Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

The War NOT Over Soccer

A 50 Year Perspective on the Forgotten and Little Understood Conflict

Few people remember the July 14 to 18, 1969 war when El Salvador invaded neighboring Honduras, causing mass destruction, death and suffering.  Despite its name, the ‘Soccer War’ was not a spontaneous event that flared after a soccer match. The war was a planned event with objectives involving many bad actors in a drama that claimed thousands of lives. In the 100 hours of brutal conflict 2,100 Honduras and 900 Salvadorians were killed in urban and mountain warfare and in aerial bombings deep inside Honduras.
 
Fifty years later there is little knowledge and even less understanding why this seemingly senseless war took place. The conflict is mostly ignored in Honduran schools and there are very few references to it in Honduran media. The sad fact is that those who don’t know their own history are bound to repeat it. 

Gs overnments need enemies in order to rally the common people behind them and if the governments don’t have an enemy, one often has to be conjured up. This worked perfectly in football-obsessed El Salvador and Honduras, countries with internal conflicts over land, jobs and just a goal away at making their debut at the 1970 Football World Cup in Mexico.

The excuses for the war were also multiple: proud Salvadorians perceived mass expulsions of their compatriots as offensive. Hondurans were sold the idea that El Salvador had desires of expanding their territory to the Caribbean coast. The mistreatment of football players and fans in Tegucigalpa and in San Salvador added to the dented pride of both countries. Then there was the dispute of Honduras and El Salvador over several mountain border areas and two islands in the Gulf of Fonseca.

There is a likely a plot within a plot, within a plot.

Paya Magazine went through declassified State Department documents at the United States National Archives seeking what and who caused the ‘Soccer War.’ We tried to determine who knew what and what was the motivation behind actions of the many players involved in the war. This is what we found out.

THE BUILD UP

In 1969 the population of Honduras and El Salvador was a third of what it is today. Honduras was five times the size of overpopulated El Salvador, while it only had only 2.6 million inhabitants compared to El Salvador’s 3.7 million. Since the 1930’s a steady trickle of Salvadorians moved across the border, farmed and took on jobs. All-in-all as many as 20% of people living in Hondurans were Salvadorians.

Another player with a stake at protecting their interest were the American fruit companies accustomed at dominating Central American politics and protecting their investment since the 1900’s. United Fruit Company owned 10% of land in Honduras and average farmers found it difficult to compete.

In 1966 United Fruit created the Federación Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos de Honduras (FENAGH: National Federation of Farmers and Livestock-Farmers of Honduras) to protect its land holding interest by putting pressure on small farmers and Salvadorians. FENAGH also put pressure on Honduran president, Gen. Oswaldo López Arellano, to protect wealthy land owners and expropriate land owned by Salvadorians and squatters.

In 1967 a ‘Land Reform’ law took effect allowing the Honduran central government and municipalities to take over land farmed illegally by El Salvadoran immigrants and redistributed it to native-born Hondurans. Prior to the war breaking out, around 20 thousand Salvadorians laborers and migrant workers were expelled, leaving behind broken families and raising tension and sabre rattling in El Salvador.

Both El Salvador and Honduras were led by military strongmen used to using violence as a political tool. Honduran president Oswaldo Enrique López Arellano took power in a violent 1963 coup and stayed in power until 1971. President of El Salvador was Fidel Sánchez Hernández (in office from 1967 – 1972) was also a ruthless army general. Neither one of these men steered away from a fight or underhanded politics.

In his undergraduate thesis from Notre Dame University, Chris Newton argued that El Salvador’s land shortage was “artificial” and induced by concentration of land by elites… therefore, land monopolization and the primary cause of the Soccer War.

The US knew that El Salvador was to invade Honduras the evening before the war.

In June and July 1969 Americans were trying to figure out what was driving the escalation of the conflict and their best assessments came from Nicaragua’s spies in the Salvadorian government. The State Department confidential 937 summarized Somoza’s spy take at what were the real reasons behind the push for war. “Sol [spies’ pseudonym] believes there is likely a plot within a plot, within a plot, in Salvadorian-Honduran difficulties. According to Sol’s thesis, as Somoza tells it, Sanchez’s ‘leftist advisors’ pushed Sanchez to invade Honduras and overthrow [Honduran president] Lopez.”

