Four Decades of Impunity: Still No Justice in El Mozote

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador. Photograph Source: Efrojas – Public Domain

After 30 years, the government of El Salvador continues to ensure impunity for those responsible for the worst massacre in modern Latin American history, in which 986 people were killed by the Salvadoran Armed Forces.

President Nayib Bukele, who promised survivors and families of the victims at the end of 2019 he would collaborate and open the military archives to help bring justice, is currently blocking access to the documents and evidence requested by the judge overseeing the case.

Furthermore, in his attempt to stomp out criticism and discredit the work of Judge Jorge Guzmán, human rights activists, survivors and lawyers collaborating in the judicial process, the president assured that the investigations and requests for access to the military archives are part of “a show” mounted by his detractors.

Bukele arrived last December in Mozote, a hamlet located in eastern El Salvador, where the lives of its inhabitants changed forever on December 11, 1981. The president however did not arrive to honor the memory of the victims. Rather, he delivered free computers and internet and announced his plan is to turn the small village into a tourist destination that can educate people about the country’s history.

“I have tried to forget, but I have not been able to… I have not been able to forget how they murdered women and children, how they murdered my family and how we fled to the hills to  hide for five years. What I ask for is justice, because justice has not been seen at all,” said Rosario Lopez, in an interview with the Americas Program/Americas Program.

She is one of the survivors of the “scorched earth” operation, in which the bloodthirsty Atlacatl battalion executed men, raped women and girls, and finally massacred 558 children in cold blood in a church.

Far from showing empathy with the survivors and the families of the victims, during his visit, the president made it clear that his presence at the site was not to ask forgiveness for the crime, as other presidents and personalities have done; much less to make his government accountable or commit to justice; but rather, to continue his political campaign.

“When the massacre took place, I was barely four months old. That is why I am not here to ask for forgiveness, because I shouldn´t have to. Let the murderers who caused the massacre ask for forgiveness,” said the president, washing his hands of the situation.

Bukele’s refusal and his change of position unleashed criticism against the Salvadoran administration. U.S. Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern said that this is not only an impediment to justice, but also represents the continuation of the chain of impunity that prevails in the Central American country.

“The judge is doing what he can do, the families and survivors are doing what they can do, but President Bukele and the Minister of Defense who can help not only get the truth out, but also get justice, are thwarting this case. It is so disappointing and damaging to the future of El Salvador,” McGovern told The Americas Program in an interview.

The change of government in the United States revives hope for some that the president will take a stand on crimes that remain unpunished in El Salvador. Thus far, the democratic administration appears to be pushing an agenda against corruption and human rights violations in Latin America.

“I expect that in the coming months there will be a stronger position with regards to this case. The State Department and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador could refer to the issue and support the fight against impunity and support the work of Judge Guzman,” said the congressman.

Impunity continues

Rosario lost 24 members of her family, including her mother, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters-in-law.  In order to survive, she hid with her husband and children in nearby caves for five years. Like other survivors and families of the victims, Rosario had to wait for decades to bury the remains of her relatives, until the Supreme Court of Justice delivered the remains in 2016.

The massacre of El Mozote and surrounding villages, is the best example of how impunity reigns supreme in El Salvador. The Salvadoran military and politicians in the United States denied the massacre in the 1980s to ensure cooperation in the fight against guerrillas and communism in Central America.

“I hope that eventually the U.S. will release all documents related to the massacre, either publicly or for something specific. My concern is that this will happen too late for an analysis of the evidence. But in the meantime, the State Department and the Embassy in El Salvador can discuss how to best support the course of the investigation and the judicial process,” McGovern said.

In 1993, after the signing of the Peace Accords and the passage of the Amnesty Law, investigations into the Mozote case were annulled, as was the case with other war crimes. Nearly two decades later, in 2012, then president, Mauricio Funes, finally acknowledged in public that the Salvadoran State concealed the massacre. He also admitted that the Armed Forces committed the massacre and apologized to the survivors and the families of the victims.

In 2017, with the repeal of the Amnesty Law, the case resurfaced after orders issued by the Salvadoran Supreme Court a year earlier. In addition to reopening the case, the judge ordered criminal charges for the military commando identified in documents and other archival evidence. Soon after, the military officers involved received a judicial summons of their incorporation in the process.

A year later, during the administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the Salvadoran government created a commission that would work on compensation for survivors and victims’ relatives. However, no further action was taken with regards to opening the military archives, let alone legally supporting survivors and victims’ families.

Since then, Judge Guzmán has been in the investigation stage and has been working to gather the necessary evidence to guarantee justice. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court also ordered that the Armed Forces allow the judge to have access to documents from some military bases, obstacles for his inquiries run rampant.

