Document created: 31 August 04
Air University Review, March-April 1970

SalvadorHonduras War, 1969

The Soccer War

Jay Mallin

An idyllic view of Latin America shows twenty or so somewhat similar countries living in peaceful proximity to each other. Revolutions, yes; wars, noor so goes the popular concept. Wars are for Europe and Asia, not for neighborly Latin America.

The fact is, however, that Latin America has been the site of a number of bitter conflicts, several of which have resulted in large numbers of casualties. The Chaco War, the War of the Pacific, the Paraguayan War, the Peruvian-Ecuadoran Warall of these were international conflicts that disturbed the hemisphere.

The year of 1969 saw the outbreak of a new conflict, this time in a somewhat unexpected place. The little countries of Central America had been seeking to bind themselves closer through their common market, and the trend toward international agreement was often cited as a model of what future cooperation in the rest of the hemisphere could be like. And then, suddenly, there was war. Two small nations, El Salvador and Honduras, were at each other’s throats in a very real conflict.

The conflict between El Salvador and Honduras has come to be known as the “Soccer War,” but hostility long predated the soccer games which helped spark the war. Honduras, with a population of 2,333,000 people, occupies 42,300 square miles. Salvador, with over 3,000,000 inhabitants, occupies only about 8000 square miles. Its population density of 400 persons per square mile is second only to Haiti’s in this hemisphere. Inevitably, Salvadorans have spilled over into Honduran territoryan estimated 300,000 of them. Most of these are campesinos who have industriously tended plots of land in previously undeveloped areas. They did well, and so did those who found jobs in Honduran factories. Resentment against them, however, developed among Hondurans, particularly in rural areas. Adding to the ill-feeling between the two countries was the fact that certain sections of the border have never been clearly defined.

Various attempts had been made to control the problem of immigration by agreements between the two countries. The latest of these, a two-year accord, expired in February of 1969 and was not renewed. A further aggravating factor was passage of an agrarian reform law by Honduras, which began taking land away from some of the Salvadorans.

Such was the background when teams of the two nations met for a soccer match in Tegucigalpa on 8 June 1969. Salvador lost by a score of 1-0. However, the point was made in overtime, and Salvadorans felt they had been cheated. This became practically a point of national honor. When the Honduran team came to San Salvador for a return match, feeling was running so high that a Salvadoran security unit hid the team at a secret place outside the city before the match. There was rioting in downtown Salvador, and three persons were killedall of them Salvadorans. Before the game, played on 15 June, Salvadoran police searched all spectators, confiscating liquor and weapons. There was booing, perhaps some pushing, but nothing serious developed. Salvador won 3-0.

As the Hondurans headed back to their own country, a number of their cars traveling through smaller Salvadoran towns were hit by rocks. Windshields were smashed. Salvadoran President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez deplored the acts of violence and blamed “communist and subversive elements.”

Honduras, however, was not content to let the incidents go by without retaliation. Exaggerated reports were circulated, and rumors claimed that the Salvadorans were holding Honduran prisoners. For three days, Salvadoran stores and shops selling Salvadoran goods were attacked in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the attacks spreading into interior areas. A flow of refugees began moving into Salvador, sometimes as many as 1400 per day. They told tales of la mancha brava (roughly, the angry stain), disorganized groups of hoodlums who terrorized them. The mancha types would say “Catracho [a small animal], get out” and then return to burn their houses if the Salvadorans did not flee. There were incidents of rape and of murder. Many of the Salvadorans took heed, hurriedly sold their properties at low prices and fled to their homeland in cars, buses, and afoot. A reliable estimate was that over 17,000 refugees crossed the border. (Not all the blame could be placed on the central Honduran government. It apparently is able to exercise only loose control over local commanders.)

As the exodus of refugees continued, the situation between the two countries steadily became worse. Border skirmishes flared. Demonstrations were held. The Salvadoran Council of Ministers charged that “the crime of genocide” was being committed by Honduras. The President of El Salvador charged the Hondurans with “outrages,” and the President of Honduras protested “the abuses committed against so many innocent Hondurans.” Salvador broke relations with Honduras; Honduras broke relations with Salvador.

