El Salvador’s Captured Peace
The locals don’t call it peace. In El Salvador, they call what the United Nations has lauded as one of its major peacebuilding successes “not war.”
And by anyone’s calculation, what is happening today in this Central American country cannot be considered remotely peaceful. More than 6,600 people were murdered in El Salvador in 2015. At a homicide rate of nearly 105 per 100,000—more than 17 times the global average—El Salvador now bears the grim title of murder capital of the world.
“One of the problems that really puzzled me is that El Salvador is considered to be one of the most successful cases of UN peacebuilding,” says Christine Wade, associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College. A specialist in the international and comparative politics of Latin America, she’s also the curator of the Goldstein Program in Public Affairs. “The way we measure success in peace processes is about recidivism—did the war recur? El Salvador is durable in the respect that we have more than two decades of peace. The conflict has not resumed. It doesn’t even appear likely to resume. But El Salvador is not a country at peace. You can’t have the world’s highest homicide rate and call yourself a peaceful place.
“My hope was that in going to back to the peace process I might be able to determine how we went from this idea of having a successful case to something that is really not that successful in terms of the quality of peace.”
Wade has been working and researching in El Salvador since the late 1990s, just a few years after representatives of the government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed the Chapúltepec Peace Accords, which the United Nations had negotiated for more than two years. The accords formally ended the country’s 12-year-old civil war that had killed more than 75,000 Salvadorans and displaced a million more. They also represented the first major success by the UN in its peacebuilding efforts.
In the late 1990s, Wade says, “A lot of people were optimistic about the peace process and how well things seemed to be going.” But when she returned in 2004, she noticed a darkening mood, and two years later “things just seemed to be getting palpably worse—definitely more polarized.” Even after 2009, she says, when the FMLN finally won the presidential election, and ARENA—the governing party since the accords were signed—ceded the presidency, “there was still something very unsettled about El Salvador.”
In Captured Peace Wade wanted to look at the peace process from a fresh angle—that of how elites with the advantage of incumbency influenced the peace process from the very beginning. “From the moment when they set the agenda for what they were going to negotiate, through implementation, the process was completely controlled by economic elites,” she says. She also expanded the concept of regulatory capture to develop a framework for the idea of a peace captured by the oligarchy that ruled El Salvador before, during, and after the civil war to illustrate “what happens when entrenched elites capture a peace process and use it for their own objectives.”
“We tend to let local elites off the hook in our criticisms of peacebuilding—that they’re just pawns in this international game—but that’s not true. They’re actually quite powerful,” she says. “Local elites are the ones who invite the peace process in, they’re the ones who set the terms by which the peace will be negotiated. They’re in charge of implementing the agreements. In El Salvador, the party that negotiated the peace of course remained in power 20 years, being re-elected until 2009, and during that period they were able to manipulate processes to do enough to secure peace but not enough to really transform society, which was the whole goal of peacebuilding.”
As a result, entrenched power, political corruption, militarization, and lack of social and economic reform simply serve to continue as a form of “path dependence,” a cultural and political inertia that becomes increasingly resistant to fundamental change.
Héctor Lindo-Fuentes, professor of history and Latin American studies at Fordham University, says of Captured Peace: “There is no other book like this on the market … It would not surprise me if, after reading this book, scholars working on postwar El Salvador adopted the phrase ‘captured peace’ to refer to the period.”
“Those who study El Salvador closely recognize more deeply the limitations of the peace accords in transforming its politics, economics, and society,” says Michael E. Allison, associate professor of political science at the University of Scranton. “This book does a fabulous job explaining how the peace accords failed in several important ways primarily because of the intransigence of local elites.”
Wade hopes that future peacebuilding initiatives will learn from the mistakes in El Salvador. She is watching with particular interest the negotiations in Colombia, where a new peace deal could be signed as early as this month. Last October, more than 34 million Colombians registered to vote in regional elections that would choose those who will implement a peace agreement. “I think we can look back and see some tools that would have been helpful to mitigate the ability of elites to basically capture the process,” she says.
Wade writes a monthly column about Central American politics for World Politics Review. You can access her columns here: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/authors/1103/christine-wade
Captured Peace was published in January 2016 by the Ohio University Press as part of the Ohio University Research in International Studies series.