The Massacre at El Calabozo: A case reopened after 26 years

Report translated by Meg Mitchell for Cristosal from:

Guzman, V. (4 febrero, 2018). El Calabozo: El retorno de una denuncia 26 años después. Séptimo Sentida in La Prensa Grafica. Retrieved from

Amado Carillo surveys the Amatitán River, where he witnessed a massacre of 200 people, including his children, in 1982. / Photo Cristosal

Amado Carillo surveys the Amatitán River, where he witnessed a massacre of 200 people, including his children, in 1982. / Photo Cristosal

On Friday, January 26, witnesses of the 1982 El Calabozo massacre guided judicial officials through an inspection of the site. This recent attention comes almost 26 years after the case was first reported to authorities. At least 200 people died or disappeared at El Calabozo, among them children and pregnant women. This case has been reopened after a decision from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, which determined that not investigating the case would constitute a failure to protect the fundamental rights of survivors and victims’ relatives.

Amado Carrillo, a 78-year-old farmer with graying hair and beard, is from Amatitán Abajo in San Esteban Catarina, San Vicente. On this January morning, he says he is not feeling well—he has a fever. Looking at him, it’s clear he feels poorly, but he has waited more than 20 years for this moment. He decides to ignore his fever and come out to El Calabozo.

A few meters from the river, Amado meets with the San Sebastian trial court judge. The judge introduces him as the person who “is going to help us identify the places where the events happened.”

Journalists and human rights advocates follow witnesses and judicial experts around El Calabozo. / Photo Cristosal

Journalists and human rights advocates follow witnesses and judicial experts around El Calabozo. / Photo Cristosal

So, at 11:00 in the morning, out in the sun, the two begin to walk along a path that becomes narrow for the line of 30 people following them. The group is made up of victims and their relatives, neighbors, journalists, human rights advocates, and experts from the National Civil Police and the Attorney General’s Office. Today, Amado and two other witnesses have been called on to identify the places where, according to the initial 1992 complaint, the massacre known as El Calabozo took place.

In August 1982, hundreds of families in San Esteban Catarina were forcibly displaced from their homes. The residents from that time confirm that they had been walking for several nights, fleeing a military bombardment aimed at guerillas and the civilian population. On the morning of August 22, as they rested beside the Amatitán River, at least 200 unarmed peasants and their families were ambushed by soldiers in an operation named after Lieutenant Colonel Mario Azenón Palma.

A few minutes after the inspection begins, the group arrives at the river. A monument has been constructed with the names of the people who died in the massacre: plaques surrounded by small walls.

The plaques are placed on the spot where Amado lost his wife and four children, ranging in age from 14 months to 14 years old. The majority of those present on this day don’t know where the remains of their family members are. They say a number of bodies were carried away by the river, because the massacre happened during the winter when it was raining torrentially. Other bodies were eaten by animals.

In a space between the river and the monument to the victims, the judge asks Amado some questions. The interview doesn’t last more that five minutes.

“I need you to tell me [what happened], indicating for me, please, the places you remember,” the judge tells Amado.

“What I remember will never leave my memory. This was a difficult place. The Atlacatl Battalion began to fire from over there,” he says, pointing some 10 meters away to the other side of the river.

Massacre survivor Amado Carillo points out the place he saw soldiers shooting from. / Photo Cristosal

Massacre survivor Amado Carillo points out the place he saw soldiers shooting from. / Photo Cristosal

Amado claims that when they were attacked, they had already been fleeing military repression in the area for several days. When the judge asks him what so many people were doing in a group beside the river, Amado limits himself to saying, “just waiting for it.” The judge seems confused and asks again:

“Let me understand. These people had been here for three days, but what were they doing? You tell me they were waiting, but for what?”

“Waiting for death,” Amado responds, “because it was children and old people they were chasing.”

1992: A Formal Complaint is Made

Amado finishes giving his testimony, and the judge and experts turn to hear accounts from the other witnesses. This process is not a reconstruction of events, but rather serves to identify the exact places relevant to the massacre.

Witness recounts her experience at the massacre / Photo Cristosal

Witness recounts her experience at the massacre / Photo Cristosal

If the case advances and is brought to trial, these places will be important in evaluating the truth or falsity of the statements made by those making the complaint. This is why the experts take careful note of the areas indicated by the survivors.

Based on Amado’s declaration, the experts identify three places. Beside the monument to victims is the spot where peasants and their families waited before the massacre. Next, they identify the place from which the soldiers are believed to have fired. Finally, they establish the place near the river, a few meters up, where Amado hid to save himself—the place where he heard his family massacred. 

