Early one morning in El Salvador’s provincial capital of San Francisco Gotera this past March, the crack of a gunshot—or something that sounded like one—echoed over the deserted cobblestone streets. Harry Mattison, the former Time magazine photographer who worked here during the civil war, blanched and stopped dead in his tracks.
“All of a sudden, you hear a bang and time collapses,” he said.
These days the entire country, the smallest in Central America, may be experiencing a similar sense of the past stalking the present. Only three days earlier, Mattison had been in San Salvador’s Sheraton Hotel for the victory speech of Mauricio Funes. The presidential candidate of the former guerrilla forces, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which has been a political party since the war’s end in 1992, Funes, forty-nine, had just ended the monopoly on power held by the right for much of the country’s history. Hundreds of small red flags with a white star, an icon of the war, fluttered through the audience.
Nearly three decades have passed since the start of El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, a vicious conflict that killed 75,000 people, but with the ascension to power of the FMLN, that past has risen once more to the surface. Indeed, the civil war was a constant undercurrent during the presidential campaign between Rodrigo Ávila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA party (founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, the organizer of the death squads), and the FMLN’s Funes, a former journalist whose older brother fought with the leftists and was killed during the conflict.
The war in El Salvador was the last great showdown of the cold war. Concerned about a domino effect in Central America at a time when Nicaragua had already fallen to the Sandinistas, the U.S. government in the 1980s poured money into the coffers of the right-wing junta despite its association with the paramilitary death squads that terrorized the civilian population with a campaign of kidnapping and murder.
For journalists like Mattison, the war—during which it was common to find bodies with their hands tied behind their backs strewn along the highway stretching from the airport to the capital—was especially brutal. “I think it was one of the worst stories one could cover,” said Bernard Diederich, Time’s former bureau chief in the region. “You’d go out in the morning and do the body count, before or after breakfast, but better before… It was mad.”
The gallery of photographs on this site represents the work of six American and French photojournalists who were present during the earliest days of the conflict. For this generation of photographers, El Salvador would prove the most lethal story of its time—according to the Journalists Memorial in Washington, D.C., even more deadly than Vietnam.
The killing kicked into high gear in 1980. The Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated during a Mass on March 24. His followers, who had gathered at Cathedral Square, were then gunned down, with dozens killed. Perhaps even more outrageous to the American public was the rape and murder of four American nuns on December 2, 1980. Photographs of the unearthing of the bodies, including those taken by Susan Meiselas (some of whose pictures are presented here), provoked such an outcry that then-President Jimmy Carter ordered a freeze on funding to the junta.
Shortly after, in the face of the impending inauguration of Ronald Reagan, whose policies on Central America were known to be hawkish, on January 10, 1981, the FMLN launched its “Final Offensive,” intended to rouse the population to topple the government. Though ultimately doomed, the offensive initially made great strides, particularly in the northeast province of Morazan, where guerrillas overran the provincial capital of San Francisco Gotera.
Two days after the start of the operation, Meiselas, John Hoagland, a photographer for Newsweek, and Ian Mates, a South African cameraman, set out in a car heading north from San Salvador. While riding on a dirt road, they hit a land mine. All three were injured, Mates with a serious head wound. Hoagland ran for help. But by the time the three managed to return to the capital, it was too late to save Mates.
The following day, Meiselas and Hoagland were visited in the hospital by some of their colleagues, including Mattison and Olivier Rebbot, a thirty-one-year-old French freelance photographer working for Newsweek. In the face of successes by the FMLN, President Carter reinstated funding for the government on January 14. Undeterred by the danger, in the early morning of the following day, Mattison and Rebbot, along with photographers Murry Sill from the Miami Herald and French shooters Alain Keler and Benoit Gysembergh, headed north from San Salvador.