The Salvadorian Press played a vital role in stirring up anti Honduran sentiment in months and weeks prior to the war. On June 27, the US Embassy chief of mission toured El Amatillo near the border and the ambassadors interviewed some of what they estimated was around 700 refugees. The refugees accused Hondurans of burning of property, beatings and harassment. Photos of well-dressed, European-looking handsome Salvadorian “crisis actors” posing as distressed refugees made front pages of Salvadorian newspapers.

Department of State declassified documents also indicate that US officials were under the impression that the refugee’s testimonies were exaggerated or faked. “All thought the torture and rape stories were mighty unconvincing. They all believed as I did that the refugees fled out of fear, threats of violence, lack of protection, and a general feeling that they were unwanted,” wrote US Ambassador to El Salvador William Bowdler about his and three visiting the border ambassadors.

It is very important to convince the public to go to war and be ready to die for reasons they don’t fully, or just barely understand and Salvadorian media was doing everything to stir up emotions and hatred.

In months and days prior, and even during the war, both El Salvador and Honduras desperately were looking to beef up their arms cache. “On 17 July, Rpresentatives ofFirst National City Bank, New York, inform us Central Bank of El Salvador has requested confirmation two letters of credit, totaling $1.3 million in favor of German arms manufacturers,” wrote in State Department telegram on July 17.

According to State Department documents on July 15, “Diario Las Americas editor [Horacio] Aguirre provided an unconfirmed report to the US embassy that “Nicaragua plans to deliver military hardware, especially ‘tanks,’ to Honduras this evening.” Thanks to agent influence planting in operation Mockingbird, CIA had plenty of informers in different branches of US military, academia and American press.

Declassified Secret 771 Department of State telegram informs that Panamanian National Guard shipped rifles and ammunition to El Salvador prior to the commencement of war. A confidential report No. 591 referred to reports that there was no truth to an Israeli ship bound for El Salvador with arms had been stopped in Panama Canal on July 18. While El Salvador received the bulk of new arms, there was strong evidence that Nicaragua supplied Honduras with weapons and ammunitions in the last 24 hours of the conflict.

In addition to having Nicaragua as a source of arms, Honduran military went to the Miami mob to purchase arms for their troops. “Local bank sources (..) tell us in strictest confidence that 7.5 million arms purchase in being acquired on “U.S. black market” and cargo flight reportedly being arranged Miami for today,” wrote Jean Marie Wilkowski Deputy Chief of US Mission, on 16 July, 1969, in 765 telegram Tegucigalpa Embassy.

Honduran military went to the Miami mob to purchase arms for their troops.

There was a collusion of El Salvador’s private,military and governmental interests. One such example was in a conversation recalled by Roatan resident Erick Anderson. “Archie Baldocchi, El Salvador’s Aeroclub President, asked me if I could provide some badly needed parts for P-51 Mustang fighter. And that ‘we’ will be happy to compensate me well,” said Anderson about the conversation that took place in the weeks preceding the war. Anderson, a Roatan resident since 1960s, back then was a 27-year-old Central America Sales Manager for Cessna. His job took him to meet government officials all over Central America.

The tensions between the two countries hit a crescendo during the 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier. In June 1969, Honduras and El Salvador met in a two-leg 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier. Hondurans kept the Salvadorian Team awake by chanting and making noise in front of their Tegucigalpa Hotel all night. There was fighting between the fans and the June 8 match ended up with Honduras winning 1:0.

In a rematch on June 15, Salvadorians burned the Honduran flag at the stadium and delivered more violence. Salvadorians took home a 3:0 victory, but a deciding playoff match was scheduled for June 27 in Mexico City. Playing in the Azteca stadium, El Salvador prevailed 3-2 in extra time.

After the final football match, things continued to turn for the worse. The Honduran government exacerbated tensions by continuing the expulsion of as many as 11,000 Salvadorians and El Salvador severed diplomatic ties, stating that Honduras had “done nothing to prevent murder, oppression, rape, plundering and the mass expulsion of Salvadorians.”

While the abuses suffered by Salvadorians were exaggerated and the tempers just kept on rising. “(…) British Ambassador, the Brazilian Ambassador and Monsignor Cassidy of the Papal Nunciatura. All thought the torture and rape stories were mighty unconvincing. They all believed as I did that the refugees fled out of fear, threats of violence, lack of protection, and a general feeling that they were unwanted,” read a June 27 State Department report from El Salvador. The stage and pretext for invasion was set.

