Thousands died and were displaced in the Football War of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras – a bloody conflict still remembered today.
A 90-minute match ended 2-2 at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium. El Salvador and Honduras went head-to-head for the third time in as many weeks; qualification for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was on the line.
The first leg was won by Honduras 1-0 in their capital Tegucigalpa, but El Salvador won 3-0 at home in San Salvador. Both games were marred by violence. Mauricio “Pipo” Rodriguez slid the ball past Honduran goalkeeper Jaime Varela in the 11th minute as the deciding match entered the extra period.
I thought it was impossible to draw with them with so little time left,” Rodriguez says, 50 years after the crucial match. But, with that goal, I was confident we would win.”
3-2 was the final score for El Salvador. The players exchanged a hug, hands were shaken, and they left the pitch. It didn’t take long for their countries to be at war.
The 100 Hour War
An idyllic view of Latin America shows twenty or so somewhat similar countries living in peaceful proximity to each other. Revolutions, yes; wars, no―or so goes the popular concept. Wars are for Europe and Asia, not for neighborly Latin America.
However, Latin America has been the site of several bitter conflicts, several of which have resulted in large numbers of casualties. The Chaco War, the War of the Pacific, the Paraguayan War, and the Peruvian-Ecuadoran War were all international conflicts that disturbed the hemisphere.
The year 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 future cooperation in the rest of the hemisphere.
And then, suddenly, there was a football war. Two small nations, El Salvador and Honduras, were at each other’s throats in a genuine 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 football war. Honduras, with a population of 2,333,000 people, occupies 42,300 square miles.
El Salvador And Honduras
Salvador, with over 3,000,000 inhabitants, occupies only about 8000 square miles. Nevertheless, 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 territory―an estimated 300,000 of them. Most of these are campesinos with 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 that certain border sections have never been clearly defined.
Various attempts have been made to control the problem of immigration by agreements between the two countries. However, the latest of these, a two-year accord, expired in February 1969 and was not renewed.
A further aggravating factor was Honduras’s passage of an agrarian reform law, which took land away from some of the Salvadorans.
Honduras And El Salvador Game
Such was the background when teams of the two nations met for a soccer match in Tegucigalpa on 8 June 1969. Unfortunately, Salvador lost by a score of 1-0.
However, the point was made over time, and Salvadorans felt cheated. This became practically a point of national honor.
When the Honduran team came to San Salvador for a return match, the feeling was so high that a Salvadoran security unit hid the team at a secret place outside the city before the game.
There was rioting in downtown Salvador, and three persons were killed―all 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, some 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. As a result, 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 murder.
Many of the Salvadorans took heed, 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 can exercise only loose control over local commanders.
As the exodus of refugees continued, the situation between the two countries steadily worsened. 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.”
As a result, Salvador broke relations with Honduras; Honduras broke relations with Salvador.
A few days before the break, El Salvador won a playoff match 3-2, the winning point being made in overtime. The game was prudently played in Mexico City.
The Soccer War
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 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 failed. Early the following day, 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 the refinery and industrial complex at 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 importing petroleum. Five of the 17 storage tanks were destroyed. The port area itself was not damaged.
There were unconfirmed reports of dogfights. However, 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. Then, 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 two pincers toward Cabañas (the northeast Salvadoran border) but could not 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. However, neither side had heavy equipment like 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 the organization and fighting ability during the football war.
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 the country’s best military unit.
Near the end of the conflict, Salvadoran newspapers reported that this unit had staged a counterattack and been repulsed. However, whether these reports were accurate, the Salvadoran army 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 the end of the football 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 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 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 government and US Soccer Federation assistance. Both were turned down.
To effect a cease-fire, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States applied heavy diplomatic pressure on both governments.
The United States was represented in El Salvador by Ambassador William Bowdler, who had experience helping 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:
- Troop withdrawal
- Protection for citizens of both countries
- OAS supervision of both troop withdrawal and citizen protection
Honduras was amenable to these points; Salvador only partially so. As a result, the Salvadoran government was split between its 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. 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 withdrawing 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.
El Salvadoran 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, which went into effect at 2200 on 18 July. The conflict lasted just five hours over four days.
OAS military observers arrived and moved out to the border areas to enforce the cease-fire, and OAS human rights officials began looking after the safety of Salvadorans in Honduras.
Conclusion Of The Football War
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 Salvadorans were persecuted and insulted, the OAS did not want to see the calendar, much less the clock.”
The time limit set for troops’ withdrawal passed, and Salvador still 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 territory.
The football war between El Salvador and Honduras was short. But, it was no less a war for that. Men died, the property was destroyed, and refugees abandoned their homes.
The war showed―if this needed new proving-―that large countries do not necessarily wage conflicts. 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 have followed. Enmities run deep in Central America.
The OAS structure is based on 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 unnecessary to Washington, but several countries are sincerely concerned about their neighbors. The lesson of El Salvador vs. Honduras football war in 1969 was plain: it can happen again―on a much larger scale.