Military Wiki
El Salvador during World War II
Tejutepeque in 1942.
Location El Salvador
Date 1939–1945
Events The Portland Incident
– July 30, 1939
Declaration of war
– December 8–12, 1941
The Palm Sunday Uprising
– April 2–3, 1944
The Strike of Fallen Arms
– May 5–11, 1944

The history of El Salvador during World War II begins in 1939, and is marked by significant changes in almost every aspect of Salvadoran life. As result of an increased influence from the United States, which sought to unite Latin America against the Axis powers, the Salvadoran economy boomed, both the military as well as public infrastructure was modernized, and democratic ideas led to the ousting of the country's fascist dictator, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. El Salvador also played an important role in the Holocaust by granting citizenship to thousands of Jews in Hungary. By the war's end in 1945, at least 30,000 Jews escaped Nazi oppression by obtaining Salvadoran citizenship.[1][2][3]

Foreign influences

Axis influence

Maximiliano Hernández Martínez was the President of El Salvador for most of the war. A fascist dictator, Martínez was publicly and staunchly pro-Axis during the years immediately before World War II and up to 1941, when economic pressure convinced him to align his country with the Allies. According to Peter Ackerman, author of A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict, it was during the late 1930s when Martínez and his top military officers took a noticeable liking to Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini.[1][2][4] In 1936, Martínez acquired German and Italian officers to train his own military, as well as war planes from Italy in exchange for coffee, El Salvador's chief export. The first Fuhrer of El Salvador, Baron Wilhelm von Hundelshausen, acted as German consul as well as manager of the government owned Mortgage Bank. Directing the Salvadoran Military Academy was a German national, General Eberhardt Bonstedt, and the Air Force's sole aviation instructor was an Italian.[1] Beginning in 1937, German trade with El Salvador sky-rocketed to new highs while the latter gave diplomatic approval to the German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Martínez's El Salvador was also one of the first countries to officially recognize Francisco Franco's fascist regime in Spain, as well as Imperial Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo. Martínez himself admired Hitler so much that he made the dictator's birthday a holiday, and oversaw public celebrations of it. After the war began in 1939, but before El Salvador joined the war in late 1941, Martínez went as far as making it a crime to voice support for the Allied cause.[1][4] Axis sympathy in El Salvador wasn't nearly as strong outside the government and the military. In June 1940, people in San Salvador shouted insults when several hundred men dressed in black shirts staged a parade to celebrate Fascist Italy's entrance into the war, and when the Germans occupied Paris a month later, students of the University of El Salvador held a demonstration against it.[1]

Allied influence

Peter Ackerman says that, for El Salvador, "romancing the Axis did not pay" because after the beginning of the war in September 1939 El Salvador could no longer sell its coffee on the European market, which interrupted Martínez's supply of Axis weapons, and aggravated unemployment. As result, the president was "forced to tilt toward the Allies." Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, which led to El Salvador's declaration of war on the Axis powers, Martínez issued a statement criticizing totalitarianism in Europe, and he fired many of the Nazi sympathizers in his government.[1] Soon after joining the Allies, the flow of Lend-Lease aid into El Salvador eventually offset the loss of coffee sales in Europe. American loans financed road construction and public health. The United States employed more than 10,000 Salvadorans in the Panama Canal Zone, and arranged to have their wages sent back home. The Inter-American Coffee Agreement also raised coffee prices and wages.[1] Although influence from the United States boosted El Salvador's economy during the war years, it was also a "political nuisance" for the Martínez regime, because it had to respond to the new public outcry for reform that resulted from American influence. Salvadoran newspapers were filled with articles about the war, written by American and British columnists. One American observer wrote that San Salvador's El Diario Latino was able "to conduct an anti-Martínez campaign for a whole year simply by quoting phrases of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill." 2,000 people in San Vicente watched an American propaganda film and then heard an "eloquent pro-democratic speech" by a newspaper editor. Ackerman says that Martínez felt obligated to repeat the "democratic line," although his rhetoric missed the point. Catchphrases like "democracy is highways plus well-being" amused more Salvadorans than it impressed.[1] According to Ackerman, one group that "sucked up the new democratic line" was the officer corps. After an American replaced his German predecessor, Baron Hundelshausen, as head of the Military Academy in late 1941, officers in El Salvador's military were thenceforth exposed to democratic ideas. Commissioned officers, already unhappy with Martínez's dictatorship, increasingly gravitated toward the American example. Salvador Crespo Sanchez, an officer who joined the opposition in 1944, later said that El Salvador during World War II was a time when "life was full of ideals," and also when the "struggle of ideas between democracy and totalitarianism" was at its height.[1]

