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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - El Salvador : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - El Salvador : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. It is bounded on the south by the Pacific Ocean and has no Atlantic Coast. El Salvador shares borders with Guatemala on the west and Honduras on the northeast.

The national terrain is characterized by two volcanic ranges running approximately west to east separated by broad valleys like that of the Lempa River. This is located in what was once a traditional Lenca territory. The fertile valleys are now dominated by large-scale agricultural enterprises.


Main languages: Spanish

Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant/Evangelical)

Main minority groups: indigenous (Pipil, Pocomam, Lenca) (1%, CIA 2007)


The majority of present day Salvadoran society consists of mestizos who are mainly of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent.

While it was never a major centre of indigenous urban civilization, Spanish colonialists on arrival found a sizeable indigenous population. Many died during the conquest.

As in other territories there was a mixing of Spanish and indigenous groups beginning in the 16th century, which created the prevailing mestizo mainstream.

With the development of cotton, indigo, and sugar plantations in the early 17th century, many indigenous villages were destroyed, their lands seized and the inhabitants forced to farm and work on these plantations.

As in other Spanish colonial territories enslaved Africans were also brought to El Salvador to work in the forced labour enterprises and eventually became absorbed into the mestizo mix. Their historical presence has never been officially acknowledged in a society that does not recognize ethnic diversity. Nevertheless the genetic legacy can still be determined by the appearance of distinctive hair texture and darker skin tones in some members of the population as a whole as well as within marginalized indigenous groups.

The concentration of land in the hands of a small, Spanish-descended landowning elite has been at the root of the conflict faced by the country at different times during the twentieth century. The last census of indigenous Salvadorans, was conducted in 1930. It showed a population of 80,000, or 5.6 per cent of the total. However in 1932 between 10,000 and 50,000 people were systematically killed by the government of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martínez following an abortive uprising. During 'The Matanza' (massacres) as it was called, anyone wearing indigenous dress or having indigenous physical features risked being deemed guilty of participating in the uprising and murdered.

In the face of this repression, most of the remaining indigenous peoples adopted Spanish customs and assimilated into the general population; this was the virtual end of a distinctive indigenous culture. However, apart from the small numbers of indigenous communities that still remain, many of the Salvadoran poor continued to identify themselves as descendants of the original inhabitants in talking about 500 years of oppression.

It is noteworthy that the leader of the 1932 uprising who was ultimately arrested and executed was named Martí. It is his name that was preserved in the title of the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional) the leading opposition group whose anti-oligarchy guerilla forces fought against the Salvadoran military during the 1980-1992 civil war.


Though the Salvadoran government officially recognizes the existence of the indigenous population in the form of specially constituted state institutions, discrimination against them is both by default as well as unofficial practice.

The present Salvadoran Constitution does not make specific provisions for the rights of indigenous peoples, or for their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, or use of natural resources. Furthermore El Salvador does not maintain official records of the indigenous population or include such a category in the census.

The largest organization dealing with indigenous issues in El Salvador is the Centre for Cultural Affairs (CONCULTURA). It is the only public organization overseeing indigenous affairs in the public sector (Ministry of Education).

In 1955 the state established the Indigenous Affairs Unit of the National Council for Culture and Arts to work for the recognition of and to provide support to Salvadoran indigenous peoples and organizations. The unit has mainly been concerned with basic cultural issues. Since 1988, the most significant activity has been related to preserving and disseminating the Nahuatl language.

In 1998 the Ministry of Education with the support of CONCULTURA and the National Indigenous Salvadorian Coordinating Council (CCNIS) instituted a program for the 'Revitalization of Nahuat-Pipil language' including texts. As of 2006 this has only been promoted in five schools in the department of Sonsonate and no efforts have yet been made to include indigenous culture and language within the regular national curriculum.

CCNIS is a non-government organization that represents at least 11 of the 18 existing indigenous organizations. It includes grassroots organizations at the community level, which influence and determine levels of acceptance and cooperation with incoming programs.

In the larger context, it was not language rights but pressures on the land and widespread poverty that were the causes of the country's second major conflict, during the 1980s. The army, financed, trained and backed by the USA, waged a war against the FMLN guerrillas for twelve years, during which 80, 000 people lost their lives. However, since the peace accords were signed on 16 January 1992, land issues have continued to be a source of tension.

El Salvador's peace accords have not resolved the causes of the armed conflict. The country remains one of the most unequal in the region, ranking 0.54 on the GINI index. Over 40 per cent of its population lives in poverty. Dollarization of the country's currency system, introduced in 2001 and a shrinking agricultural sector have increased pressure on the economy where 60% of the workforce is employed in the service sector.

Nearly 17 per cent of the national income is derived from foreign remittances sent by the 20 per cent of the population that lives abroad. Human rights violations have continued in the post-war era and the growth of organized crime, youth gangs and vigilante squads has been a reminder of the failure to dismantle the structures of repression, as well as to address broader issues of social and political inequality.

Despite a growing cultural consciousness, the situation of the Pipil, Pocomam, Cacaopera and Lenca seem to be tied to the fate of the Salvadoran population as a whole. It is unlikely that questions of indigenous rights can be solved unless the land question and social disparities in the whole country are settled more equitably.

In 2001 a Multisectoral Technical Committee that included indigenous representatives was set up to comprehensively examine the sociocultural problems of the country's indigenous peoples. With help from the World Bank the Committee completed an indigenous profile of El Salvador that contained information on the history, skills, knowledge, and incidence of poverty This was followed in 2004 by a Social Capital Assessment also sponsored by the World Bank However as of mid-2006 there has been no follow-up on the recommendations made in either of these studies regarding steps needed to improve the quality of life of indigenous people.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The indigenous people of El Salvador continue to be chronically impoverished and lack adequate education housing and health facilities. Most eke out a marginal existence as the poorest of the poor through subsistence agriculture mostly in hard to reach remote mountainous areas that lack proper housing and basic services The municipalities with the highest numbers of indigenous peoples, are notably among the poorest in the country.

Discrimination against the indigenous population is an informal yet widespread social practice. Being indigenous in El Salvador is perceived by some key elements of the society as a mark of 'poverty', 'ignorance' and 'backwardness'. In some municipalities doctors and nurses are accused of mistreating, refusing to care for and/ or delaying treatment of indigenous patients until the end of the day.

While not targeting the indigenous population specifically, general human rights conditions within El Salvador have been improving slightly since 1992. At that time the government began implementing policies to ensure better treatment of individuals, and to recognize past human rights abuses by the military and police.

Nevertheless due to the prevailing social environment and the lingering memory of the 1932 Matanza indigenous people have found it difficult to organize or mobilize as an identity group. Should this ever occur it is more likely to be linked to the larger problem of the national rural poor.

Some small steps aimed at gaining recognition are increasingly being taken. In August 2005 Salvadoran indigenous groups in conjunction with the local human rights commission organized a peaceful demonstration. This was in an effort to be recognized as an indigenous people who still exist in the country and for official recognition by the state of ILO 169.

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