In 1981, Ronald Reagan rode into office determined to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome and stop the tide of revolution in Central America. Reagan announced he “was drawing a line” in El Salvador, sending military advisors to aid the counterrevolution.
El Salvador eventually became the site of the largest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency war since Vietnam. Recognizing the very real danger represented by the slogan “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam,” progressive activists flocked to the issue.
In January 1981, the FMLN launched a “final offensive,” just before Ronald Reagan assumed office. This attempt failed due to lack of arms and trained troops, and the guerrillas turned to consolidating their control over parts of the countryside. The final offensive was not a total loss for the FMLN, however. It retained military strongholds and settled in for a protracted guerrilla conflict. The offensive focused further international attention on El Salvador and established the FMLN/FDR as a formidable force both politically and militarily; in August 1981, the governments of France and Mexico recognized the front as a “representative political force” and called for a negotiated settlement between the rebels and the government. CISPES used the media attention of the final offensive to keep building the organization, now with hundreds of chapters and affiliates around the country.
On December 2, 1980, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke were intercepted on their way home from the airport in El Salvador. Five Salvadoran National Guardsmen kidnapped, raped, and killed them. Their murders and the subsequent outcry by CISPES and other solidarity organizations was a factor in catalyzing a broad Central America anti-intervention movement in the US.
The families of the women killed filed a lawsuit in May, 1999, naming Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and José Guillermo García responsible for the murders. On November 3, 2000, a jury in West Palm Beach, Fla., found the two Salvadoran generals not guilty under the 1991 federal Torture Victims Protection Act. García was Minister of Defense and Vides was head of the National Guard of El Salvador at the time of the crimes.
The four American women were among 75,000 to lose their lives in El Salvador during the country’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. Ford and Clarke were nuns from the Maryknoll Order in Maryknoll, N.Y. Kazel was a nun in the Ursuline Order. Donovan was an accountant before going to El Salvador.
El Salvador. It is where Ronald Reagan said he would “draw a line in the sand” against communism before it reached our very doorstep. Mounting atrocities, perpetrated by a regime that US tax dollars were propping up, outraged people of conscience in the United States – and compelled us to militant action. Tens of thousands of US activists responded immediately. We knew which side of Reagan’s line we needed to be on: on the side with those fighting for a democratic revolution.
Founded by conventions in Los Angeles and Washington, DC in October of 1980, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) grew into a powerful national grassroots solidarity organization.
El Salvador first made international headlines with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980. With growing impunity, the U.S.-backed government resorted to massacres and death squad attacks aimed at a surging popular movement attached to a small, but growing, nucleus of armed revolutionary groups.
In February 1980, when Romero heard that President Jimmy Carter was considering sending millions of dollars a day in military aid to El Salvador, Romero was shocked. Deeply distressed, he wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the United States to cancel all military aid. Carter never responded to Romero, and sent the aid.
A precursor to CISPES, the U.S. Friends of the BPR was founded in the Bay Area in the late 1970s (the BPR was El Salvador’s largest popular movement coalition at the time – the Bloque Popular Revolutionario.) The group later changed its name to Friends of the Salvadoran Revolution and members were present at the founding CISPES convention in Los Angeles.