Growing opposition

In order to try and diffuse pressure for reform, Martínez recast himself as a populist. He gave speeches condemning the unequal distribution of wealth in the country, and said that he was on the side of the poor. Reconstruccion Social, a government sponsored organization that tried to help shoemakers find work in Panama, and held a meeting where workers discussed possible labor legislation. The Martínez regime also imposed a levy on coffee exports, a tax on excess profits, and tighter control over the Cattle Growers' Association, the Coffee Association, and the Mortgage Bank.[1]


Ackerman says that none of these measures really helped Martínez. Labor activists largely ignored his overtures, and trade unions multiplied despite continued harassment. Coffee growers grew uneasy, and some began calling Martínez a "crackpot little Indian," the first part in reference to the dictator's use of water that had been left in the sun in colored bottles for medicinal purposes. Anti-Axis organizations, ostensibly meant to support the Allied war effort, provided ideal cover for Anti-Martínez meetings. The most important of which was the Accion Democratica Salvadorena (ADS), which formed in September 1941, and its founding members included many former officials in the Martínez regime, as well as many young professionals.[1] ADS did not last long aboveground, though. By the end of September 1941, the government had enacted a new law requiring anyone who wanted to hold a political meeting to apply for a permit from the police. Because of this, ADS managed to hold only two public meetings, although members could also meet in private to discuss the best way to remove Martínez from power. More importantly, the opposition was determined to take on the government in plain sight, as well as in the shadows.[1] Some ADS members decided to prepare for a revolution, others chose to take non-violent action. Activists, for example, distributed leaflets in the summer of 1943 demanding Martínez's resignation, calling for civil rights, and asking the people of El Salvador to cease all cooperation with the Martínez regime. Workers were reminded of the Peasant Uprising in 1932 - during which the Martínez regime murdered as many as 30,000 Salvadoran natives that were accused of being communists - and told to resist the government's attempts to satisfy them with "meager handouts and halfhearted promises of reform." The leaflets were signed by groups with names like "Democratic Revolutionary Committee," and the "Workers Section of the Anti-Reelection Party," and they appeared on the streets until early 1944.[1][2]

Legal action was another weapon the opposition used to try and achieve their goals. In October 1943, 236 citizens, including most of the founders of ADS, signed a petition asking the Supreme Court to strike down a 1941 decree that outlawed political parties. The Supreme Court refused to consider it, but the incident "electrified" the Salvadoran public because it was the first time the Martínez regime had been "challenged so boldly." According to the United States naval attache in El Salvador, the petition marked the first time that "citizens of influence had come out in the open and said in effect... that they were opposed to the Administration."[1] When the petition was printed in the newspaper El Diario Latino, thousands of copies were sold before the police had time to confiscate them. The press also added momentum to the movement by running veiled attacks against the dictatorship. Quotations condemning tyranny, from people such as John Milton and Simon Bolivar, and articles attacking the pro-German regime in Argentina telegraphed disdain for Martínez without running afoul of his censors.[1] On December 11, 1943, about 400 Salvadorans took to the streets - again using the war as political cover - to show their support for the founding of the United Nations, which had recently been proposed by the Allies. Despite the presence of police and the Salvadoran National Guard, the protestors shouted slogans aimed at Martínez, such as "Death to Dictators," and "Down with continuismo" (continuation of office). A speech by a student activist was also performed, part of which follows: "Let us fight so that governments will reflect the legitimate will of the people; only thus will we live in the democratic century which is now beginning."[1] Simultaneously, the opposition started appealing to the United States for help. Alfonso Rochac, a Mortgage Bank official, gave a letter to Ambassador Walter C. Thurston, asking the United States to press Martínez into respecting the constitution, holding free elections, and observing the Atlantic Charter. In March 1944, the president of the Mortgage Bank, Hector Herrera, made a proposal to the State Department's coordinator of inter-American affairs, Nelson Rockefeller, suggesting that the United States, Mexico, and Colombia, intercede with Martínez and urge him to accept a new, democratic constitution.[1]

