The El Mozote Massacre and Justice in El Salvador Today
“I was playing with my brother when a soldier came in and started firing. He was dressed in olive green. He shot me first.” The man telling this story is in his early 40s. On the day he’s remembering—December 11, 1981—he was just six years old.
He is one in a string of more than 30 witnesses to testify in the recently re-opened 1981 El Mozote massacre war time crime trial. More than 1,000 civilians, mostly children, died at the hands of U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers in El Mozote, El Salvador, making it one of the major unprosecuted war time crimes in the world.
El Salvador-based human rights organization Cristosal, together with historic human rights organizations, is now prosecuting those responsible for planning and ordering the massacre: 17 former high-ranking officers from El Salvador’s Armed Forces, charged with crimes including mass murder, mass rape, and terrorism.
Noah Bullock, Cristosal Executive Director, and David Morales, Cristosal Strategic Litigation Director and a prosecuting attorney in the El Mozote case, will travel to Washington, D.C. on February 25-March 2. Bullock and Morales will speak with various U.S. Congressional committees to solicit support for transitional justice processes in El Salvador, including access to classified U.S. government documents regarding this and other war time crimes.
The trip will highlight the importance of the U.S. policy to combat corruption, promote transparency, and strengthen institutions and human rights protections in Central America—a policy which aims to reduce violence and forced migration in the region.
Cristosal is a leader in developing programming to assist people forcibly displaced by violence. Cristosal monitors forced displacement with a database of over 1,200 individuals displaced by violence, and works with other organizations including the Honduran Inter-institutional Commission of Forced Displacement, the Salvadoran Human Rights Office, and the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development to build state capacity to assist citizens.
Through this work, Cristosal has found that people are often displaced multiple times inside the country before they resort to crossing international borders. This indicates that there is an opportunity to intervene and disrupt the displacement cycle before it leads to transnational migration. Supporting victim programming can stabilize the country, build citizen’s confidence in their government, and, if prioritized, can disrupt irregular forced migration.
Bullock and Morales also hope to raise the visibility of the El Mozote case during their time in Washington. They will host a discussion and reception on Saturday, February 28 at 6:30pm at St. Alban’s Church. Morales emphasizes that the El Mozote case is an opportunity for the United States to promote justice and democracy on the continent. “Human rights in any part of the world, at any time, must be a priority,” he says.
Back in the El Salvador courtroom, another witness, an elderly woman standing barely 5 feet tall, spoke to a journalist after her testimony: "I am not intimidated anymore. I thought it would be worse, because it's hard to say these things, but now I just want justice; justice is the only thing for us."
For more on the El Mozote massacre, visit www.cristosal.org/el-mozote.