On Anniversary of Truth Commission Findings, New Hope for Justice in El Salvador

On Anniversary of Truth Commission Findings, New Hope for Justice in El Salvador

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Truth Commission’s findings that investigated human rights abuses committed during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.

Five days after the findings were released, the Salvadoran legislature passed an amnesty law that protected the perpetrators of attacks such as the March 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the murders of six Jesuit priests in November 1989 and the December 1981 massacre of some 1,000 people in the town of El Mozote as well as acts committed by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas.

But a decision last Dec. 10 could change that. The Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered a reversal of the amnesty law, raising the possibility that crimes committed during the civil war may be prosecuted after all.

The seven-member Court ordered the Salvadoran government to investigate the massacres at El Mozote, which by one count took the lives of 500 children. It ordered the Salvadoran government to create a registry of victims (the number of whom is currently uncertain), prosecute the perpetrators and provide reparations for the victims’ next of kin.

The ruling effectively, though not explicitly, calls for overturning the 1993 amnesty that followed El Salvador’s civil war, which was fought between the country’s U.S.-backed military-led government and the left-wing guerrilla coalition FMLN.

The Court’s ruling is binding for states like El Salvador that recognize its jurisdiction. But the judicial body, which operates under the auspices of the Organization of American States, has no enforcement powers.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes of the disarmed FMLN, now a left-wing political party, immediately issued a statement saying it would abide by the decision.

However, to date no official move has been made to set aside the amnesty law.

Massacre at El Mozote

The slaughter at El Mozote between Dec. 11 and 13, 1981, was carried out by the elite, U.S.-trained Salvadoran Army Atlacatl Batallion.

Though FMLN guerrillas were active in the area, the Court determined that no rebels were in the vicinity at the time of the massacres.

The Court found that the massacres were the part of a deliberate “scorched earth” campaign to eliminate potential support in rebel-held areas, “to deprive the fish of water,” not the isolated aberration of soldiers run amock.

“The massacres of El Mozote … responded to a policy of the state characterized by counterinsurgency military actions, like the ‘scorched earth’ operations, that had the goal of massive and indiscriminate annihilation of the populations that were targeted for suspicion (of supporting) the guerrillas,” said the Court.

The Court expressed its desire for the ruling to serve as a condemnation of such anti–insurgency strategies.

The Salvadoran Catholic Archbishop’s Legal Office reported that based on witness testimonies, the victims numbered 1061, 54 percent of them children, 18 percent women – some pregnant – and 10 percent were older than 60 years old.

Some 440 victims have been identified to date, but the Court said said that many more, “including many children,” remain unidentified.

Exhumations performed to date at 28 sites have turned up at least 281 individuals, 74 percent of whom are children. At one site, the convent in El Mozote itself, of 143 individuals identified, 136 are children with average age of 6 years old, the ruling stated.

The Court determined that the 1993 amnesty, which was established after the peace accord between the government and the FMLN, should not apply to the massacres because they potentially involve war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said President Funes himself has few options in responding to the Court’s ruling. Overturning the amnesty would be in the hands of the country’s Supreme Court and opening an investigation would be up to the country’s autonomous Attorney General.

“Funes even if he wanted to couldn’t do anything about these two things,” said Thale. “The only thing he could do is perhaps make a public statement urging the Attorney General to launch an investigation and maybe present a case before the Supreme Court to try to overturn the amnesty.”

But given the thorny political issues at play in overturning the amnesty -- including the possibility that members of the president’s own party could face accusations, not to mention the potential for confrontation with the army -- Thale said that Funes would likely prefer to “let sleeping dogs lie.”

“Would he like to see military officers prosecuted? Yes. Would he like to be the one to make it happen? No,” said the WOLA analyst.

Funes issued a public apology on behalf of the Salvadoran government for the massacres at the beginning of 2012 and has also ordered the creation of a registry of relatives of the victims.

Another test of amnesty

Another case that could test the amnesty declaration, said Thale, is that of retired Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, who was found guilty in a Boston, Massachusetts Court for perjury and immigration fraud.

On Jan. 15, the Boston court ruled on sentencing Montano that it would take into consideration the former colonel’s alleged role in the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. Montano is among 20 people, including 13 military officers, indicted in Spain in 2011 for the murders.

If Montano is given enough jail time in Boston, then Spain would have enough time to seek his extradition to face charges there, said Thale.

“If he’s extradited to Spain, the trial of the military officers would go forward and that would be a powerful blow against the amnesty,” he said.

He pointed to the precedent of Chile where an amnesty toppled after former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was tried in Spain and Pinochet had to eventually face justice in his home country.

Thale said that Inter-American Court ruling could have the effect of “strengthening the rule of law and weakening the military and that would be a good thing.”

“Overturning the amnesty and investigating the massacres would mean jail time for some retired members of the military and civilian allies would push back through public opinion. You’d see a lot of reaction from the military,” said Thale.

The Inter-American Court found the Salvadoran state responsible for a whole list of violations of the American Convention, including violation of the right of life and the rights of children, as well as women’s rights, for the rape of village women.

Miguel Montenegro, director of the nongovernmental Salvadoran Human Rights Commission, told Agence France Presse he hopes the government of El Salvador now “assumes responsibility” for implementing the sentence handed down by the court.

The mainstream media paid little attention to the news of the court’s decision. El Mozote, despite the dimensions of the tragedy, has hardly become a household name. This is partly because the Reagan administration made a concerted effort to discount the accounts of the massacres courageously reported at the time by Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post.

In 1981, when U.S. Congress had to certify the progress of the Salvadoran Army in respecting human rights, the Reagan administration’s asserted that “no evidence,” existed of the massacre, guaranteeing a continuation of the flow of aid to the army.

But the murder of some 500 children, made all the more appalling because it resulted from a deliberate state policy, cannot easily be forgotten. In its ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights takes an important step toward seeing that the El Mozote massacres do not end in impunity.

John McPhaul is a freelance writer who lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.