Government response

Martínez's response to the growing opposition was to crush it. According to Peter Ackerman, the government clamped down on the press more tightly and stepped up surveillance of suspected enemies, particularly those who had signed the Supreme Court petition. On December 20, 1943, government forces rounded up about forty people in San Salvador - including ADS members and the editor of the El Diario Latino - and arrested them, some for plotting to assassinate the president.[1] Besides intimidating opponents, the government also tried to drum up support for a new Constituent Assembly, to legitimize Martínez's bid to stay in office. A newspaper owned by the dictator claimed that over 100,000 citizens signed a petition calling for the assembly, and noisy crowds organized by the regime made the same demands. When the assembly convened in January 1944, it assumed the right to elect a president, and voted Martínez back into office - just as expected - for a new term set to end in 1949. It also revised the constitution, further eroding civil liberties, and giving the state tremendous power over the economy. At this point it became clear to the opposition that the only way to stop Martínez was to completely remove him from any position of power.[1]

The Palm Sunday Uprising

A map of El Salvador.

The unrest of 1944 began that April, when members of the ADS, backed by sympathizers in the military, attempted to overthrow the Martínez regime. The main leaders behind the coup were Augustin Alfaro Moran and Arturo Romero. Alfaro's participation was triggered by Martínez's "constitutional tricks," which enabled him to oppress his citizens and remain in office, but the source of Romero's opposition had different roots. As a medical student in Paris in the early 1930s, Romero had absorbed the Popular Front spirit of the times, and back in El Salvador pushed for a minimum wage to be established and the right for workers to organize. Ackerman says that Romero's idealism "endeared him to medical students, and his free medical treatments sanctified him among the poor."[1]

After the plotters of the coup made contact with sympathetic Salvadoran Army officers, who were plotting their own conspiracy, leaders of both the civilian and military groups met at Alfaro's estate in February 1944 to make the final arrangements for an uprising. Attending the meeting were two Salvadoran Army officers with pro-German feelings and who had played a major role in the Peasant Uprising of 1932, General Alfonso Marroquin and his half brother, Colonel Tito Calvo. They planned for the uprising to begin on Palm Sunday, April 2, 1944, just after the army was to return from Easter maneuvers.[1]

The uprising

April 2 was a still and hazy day, according to Ackerman, because many Salvadorans had left San Salvador to stay along the coast or in places outside the capital, where it was cooler. Martínez was staying in the coastal town of La Libertad at the time, and many other government officials were gone as well. Those who stayed behind attended church in the morning to receive a palm branch, which were believed to ward off common hazards like lighting. Then at 3:30 PM, a rumbling noise brought people in the southwestern part of the city into the streets. It turned out to be rebel war planes flying low over the city, and signaling the beginning of the uprising.[1] The timing for the beginning of the coup was perfectly calculated. With Martínez and the most trusted members of his administration scattered across the country, the response was slow. The rebels also had some firepower on their side, including the 1st Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Artillery Regiment of San Salvador. For the first few hours it looked as through the coup might succeed; rebel forces quickly seized some valuable prizes, including the small Salvadoran Air Force, the radio station, and the telegraph offices. In Santa Ana, the largest town in the western part of the country, the garrison joined the rebellion while crowds of citizens held a demonstration and elected a new city council.[1] The rebels, however, made poor use of their assets. For example, rebel planes trying to bomb the police headquarters in San Salvador missed their target and set nearby city blocks on fire. After taking control of the radio station, rebels went on the air and provided details of the fighting, as well as Arturo Romero's name, information government forces used against the opposition. By listening to the radio, Martínez was able to determine which units of the army were still loyal to him. He then raced to San Salvador, evading rebel soldiers who were out looking for him, and ordered all electrical transformers disabled, which blacked out the city just as the sun began to set. After that, Martínez went to Fort Zapote, an old citadel next to the Presidential Palace, where he made sure that the soldiers there would back him.[1]