“By order of President Bukele,” Defense Minister René Merino Monroy and his subordinates have, on three occasions, prevented Judge Guzmán from investigating documents at military bases. “Look gentlemen, there are no Mozote papers there, and you may wonder why we don’t let them in, because they are military bases, with secret and sensitive military documents,” Bukele said on national television, when Judge Guzmán was denied entry to one of the military barracks.

On November 1, 2019, the Salvadoran president promised on his national TV broadcast that  he would open the military archives so that “the truth is known in its entirety: from A to Z. What’s more, if the judge asks us from A to F, we are going to do all the way to Z.” Less than a year later, however, this seemingly empathetic stance took a completely different turn.

“Bukele promised to break the circle of complicity from the government. He promised not only to accompany the victims, but also guarantee them access to reparations. But it was a false promise, especially when the time came, when the judge asked for access to those files,” says David Morales, former human rights attorney in the country and lawyer overseeing the case.

The Salvadoran government has not only supported the Armed Forces in  preventing access to the Mozote case files or to open the military archives. By closing down the institute that previous governments created in order to establish economic quotas, Bukele’s government also shut down any possibility for the survivors to be compensated,.

Additionally, according to the version of some members of the Armed Forces and one of the military’s defense lawyers, what happened in El Mozote was not a massacre committed by military personnel, but an armed confrontation between guerrilla groups and the army.

“El Salvador is one of the countries where institutionalized impunity is the strongest in the continent. We had an unconditional amnesty law that favored the human rights violators of the armed conflict, so that war crimes or crimes against humanity have been dealt with since 1993,” Morales points out.

After further analyzing President Bukele´s and the command of the Armed Forces´ position, the lawyers of the case decided to present a request before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This top regional human rights court scheduled a special hearing for March 2021, to provide the Salvadoran government an opportunity to explain why it has blocked investigations into the case.

The hope for justice given in 2019 by the Salvadoran president to the survivors and relatives of the victims of the worst massacre of peasants in recent Latin American history was a mirage. After 39 years, the Salvadoran government and the military continue to prevent justice and block investigations.

The Salvadoran State has never supported the victims. In addition to the lack of commitment and fulfillment of his word, President Bukele has tried to discredit the judge in the case, the lawyers, activists and the current Human Rights Ombudsman, accusing them of using the massacre as a media show for their “economic gain”.

But also in his last visit to Mozote, the president said that the war and the signing of the peace accords, which put an end to the armed confrontations that cost the lives of more than 75,000 dead and 10,000 disappeared, were “a farce”. “Or what benefits did the Peace Accords bring to Salvadorans?” the president asked in his speech in front of the survivors of the massacre.

“The 75,000 dead of the war cannot be seen as a farce. The change to the political system cannot be seen as a farce, because that system is the one that allowed him -Bukele- to be where he is. This is within the manual of Casa Presidencia, which aims at disqualifying everybody”, said the right-wing deputy Mauricio Vargas.

Death and despair

“We heard on the radio about that “scorched earth” operation, I went to see my mom who lived near our house. I was not feeling well, because four months before that I had lost my son to a miscarriage. When I got home I found the scene,” recalls Rosario.

The survivors, victims and relatives of the victims of the massacre have been systematically denied justice. The government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, in the last five years, provided some documents, but they were not relevant, always arguing that they were not located in the archives. The denial of information about the war archives is a historical pattern” in the country, said Morales.

On the day of the massacre, when Rosario arrived at her mother’s house, she found the bodies of her slaughtered relatives. The soldiers were still in her cottage. Rosario managed to hide in the bushes. Later, she returned home, but on the way her husband intercepted her to tell her that the soldiers had arrived at the house.

Rosario, her husband and children walked for hours to take refuge in a cave. From there, “we heard the gunfire and saw the smoke from the burned houses,” she said. Rosario. This family was not the only one who had to leave everything that day to hide, while the military battalion executed its mission to wipe out all possible and potential guerrillas.

In addition to crimes against humanity, Judge Guzmán considers that the Salvadoran State must respond for the displacements, the survivors and their families, and for the torture suffered by both the victims and the survivors.

“There is no legal justification, much less moral and much less ethical. However, the political position of the rulers and the current government, has remained to protect war criminals. We see a passive justice system, a passive Prosecutor’s Office and a Legislative Assembly with the intention of legislating in favor of the victims, but at the same time, with the intention of repeating an amnesty law,” says Morales.

Salvadoran deputies have in their hands a proposal for a new Amnesty Law being studied in the Legislative Assembly, which is similar to the one repealed by the Supreme Court in 2016. In the Legislative Assembly, retired military members still serve as deputies, from the ARENA party and the former military party PCN, who participated directly in El Salvador’s civil war from the Armed Forces, who oppose a law that does not allow the continuity of impunity for war crimes.

