From La Prensa Gráfica - Testimonies and Bones: The First Evidence of the Massacre of El Calabozo

This is a translation of an article from Séptimo Sentido with reporting by Valeria Guzmán.

At least 200 civilians were murdered by the military in the massacre of El Calabozo in 1982, according to the crime report filed by the survivors. The physical evidence of the massacre, which occurred in the area surrounding San Esteban Catarina in San Vicente, is scarce. The inhabitants of the area claim that their relatives were murdered on the banks of the Amatitán River, and that their cadavers were carried off by the current. At the end of October, there was an exhumation to look for the remains of the victims. What they found is the first physical evidence of a crime that was reported over 26 years ago.

Juana de Jesús has cried over the same thing for 36 years. This October morning, however, she is composed. She is a 63-year-old woman who receives both friends and strangers alike in the patio of her house. Today, on a nearby plot of land, people will try to exhume the remains of her mother, father, sister-in-law, and brothers.

She’s placed blue, plastic seats out on her patio and she forms a circle with friends, relatives and neighbors. Three of Juana’s other brothers are also here. Before the judicial process begins at 10 am, adults and children hold hands and pray together.

On October 29th, the Attorney General of the Republic ordered the first exhumation to investigate the massacre of El Calabozo. It is believed that at least 200 people, including children, were murdered in the massacre. To survive, Juana hid in the mountains for several days. While hidden, she could hear the gunshots.

Since then, her voice breaks when she talks about the last time she saw her parents. For Juana the pain remains. A young niece speaks in the circle that has formed, and she starts to cry: “The stories are passed down from generation to generation. I didn’t know them, but I know it wasn’t something they deserved. I would like there to be justice one day. That’s all I ask for so they can rest in peace.”

At 10:30 in the morning, personnel from the the Attorney General’s Office, police, a forensic anthropologist, a judge, employees of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, and the lawyer in charge of the case gather in her patio. They have come to explain how the procedure to extract the bones will work. One of Juana’s brothers buried the remains of their family in secret 36 years ago. Today, these remains will be rediscovered.

***

“They went on to their deaths.”

Juana lives in the village of San Jeronimo de Santa Clara. The village forms the boundary of the Lower Amatitán, the area where they claim the majority of the murders of the massacre occurred. The Amatitán River flows close to her house. Her house is in a rural area, and its biggest attraction is a soccer field that becomes a fairground with children’s rides during the town’s patron saint festival.

After the explanation of the events to come, a group of 40 people - staff from State institutions, human rights defenders and relatives - began the 15 minute walk. They walk along paths that widen and narrow with the terrain.

Juana doesn’t accompany the group. She has a problem that impedes her from walking well. After passing three bushes that divide some of the properties here, they arrive at a small tombstone with three crosses painted green and adorned with plastic, red flowers. They are surrounded by corn fields. Next to them water trickles down a ravine. This is the last scene that Juana’s parents saw.

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She was 27 years old when the civil war affected her directly. “I thought the war would last two weeks,” she admits now. In 1982, she already had two children: a seven-month-old and a four-year-old. She never went to school and instead took care of her parent’s home: she made and served food for her family. In August of that year, life stood still.

“No one felt safe enough to stay in their house, because if they [the military] found you there, they would kill you. That’s why we fled.” Her family joined the hundreds of people that tried to escape the military on the night of August 21, 1982. However, as she advanced with the rest of the group, she felt a pressure in her stomach. She says she interpreted it as a sign from a higher power that said, “not a step forward, nor a step backwards. Stay here.” She remained still and called for her parents. She guesses that it was about 11 at night.

-Dad, where’s mom?

-She’s just a little ways ahead of you. What do you want? Do you need to talk to her?

-Yes, and you too, Dad.

As Juana starts to relive that conversation, she folds her hands. She places them in her lap, as if to prevent something delicate from escaping. As they fled, she cradled her seven-month-old and her mom took her four-year-old. That night, she asked her mom to leave the oldest child with her.

-I want to ask you a favor. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. But, I can feel in my bones that something will happen. I don’t know what is best. But in case I die, I want to be with my children. One on each side of me.

-I’m not going to give him to you, my daughter. You’re going to take the little one because you’re still breastfeeding, but don’t take this one - Juana says her mother answered.

-Ok, go on then. I hope that you’ll be careful, and take care of the boy as well.

That’s the last conversation that she remembers with her: “They went on to their deaths. Ahead of them was the Armed Forces’ ambush.”

According to testimonies, it rained at dawn on August 22nd, and the Amatitán River grew. The current was strong and the campesinos were tired. Crossing it wasn’t the best decision. In the morning, when hundreds of campesinos were recovering the strength they needed to keep going, military forces reached them and shot at them.

