Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts
The Great Depression and its low coffee prices brought revolution, dictatorships, and social unrest to Central American countries. The crash of 1929 exacerbated already difficult conditions for laborers, and except in Costa Rica, the threatened coffee oligarchies hastened to install strong-arm leaders to restore “order and progress.” All of the dictators continued to rely on foreign capital and support from the United States, while crushing any protests. In the wake of the 1929 crash, the coffee elite gobbled up smaller farms through foreclosure and purchase, further widening the gap between haves and have nots.
By the 1930s coffee accounted for over 90 percent of El Salvador’s exports. Indians suffered from low wages, incredible filth, and utter lack of consideration on the part of the employers, under conditions not far removed from slavery.
On January 22, 1932, urged on the charismatic Communist leader Agustin Marti, Indians in the western highlands [where most of the coffee was grown] killed nearly 100 people, mostly overseers and soldiers. The bloodbath that followed came to be known simply as La Matanza, The Massacre. The military, aided by the outraged and terrified ruling class, killed indiscriminately. Groups of fifty men were tied together by the thumbs and shot in front of a church wall. Others had to dig mass graves before machine guns dropped then into the holes. Bodies littered the roadsides. Anyone dressed in traditional Indian clothing was killed in what approached genocide in some regions. Putrefying bodies were left for pigs, dogs, and vultures to devour. Marti died before a firing squad. Within a few weeks some thirty thousand people were dead. The Communist party was virtually wiped out, along with any resistance for years to come. The memory of the massacre would influence Salvadoran history for the rest of the century.
In Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, dictators also came to power during the depression, clamping down on any signs of peasant unrest. General Anastasio Somoza Garcia came to power in Nicaragua in 1934, following the assassination of guerilla leader Augusto Cesar Sandino, which Somoza himself had arranged. Officially elected in 1936, Somoza built a family dynasty based largely on massive coffee holdings, including forty-six plantations. Through intimidation and graft, Somoza became the largest property holder in the country. He too ordered massacres of suspected rebels.