Last December, the United States published a list of former Salvadoran military personnel accused of having participated in and openly covered up war crimes and human rights violations, including PCN deputy José Almendáriz. According to this list, these sanctions include visa cancellations and the prohibition of entry of these persons to the country. This is the only action that the United States has taken so far with respect to war crimes and the El Mozote massacre.

The United States and El Mozote

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration had a very active influence in the development of the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

While no documents have come to light to prove direct involvement of U.S. military forces in war crimes in Central America or in the El Mozote case, it has been proven that the United States cooperated financially and provided military training on behalf of the Central American states’ repressive forces in these conflicts.

“All of this is a reminder to us in the United States of a dark chapter in our history. We took sides in that war, we provided a lot of military aid, including to those who murdered the Jesuits, without conditioning respect for human rights,” McGovern said, during his 2019 visit to El Salvador.

When the news of the Mozote massacre reached the US Congress, through reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post, some US politicians and even the ambassador of El Salvador in Washington DC, denied the massacre, so as not to overshadow the commitment to the fight against communism in Central America.

“When the massacre occurred, I publicly denied it, following instructions from the government I represented,” wrote former Salvadoran ambassador Ernesto Rivas Gallont in a post published in El Salvador.

As David Morales said, investigations and some testimonies indicate that a US military advisor could have known and even been in El Mozote hours before the massacre, without authorization; but, upon realizing that the objective of the operation was to kill all the peasants to prevent them from being recruited by the guerrillas, he withdrew from the place.

In 2019, a commission from Congress and the House of Representatives, headed by Nancy Pelosi, traveled to El Salvador to meet with the survivors and relatives of the victims, and with President Bukele. Among the group was Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, who also visited El Mozote.

McGovern is one of the foreign actors who has followed the case closely and has developed a close relationship with El Salvador. “I hope that eventually the United States will release documents and material that is relevant, either publicly or to support Judge Guzman in the process of the Mozote case,” he said in an interview with the Americas Program.

The congressman hopes that with the arrival of Joe Biden to the U.S. presidency, the official U.S. position on this massacre will change, because in his opinion, the Trump administration did not focus on respect for human rights and also allowed authoritarian behaviors of some rulers that damage Central American democracy, as expected by some congressmen.

Impunity still prevails

Congressman McGovern stressed the importance of justice in the massacre case, which goes beyond the rights of the survivors.  “It is important because El Salvador has a history of impunity. If justice cannot be delivered in the Mozote case, an event in which more than a thousand people were massacred, there is no kind of hope that Salvadorans can have justice in any case,” said Congressman McGovern.

The hope for justice given by Bukele also vanished for the organizations that legally accompany the survivors and victims, since Bukele’s government has given prominence and protection to the Armed Forces, and has also used them as a tool of pressure and political repression against his detractors.

“Bukele’s government has exacerbated militarism and is giving a very large role to the Armed Forces. Bukele places the military in the foreground and even carries out the military takeover of the Legislative Assembly with the military. The National Civil Police and the Armed Forces are submitting to the submission of the president, and he is submitting to the historical cover-up pact. President Bukele did not mind breaking his promise and did not mind delegitimizing the judge in the El Mozote massacre case,” said David Morales.

The military chain of command that ordered, executed and massacred the people of El Mozote has been identified. The documents and evidence in the hands of the judge prove that the “scorched earth” operation was a “strategy” of the General Staff, the highest military body, which had the authorization of the Minister of Defense (at the time), Guillermo Garcia, accused in the process.

“All of this, also demonstrates how the Salvadoran government opposes the strength and independence of the Judicial System, something that has been a priority for many of us in Congress for decades. It is not only sad. It is disturbing how President Bukele and the defense minister cannot be trusted because they do not keep their word and do not comply with the law,” said Congressman McGovern.

There are two orders from the Supreme Court of Justice and the court where the investigation is taking place that mandate access to military archives related to the massacre. Both orders have been disobeyed by the Minister of Defense, Rene Merino Merino Monroy, and the official even said publicly that he will not comply with them.

“The judge is doing what he can do, the families and survivors are doing what they can do, but President Bukele and the defense minister who can help not only to get the truth out, but also to get justice, are thwarting this case. It is so disappointing and damaging for the future of El Salvador,” the congressman said.

The refusal to comply with the orders of the Supreme Court of Justice and the judge in the case indicates that President Bukele will not only continue the pattern of protecting the military involved in crimes against humanity in El Salvador, but will also continue to fail to comply with his duties as president, committing arbitrary acts and actions that could constitute a crime.

The ongoing cover-up and protection of the members of the military involved in the massacre continues to cause indignation, pain, abandonment and discrimination of the survivors and victims, who 39 years after the worst massacre in the country, are still waiting for the Salvadoran State to do justice.

Carmen Rodríguez is a journalist in San Salvador, El Salvador and has five years of experience in digital journalism. She specializes in security and judicial matters, and has collaborated with the Americas Program since 2014.