The Exhumation

Juana’s family was killed on this piece of land by the river, according to her testimony. “Everyone was like this, as if forming a circle,” the woman explains. This is the second visit made to this place in relation to the court case. Even though the massacre was denounced in 1992, it wasn’t investigated. In January 2018, they officially identified the places where the survivors assure the massacre happened. That is when this grave was identified.

Upon arriving, Joaquín Bonilla, the judge in the case, swears in the forensic expert in charge of the exhumation:

-Do you accept this position? - asks the judge.

-I accept - responds the anthropologist, Silvana Turner.

-Do you promise to carry out this role faithfully and in accordance with the law?

-I promise.

-In this moment, you are sworn in as an expert - finishes Bonilla.

Silvana Turner is part of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF for its initials in Spanish), an organization founded in the eighties that has worked to identify the victims of various crimes around the world. The EAAF isn’t only dedicated to unearthing the bones. The members of the team interview the survivors or relatives, complete the exhumation, analyze genetic material, and, also, return the remains to family members. They are very experienced: over the course of 30 years the EAAF has worked identifying the victims of the Argentine dictatorship, and the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara; they have worked in Kosovo, South Africa, Guatemala, and  El Mozote, Morazán. The presence of Silvana Turner strengthens the investigation.

After Turner is sworn in, she begins to work. Some locals help her clear the area and get rid of the undergrowth using small knives. At 12:01 in the afternoon, she begins to hammer at the rock slab. Little by little, the cement starts to recede and pieces of brick and concrete are taken away.

Meanwhile, Turner takes two folding chairs out of her backpack and walks five meters uphill to the tomb. There, she begins interviewing Juana’s brothers. In the interview, she tries to gather information on specific characteristics of the victims that will allow her to identify them. Next, she pricks one of their fingers and squeezes it so that a few drops of blood fall on a piece of paper that she stores to use as a DNA comparison.

The second person that Turner interviews is Fernando, Juana de Jesús’ brother. He is a serious man who gives her a skeptical look. “Was your father missing any teeth? Is there a mark or characteristic that you remember?,” the Argentine asks Fernando. The campesino struggles with his memory and can’t recall any specific details. He is asked the same thing about his mother and his sisters. Then the anthropologists calmly asks him about the clothing that his family members had on before being killed. She doesn’t have much luck with those details either.

“I didn’t bury them very deeply, because I didn’t have anything to do it with,” Fernando starts to say. He returned a few days after the massacre, and found his family members in that circle shape that Juana remembers. He says he also buried some small bones. He also buried his father’s pants with his legs in them, and some “little heads, but I don’t know whose they were because they were already bare bones.”

***

In the blink of an eye

Juana spent three nights hiding. Until, according to her calculations, the fourth day, when she decided to return to her house. “I could no longer stand not eating or drinking water,” she explains. I could no longer breastfeed my seven month old baby because I stopped producing milk. “If I didn’t feed myself, what would my son eat?,” she asks.

“I found the house locked, as my mom had left it,” she says. She maintains that the Armed Forces hadn’t left the area. For that reason, she chose to eat at home, but spent the nights sleeping with her son amongst the vegetation.

After she found out her family was dead, her mind started playing tricks on her. At times, she wished she wouldn’t blink. “When they had just died, I would look over there and see my dad with my little brother, my son, my sisters, and my mom. Then when I blinked, they would disappear. That’s how I spent my days. The problem was that I always blinked. I saw them and then I lost them,” she recalls.

In those moments, the pain Juana felt was never-ending, and she considered suicide. “I was going to kill myself because I felt alone. My dad had left some pills to use on the corn, and I was going to take one. I wanted the pain to end,” she says.

The brothers that were able to make their statements to Silvana Turner were saved because they were in another village when the massacre occurred. That’s what Juana comments. Thanks to her brother Fernando and an in-law, she is one of the few survivors that knows where her family’s remains are.

“They came to search, to look for them. They found them. They did everything possible to bury them, but because they had thrown acid on them when they grabbed my mom and dad’s arms all of the flesh would fall off. With the acid, all of the bodies softened. That’s what happened to them, that’s why they couldn’t stand the bad smell. They told me that they were going to let the bones dry, because they couldn’t stand the liquids on them. When they returned to bury them, there were only bones.”

Just two years after the massacre, in September 1984, the American ambassador to El Salvador confirmed to The New York Times that the Salvadoran army had napalm weapons. This substance was developed during World War II by scientists from Harvard University who worked for the US Army. During that time, The New York Times also published that, “the commander of the Armed Forces of El Salvador said that napalm weapons had been used against guerrilla forces.”

