From VoxBox: El Mozote and the State Complicit in the Massacre

This is a translation of an article from VoxBox.

Human Rights - In December 1981, 978 people were killed in the massacre of El Mozote and the surrounding areas. Of these people, 477 were under the age of twelve and 248 were under the age of six.

Despite forensic evidence and the testimonies of survivors and their relatives, the massacre of El Mozote continues creating controversy among those who know the case. There are those who deny it happened, and those who accept that it happened but assure that the massacre was justified because it was against a guerrilla unit. However, these two positions do not compare to a third one: those who know the case and think we should bury it, those who think that we have enough deaths every day to be thinking about deaths that happened 37 years ago.

However, the truth is that the massacre did happen. It was a crime against humanity (and a war crime at that) committed by the State, and yes, we do need to talk about it, analyze it, debate it, and, above all, try it.

David Morales, Director of Strategic Litigation at Cristosal and head prosecutor in the El Mozote case.

David Morales, Director of Strategic Litigation at Cristosal and head prosecutor in the El Mozote case.

Unfortunately, the media doesn’t always cover this case, and, often when they do cover it they don’t cover it well - intentionally or not. So the information that we have on the case is insufficient to help us comprehend what it means for the case to be on trial currently, and what the obstacles are to determining who is guilty and compensating the victims.

That’s why we talked to David Morales, head of strategic litigation for Cristosal, who accompanies the fight of Tutela Legal Dra. María Julia Hernández. Morales is the head prosecutor in the case, along with two lawyers from Tutela Legal.

VoxBox: So, in 1981 there is a massacre. In 1982, it is discovered by some international journalists…

David Morales: According to Tutela Legal’s investigation and international and journalistic records, Operación Rescate (the name of the operation that would end in the massacre of El Mozote and the surrounding areas) started between the 7th and 8th of December, 1981.

At least 5 units of the Atlacatl Battalion, or a little over 600 men, were already deployed on those dates. They arrived in the Perquín area, and the areas North of Morazán. This began a ground deployment headed towards El Mozote.

Between December 8th and 9th, Domingo Monterrosa arrives in the town of Arambala, which is before the El Mozote area. There (this is proven in the trial), according to witnesses who saw Domingo Monterrosa convene the town, he threatened them and gave a speech in which he identified himself as Coronel Monterrosa. He said he had arrived to “clean the area,” but that the town of Arambala was in luck, because his orders were for the area beginning past the town. Nevertheless, he ordered the torture and murder of seven civilian men, and so the massacre begins there, in Arambala, between the 8th and 9th of December, 1981.

On the 10th of December, they enter El Mozote, and convene its inhabitants in the village center. Another unit of the Atlacatl Battalion is installed on the Las Aradas Plain of Jocoaitique. Once they assume these positions, they have control of the civilian population in both places.

On the 11th, they begin a mass extermination of the people concentrated in El Mozote. They assassinate all of the families there.

On the 12th, the contingent takes control of the villages of Ranchería and Los Toriles, and exterminates all of the families found in those places.

On the 13th of December, they carry out the same extermination in the villages of Jocote Amarillo and Cerro Pando.

There are two more places: Cerro el Ortíz, where they throw a grenade at a group of refugees, killing many children, including a girl only 3 days old. Her 6 year old brother was wounded, but survived, and has recounted the events of this attack. There was also the village of El Pinalito, which is before El Mozote and is also a village of families. They were all killed there, too.

These were the affected areas, very clearly delineated. There were some villages like Arambula, but there are others, very close by, where troops passed through and didn’t kill anyone. The military plan clearly had an extermination area that was carefully planned, probably at the Armed Forces’ headquarters.

VoxBox: And in 1982 international journalists…

David Morales: In January 1982, in perhaps the most important journalistic moment for this case, two famous reporters, Alma Guillermoprieto and Raymond Bonner, along with the war photographer Susan Meiselas, enter the area. They document the existence of a massacre, and report on it for both the New York Times and the Washington Post. In February 1982, the massacre was on the front cover of both newspapers in the United States. From that moment on, the international community becomes aware of the massacre.