A few days before the break, Salvador won a playoff match 3-2, the winning point being made on overtime. The match was prudently played in Mexico City.

On 3 July, a small Honduran plane made an incursion into Salvadoran territory near the town of El Poy. On 14 July, during the morning hours, a second incursion occurred in the same area, this time by three fighter aircraft. They may have made strafing runs.

At 1700 that day, Salvadoran Corsairs, F-51 reconditioned Mustangs, and C-47s with bomb-adapted wings struck Tegucigalpa’s airport, Toncontin, which is utilized by both civilian and military aircraft. Salvadoran planes also struck at El Poy, Amapala, Choluteca, and Santa Rosa de Copán. The Honduran Air Force had the edge over Salvador’s Air Force, and the raids were intended to reverse that situation.

The Salvadorans did not succeed. Early the next morning, Honduran warplanes (T-28s, F-51s, Corsairs) hit Ilopango, the San Salvador airport, which is also used by both military and commercial aircraft. A taxiway was damaged as well as an old hangar, and one bomb fell on a car in a parking lot in the civilian sector.

Honduran planes also struck at the refinery and industrial complex at the town of Acajutla, Salvador’s main port. The refinery remained intact; only storage tanks were hit. Dud bombs hit the piers, doing no damage.

The third target area for Honduran aircraft was El Cutuco, in La Unión, the major port for the importation of petroleum. Five of 17 storage tanks were destroyed. The port area itself was not damaged.

There were unconfirmed reports of dogfights. One Honduran Corsair did land at Aguilares, in El Salvador, either because of damage or because it ran out of gas. In addition, one Salvadoran F-51 and one Honduran Corsair landed in Guatemala.

Hours after the Salvadoran planes struck Honduras, Salvadoran troops crossed the border and invaded the neighboring country. There were two primary attack areas. The Salvadorans moved up from the border town of El Poy and captured Nueva Ocotepeque. On the easternmost frontier, the Salvadorans captured Goascorán and advanced about half a dozen miles.

In lesser incursions, the Salvadorans took the towns of San Juan Guarita, Valladolid, and La Virtud (along the north central border), as well as Caridad and Aramecina (on the eastern border). They also sent in two pincers towards Cabañas (northeast Salvadoran border) but were unable to take the town. Salvadoran troops also crossed the border east of Nueva Ocotepeque, moved north and captured La Labor.

Outwardly, there was not much difference between the Salvadoran and Honduran armies. Both numbered approximately 5000 men; both were equipped with World War II-vintage American weapons. Neither side had heavy equipment in the way of tanks or artillery.

In the air, Honduras had definite superiority, a 2.5-to-1 edge. This enabled the Hondurans to retain control of the skies throughout the conflict, once it had started.

On the ground, Salvador’s troops seemed to have an edge in organization and fighting ability. Rough terrain in Honduras may have been an added factor in delaying the establishment of effective positions by the Honduran forces. The Honduran Presidential Guard, about battalion size, is considered to be that country’s best military unit. Near the end of the conflict, Salvadoran newspapers reported that this unit had staged a counterattack and been repulsed. Whether these reports were true or not, the Salvadoran army generally maintained the offensive.

A Salvadoran newspaper carried the banner headline, “Salvadoran Army Advance Unstoppable.” There was proud talk in Salvador that this tiny country had become “the Israel of Latin America.” It appeared that the cocky Salvadoran army might drive forward from the captured towns of Amatillo and Goascorán and attempt to take the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

There were, however, important factors and influences that pointed toward an end of the war. The Salvadoran army was victorious on the ground, but the Hondurans controlled the air. Salvadoran planes were concealed under trees, the location of Salvadoran command posts was kept tightly secret, and Salvadoran troops on the move scanned the skies, ready to leap to shelter when and if Honduran aircraft should appear. The capital city of San Salvador was totally blacked out every night.

Both sides were running short of ammu­nition. Perhaps the Salvadoran commanders had not fully understood the logistics problem, or else they had planned on only a brief campaign. In addition, the Honduran attacks on Salvador’s petroleum supplies had been strategically sound. The country began suffering a shortage of gasoline, which would eventually force the army to come to a halt. Three days after the raid on the petroleum supplies at Cutuco, one of the burning tanks exploded, setting fire to five more tanks.