On the next day, the rebel 1st Infantry and 2nd Artillery Regiments attacked Fort Zapote and were repulsed, while government forces recaptured the airfield. By April 4, it was clear that the uprising had failed. Many rebel leaders were captured, but Alfaro and Romero both managed to get away. The two men were at the radio station on Monday, April 3, when they heard that the 1st Infantry had surrendered. They then slipped out the back door and went their separate ways. Alfaro went to Santa Ana, which was full of drunken Salvadorans who were prematurely celebrating the rebel "victory." Romero hid out in the homes of patients over the next few days, before unsuccessfully attempting to cross the border with Honduras on Friday, April 7, 1944.[1]


Martínez crushed the rebellion easy enough, but his actions in the weeks following the attempted coup showed how shaken up he was. Meetings of clubs and unions were banned, and homes were searched without warning. In San Salvador, the "nights were hideously staccato with rifle fire. Platoons of heavily armed police patrolled the city. Prisoners were rounded up and herded to the police station, from which grisly tales of torture emerged." Police and government agents snooped into bank transactions and made people entering or leaving the city show a permit. Signers of the 1943 Supreme Court petition were unable to get permission to leave the city or legal papers necessary for conducting business. The government, according to Ambassador Thurston, seemed to be out to "destroy the livelihood of many of the professional classes."[1]

Journalists were another group that paid a heavy price for the revolt. Santa Ana's Diario de Occidente prematurely ran an article on April 2 announcing Martínez's abdication and his replacement by Romero, which led to the jailing of the editor. Jorge Pinto, editor of San Salvador's El Diario Latino, who was already in police custody when the uprising began, was shot by guards on April 2, and later died of his wounds. Several other journalists were either arrested or fled to safety, and all three of the capital's newspapers stopped publication for several weeks.[1]

The repression went far beyond what was necessary for Martínez to reestablish his authority. Ackerman says that it was vindictiveness that led Martínez to throw 800 San Salvadorans in prison. A war council took just a few hours to sentence ten officers to death by firing squad on the very next morning. Twenty-five other officers and nine civilians received death sentences over the next two weeks. Martínez even had the son of General Alfonso Marroquin witness his father's execution. One of the civilians that was executed was a man named Victor Manuel Marin, who helped coordinate the active fighters and the civilian planners during the uprising. Marin was tortued by government forces who wanted to get information from him. Even after breaking his arms, smashing his knee, and gouging out one of his eyes, among other heinous acts, Marin refused to talk, and had to be propped up for his own execution.[1]

International response

All of Latin America took notice of the events unfolding in El Salvador, the region's smallest country. On April 17, foreign diplomats called on Martínez to ask for lenient treatment for the rebels; petitions urging the same thing came in from the Venezuelan Chamber of Deputies, the Mexican labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano, and from a group of Latin American doctors in Baltimore, Maryland. Newspapers criticized the regime for its brutal repression of dissidents, and it even drew a protest from the world-famous poet Pablo Neruda.[1]

The United States could not ignore the matter either. President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, which ended the Banana Wars, as well as the natural disinclination to criticise an ally in wartime, dictated noninterference, but embassy staff had personal contacts with opposition leaders and appreciated their democratic rhetoric. Ambassador Thurston wrote the following: "The principal defect of a policy of non-intervention accompanied by propaganda on behalf of democratic doctrines is that it simultaneously stimulates dictatorships and popular opposition to them." Thurston, who was against a policy of non-intervention, continues by saying that "dictators who seize or retain power unconstitutionally not only impair our moral leadership but foment the belief that our democratic professions are empty propaganda and that we are simply guided by expediency."[1]

Soon after, Thurston was tested by the Martínez regime when Colonel Tito Calvo and another officer arrived at the embassy requesting asylum. Thurston allowed the officers to enter, but he refused to grant them asylum. That same evening, Thurston spoke with Martínez and agreed to turn the men over, after getting the assurance that Calvo and the other officer would receive lawful treatment. However, Calvo and his comrade were among those executed on April 10, 1944. According to Ackerman, that was the "last straw" for Thurston.[1]