After the massacre, Juana went to live in the shelter Fe y Esperanza (Faith and Hope) in San Salvador. “I felt a bit busier, more occupied there, because there was work cleaning and preparing food for everyone; but when we went to lunch, that’s when I would cry.” Before when Juana cooked, the first plates she served where those of her mother and father.

Among her belongings is a yellowed photo. She has short hair, and in her arms she’s cradling a child who looks seriously at the camera. She has an expression similar to a smile. The photo was taken in the shelter where she lived for years until she was able to return to the banks of the river, and leave flowers for her mom, dad, two sisters, sister-in-law, and ten-year-old brother.

***

Some Evidence Appears

At 1:38 in the afternoon on a Monday in October, they start discovering a piece of cloth in the ground. The forensic scientists of the Institute of Forensic Medicine are taking away the dirt in the area by layers, helped by their brushes and buckets.

Two minutes later, the forensic scientists find a small bone that they show to Turner. The anthropologists explains to them that when they find something in the ground they shouldn’t pick it up, they have to expose it, in other words, use a brush to sweep away everything around it without changing the position of the piece.

The dirt that is taken out of the area isn’t tossed. It is placed in a bucket and then passed through a screen. Soon, Turner observes to the Salvadoran professionals: “There are bones appearing on the screen. That means that you guys are missing them.”

Turner puts the little bones in a paper bag. At this point, people from the community have already left. None of the women of the family stay to see whether or not they discover the bones of their parents or siblings. But one thing is sure: Juana’s son - who was four years old when the massacre occurred - is not there.

“Many people were burned. They killed them and then they burned them. There were many piles of ashes, and I thought, who knows which of those is my son,” she explains. She felt pain for the loss of her son for years, until she found him nine years later. Juana doesn’t know why, but the victimizers of her parents didn’t kill her son. He grew up in San Salvador.

Before nightfall, the day’s work ends. Some of the forensic scientists claim they can observe part of a cranium. Turner instructs them not to move it; they still need to move more dirt to better analyze the bone. The forensic pathologists of the IML begin to make a ditch, because it might rain that night and they need to create a pathway to divert the rain water. They placed a white piece of plastic over the excavated area. Before the sun goes down, people begin the walk back. Two police officers will watch over the grave overnight.

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***

Just the Beginning

Initially, the exhumation was supposed to last three days, but it lasted four. On November 1st, they finished excavating all of the remains. Some witnesses of the exhumation say that, along with the bones, they found a small women’s wallet, a piece of cloth that looked like a handkerchief, and a small knife, similar to the kind used to peel oranges. Amongst the bones there aren’t any weapons, pistols, or anything that indicates that these people were armed.

The exhumation is part of the first investigations related to the case, which is filed in the First Court of San Sebastián. The case still faces more challenges, such as how to individualize the accusation. Until now, the prosecutor of the case, David Morales, explains that it has been difficult to access military documents from the era to begin assigning specific responsibilities.

Furthermore, “Silvana Turner wasn’t able to take the remains of the DNA,” points out Irene Gómez, who works for Cristosal, an organization that works directly with the survivors of the massacre and provides juridic support. She said that because the exhumation took a day longer, there was a lag in the final permit needed to take the samples.

The remains are being protected by the Institute of Forensic Medicine for now. On November 6th, the judge of the First Court of San Sebastián started the process to authorize the remains to exit the country. However, the response from the Argentine Embassy has been slow. “Now all that remains is to send the samples to Turner, via the Argentine Embassy, so she can analyze them,” Gómez stated.

“There exists a possibility of recovering DNA from the remains; however, due to their lack of preservation, this will be clarified when they are analyzed in the lab,” Silvana Turner wrote in an email. When asked how much time it usually takes to analyze the samples. “I cannot answer with precision, but we normally calculate that it takes around two months minimum, from the moment the samples get to Argentina,” she responded.

Meanwhile, Juana is still waiting for them to return the remains to her. She plans to finally mourn them, pray over them, and give them a dignified burial. She doesn’t plan to bury them in the cemetery, they will go back to the place where they have remained for 36 years, close to the Amatitlán River. While she talks about this, two of her little nieces are playing in the patio. They smile, and have straight black hair. They love to play in the dirt.

Cristosal began working on the El Calabozo case in 2016. Our strategic litigation team litigates both this case and the case of the El Mozote massacre. At Cristosal we understand the importance of ensuring that these crimes do not disappear into impunity, that the victims’ voices do not remain silenced. You can support this case and the fight for transitional justice in El Salvador today.