It’s striking how, from the beginning, impunity was created for this case. The High Command of the Armed Forces denies the crime. The Civil-Military Junta, at the time headed by Napoleón Duarte, denies the existence of a massacre. The US Embassy in El Salvador denies the existence of a massacre, as do representatives of Ronald Reagan’s Government before Congress to justify continued military aid. All despite evidence of this enormous crime.

VoxBox: No investigation is opened despite the journalistic evidence?

David Morales: Not once, in almost a decade, did the Salvadoran authorities promote an investigation; not the Attorney General’s Office, nor the tribunals of the time. It was just before ten years had passed, before they could argue that the crime’s statute of limitation had expired, that Dr. María Julia Hernández, director of Tutela Legal, started an investigation. This was possible because in 1990 a refugee camp from Colomoncagua, Honduras repopulated the Northern part of Morazán.

Among them were the survivors and witnesses of the massacre, including Rufina Amaya. It was then possible for Tutela Legal, at the request of the victims, to start an investigation, and accompany the survivors as they present a legal complaint on October 26, 1990 before the court that currently has the case.

Here we’d like to make a clarification regarding the Penal Code currently being used in the trial of El Mozote; the El Mozote trial doesn’t use the country’s current plaintiff model, but instead has a Head Prosecutor. Why? Because the case was opened under the old Penal Procedural Code of 1973. This was the procedural code that was in effect when the massacre was committed, and when the initial complaint was made in 1990.

This is, perhaps, an important procedural aspect of the case, says Morales. He continues: the judge reopened the case under the old code, but then there are the lawyers who presented an accusation in 2006. Both the lawyer from Tutela Legal, Wilfredo Medrano and myself - at the time I was also a member of Tutela Legal, which was part of the Archbishopric - presented part of the complaint. The judge trying the case didn’t accept the accusation because he thought its trial was prohibited under the Amnesty Law.

When the case reopens in 2016, 10 years after we had presented the accusation, one of the judge’s first acts was to allow the accusation now that there was no Amnesty Law due to its unconstitutionality. Then, this particular accusation is finally active in the trial and we, the prosecutors from Tutela Legal and Cristosal, have the opportunity to push for the investigation of the case.

VoxBox: And meanwhile, El Salvador was signing the Peace Accords…

David Morales: Yes, then came the peace process and the work of the Truth Commission. This changed the political context of the period, marked the end of the war, which was a situation important to our case, and that context allowed the tribunal to inspect and, for the first time, exhume Site 1 of El Mozote.  This is perhaps the most important thing that has happened in the case.

Site 1 faces a little cabin that the town calls El Convento, next to the hermitage of the church.

VoxBox: That’s when the technical report was made with the team from Argentina?

David Morales: Indeed, that is where the Argentinian anthropology team worked. Tutela Legal had been fighting for them to come and be accredited since 1991, but their participation was blocked. Forensic scientists from the US also came to help with the exhumation, as expert consultants for the Argentinian team.

VoxBox: What is the importance of Grave 1?

David Morales: [The exhumation of] Grave 1 allowed for the recuperation of 143 skeletons, in a small cabin measuring approximately 3 by 7 meters. Of these 143 skeletons, 136 were children with an average age of 6 years. It was scientifically proven that they were assassinated by gunshot, from a minimum of 24 gunmen who used M16 guns, with bullets that were made in Lake City, US. The forensic report also determined that this “pile” of assassinated children didn’t die in crossfire or combat. They fully rejected that possibility, and categorically concluded that this was a mass crime, a mass extrajudicial execution. That is a scientific conclusion from the 1992 technical forensic report by the Argentinian and North American experts, as a result of the study of Grave 1. Thus, from that moment on, the scientific proof was overwhelming: this was about a civilian population of children. The scientific evidence was later strengthened.

Children’s coffins in El Mozote.

Children’s coffins in El Mozote.