Renewed resistance

Within two weeks after the failed uprising, Martínez once again seemed untouchable, but the ambitious scope of the plan revealed that leading Salvadorans were willing to endanger their own lives in order to remove the president. Moreover, the president's brutal reaction alarmed other Salvadorans who before had only been onlookers. The American military attache in El Salvador said that "market people, shop keepers, and [other] civilians" were decrying executions and torture. Even among government officials still associated with Martínez, doubts about his capacity to govern were growing. An employee of the American embassy reported that the Salvadoran finance minister had criticzed the post-coup repression, and other ministers harbored misgivings. The diplomat concluded that "a feeling of apprehension, doubt and fear is developing among the ranks of the President's followers... not only because they feel the President's position is... vengeful and likely to prove ruinous to all interests, but also because these men... are beginning to think of their own personal and economic safety in the event that the Government is... overturned."[1] According to Ackerman, if renewed resistance against the regime could be mounted, the opposition might find fresh support in unexpected places. But first new leaders had to be found, because the instigators of the Palm Sunday Uprising were either dead, in jail, or on the run. For years, student groups had done all the political organizing, and students had been key players in the anti-Martínez leafletting the previous year. When classes resumed after Easter break, news that the rebel leader Arturo Romero had been captured galvanized the students. Romero, after hiding out for a few days, attempted to cross the Honduran border disguised as a laborer, but he was discovered and attacked by guards with machetes. He was then put in a hospital in San Miguel to recuperate before facing a court of law, which almost certainly would have sentenced him to death. In San Miguel, sympathetic doctors delayed pronouncing Romero fit to travel, because they new he would most likely be executed as soon as he recovered.[1]

The Strike of Fallen Arms

General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in 1940.

As Romero lay in the hospital, the university students worked out a plan to challenge the government. They quickly came to the conclusion that violence was not the answer, because Martínez was an experienced military commander who could always win on the battlefield, and because they did not want to give the dictator an opportunity to kill anyone else. As result, the opposition came up with the idea for a non-violent popular movement, which before the uprising had been disregarded. The movement, which became known as the Strike of Fallen Arms, called for people of all Salvadoran social classes to simply stop everything; stop going to school, stop working, and most importantly, stop cooperating with the Martínez regime. The strikers would stay at home and keep their arms fallen at their sides, hence the name.[1]


A number of strike leaders emerged, including Castillo and Jorge Mazzini of the law school, Raul Castellanos from the engineering school, and Mario Colorado from the school of pharmacy. Two different groups directed the student movement. One consisted of about forty delegates elected from the departments. The other was a smaller central committee, which circulated a public leaflet on April 19. "We are not in a position to provoke a revolution," said the leaflet, "but there are other methods, which however unlawful they may be, could be considered honorable and praiseworthy... We are fighting with an astute and sagacious man... then to this astuteness and sagacity let us oppose ours, which because it is that of an entire people... will now take by force that which has been usurped, ITS LIBERTIES."[1]

The Strike of Fallen Arms was set to begin on May 5, 1944. However, spreading news of the strike was a significant task that had to be accomplished. One way in which the opposition spread the news was by distributing leaflets, each of which bore the request that the reader copy the message ten times and further distribute it. Secretaries obliged because they could easily copy the leaflets on typewriters, and children were used to distribute the leaflets in the streets. According to Ackerman, the children "flaunted the seditious sheets before the police, and dared them to make an arrest." Students were involved in the leafletting, of course, but they also reached outside of their professional circles to other people, such as railroad workers and Palestinian and Chinese shopkeepers.[1][2]

Once the idea "caught fire," the students received a substantial amount of help. Market women went around to shops and persuaded the owners to close up. A bank manager even offered money to anyone who joined in the strike. In spite of the help, the strike leaders recognized that individual enthusiasm alone would not be enough to shut down San Salvador, let alone the rest of the country. If the strike was to succeed, it would have to expand on its own accord, which meant that it had to be disruptive enough to effect the lives of all the people in El Salvador. To do that, the opposition would have to shut down establishments like banks, drugstores, and train stations, which would force everybody to take notice and decide whether to side with Martínez or the movement.[1]

The strike leaders also recognized that people could only strike for only as long as they could afford to. This meant raising money to support the strikers when they ran out of money of their own. Some initial funds came in from the students, but soon funds were flowing in from off campus as well. Especially helpful were Hector Herrera, the president of the Mortgage Bank, and Roberto Alvarez, a coffee magnate. $20,000 was reportedly collected within thirty minutes at the Club Salvadoreno.[1]

