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Hotspot – El Salvador

Salvador Sánchez Cerén has been President of El Salvador since 2014 Salvador Sánchez Cerén has been President of El Salvador since 2014 Ivalin
24 Aug
2018
Klaus Dodds looks to El Salvador's past to explain how it can haunt the geopolitical present

It is easy to think that geopolitics is preoccupied with the immediate and even the future. The past, however, has a way of reminding us that geopolitics carries with it legacies and traces that continue to haunt the present.

A good example of the past acting as a spectre is an intriguing case involving the disappearance of an ambassador, a former rebel turned president and a supreme court judgement. The kidnapped official was a South African diplomat called Archibald Dunn, the politician is President Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador and it is the Central American country’s supreme court that has handed down a challenging decree.

In November 1979, Dunn, then the South African ambassador, was kidnapped outside the country’s embassy. It was a brazen act by the so-called Popular Forces of Liberation (PLF), which then became part of a coalition group called the National Liberation Front. The PLF was a left-wing group caught up in a civil war against the military government of El Salvador. The civil war was brutal and thousands died and disappeared over a period of 12 years. Hostilities formally ended in January 1992.

The Dunn kidnapping came early on in the civil war, and coincided with a severance of diplomatic relationships with the South African government. Dunn was a veteran of El Salvador, having been posted there in 1973. He had also survived a previous attempt to kidnap him. Dunn’s importance lay in the type of country he represented – the apartheid government of South Africa was detested by leftist groups around the world. To complicate matters, the military government of El Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with South Africa a few days before the ambassador’s disappearance.

While Dunn was kidnapped, the PLF demanded not only a ransom of $20million but also that its group’s manifesto be published in over 100 newspapers around the world. The negotiations continued for months, with hope expressed that the ambassador might be released alive. These hopes were dashed the following year when the PLF announced that they had killed the ambassador sometime in October 1980. Despite his diplomatic status, Pretoria never negotiated directly with the PLF.

The PLF blamed the South African government and the Dunn family for not making more effort to reach all their financial demands. Apparently $2million was handed over to the rebels but it was nowhere the original figure demanded. Notably, while press attention was high for the Dunn case, the then military government and left-wing rebels were involved in a series of less publicised killings across the country.

As with other Central American countries at the time, El Salvador was involved in ‘dirty wars’, where innocent civilians were caught up in mayhem. Cold War regional geopolitics made things worse. US president Ronald Reagan’s administrations (1981 to 1989) supported right-wing military governments, while the Soviet Union and Cuba assisted left-wing resistance groups (usually framed as terror groups by the US). Around $4billion was given to the El Salvadorian military by the US in its efforts to prevent a ‘communist takeover’. Oliver Stone’s film Salvador (1986) dramatised some of the endemic violence through the privileged perspective of a US photographer trying to flee the country.

While Salvador was dramatic fiction, this violent past is still very much part of everyday life in El Salvador. The court has just ruled that the former rebel leader and now president must testify in open court about the disappearance and murder of the South African ambassador. The Dunn family brought the lawsuit. President Cerén is going to be reminded, whether he cares for it or not, that he once used to go by the nom de guerre of ‘Commander Leonel González’. Elected in a divisive contest in March 2014, Cerén’s presidential staff has downplayed his role in the PLF and asserted that he was a trade unionist at the time.

The Dunn family understandably are eager to know where he died and whether his body was buried close by. Presidential compliance is not likely to be forthcoming. The president might just continue to deny he was a high-ranking members of the PLF. His supporters claim that the legal action is really part of a plot to discredit the image of the president. If he refuses to cooperate then the country’s political representatives will have to decide what legal consequences might follow.

The sad reality is that Dunn is part of a long list of some 8,000 missing persons presumed murdered by either rebels or military death squads who were never returned to their respective families. But unlike many El Salvadorians, Dunn’s family petition is a reminder that the legal process might yet deliver some closure, even some small measure of justice for at least one family affected by the long and horrible civil war.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the September 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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