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El Salvador: reconciliation or impunity?

As the Legislative Assembly prepares to vote on a controversial new law


El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly is expected to vote soon on a controversial new ‘Special Law of Transitional and Restorative Justice for National Reconciliation’. Despite its title, the law would provide both army and guerrilla soldiers with de facto impunity for crimes against human rights committed during the country’s bitter conflict in the 1970s and 1980s. The proposed legislation is supported by both the right-wing ARENA party and, surprisingly, by the party of the FMLN former guerrillas, some of whom have their own war-crimes to exonerate. Opposed by incoming president Nayib Bukele and roundly condemned by most victims’ organisations and international human rights bodies, the law seems unlikely to reach the statute book.

The quietness made me uneasy.  It was midday and there were only a few people out in the town square of El Mozote in the province of Morazán, 200 km from El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.  Opposite the church in the town square, stands a memorial built to remember the men, women and children brutally killed at the hands of the Army 30 years ago.

Villages like El Mozote in the rural department of Morazán fell within a combat area during the civil war that lasted 12 years from 1980-1992. El Mozote is emblematic for being the site of one the worst massacres in the western hemisphere. Estimates suggest that at least 900 people were murdered.  The memorial bears the names of those who perished. Amongst them, 553 children. 

In December 1981, as army soldiers, including the feared, US-trained Atlacatl Battalion, began sweeps throught the countryside, a rumour reached the villagers in the area saying they should leave their homes and gather in El Mozote. They chose El Mozote because many of those living there were members of evangelical or Baptist churches, less likely to be suspected by the army of guerrilla sympathies.

As helicopters flew overhead, the soldiers reached the village and rounded up all they found there, making them lie face down on the ground. Then they shut them up in the houses, threatening to shoot them if they showed their faces outside.

In the early hours of the following day, 11 December, they brought everyone out into the main square in front of the church.  They separated them into two lines, one for men, one for women; the men and older children were pushed at gunpoint into the church; and the  women and smaller children were dispersed to different houses. At the church, the men were shot and some beheaded. Their charred remains of were found in the convent, beside the church.

Rufina Amaya. Image: La memoria de las Luciernagas, 2013, ISDEMU)

Then they came for the women. The younger ones and girls were taken to the hillside and raped, according to the testimony of Rufina Amaya. Rufina’s husband and four children, the youngest a baby, were killed. She managed to hide behind a tree and survived.

More details about the massacre can be found in the LAB book In the Mountains of Morazán, Portrait of a Returned Refugee Community, by Mandy Macdonald and Mike Gatehouse. The authors visited El Mozote in 1992. At that time it was deserted, the ruins of houses slowly subsiding into the undergrowth.

These crimes went unpunished under an amnesty law in 1993, which prohibited the prosecution of crimes from the war. However, in 2016 the country’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, paving the way for the cases to be re-opened.

The original memorial at El Mozote in 1991, at a time when the village was still deserted. The figures stand on the open ground amidst grass and weeds… rather than images of live people, these are the voids left when living people are suddenly taken away, killed or disappeared, like those terrible human shadows etched into walls in Hiroshima.

In 2012, a Truth Commission report concluded that the State was responsible for the massacres in El Mozote and nearby areas, noting the high number of children who were killed and tortured. Many of the women, some as young as 12, were raped prior to their execution.

The survivors of the massacre and relatives of the victims are still waiting for justice. They are concerned about plans for a new amnesty law for the crimes of the civil war, called the National Reconciliation Law.

Last week, Salvadoreans took to the streets to reject the approval of the law. Under the proposal, agreed by the main political parties, many cases will not come before the courts and perpetrators of crimes may undertake community service instead of going to jail.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ICHR), recently stated that the law could lead to impunity for serious human rights violations.

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Christian Aid partner FESPAD, a member of a working group on Human Rights and in Favour of Historical Memory, agrees with the ICHR’s statement and called for the government ( formed until 1 June by the political party of the FMLN, the former guerrilla group) – to show that is on the side of the victims and their families.