The strike

The movement picked up steam as soon as the students began boycotting classes and refusing to go to work in the last week of April. Law students stayed away from the courts where they had to attend sessions, while engineering students refused to report for work at the government agencies that employed then. Hospital interns began to stay at home, as did school teachers, and after the general strike began on May 5, secondary school students also walked out.[1]

One of the striking students was José Napoleón Duarte, who would become president of El Salvador forty years later in 1984. "I became directly involved in the student movement against General Hernández Martínez," Duarte later wrote in his autobiography. When university students went to his high school and asked for delegates to a coordinating group, he became one, attending meetings that were raided by the police. "To escape once," Duarte wrote, "I raced down into a ravine, leaped a fence and landed on spiny thorns, tearing my clothes and my skin... The day of the general strike, our committee set out to create a disturbance at the school to force the suspension of classes... The strike was successful. No one went to school that day..."[1]

As the strike grew, the Martínez regime floundered. One official reported that none of his colleagues saw the strike coming, and they had no idea what to do. The president's top officials were now lined up against any sort of violent repression. Although orders had come down at the end of April to arrest student organizers, the police had done nothing more than detain a few people caught with leaflets. Some policemen went to private homes to try and force strikers to go to work, but others were plainly ambivalent. Some police officers even sympathized with the strikers and did their best to help organizers avoid arrest.[1]

Even if the police had been eager to crush the resistance, it would have been difficult to do so immediately, simply because it was expanding so fast. The regime seemed content with sitting it out and waiting until the strikers had to go back to work out of necessity. With the hopes of defusing some of the tension, the government announced that it was releasing all the prisoners that had been taken after the failed uprising, and also attempted to discredit the strike by saying it was a movement of rich and powerful men who neglected the needs of the poor.[1] None of this, however, stemmed the strike's momentum or erased the anger caused by the recent executions or the longer history of arbitrary rule by Martínez. The Salvadoran elite was now concerned that if Martínez was not stopped, the killings would continue. Trepidation about throwing off the regime was outweighed by fear that anyone might meet a firing squad. And for many people outside of the elite, the threat to the life of their hero, Arturo Romero, had become a goad to action.[1]

Soon Romero's fellow doctors entered the movement, just as the student organizers hoped. They had their own grievances against Martínez, who had ordered the dismissal of several doctors suspected of subversive activities. Luis Macias, the director of the public hospital, called a staff meeting on May 2, and he and the doctors drafted demands. They would strike, they declared, unless all death sentences were commuted and an amnesty proclaimed, the doctors were reinstated, and "democratic principles" were honored by the government. Martínez received the demands personally, and had them burned while Macias looked on.[1]

On May 5, 1944, 135 doctors, out of a total of 150 in San Salvador, walked away from their jobs. Sixty of them then signed a new statement calling for Martínez's resignation and the holding of free elections. Emergency clinics remained open, in case of any bloodshed, and some doctors continued to see a few patients; "the rich paid through the nose," reported William Krehm, "the poor only nominally, and the proceeds went into the strike fund." Also walking out by May 5 were lawyers, pharmacists, and bank, railroad, and electric-utility employees. Hundreds of civil servants also followed suit, and the Sanitation Department announced that it would suspend all nonessential activities. Already on strike were dentists, engineers, technicians of the Public Health Service, and theater employees.[1]

Not everyone joined the strike with such great fervor, though. Some Palestinian and Chinese shopkeepers, apparently, were reluctant to close up because they feared reprisals. One of the student activists, Jose Colorado, threw stones at the windows of shops whose owners wanted an excuse for closing. Others kept their doors open, but they refused to sell goods. Many working-class people also held back, since the strike threatened to cut off desperately needed wages and exposed them to retaliation. Railroad engineers, for example, told Fabio Castillo that they would not join the movement unless they were paid their salaries in advance, and provided with safe houses for their families. Yet enough San Salvadorans of all classes participated for the strike to be remembered, decades later, as a display of popular unity against Martínez. "Even the thieves were on strike," recalled one participant.[1]

Because the strikers were not interested in confronting government troops and causing more bloodshed, street demonstrations were therefore left out of the strategy. The strikers did, however, organize a meeting on the night of May 5 at the Church of the Rosary downtown, to mourn for the victims of the regime. A large crowd formed, and when the mourners learned that their mass had been banned by the government, they dispersed accordingly. But, instead of going home, they went to persuade more business owners to close up shop.[1][2]

