1979: El Salvador cathedral bloodbath

At least 18 demonstrators have been killed and many wounded after police opened fire on anti-government protesters outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador.

The protest in the Central American country was organised by the left-wing group known as the Popular Revolutionary Bloc.

People started screaming and running to the church but many were hit before they could get there

Ken Hawkins, eyewitness

Witnesses said the steps of the cathedral were littered with bodies. Freelance photographer Ken Hawkins told the Los Angeles Times there had been no warning from government forces before the shooting started.


“There was a continual burst of very heavy fire for about two and a half to three minutes,” he said. “People started screaming and running to the church but many were hit before they could get there.”

The left-wing group is currently holding a number of hostages at French and Costa Rican embassies in the city. The Costa Rican ambassador, Julio Esquivel, was released yesterday but France’s ambassador, Michel Dondenne, and seven others are still held hostage.

It is demanding the release of five of its leaders but the military government, under Gen Humberto Romero, claims it is holding only two.

Fifty years of violence

Violent clashes between police and protesters are an all-too-familiar sight in El Salvador.

Trouble peaked some 50 years ago when a peasant revolt, in protest of the abject poverty many were forced to live in, led to the killing of 30,000 people and came to be known as La Matanza (the Slaughter).

Two years ago, Gen Romero came to power in what was widely regarded as a rigged election.

Anti-government demonstrators gathered in the capital’s main square and were fired on by government troops who killed about 50 people. Since then, left-wing groups such as the People’s Revolutionary Army have carried out murders and bombings killing dozens of policemen.

Crowds scramble towards the cathedral entrance as police open fire

Crowds scramble towards the cathedral entrance as police open fire

Graphic footage of the shootings

In Context
Altogether 24 people were killed in the cathedral shootings.Later that year, Gen Romero was ousted in an army-led coup.

During the 1980s, El Salvador was ravaged by a bitter civil war between right-wing government “death squads” and leading left-wing group FMLN.

The war left around 70,000 people dead but it also precipitated important political reforms.

In 1992 a United Nations-brokered peace agreement ended the civil war, but no sooner had El Salvador begun to recover than it was hit by a series of natural disasters.

The most notable of these was Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and a number of earthquakes in 2001. These left at least 1,200 people dead and more than a million others homeless.



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