This story originally aired on April 20, 2019.
Back in the early 1980s, many people in El Salvador wanted an escape from poverty. They were trying to get the government to adopt policies that would redistribute that country’s wealth.
To the United States, these policies looked like communism.
Fear of communism possibly spreading so close to the U.S. inspired speeches such as one by Ronald Reagan in 1983.
“Central America’s problems do directly affect the security and the well-being of our own people,” he said at the time. “We cannot afford to lose sight of our neighbors to the south. El Salvador is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts.”
A civil war broke out in El Salvador. On one side, there were the “leftist guerrillas” and “freedom fighters” demanding change. On the other, the Salvadoran government and military wanted to maintain status quo.
The U.S. sided with the latter.
Here in the Northwest, professor Angelina Godoy runs the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights. One reason the war went on for more than a decade, she says, was because the U.S. helped bankroll the Salvadoran government's campaign.
“This overblown fear of communism led the Salvadoran government heavily supported by the U.S. to engage in a series of scorched earth campaigns, often times against people that had nothing to do with armed revolution.”
Godoy said troops destroyed entire villages, killing livestock and destroying homes and crops, ensuring people could never return to live in their communities again. When the war finally ended, the United Nations estimated that 75,000 civilians lost their lives.
Over the past 10 years, Godoy and a group of dedicated students have been filing hundreds of freedom of information requests with the U.S. government. They’ve combed through thousands of pages of documents, trying to piece together what actually happened during that war.
Godoy talked with Sound Effect host Gabriel Spitzer about this work, and why she believes it’s so important to uncover the truth about a war that many Americans have forgotten.
“To this day, not one person has been held accountable in a court of law for ordering these horrendous crimes against humanity, despite the fact that everyone knows they happened,” Godoy said.
Listen to the full conversation above.