Also on the night of May 5, strikers gathered at the home of Hermogenes Alvardo and elected a National Reconstruction Committee, which included five representatives: one student, one physician, a Mortgage Bank attourney, a commercial employee, and one retired general. On the following day, the committee came up with a list of demands, while offering Martínez a guarantee of safety and suggesting that he leave the country. The opposition, Ackerman says, was now organized and flexing its muscles.[1]

While the regime still had not yet done anything to quell the opposition, neither did it show any signs of yielding. Martínez addressed the nation over the radio, hailing those who had stayed at work, and accusing the strike leaders of trying to "sow panic in the different social classes." One the next day a leaflet announced the formation of the "Worker's Anti-Revolutionary Committee," and Martínez called on business owners to open their doors. The dictator, Ackerman says, who had so recently aroused great fear, was now reduced to beseeching his people to do what he asked, and ordering his men to avoid confrontation with the strikers.[1]

The Wright killing

Overall, there was little in the way of bloodshed during the strike, mainly because both sides were interested in avoiding confrontation. However, when bloodshed did occur, it was not because the regime had ordered it. On May 7, 1944, a nervous police officer opened fire on a crowd of youths who had gathered in the street. Seventeen-year-old Jose Wright, who belonged to a prominent Salvadoran family, and whose father was an American citizen, was killed on the spot. Thousands showed up at the family home to pay their respects and again at his funeral the next morning.[1] The shooting, although tragic, was an opportunity for the strike leaders. Still uncertain about whether their goals would be achieved before the strike began to simmer down, they had thought about how to get people out onto the streets to force a moment of truth, and the Wright killing did exactly that. Following the funeral, thousands of San Salvadorans flooded into the Plaza Barrios, which were just outside the building where the National Assembly and government officers were housed. The people were full of wrath, and the strike leaders had a difficult time restraining people from storming the complex. Also, the National Guard soldiers patrolling the plaza didn't do anything to provoke the crowd, and so there was no violence.[1]

The United States was also concerned, but not to the point of intervention. Ambassador Thurston asked Martínez if it was possible to find and punish the officer responsible for the shooting, but there was no response other than that. Thurston's request convinced many that the United States would step in to oust Martínez, but it was not to be.[1]


The killing of Jose Wright proved to be a catalyst for change in the Martínez regime. Most of the president's ministers met on the night of May 7 and decided that they had to resign, because they feared renewed violence that would result in more deaths. Indeed, on the next morning the army chief of staff informed Martínez that his forces were ready to clear the streets. However, the resignation of his ministers forced Martínez to the realization that all was lost, and that he had to resign as well.[1]

On the following morning, Martínez began the process of negotiating the terms of his resignation with the strike leaders. Martínez wanted to remain in office until the end of the month, and also have the National Assembly - an organization he dominated - choose his successor. The National Reconstruction Committee countered by presenting Martínez with a list of for men to choose from, but after another hour or so a fifth name was added, General Andrés Ignacio Menéndez. Menéndez was the minister of war and supporter of Martínez, but he was mild mannered and known for his integrity. He wasn't very ambitious either, so he no doubt looked appealing after so many years under the brutal Martínez. The committee, one member later claimed, also managed to extract promises that the new president would lift the state of siege, declare an amnesty, an allow exiles to come home.[1]

Martínez insisted on stepping down at the end of the month, until a member of the opposition warned him that "there would be a great deal of bloodshed" if he did not leave immediately. Members of his cabinet also prodded at him to leave, and so, for whatever reason, Martínez announced over the radio at 7:00 PM that he was resigning. On the next morning, the National Assembly passed the presidency to Menéndez, who promised constitutional reform and speedy elections. The National Assembly also granted an amnesty for those accused of political crimes.[1]

Students were not yet ready to end the strike, however, not until Martínez had left the country, and they were unhappy with the new cabinet, which included only one person associated with the National Reconstruction Committee, Hermogenes Alvardo. Menéndez promised that Martínez would be gone the next day, and so the strike was ended on May 11, 1944. Shortly after noon that day, Martínez crossed the border with Guatemala and never came back.[1]


