Will El Salvador ever see justice for the El Mozote massacre?
Despite the estimated 32 cases of human rights abuses that occurred during the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), the incidents in the village of El Mozote and the surrounding department of Morazán will always be remembered as the most devastating.
With at least 1,000 civilians brutally murdered by the Salvadoran Army, the case is considered one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history. Still today, the victims and survivors have not been granted any justice, with fear and impunity keeping them silent for decades.
When fighting broke out between the right-wing government and leftist rebel group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the influence and support of the US quickly became and important part of the conflict. The administration of President Jimmy Carter provided an estimated one million dollars a day in military aid to sustain an anti-communist repression.
The military were also put through the US army’s School of the Americas, then located in Panama, with an emphasis on anti-guerilla and counter-insurgency operations to combat the pro-Soviet communist tide which was sweeping through Central America at the time.
A violent past
On the 11 December 1981, the first cohort of soldiers trained by the US, the Altlacatl Battalion, arrived in the village of El Mozote to conduct Operation Rescate. This was a ‘scorched earth’ operation in order to remove any guerrilla presence rumoured to linger in the area.
El Mozote was a tiny settlement of just 20 homes, a church and the convent surrounding a square. The area was rural and evangelical, considered politically neutral, and had shown no previous signs of guerrilla activity.
According to eye witness accounts, the soldiers ordered the entire village into the square and interrogated villagers before detaining them in their houses overnight, threatening to shoot anyone attempting to flee.
On 12 December, the inhabitants of the time were rounded up, with men, women and children separated from one another. The men were further interrogated, tortured and shot whilst the women were raped and machine-gunned to death.
Finally, the children were placed in the convent and shot at through the windows, before the whole village was burned to the ground.
The following day, the Altlacatl continued to target the surrounding villages of La Guacamaya, Cerro Pando, Los Toriles, Jocote Amarrillo and La Joya.
Despite almost the entire population of El Mozote being eliminated, the news only came to light on 27 January 1982, when journalists visited the area and articles were published by The New York Times and The Washington Post which reported the atrocity that had taken place.
Despite the media attention, the Salvadoran military and the Reagan Administration completely denied any such claims, passing the articles off as Marxist propaganda.
Peace brings some progress
However, on 26 October 1990 a case was opened in which survivors registered eye-witness statements at the San Francisco Gotera Court in Morazán. When the conflict ended on 16 January 1992, the two parties signed a peace agreement and the country started to transition to democracy.
With the war over, the El Mozote case was able to be brought to the foreground, as in November that year, an exhumation of the area took place over the course of several days. Evidence taken from the convent building showed that 143 bodies were found, although it was made clear that there were more which were unable to be identified due to fire damage.
Of those remains, the average age was just six years old. As a result of the firearms identification and analysis, US bullets were found in the building indicating that at least 24 individuals were responsible for the massacre.
The exhumation provided confirmation that a mass murder had occurred. This led to The 1993 United Nations Truth Commission, which sought to uncover the full story of the human rights violations committed by both sides during the war, stating that an estimated 85,000 civilians were killed or disappeared during this time.
“Violence was a fire which swept the fields of El Salvador; it burst into villages… it struck at justice and filled the public administration with victims; and it singled out as an enemy anyone who was not on the list of friends” stated the Commission.
However, just five days after, the investigation was blocked by an amnesty lawgranted by the national assembly in El Salvador. This led to the case slipping into the background for the most part and it seemed as if military leaders were to remain untouchable despite various allegations that the Salvadoran and US governments were obstructing the pursuit of truth.
It wasn’t until 19 years later, in April 2012, that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) requested information about the case. The testimonies made in 1990 were presented before a judge in Ecuador, and six months later the IACHR found the Salvadoran army guilty of not only committing the massacre but also of concealment and failure to investigate.
The law had now confirmed the massacre. Yet, there was still much to be uncovered. Who had committed the crimes? Who gave the orders for them to do so? And perhaps more importantly, why did it need to happen?
These questions have now finally started to be tackled as July 2016 saw the El Salvador Supreme Court declare the 1993 amnesty law unconstitutional, allowing the case to regather momentum.
In September 2017, four new witnesses testimonies were added to the case in San Francisco on top of the 17 other testimonies which had been pushed to one side after the amnesty law took hold.
“I’m still suffering. They killed everyone, I lost 15 members of my family between brothers and cousins. My brothers never reappeared. That’s why I’m asking for justice,” Hernández Argueta told the court, after having lost his entire family in La Joya, an area which also fell victim to Operation Rescate.
Suspected coverup continues
Although progress has been made, there has been strong resistance from the Salvadoran government. In fact, in June 2017 the case was halted briefly by an appeal from the 11 accused former lieutenants. “Unfortunately, many victims are dying without seeing justice for themselves and their families. Delaying the case is a strategy…with the sole intent of paralyzing the judicial system” stated prosecution lawyer Wilfredo Medrano in a press conference last September.
Resistance has also been shown through the lack of records and information provided by the accused, with access to military documents blocked and certain files claimed to not exist at all. This evidence could be crucial to figure out the chain of command which lead to this atrocity.
In 2018, human rights organisation Cristosal reported that in a 2017 hearing, a worker in the military archive Morales Belloso stated that documents were destroyed outside of his jurisdiction.
Despite releasing several records in the past, the United States government has also been brought into question, with some campaigners calling for them to declassify more.
Is there any sign of hope for the victims?
On 2 December 2017, US Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) travelled to El Mozote to visit the relatives of the victims and see the memorials erected in their honour, which attempt to bring peace to an area whose dead were unable to be buried.
“The US should support the Salvadoran judge presiding over the El Mozote case, and the attorney general’s office, including releasing all information in our military and intelligence files relevant to that period of the civil war. It would be a significant contribution to ending the culture of impunity in El Salvador”, he told the House of Representatives a week after his visit.
Justice in the balance
As it stands today, the appeals and blocking of documents has frustrated justice and the judge Jorge Guzmán Urquilla has said that the case could go on continue into 2019.
Despite decades passing, impunity and injustice still continue to blight Latin America to this day. Human Rights organization Cristosal states that the El Mozote case “can help restore credibility in the justice system of a country where hundreds of thousands of people flee violence every year”.
So it is not only a matter of addressing the atrocity, but is also an opportunity to reinforce that corrupt and oppressive power cannot escape justice. As the 1993 Truth Commission stated, it is “important to uncover the truth as it constitutes part of El Salvador’s history no matter how painful in order to reinforce the effort to spread the message ‘never again’”.
The pursuit of truth still continues in El Salvador regardless of the hurdles put in its way. A part of a nation’s identity is its history and without that having its foundations in truth, a country can never fully move forward into the future.