El Salvador: An early example of peacebuilding

A voter casts a ballot in San Miguel, El Salvador. Since the end of El Salvador’s armed conflict, UNDP has helped rebuild democratic institutions to promote peacebuilding.
A voter casts a ballot in San Miguel, El Salvador. Since the end of El Salvador’s armed conflict, UNDP has helped rebuild democratic institutions to promote peacebuilding. © Milton Grant / UNDP

The armed conflict that raged in El Salvador from the late 1970s through the 1980s ended in 1992 with the Chapultepec Peace Accords. In the ensuing years, UNDP helped to rebuild institutions and address the underlying causes of post-conflict societal violence.


  • The armed conflict in El Salvador cost 75,000 lives, left almost a million people displaced and provoked a mass migration out of the country of an estimated one fifth of the entire population.
  • It has been estimated that half a million weapons are circulating in El Salvador, approximately half of them are legal.
  • In the arms-free municipalities project, the data showed a reduction of 49% in lethal violence and of 24% in criminal acts committed with firearms.

Despite this progress, the consolidation of democratic governance remained impeded by persistent challenges. These included a fragile human rights protection system; an outdated electoral system; a highly polarized political culture; a cumbersome, centralized state apparatus; and a lack of capacities to negotiate and resolve social conflicts.

As of 2003 UNDP began developing a greater understanding of the widespread social violence, identifying a variety of factors, including weak institutions, the after effects of civil war, the easy availability of weapons, psycho-social factors, cultural patterns and international organized crime in narcotics and arms trafficking. Although this diagnosis highlighted many facets of the violence, programmatic responses focused on the most visible manifestation: firearms.

UNDP supported strengthening the legal framework for arms control and the administrative mechanisms for implementing it. Some projects addressed the issue at a national level, while others tested approaches on a pilot basis at a local level.

One of UNDP’s greatest contributions has been to inform the national debate on violence with research, operations testing and participatory discussion. A UNDP study on firearms and violence in El Salvador was critical to the Government’s formulation of proposals to amend existing firearms laws and regulations. The study involved 70 researchers, 35 supervisors and police data on 80,000 crimes.

Although these interventions have not had a quantifiable impact on violence at a national level, they provide frameworks that have been nationally adopted. In the municipality of San Martin, a 49 percent reduction in lethal violence and 24 percent decrease in the number of criminal acts committed with firearms was tied to the UNDP Arms-Free Municipalities pilot project.

Since 2005, 30 municipalities have been implemented bans on weapons, directly affecting over two million and a half population. Throughout these bans some control plans have been implemented, increasing forfeiture of legal and illegal weapons.

By February 2011, local homicides in the San Salvador metro area had dropped by 19 percent, robberies by 78 percent and gun injuries by 68 percent.

Lessons Learned

Post-conflict transformations take a long time: Even after the cessation of armed conflict, underlying social tensions complicate political, judicial and administrative processes. Decades — not three to five year project cycles — are the expected time scale for sustained transformation.


Strategic visions matters: UNDP’s focus first on institutional capacity building for democratic governance, and later on endemic violence, reflected a correct prioritization of issues.


Flexible implementation is essential: The programme developed across a variety of projects, at both national and local levels. While each project was self-contained, they complemented and reinforced each other.


The importance of partnerships: UNDP’s resources are modest and must be complemented by other donors, whose support brings different experience and political support to a sensitive process.