Both El Salvador and Honduras requested United States assistance. Both were turned down.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States brought heavy diplomatic pressure to bear on both governments in an effort to effect a cease-fire. The United States was represented in El Salvador by Ambassador William Bowdler, who had had previous experience in helping to bring peace to the Dominican Republic after the 1965 civil war. For the OAS, Guillermo Sevilla Sacasa, Nicaragua’s Ambassador in Washington and dean of that city’s diplomatic corps, headed a peace commission that moved back and forth between Tegucigalpa and San Salvador, seeking to end the conflict.

The peacemakers evolved a four-point program: cease-fire, troop withdrawal, protection for citizens of both countries, and OAS supervision of both troop withdrawal and citizen protection. Honduras was amenable to these points; Salvador only partially so. The Salvadoran government was split between its own version of hawks and doves. The hawks wanted Honduras to pay reparations for the mistreatment of the Salvadorans who had had to flee that country, and they talked of holding a 30-kilometer strip of Honduran territory until Honduras paid. The doves, including some military men, knew the war effort was exhausting Salvador and that the army was running into logistical problems.

The OAS set a 72-hour limit for the withdrawal of Salvadoran troops―since no Honduran troops were on Salvadoran soil―after a cease-fire had gone into effect. Salvador protested that it could not pull out its forces within that time. The OAS extended the time limit to 96 hours.

Salvodoran President Sanchez Hernandez went on a national radio and television hookup and stated that his country would accept a cease-fire but would not withdraw its troops until “satisfactory and effective guarantees are given to our compatriots.” The Apollo moon landing had occurred a few days previously, and Sanchez Hernandez declared, “How is it that a man can walk with safety on the moon and cannot do so, because of his nationality, on the prairies of Honduras?”

The warring countries agreed upon a cease-fire, and this went into effect at 2200 on 18 July. The conflict had lasted just five hours over four days. OAS military observers arrived and moved out to the border areas in order to enforce the cease-fire, and OAS human rights officials began looking after the safety of Salvadorans in Honduras.

Salvador, however, continued to resist withdrawing its troops. Salvador’s Foreign Minister told Ambassador Sevilla Sacasa, “It hurts us in El Salvador that now you [of the OAS] want to watch the clock, when during the time when Salvadorans were persecuted and insulted, the OAS did not want to see the calendar, much less the clock.”

The time limit set for the withdrawal of troops passed, and still Salvador did not pull back. The OAS increased its pressure, there was talk of applying sanctions, and finally the order went out to the Salvadoran troops to withdraw to their own territory.

The war between El Salvador and Honduras was a short war. It was no less a war for that. Men died, property was destroyed, refugees abandoned their homes.

The war showed―if this needed new proving-―that conflicts are not necessarily waged by large countries. Tiny countries get mad, too. The danger in this particular conflict was that the war, if it had continued, might have spread beyond the two countries. Nicaragua, favoring Honduras, possibly would have entered the conflict, and other countries might well have followed. Enmities run deep in Central America.

The OAS structure is based on a concept of friendship; it prides itself on Good Neighborliness. Yet the fact remains that there are significant disputes and rivalries between some of the member countries. Arms races in these countries may seem largely unnecessary to Washington, but several countries are sincerely concerned about their neighbors.

The lesson of El Salvador―Honduras 1969 was plain: it can happen again―on a much larger scale.

Coral Gables, Florida


Jay Mallin (B.A., Florida Southern College), is a Research Scientist at the Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami. He began his journalistic career on Cuba’s Havana Herald, while serving as correspondent for the Miami News, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine. While in Cuba he covered the revolution, 1956-58, and was one of the few American correspondents there at the time of the Bay of Pigs. In 1965 he covered the uprising in the Dominican Republic, and he made two trips to Bolivia during Ernesto CheGuevara’s guerilla movement. In 1969 he covered the Salvador-Honduras War for Time. Mr. Mallin is author or editor of Fortress Cuba, Caribbean Crisis, Terror in Viet Nam, and Che Guevara on Revolution.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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