However, once the Amnesty Law was passed, once the Truth Commission was over, when the work of the UN was rethought to implement the Peace Accords, the judge at the time paralyzed the investigation. When the Amnesty Law came into effect in 1993, the judge applied it to this case and archived it. Since then, until 2016 - we’re talking about 23 years - the State, the courts, the Attorney General’s Office, and the political clout of the Amnesty Law have kept the case closed. In other words, we’re talking about a case that has been closed for 23 years due to an arbitrary, unconstitutional, violation of international law kept in place by the Salvadoran State.

VoxBox: How many people are being accused?

David Morales: In total 18. Initially it was 20, but it was later confirmed that two had died (editor’s note: this interview took place before October 3rd, when Coronel Francisco Adolfo Castillo died, which is why David Morales only mentions the deaths of two of the accused).

To make it easier: here is a list of those accused of the massacre of El Mozote:

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And here is another list of the accused who are deceased,

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VoxBox: Why is it important to talk about the people accused?

Military leaders at the trial.

Military leaders at the trial.

David Morales: It’s important to highlight the people who gave orders, directed the troops, or planned the operation, because El Mozote was not an isolated case. From 1980 to 1983, when this military high command was in power, there were dozens of similar operations in which rural, civilian populations were killed. It was a systemic practice.

VoxBox: Are there records of the other cases?

David Morales: Of course. There are even cases in the judicial system. The systemic practice of civilian massacres as a strategic, counterinsurgent, State terrorism mechanism that involved the Armed Forces and its high command produced human exterminations in rural areas where there was a guerrilla presence or activity at the time. The Truth Commission provided a clear insight into this pattern of violence. It identified a specific pattern of massacres of civilian populations in these areas; this abhorrent strategy was used in Guatemala during the genocide around the same time.

VoxBox: Is this where the term “scorched earth” strategy comes from?

David Morales: Indeed, it was called “scorched earth” based on an ancient military saying that means “take the fish out of water.” The guerrillas were considered a fish that moved and “hid” in the “water” of the civilian population. That’s why civilian populations were massacred. They were hoping to dissuade or weaken the willpower of those they considered their military adversaries. But obviously, in the systematic practice of this, we are talking about a crime against humanity, according to international law. Furthermore, El Salvador was already a signee of Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, which regulates what is prohibited during an internal armed conflict, and in no case can they attack civilian populations. Thus, we are talking about, in addition to a crime against humanity, a war crime, in accordance with international law. And, of course, in domestic law we’re talking about serious crimes.

VoxBox: Is there a date for when they began massacring under the scorched earth strategy?

David Morales: The civilian massacres began after they killed Monseñor Romero with the help of death squads. Since the mid-70s, there were the murders of students, campesinos, workers, and political opponents. But these big civilian massacres, of a larger scope - scorched earth - start after the magnicide of Monseñor Romero. The 13th and 14th of May, 1980 are very symbolic dates that mark the Sumpul River massacre, in which more than 600 people in Chalatenango were killed. The Sumpul massacre is currently part of an ongoing penal process in a court in Chalatenango. In March 1981, the Atlacatl Infantry Battalion was created, and after its creation, under the management of Minister of Defense, Guillermo García, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Rafael Flores Lima, it becomes an instrument that participates in many of the operations that exterminate civilian populations. Two very painful examples: the massacre of El Calabozo…

VoxBox: Where is El Calabozo?

El Calabozo is on the Amatitán River in the department of Amatitán, in the municipality of San Esteban Catarina in San Vicente. In this department, there was also a large military operation, called the Mario Azenón Palma operation, in which more than 200 people were killed. The Atlácatl Battalion directly participated.

The Sumpul, El Mozote, and El Calabozo massacres are included in the Truth Commission’s report as examples of a pattern of violence. There are other cases that have been supported by the Madeleine Lagadec DDHH Center, which has helped file complaints and demand justice in cases like the massacre of Tenango Guadalupe, the massacre of San Francisco Angulo, and the San Vicente massacre, amongst others. The Pro Busqueda Association promotes justice in the case of the La Conacastada massacre, which also occurred in San Vicente, under the same context that produced the El Calabozo massacre. Additionally, there are registers from different human rights sources that document dozens of cases between 1980 and 1984. That’s all to say it’s a war strategy.

