Salvadoran Military War Criminals Face Prosecution at Last


At the beginning of September, the Salvadoran Attorney General announced the opening of an investigation of the notorious 1981 El Mozote massacre, thus constituting the first Salvadoran state challenge to El Salvador’s controversial Amnesty Law. Passed in 1993 just after the Peace Accords that ended the country’s brutal 12-year civil war, the Amnesty Law outlawed the prosecution of the myriad human rights violations committed during the bloody conflict. In a related recent victory against impunity, a US court has sentenced Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Montano for immigration fraud, who faces jail time, deportation and potential extradition to Spain for ordering the infamous 1989 Jesuit massacre. The Attorney General’s decision to investigate El Mozote, which left over 1,000 men, women and children dead at the hands of soldiers trained by the US military School of the Americas, comes as a result of a December 2012 ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemning the Salvadoran state for the slaughter and directing the government to prosecute this and other war crimes. The ruling further stipulated that the Amnesty Law should not pose an obstacle to the prosecution of these crimes. In accordance, in April, the Supreme Court of El Salvador ordered all judges nationwide to consider the IACHR’s ruling when deciding the applicability of the Amnesty Law to their cases. The Attorney General’s office is currently preparing to exhume the bodies of Mozote victims, as per the IACHR’s orders. It was an ultimately fruitless debate on overturning the Amnesty Law in the early 2000s that spurred former Colonel Inocente Montano, Deputy Minister of Public Security under the 1989-1994 Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) administration of Alfredo Cristiani, to flee El Salvador for the United States. On Tuesday, August 27, Montano was sentenced in a Massachusetts court to 21 months in prison for lying on immigration forms. Montano faces deportation to El Salvador and possible extradition to Spain, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity and state terror for his role in ordering the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Central American University. Key evidence for prosecuting Montano came directly from the 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report, which named him as a perpetrator in the Jesuit killings and other atrocities. The verdict was issued despite efforts by Cristiani, who wrote a letter to the judge commending Montano for being well-trained, a good soldier, and having acted responsibly and professionally. El Salvador’s National Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales called the conviction “a clear message to the Salvadoran judicial system that for many years has denied victims access to justice.”

1989 funeral service for the murdered Jesuit priests photo: Reuters 1989 funeral service for the murdered Jesuit priests
photo: Reuters
While important steps have been made in prosecuting former dictators and military regimes in Latin America – particularly in Chile and Argentina – for past atrocities, right-wing political parties in El Salvador have fought vigorously and successfully to maintain the Amnesty Law to date. The 1993 Truth Commission attributed at least 85% of the atrocities committed during the war to members of the right-wing military dictatorship and the state-linked death squads, many of whom continue in public positions today, while attributing only 5% to the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel forces, and 10% to unknown actors. This new show of political will to bring justice to the victims of the civil war’s massive state violence is unprecedented in El Salvador and represents an important step towards a just resolution to the bloody conflict, an opportunity created by the democratic unseating of the ARENA party from power in 2009.

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