According to Perter Ackerman, El Salvador's triumph over tyranny proved to be ephemeral. The return of democratic rule did not bring stability and thus was short-lived. The military was unwilling to give up their power, and the coffee growers were unwilling to expose their interests to the vagaries of democratic politics. Therefore, the chaotic political situation during the rest of the decade gave way to the reconsolidation of the alliance between the military and landowning elites who were determined to forestall any genuine democracy. There was a brief period of political openness, and Alfaro and Romero, the chief plotters of the Palm Sunday Uprising, became the leading players in trying to consolidate civilian government before the elections in January 1945. But the resolve that Romero and his supporters used to achieve genuine reform split the coalition that had ousted Martínez.[1][2] In October 1944, a coup led by the commander of the National Police, Osmín Aguirre y Salinas, seized power from Menéndez. The opposition mounted another non-violent resistance for the next several weeks, and when it failed they left for Guatemala to prepare for an invasion. That December the rebels attacked El Salvador from across the Guatemalan border, but they were "handily defeated," according to Ackerman. Aguirre's administration didn't last long though either, and he was disposed of as well during another coup in March 1945, and forced to flee into exile in Honduras.[1] A new kind of military rule ensnared El Slavador in the decades following World War II: The intensely personal command of a single military dictator was replaced by collective and institutional control. But the government still wore a uniform, and the aroma of coffee fortunes still infused economic life. Beginning with the presidency of Major Oscar Osorio in 1950 and Lieutenant Colonel José María Lemus in 1956, the country suffered under a series of authoritarian rulers, tempered only slightly by decent economic growth.[1][2]

The 1960s saw a series of military coups and rapid population growth which failed to match that of the economy. Increased corruption, repression, and a growing shift to export crops at the expense of domestic food consumption resulted in increasing unrest. The 1970s saw growth in both nonviolent resistance - led by progressive Catholic clergy, trade unionists, students, and peasant organizations - against the military government, as well as an armed resistance by a coalition of Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups, which became known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Killings of oppositionists by government forces and allied right-wing death squads also grew dramatically.[2]

The Holocaust

At the beginning of World War II and during the years immediately before, more than a few Latin American countries were ruled by fascist governments that looked upon dictators like Hitler and Mussolini with admiration. Likewise, the population throughout much of South and Central America had a largely anti-Semetic attitude. In El Salvador, General Martínez banned all Jewish immigration into his country in 1939. He made an example out of the German ship SS Portland, which arrived in El Salvador on June 30, 1939, with a load of Jewish refugees. The refugees had each paid $500 for Salvadoran visas in Budapest and Amsterdam, but upon arrival, the visas were declared "fraudulent" and the refugees were forced to return to Germany.[3][4][5] In spite of all this, a Salvadoran diplomat named Colonel José Castellanos, and a friend named George Mandel-Mantello, helped save at least 30,000 Hungarian Jews from Europe. Castellanos was El Salvador's consul general in neutral Switzerland since 1942, and Mantello was a Romanian refugee and business partner of Castellanos. Mantello did not speak Spanish, and he had never set foot in El Salvador, but Castellanos went ahead and made him First Secretary of the Salvadoran Embassy in Geneva. It was at this time Mandel adopted the name "Mantello," because it was more Spanish sounding.[3][5][6] Mantello first used his new position to publicize Nazi atrocities, and began offering citizenship to Hungarian Jews. Castellanos embraced Mantello's efforts and convinced the Salvadoran government to go along with the plan. In Budapest, tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews were able to obtain Salvadoran citizenship papers free of charge. These were crucial for escaping the Nazi concentration camps. It was around this same time that Mantello's entire family, excepting his son, who was with his father in Switzerland, were deported from Hungary and killed in concentration camps.[3][5]

Although the certificates themselves granted some form of protection, Castellanos' and Mantello's biggest triumph was convincing the Swiss and Hungarian governments to extend protection to the new Salvadoran "citizens" in Hungary. Suspicious of the arrangement, the Swiss government conducted a lengthy investigation, during which Castellanos repeatedly claimed that Mantello was a legitimate official. In the beginning, Mantello, with Castellanos' full support, issued citizenship certificates only to people he knew and involving names provided by Jewish organizations, but later on the operation was expanded for all Jews.[3][5]

Due to Castellanos and Mantello, El Salvador was the only country that offered nationality rights to Hungarian Jews on a massive scale during World War II.[3]

See also


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