VoxBox: Going back to the topic of El Mozote…

David Morales: It has been proven in trial that the military units that participated in the massacre of El Mozote and the surrounding areas were, of course, the Atlácatl, but also two other infantry units: one from the Commanders Instruction Center in San Francisco Gotera, and the troops of the Third Infantry Brigade in San Miguel, where the regional military chiefs, including that of Morazán, were located. El Mozote and the surrounding areas were under the jurisdiction of the Third Infantry Brigade, and the Commander of that brigade, Jaime Flores Grijalba, was the military chief for that area.

These units and the regional troops provided needed support. The Air Force and Artillery Brigade also helped, the latter by bombing the areas where the massacre would occur, inflicting serious damages before infantry troops arrived. After the bombing, the Air Force helped with the implementation of the operation: transporting troops, and even shooting at the population.

I’ve mentioned various military units, including the Air Force and the Artillery Brigade, which are support units that only act under the supervision of the high chain of command. The Immediate Response Infantry Battalion (BIRI for their acronym in Spanish), unlike the regional troops and the departmental commands, do not have a specific, defined territory. These battalions are mobile. In military doctrine, this is called a strategic troop reserve, and it acts as an elite unit in special operations. For this, they had specialized equipment and training, and were specially selected to form part of this unit.

The BIRIS intervention at that point in the armed conflict was through special planning, coordination, and orders from the High Chain of Command of the Armed Forces, that is to say, from headquarters.

The soldiers are professionals, with norms, manuals, established organization, and are regulated by different instruments. They are hierarchical, rigorous institutions, even to this day. A soldier, armed with a rifle or a military vehicle, much less a helicopter, does not leave a military base without an authorization paper that corresponds to an intervention plan that has been designed and ordered by the regional command, or, in some cases, from a strategic viewpoint, by the High Command or headquarters. El Mozote and other operations that ended in large massacres, were combined operations that could not happen without instructions from the highest levels of command.

Domingo Monterrosa didn’t have the authority or capacity on his own to arrive in El Mozote and perpetrate the massacre. The head of the artillery brigade and the commander in San Francisco Gotera did not have the authority to order the BIRI to arrive and give them that kind of aerial support on their own. This was a plan, which would obviously be registered and documented. A military plan called Operation Rescate (the military name given to the extermination plan for El Mozote and the surrounding areas), which assigned roles to the various military units, which had a logical budget for gasoline, provisions, munition, uniforms, and everything the troops would need. A plan which established objectives, and defined the areas in which the military would intervene and the parts the various units would play. The Atlacatl Battalion was assigned the main role, which was the massacre of civilians.

VoxBox: Ok. So now we get to the year 2006…

David Morales: As I mentioned, this particular accusation was presented in 2006, with arguments based in international law. Since 2000, there already existed a jurisprudence in the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador that allowed us to reopen these trials.

In the case of El Mozote, the accused are implicated in the following crimes (according to the 1973 Penal Code):

  1. Assassination, Art. 153

  2. Aggravated Rape, Art. 154

  3. Aggravated Deprivation of Liberty, Art. 195

  4. Forced Entry, Art. 218

  5. Theft, Art. 228

  6. Aggravated Damages, Art. 241

  7. Causing Mayhem, Art. 254

  8. Acts of Terrorism, Art. 284

  9. Acts to Plan Terrorism, Art 400 and 402

  10. Inflicting Injuries (As I understand it, they included this or will include it.)

VoxBox: Taking into account that there has been a systematic attempt to prevent this case from happening, what is your realistic view on finally achieving justice in this case?

David Morales: I think that, at this moment, we are seeing one of the clearest examples of the possibility of winning this case. The judicial system can vindicate their responsibility to this historic impunity, by making an extraordinary effort to achieve justice. The Tribunal of San Francisco Gotera (the court in charge of this case) is located in one of the farthest cities from the capital, and thus has little resources, little support from the Supreme Court, and little capacity.

