During the summer of 1993, I spent a couple of weeks doing research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This meant that during the day, I spent long hours in dusty archives, dimly lit libraries, and overstaffed government offices. During the nights, I spent equally long hours in bars.
My reason—well one of them—was because the capital of Honduras during the summer is as hot as Southern New Mexico—but with ten times the humidity. Because of a water shortage, the town's water supply only functioned two hours a day: between 4:00 and 6:00 AM. Every morning, when the water was turned back on, you could hear the water rushing through the old, leaky pipes. The air escaping made a low moaning noise that echoed off the mountains that surround the city. (This early morning sound has often been theorized to be the cause of the town's high birth rate. At 4:00 AM, it is too early to get out of bed, but too late to go back to sleep.)
My hotel room was so small it would have been illegal to use it as a jail cell, even in Mississippi. In the evenings, the room had no water, no window, and nothing resembling air conditioning, so it was no wonder I spent my evenings in bars, drinking the local beer, Port Royal. (Let me give you a small travel tip: if you are forced to brush your teeth with either beer or Coca-Cola—use the beer. You wouldn't believe what happens to Crest Toothpaste when you mix it with Coke.)
Properly lubricated, the locals in the bars had some great stories about life in Honduras. One of my new-found friends insisted that up in the mountains, there was a tree that was poisonous to touch. He claimed you could find it by looking for the dead birds that lay around it. But there was an even better story, about a strange war Honduras had fought with El Salvador over a soccer game—The 1969 Football War.
One of the bar's patron had vivid memories of a C-47 (that's the military version of the civilian DC-3, an old, slow cargo plane from the second world war) flying lower than the surrounding mountain tops as it wound its way through the valley holding the country's capital. The plane was so low that the man could clearly see the men rolling bombs out the cargo plane's door. When the plane ran out of bombs destroying the runways at the city's sole airport, the men threw out sandbags on the old adobe buildings of the city center.
The Football War did happen, and although a soccer game really was the triggering event, there were a few other important factors that brought on the war.
El Salvador is geographically a small country with a relatively large population for its size. This gives it the second highest population density in the Western Hemisphere—right behind Haiti. Almost all of the usable farmland is in the hands of only fourteen families or corporations. What little arable land is left is not nearly enough to satisfy peasants desperate for a small measure of financial independence.
Honduras, on the other hand, is much larger, with a smaller population, and still had (at least in 1969), vacant farmland. The availability of lands and jobs had enticed approximately 300,000 Salvadoran peasants to illegally enter Honduras. Some purchased land legally, others simply squatted on land and established homesteads, and others found work in the cities. A few Salvadorans even opened stores or started businesses in Honduras.
By American standards, 300,000 doesn't seem like many, but in Honduras, this meant that one out of every eight workers was from El Salvador. In the late 1960's, a disease devastated the banana plantations, forcing companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit to begin importing bananas from Ecuador and laying off workers.
Honduras responded to civilian anger and a rising unemployment rate by cracking down on the Salvadorans. An agrarian reform law was passed under which a lot of immigrant farms were seized—even those that had been legally purchased. Diplomatic relations between the two countries rapidly broke down.
Still, an actual war might have been averted if not for the 1970 World Cup. The two countries played the first of three matches in Tegucigalpa, where the locals may have been less than proper hosts. Thousands of locals stood outside the Salvadoran team's hotel and cheered, honked horns, and beat metal pans all night in an attempt to prevent the team from resting the night before the match.
The next day, the Hondurans won 2-1, but the deciding point was scored in overtime. Feeling it had been cheated, all of El Salvador screamed, "Foul!"
The second game was played in San Salvador, and when El Salvador won, Honduras not only screamed, but began looting Salvadoran shops in Tegucigalpa and organized an economic boycott on all goods manufactured in the rival country.
Wisely, the third game was played in Mexico City. The Salvadorans sat on one side of the stadium, with the Hondurans on the opposite side; separating the two were 5000 Mexican cops. Honduras won the game, so El Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with Honduras, and then sent both its army and air force to invade its neighbor.
Interestingly, both countries had similar military forces; both countries had armies about the same size and both countries used equipment given to them by the United States. Surplus World War II tanks, guns, trucks, and jeeps were used on both sides and both countries flew F4U Corsairs and F-51 Mustangs.
The only real military difference between the two countries was that the Honduran Air Force was much larger. Perhaps this is why El Salvador attacked first, and damaged the runways of the Tegucigalpa airport where most of the Honduran Air Force was based. During this raid, the Salvadorian Air Force did, indeed, use an aging cargo plane to bomb the Honduran capital by rolling bombs out a door designed to be used by passengers.
Despite diligent research, I was unable to either confirm or repudiate the story about El Salvador's bombing buildings with sand bags. (But, if it is any consolation, the story about a tree with poisonous bark turns out to be true. Though it was not, in fact, surrounded by dead birds, I have seen it. I did not touch it.)
For the next two days, El Salvador controlled the sky, allowing its army to penetrate into Honduras about a hundred miles. This was made easier by the sudden discovery that a Honduran general on the border had a smaller army than his payroll indicated. It was probably a bookkeeping error.
After two days of repairing the runways at the Tegucigalpa airport, Honduras finally got its planes into the air.
In the last aerial dogfight in history pitting conventionally powered, propeller-driven aircraft against each other—Honduras took control of the sky. If you are interested, the Corsairs proved superior to the Mustangs, but this may have been due more to maintenance requirements and the availability of spare parts than to the innate superiority of aircraft design. By the fourth day of battle, both sides were having difficulty getting any planes into the air.
The Organization of American States negotiated a ceasefire and El Salvador agreed to return to its side of the border. Though the war only lasted roughly 100 hours, more than 6,000 people died and 12,000 people were wounded. An estimated 50,000 people lost their homes as villages and countless farms were destroyed. Technically, even now—some 46 years later—the dispute is ongoing.
Such a strange war! Now, it seems almost impossible that most of the world missed it. Even at the time, few people paid any attention to it. This was not solely because the world cared little about Central America. Something else was happening that attracted everyone's attention. The war started shortly after Apollo 11 launched, and ended the same day that Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle, the lunar lander, onto the surface of the moon.
Most of the United States was too busy looking up to take any time to look south.