last election periods. It will be exciting to see how Guatemala develops under the new, left-wing president Bernardo Arévalo. Arévalo surprisingly won the run-off election in August. He is the son of the well-known ex-president Juan José Arévalo, who was Guatemala’s first democratically elected and liberal president in 1945. At the same time, the judiciary recently suspended his party “Semilla”. If this remains the case until he takes office in January, Arévalo will have no faction behind him. The current ruling conservative political elite, known as the “Pact of Corruption”, which has infiltrated much of the judiciary, is suspected to be behind the suspension.
At the same time, Guatemala strongly reflects the trend in Central America that the original two-party system with conservatives and liberals is passé. Guatemala currently has 18 parties in parliament.
As of 2023, Honduras is so strongly characterised by gangs and their violence that the extent is sometimes described as war-like. This is one of the main reasons why Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for migrants in the USA, as many want to prevent their sons from being recruited or their daughters from being sexually abused. According to the United Nations, 400,000 of the approximately 9.7 million inhabitants live as internally displaced persons in their own country.
Nicaragua has been under a dictatorship for several years by Daniel Ortega, who was already president for the FSLN revolutionary party from 1985 to 1990. He was re-elected president in 2006 and in recent years has developed the country into exactly the form of government he had fought against during the revolution. In 2011, he should not have been re-elected according to the constitution, but a controversial court decision allowed him to run again. In 2014, he then had the ban on re-election removed and the following elections were almost certainly rigged. Press freedom and freedom of expression are severely restricted in Nicaragua and in 2018, nationwide protests were put down with live ammunition. As Ortega’s health has deteriorated in recent years, his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo has increasingly taken over the reins of government.

But there is also a positive example of stability in Central America: Costa Rica. After individual violent episodes, the country developed into a success story in the second half of the 20th century. President José Figueres Ferrer had the army abolished by constitution in 1949. Since then, border protection tasks have been taken over by the police, and the USA and other American states gave military security guarantees through the Inter-American Treaty on Mutual Assistance (TIAR Pact).
In 1983, Costa Rica then proclaimed the country’s permanent, active and unarmed neutrality. This is why Costa Rica is also called the Switzerland of Latin America. The money that has been saved for the military since 1949 has been invested in education and health care, which is why the country has developed a high standard in these areas in particular. Due to political stability, Costa Rica has also become a highly visited country and, through tourism, has achieved a level of prosperity that the other countries of Central America dream of.

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