Despite this, we think that the tribunal is making an effort to implement the law. In my opinion, they are playing an impartial role; they are respecting all of the constitutional guarantees of the accused, they are investigating the rights of those accused, but they are also allowing the victims to participate. The main form of participation has been the testimonies of the survivors, who for the first time can declare, in a public audience before a judge, what they saw, resulting in a procedural trial. Not only have the witnesses consolidated proof of the facts, as their proof coincides strongly with the forensic findings, many witnesses have also categorically proved the participation of the Atlacatl Battalion, including the presence of Domingo Monterrosa, the direct command of the troops

The tribunal has required that the General Commander of the Armed Forces, current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, disclose military information.

VoxBox: The process is now in the investigative phase, what does this phase entail?

David Morales: The investigative phase is a phase in which fundamental evidence is collected. It is a phase that impulses, that ensures the proof gets to the tribunal. The following phase is the trial, the revision of the evidence gathered. It is the phase that could end in absolution or condemnation. In the next phase, evidence will be presented in absolute, in accordance with the old Code. It is a phase that should happen once the case has been sufficiently investigated, when it has been sufficiently crafted. Legally, this phase is the penal process. We believe that there are still some incomplete steps, that there are still some items left to investigate.

VoxBox: Let’s say that everything goes well, that there’s impartiality, and justice is achieved. What will happen? What does it mean for El Salvador that the victims have justice?

David Morales: It would, of course, be a very positive milestone for the justice system in El Salvador, but also for the construction of democracy and the state of human rights in El Salvador. It isn’t possible to have a State that is complicit in the murder of 1,000 civilians, over half of them children and adolescents, where atrocities like rape were committed against women, and the destruction of property, and elimination of entire towns. If the justice system in El Salvador, including the Attorney General, do not have the will or capacity to investigate one of the biggest massacres in the recent history of Latin America, what else constitutes a war crime or a crime against humanity? What sort of message would the State send regarding democracy and justice? If our own State is complicit in the impunity of war crimes it means that having or having had political or military power grants you impunity in the assassination of a thousand people.

The El Mozote memorial, with the names and ages of the victims.

The El Mozote memorial, with the names and ages of the victims.

VoxBox: Because, in addition to this, currently impunity and violence are still recurring issues…

David Morales: We’re currently confronting a situation of violence and diverse forms of human rights abuses, different, of course, to the war context, but still very tragic, painful, and with thousands of violent deaths and serious crimes every year. In order to confront this violence, we can’t have a judicial system, and a fiscal and police apparatus, that is incapable of investigating the murder of a thousand civilians. El Mozote is a challenge for justice today. The victims and survivors of the crimes against humanity that occurred during the armed conflict and their relatives, independent of who committed the crime, have been the victims of historic discrimination. They have been a type of second-class citizen, whose inalienable rights have been denied. These rights include: access to justice, access to truthful information, adequate reparations. Meanwhile the victimizers and those that support them politically, have remained in power, or received high levels of impunity and conserved their political and economic privileges. According to the Constitution, the State should be protecting the victims. That’s what Article 1 and 2 of the Constitution say. All State activity should be based on the principle of human dignity.

Thus we have a justice system that protects the victimizers who commit terrible crimes and discriminates against their victims, and we can observe that this pattern of impunity has lasted a long time. We no longer have the State terrorism and violence that existed on a large scale in the 80s and the decades before the armed conflict. This is a huge achievement of the Peace Accords and its reforms. But serious human rights violations remain. And, as civil society organizations and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office have proven, in the ‘90s, the 2000s, and currently we’ve seen cases of torture, and extralegal executions by so-called extermination groups, a type of death squad with the goal of social cleansing. We’ve had serious cases of abuse by the police and military…well, we’ve even had very serious cases of corruption, recurring murders of trans women and the LGBTQI population, and the strong stigmatization of adolescents and young adults by the police force.

In recent years, we’ve started to see cases of forced disappearances, not disappearances committed by criminals, which is a painful reality, but disappearances attributed to the police or the military. For this reason, justice in these types of cases is the most important way to help victims, and also prevent the repetition of similar crimes.

People that can’t achieve justice, that can’t recognize the truth, are condemned to repeat it. The scorched earth policy and peasant massacres at the beginning of the ‘80s are a tragic repetition of the 1932 genocide. We have been a country that has repeated its history of abuse and human rights violations.