How a Football Match Turned to All Out War Between Honduras and El Salvador

On the 8 June 1969 Honduras and El Salvador began a three-game elimination contest determining qualification for the 1970 football World Cup in Mexico.  It inflamed nationalist antipathies and precipitated a 100 hour military conflict. It took 6,000 lives, injured 12,000 and rendered 50,000 homeless. Even by the elevated standards for passion and theatre of football in Central and Latin America, this was unprecedented.

Qualification for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico - where Brazil lifted the trophy - was the spark that caused the war.

Qualification for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico – where Brazil lifted the trophy – was the spark that caused the war.

Football Rioting Turns to Military Mobilisation

In the first game in Tegucigalpa, hosts Honduras managed to snatch a 1-0 victory in the final minute of the first game. Heavy rioting was a portent of further violence to come. The return fixture, on 27 June in San Salvador, rapidly spiralled out of control. The night before the game the Honduran team’s hotel was set abaze, and after losing the game – they were understandably distracted – the players fled for the border. Although rioting, looting and arson rocked the streets, the players escaped unscathed. On 24 June, the Salvadoran government mobilized the military, and two days later declared a state of emergency. In reaction, on 27 June, Honduras broke diplomatic relations with El Salvador.

honduras-vs-el-salvador

It was clear that the final fixture, scheduled for 14 July in Mexico City, would strain a delicate peace. Before the game could start, however, the Football War had broken out.

The Background to the Conflict

El Salvador, although it gained independence from Spanish colonial rule 1821, retained a feudal tradition of landed gentry that saw 14 prominent families hold a preponderance of land, and leaving a huge peasant majority landless. It’s inelastic, one crop (coffee) economy, another legacy of colonial rule, exacerbated already rife poverty. This prompted a gradual, massive exodus of Salvadorans to less competitive areas in Honduras. Honduras was one of the poorest and least developed of the Central American countries, but it had extirpated the colonial influence to ensure a more equitable spread of wealth and land.

However, it was not without its problems. A huge peasants’ revolt in 1932 was put down by the army. Indeed political instability was a central feature of Honduran life. Although the military did not have an absolute or institutionalised monopoly on political power, it often contrived to install its preferred candidates. Popular antagonism toward a sequence of military junta saw Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales appointed President in 1957. However, in October 1963 a military cabal deposed Villeda in a bloody coup. General Lopez Arellano was installed as leader of a widely despised new junta. A poor economic situation prompted a general strike in mid-1968, and by 1969 the government was on the precipice of a major revolt.

Honduras Blames Salvadoran Migrants

The Honduran Government passed a land reform act opted to deflect criticism from itself onto the Salvadoran migrant population. At around 300,000 strong, this illegal community was a visible if largely benevolent presence in Honduran society. In January 1969, the Honduran government took heavily publicised steps to regulate the flow of immigrants crossing the common border with El Salvador, and in April 1969, announced the expulsion of all persons who acquired property without fulfilling legal requirements.

It also used the media to cultivate a hysterical, paranoid hatred immigrants. They bore the burden for wage drops and unemployment increases.  By late May 1969, dozens of Salvadorans were killed or brutalized, and tens of thousands began streaming back over the border – into an already overpopulated El Salvador. Possibilities for forced repatriation/deportation alarmed El Salvador, given the extensive demographic and social ramifications a return of 300 000 peasants would elicit. Its reaction was therefore reciprocal, with El Salvador targeting a largely fictional population of immigrant peasants from Honduras.

Most of the fighting took place in Honduras.

Most of the fighting took place in Honduras.

Early Salvador Success

Football became a vessel for militant nationalist rhetoric, and by July 14 1969 it triggered actual fighting. In the late afternoon the Salvadoran air force attacked targets inside Honduras and the Salvadoran army launched major offensives along the main road connecting the two nations and against the Honduran islands in the Golfo de Fonseca. At first, the Salvadorans made fairly rapid progress. By the evening of 15 July, the Salvadoran army, which was considerably larger and better equipped than its Honduran opponent, had forced the Honduran army into a retreat.

The Attack Stalls

Thereafter, the attack stalled, and the Salvadorans began to experience fuel and ammunition shortages. A major reason for the fuel shortage was the action of the Honduran air force, which, in addition to largely destroying the smaller Salvadoran air force, had severely damaged El Salvador’s oil storage facilities. While its army was small, and less-well equipped than Salvadoran, Honduras’ air force was in a better shape, because the national defence strategy was based on air power.

The OAS called for a ceasefire on July 15, which the Salvadorans ignored, but a ceasefire was then arranged on 18 July, taking effect on 20 July. Alongside the horrific casualty figures, the economies of both countries suffered terribly, as the trade had been disrupted and the mutual border closed. Depending on sources, between 60.000 and 130.000 Salvadorans should have been forcibly expelled or had fled from Honduras, producing massive economic disruption in both countries. It was a terrible result for both sides.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.