The Salvadorian military began military operations prior to the official break out of the war. First clashes took place on Thursday morning (July 10) when “forty armed Salvadorian civilians entered Santa Ines, near Goacoran in Valle department, committing various acts of pillage especially robbing food.” There was shooting which frightened villagers. Police (ces) chased Salvadorians away,” reads the State Department confidential 634 from July 13.

The White House was kept informed of the escalating conflict. DNSA Memorandum from a telephone conversation between President Nixon and Kissinger on July 14 states: “K (Kissinger) said the Salvadorian Ambassador said it is a matter on national honor that they do something. They are afraid there will be a coup. They have a very unruly army,” said Kissinger, National Security Advisor to President Nixon.

The US knew that El Salvador was to invade Honduras the evening before the war. A confidential declassified Telegram from the Embassy in Managua to Washington from 13 July 1969 said that “Sol advised Somoza on behalf of President Sanchez that Salvador had decided to invade Honduras.” Somoza called the US embassy’s Crockett at 7pm to say this.

It wasn’t going to be a very big war – just a little shot here and a little shot there,” said Kissinger.

What is even more surprising is that the US and others not only knew that the war was going to break out, they knew how long it was going to last. This is confirmed by a recorded conversation between Henry Kissinger and Charles Meyer, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs from 1969 to 1973. “Let me tell you what the Salvadorian Ambassador said. He said it wasn’t going to be a very big war – just a little shot here and a little shot there,” said Kissinger at 1pm, July 14.

THE WAR

Salvador moved into Honduras days and weeks before doing reconnaissance and moving artillery pieces in strategic places inside Honduran territory. On July 14, almost 30,000 Salvadorian troops began an all-out assault on Honduras in three ground war theaters: Chalatenago, Northern, and the Eastern front.

The larger and better equipped Salvadorian troops made quick gains following two roads into Honduras. The fighting also took place in the wooded mountains, villages and towns of southern Honduras. After brutal urban fighting, Salvadorians managed to take the town of Nueva Ocotepeque, the capital of the Ocotepeque Department.

While the Bay Islands were unaffected by the war, today Roatan is home to one veteran of the war: Adolfo Cruz, 68, of Los Fuertes. Cruz is fit, energetic with a tough gaze and ready to talk about the conflict that shaped him. In 1969 Cruz was an 18-year-old serving in La Ceiba. When the war broke out his unit was transported on busses to the front line in Ocotepeque. “We arrived on the scene at 2pm on July 15,” remembers Cruz. The Second Military Zone had 80 soldiers and was commandeered by Captain Santiago Rojas Vasquez.

While the Bay Islands were unaffected by the war, today Roatan is home to one veteran of the war: Adolfo Cruz, 68, of Los Fuertes. Cruz is fit, energetic with a tough gaze and ready to talk about the conflict that shaped him. In 1969 Cruz was an 18-year-old serving in La Ceiba. When the war broke out his unit was transported on busses to the front line in Ocotepeque. “We arrived on the scene at 2pm on July 15,” remembers Cruz. The Second Military Zone had 80 soldiers and was commandeered by Captain Santiago Rojas Vasquez.

According to Cruz, he participated in especially intense fighting around San Rafael de las Matare. “The Salvadorians had newer rifles, better equipment,” says Cruz. “We fought in close combat, shot from 100-200 meters.” At the end of three days eight of his unit’s soldiers were killed, 10% of the entire squad.

Honduran troops did the best with little they had. The radio communications were easily intercepted by the enemy and Hondurans came up with an idea. “When US used Navajo code talkers to communicate in World War II, we used Garifuna talkers,” says Cruz. According to Cruz, the unit’s Garifuna cooks Bartolo and Jose, were assigned to the radio and communicated with other Garifuna radio operators in the Honduran military.

This was not a war about football, the football match was just a pretext

“This was not a war about football, the football match was just a pretext,” says Cruz. “The Salvadorians wanted to take three Honduran departments of Cortes, Copan, Santa Barbara and Ocotepeque. Cruz says that Salvadorian General Chepe Medrano made statements that Salvadorian troops would have lunch in San Pedro Sula and dinner in Puerto Cortes.

The conflict exposed the widespread and extremely large malversation that was taking place in the Honduran Military for many years. “We had 9,000 troops fighting, but on the books, we had 18,000,” says Cruz. “Our commander would get money for salaries and upkeep of 200 soldiers, but there were only 80 of us there. Every year he would have a brand-new car,” remembers Cruz.

