EL Mozote: The Road to Justice, Truth and Reparations Remains Uncertain


Acting on a historic judicial order, a Salvadoran team of investigators arrived in the city of San Francisco Gotera to review military archives concerning the 1981 massacre at El Mozote. Since 2017, a trial has been underway against members of the Salvadoran military accused of committing the horrific massacre, which drew the world’s attention to El Salvador, as well as to the role of the United States, a stalwart funder and trainer of El Salvador’s armed forces. However, upon their arrival, investigators were blocked by military officials who had been dispatched the night prior to cordon off the city citing a COVID-19 outbreak. Victims and human rights defenders have urged the Bukele administration to comply with judicial orders and cooperate with investigators as he promised during his election campaign.

On July 13, 2016, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) in El Salvador declared unconstitutional the 'Amnesty Law' that granted “broad, absolute and unconditional amnesty" to persons who committed crimes during the Salvadoran armed conflict. The Amnesty Law was passed in 1993 by a right-wing majority in the legislature led by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) and the Authentic Cristian Movement (MAC). In the place of the Amnesty Law, the CSJ revived the 1992 National Reconciliation Law that reincorporated veterans into civilian life, provided some amnesty with the exception of grave human rights abuses and crimes against humanity named in the Truth Commission Report (1992).

Among one of the first cases that human rights organizations pursued under this long-awaited opening was the 1981 El Mozote massacre, where hundreds of women and children were brutally murdered by the U.S.-trained elite Atlacatl Battalion using a  scorched-earth strategy developed in Vietnam. News about the massacre hit international headlines with scathing reports from journalists Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto in The New York Times and The Washington Post about the horrors that took place in the mountains of Morazán. To date, the massacre at El Mozote and surrounding villages is known as one of the most violent massacres in modern Latin American history.

When the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party won the presidency in 2009, there were hopes in El Salvador and internationally that the Salvadoran government would finally be willing to participate in truth and reconciliation processes, especially since the FMLN had, on multiple occasions, called for the Amnesty Law to be overturned. In 2012, former President Mauricio Funes made history when he officially recognized the Salvadoran government’s responsibility for the horrific crimes that had been committed in El Mozote and asked for forgiveness from the victims. However, neither the administration of Mauricio Funes nor his successor, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, made military records accessible to victims’ associations and their legal teams.

During his election campaign, President Nayib Bukele, as Mayor of San Salvador promised to do better than his former party, the FMLN, assuring victims’ associations that he would do everything in his power to cooperate with investigations and make military records from the time period public. However, as has been the custom lately, the actions of the administration have been inconsistent with its rhetoric.

In 2017, Jorge Alberto Guzmán, Judge of San Francisco Gotera ordered the El Mozote case reopened and for the first time heard victims testimonies and charged 18 high-ranking members of the Salvadoran military as the intellectual authors of the crime. Last year, Judge Guzmán swore in two salvadoran archivist experts, Fenando Rafael Díaz, Jorge Juárez and a Guatemalan archivist Velia Murales Bautista, who would inspect documents and archives at Military Headquarters Number 4 in the city of San Francisco Gotera. They were also tasked with reviewing archives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces (FAES), the Air Force, the Artillery Brigade, the third Infantry Brigade, and the Nations General Archive.

However, prior to the visit, Minister of Defense Rene Merino Monroy, presented a request to the plenary session of the Supreme Court urging Magistrates to cancel the inspection on the grounds that it could “put at risk” the country's national security. The request was denied, but this did not land well with the Defense Minister who insisted he would not comply with the judicial decision.

On the night of September 20, just hours before the arrival of the judge and experts, Health Minister Francisco Alabi suddenly decreed a "health cordon" surrounding the city of San Francisco Gotera citing an outbreak of COVID19. As scheduled Judge Guzmán and the archivist arrived on the morning of September 21 but were denied entry into the city by military officials. Several human rights organizations including the Human Rights Ombudsman, José Apolonio Tobar Serrano, immediately denounced the blockade. "It is regrettable, sad, and shameful, a dark day,” lamented Ombudsman Tobar. “Recently in Spain, a person who was prosecuted for participating in the murder and massacre of Jesuit priests in 1989 was sentenced to 133 years [in prison]. This process should serve as an example in El Salvador, because we cannot continue [with this] impunity” he continued.

Following denouncements from victims’ associations and human rights defenders, the president took to national television to accuse the judge and investigators of being driven by political motives that seek to threaten national security. Victims associations and human rights organizations lamented the president’s actions in a statement, “We remind the Salvadora state that, in light of its international obligations, it must carry out criminal proceedings with all guarantees, especially due diligence, to punish those who committed serious human rights violations in accordance with the principle of proportionality. Arguments in favor of the extinction of the criminal responsibility of the immediate perpetrators of these crimes to maintain "peace" are inadmissible.” According to David Morales, former Human Rights Ombudsman and Lawyer of the victims of El Mozote, the president should be investigated for “arbitrary acts, breach of duties and disobedience to a court order” given that his blockade could seek to provide protection to guilty parties. In November, a court in El Salvador ordered the Attorney General's office to open up an investigation into President Bukele's actions.

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