FESPAD had urged outgoing President Salvador Sanchez Cerén to veto this law for being unconstitutional and asked the ICHR to issue ‘provisional measures’ for El Salvador to stop the law’s approval.

ReTweet by Nayib Bukele, describing his order to remove the name ‘Col Domingo Monterrosa’ from the barracks of the 3rd Infantry Brigade in San Miguel

In the event the law stalled in the Assembly, perhaps because of the storm of criticism it aroused. Incoming president Nayib Bukele has wasted little time in showing his sympathies: one of his first acts was to order the Army to remove from its barracks in San Miguel the name of army ‘hero’ Lt.Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, former commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, accused of ordering the El Mozote massacre.

Soldiers obey the new president — erasing the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa, believed to have ordered the El Mozote massacre.

The days ahead will be crucial. Will new President, Nayib Bukele, who took office on June 1, follow through on his symbolic statements and veto the proposed law? Will he be on the side of the victims?

Mgr.Romero as a young priest

“Brothers, there is no crime that can remain unpunished. All these abuses of power by the State cannot be left unpunished.”

– Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated by a right-wing death squad, 23 March 1980, while saying mass

Christian Aid’s El Salvador Programme Officer  Tania Grande recently wrote a recent article (in Spanish) for Contrapunto, published just before the change of government:

29 May 2019. Recent days have shocked those of us who are fighting for a fairer world, as government deputies attempt to strip the right to the truth, justice and reparation of the victims of war. This is because their memory is uncomfortable and adversarial, as several legislators have been identified as perpetrators. However, amid the spectacle of partisan politics, there are the testimonies of the victims and their families who managed to survive, which reminds us that politics are done through the coherence of their lives.

The Truth Commission report states that the FMLN guerrilla was responsible for 5% of the allegations of committing serious acts of violence, compared to 85% attributed to the state, through its armed forces and paramilitary groups. In spite of this, the FMLN, once defender of popular causes, surprised us by being the only fraction that until this Tuesday 28 May, maintained its intention to vote in favour of the so-called Law of Reconciliation. Surely, this shows they are willing to protect those responsible within their ranks. Unwilling to assume their 5% share of the responsibility, they are prepared to sacrifice the right to the truth, justice and reparation of the victims.

The victims and their families are the moral reserve of our country, they are precisely the persecuted, tortured and massacred, who witness with surprise how now also their former companions conspire to bury their memory.

Meanwhile, in El Salvador the days go by in the normality of the traffic jams and the deaths of everyday, while people ignore wither by choice or lack of interest how politicians decide on matters related to the healing of our history.

Last Monday, the Political Committee of the Assembly met the victims and the organizations that accompany them, granting them only a couple of minutes to convince them of the morally obvious: that the horrors of war should not be left unpunished. The Commission also called the Army’s opinion, as if the perpetrators had the same legitimacy as the victims, family members and survivors.

As Salvadoreans this should fill us with rage and pain for the 75,000 people killed and the thousands of missing people, and those tortured during the war. The people of this country know directly or indirectly about the lives that were snatched during the war, members of their family, friends or acquaintances. And we know that they were human beings with dreams, projects and illusions, human beings like you and me.

Now honestly: Could you continue living knowing that a loved one was missing or killed? Can you imagine the suffering and anguish? Think about it for a moment and then imagine how you would feel if society forced you to forget, to erase your pain and not even know what happened. What would you call this? For us it is called injustice, impunity and dehumanization; for our deputies [in the Legislative Assembly], it’s called “National Reconciliation.”

In this society of permanent mourning, where we all know someone who still cries for the loss of a loved one, the least we can do is to accompany them in their defence of justice and their fight against impunity. Why would they fight alone? In 1993 it was said: ‘The violence was a flare that advanced through the fields of El Salvador (…). The victims were Salvadoreans and foreigners, of different social and economic backgrounds, as violence makes everyone equal in the blind helplessness of its cruelty.’

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