While Honduras lost ground in the first 72 hours of the war, its ally to the south was getting extremely concerned and threatened to aid the struggling neighbor. “Somoza says he is convinced that if cease-fire does not become effective by 5 a.m. Honduran resistance will collapse and chaos will follow unless Honduras is provided emergency material assistance,” read the July 18 communiqué No. 183 from the US State Department.

There was also daily combat in the skies over Tegucigalpa and later El Salvador. The Salvadorian Air force used passenger airplanes as bombers to drop explosives on Tocontin International Airport and other targets. Tegucigalpa and other large cities were blacked out. For every Honduran soldier to die, 10 civilians were killed.

“They turned DC-3 into bombers and threw out bombs out the passenger doors,” said Anderson about the El Salvadorian air force. “Some exploded and many did not.” According to Anderson, Charlie Mathews, an American businessman living on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa had a Salvadorian bomb land right in his back yard. “It was a dud,” said Anderson. Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and many other Honduran cities observed blackouts because of Salvadorian air raids and bombings.

Yet it was the Honduras air power bombing that was impressively accurate and damaging. Honduran Air force bombed Ilopango airbase on July 16 and Honduran bombers attacked Acajutla Port, setting El Salvador’s main oil storage facilities on fire.

While the air force of both countries used WWII era equipment, they managed to score some impressive feats. It was the last time in military history that piston-engine fighters fought each other in combat. The first aerial dog fight took place in 1913 during the Mexican civil war and the last one just south of there. Incidentally, Dean Ivan Lamb, the pilot involved in the first air dog fight, helped to establish the Honduran air force in 1921.

One of the more spectacular military feats in Honduran history took place on July 17. While Salvadorian Mustangs flew south of Tegucigalpa, Honduran Captain Edgardo Acosta Soto was flying a Corsair. Captain Soto shot down three Salvadorian planes that day, a no easy feat. Salvadorians were furious. Before his death in 2008 Capt. Soto explained that Honduran fighters were fighting on their own terrain that was much more varied and mountainous compared to that of El Salvador. That is what gave Honduran pilots a tactical advantage.

One of the concerns the US State Department had was that the Central American press had given more attention to the Salvadorian crisis than the Apollo 11 build up to “moon landing” broadcast. “Media coverage Honduras-El Salvador conflict heavy, almost equaling that for Apollo 11,” wrote in 904 Telegram from San Jose, Costa Rica on July 17. People of Honduras and El Salvador were gripped in the much more primordial struggle of warfare and survival and did not focus on America’s great publicity stunt.

After much pressure by the Organization of American States, at 10pm on 18 July the suspension of hostilities was announced. Just as scheduled by Kissinger, it was a little war: less than 100 hours and “just” thousands killed. Another victim was the Central American unity and free trade opportunities that were developing at the time. After blocking El Salvador’s access to the Pan-American Highway, Honduras practically withdrew from the Central American Common Market (CACM) and suspended its activities for 22 years.

When the tempers came down, this forgotten by most conflict protected Banana Companies land interest in Honduras and provided a backdrop for a series of military coups in El Salvador and Honduras. Military governments both in Honduras and El Salvador consolidated power and justified their rule.

Captain Soto shot down three Salvadorian planes that day.

THE AFTERMATH

Good fences make good neighbors and the El Salvador- Honduras border dispute, dating to XVIII century, appeared to be solved in 1993: 436.9 square kilometers. The disputed land was divided into six contested pockets, or bolsones and islands of Meanguera and El Tigre in the Gulf of Fonseca. The decision awarded 300.6 square kilometers to Honduras, and 136.3 to El Salvador. Even more importantly ICJ ruling assured Honduras’s free passage to the Pacific Ocean.

As the borders shifted, around 10,000 Salvadorans ended up in Honduras and 4,000 Hondurans in El Salvador. Out of 32 islands in the gulf of Fonseca, only three are recognized as Honduran. The International Court of Justice ruled that Honduras held authority over the island of El Tigre, and El Salvador over the islands of Meanguera and Meanguerita. Still, the conflict lingered on.

In December 2012, El Salvador agreed to a tripartite commission of government representatives from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua that was to take care of territorial disputes through peaceful means. Yet in March 2013 letters between Honduras and El Salvador threatening military action were exchanged. Keeping the tensions alive between Honduras and El Salvador has its value.

Wars are indeed useful. Wars distract us from seeing problems at home and focus our anger at “an enemy” across the border. We are told to look for enemies within, but we don’t realize that the government itself does not have our best interest at heart. Therefore, the government itself could be more dangerous than anyone abroad.

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