The second witness is a woman dressed in black and visibly affected by the testimony. Her eyes are glassy as she recounts that she was a child when this happened. She tells how she came to this area “out of fear, we were all hiding here. It was like a little beach. We heard the shooting and, because we were children, we ran and hid in a pitarrillo tree where we spent about three days.”

The third person to testify says he can point out his family members’ tomb on the other side of the river, where some of his family’s bones are buried. “Just some of the bones, because the vultures had already gotten to them, and it was winter.”

When the three witnesses finish their testimony, each of the places they mentioned is photographed. The judge comments to the experts, “There is a clear indication that the event they claim to have happened did happen.”

This informal confirmation by the judge comes more than a quarter century after Amado’s initial complaint. Amado recounts how one afternoon after the Peace Accords were signed, some friends asked if he would be interested in going before the trial judge in San Sebastian to denounce the massacre. A decade had already passed since he lost his family, but Amado still wasn’t sure if it would be a safe decision. “We had to think about it a bit, because what had happened wasn’t easy,” he admits.

According to official documents, the complaint was made in July of 1992, and the first inspection of the area was ordered in the same year. These procedures were under the supervision of a different judge. In that inspection, it was determined that the characteristics of the place made it difficult to find proof of the reported event.

The case did not advance, and in 1999 it was shelved. But in 2006, attorney David Morales, former Human Rights Ombudsman for El Salvador, presented a formal complaint against the high command of the Armed Forces of El Salvador “for having committed the crimes of murder, terrorist acts, aggravated assault and other harms, robbery, and the illegal privation of liberty against thousands of people in San Esteban Catarina.”

Morales requested the that the prosecution be reopened, but the court of San Sebastian cited the 1993 Amnesty Law in saying that the case could not proceed. This was recorded by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

Metal doors enclose the plaques listing victims' names at the El Calabozo memorial / Photo Cristosal

Metal doors enclose the plaques listing victims' names at the El Calabozo memorial / Photo Cristosal

Upon the refusal of local courts to reopen the case, the complainants appealed to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. In November 2016, that court resolved that “for almost 24 years there have been no investigative activities,” and determined that this failure to act “indicates a lack of protection of the fundamental rights of the survivors and the families of the victims.”

Additionally, the Supreme Court accepted the argument that the Amnesty Law was invalid because “constitutional jurisprudence had already established that this law was not applicable in cases where it impeded the protection and guarantee of the rights of victims and their families; that is, in those crimes whose investigation sought the reparation of a fundamental right.” As a result of this decision, it was ordered that “this investigation be carried out by all available legal means and targeted to establishing the truth.” And thus, the trial court of San Sebastian found itself obliged to take up its inquiries again.

If it is determined during these investigations that there is sufficient evidence to bring the case to trial, it would proceed in a manner similar to the El Mozote case, where the laws in effect at the time of the massacre would be applied to the case. For El Calabozo, this would be the Penal and Procedural Code of 1973. The trial judge is present for the inspection of the sites because the 1973 Code recognizes him as the judge-investigator. That is, at this stage of the investigation he, instead of the Attorney General, is in charge of inquiries.

The judge moves closer to the river, and the people who gave their testimonies stand in the places where the bodies of their family members were, in order to serve as reference points in the photos that will go into the case file. Amado walks a little way and then stops, just where he remembers having seen the first soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion get ready to fire on the people. Amado still hasn’t been photographed in the third area that he helped identify, but he is not as agile as he once was. Now, walking up the rocky hill to the place he hid in 1982 is a challenge for him. Before going on, he sits down on a cement ledge, breathes slowly and admits the obvious, “I feel kind of bad.”

Amado Carillo gives his testimony / Photo Cristosal

Amado Carillo gives his testimony / Photo Cristosal

The judge explains that they will wait for him, but Amado feels everyone is watching him and worries that he is holding up the proceedings. He immediately gets up and starts to walk uphill.

Surviving the Massacre

Amado survived because he hid in the underbrush. He tells how he had to remain motionless for hours as he heard moans and cries. He took advantage of a storm that passed after the massacre to leave his hiding place. “And I was lost. One walks as if dead in those moments. These great tragedies… and you are alone, nothing to eat, nothing to drink, no… It’s not easy. I’m telling you the truth. I heard that great roar of the river,” he remembers.

Amado puts his left hand over his forehead and lowers his gaze as he tells how a few days later he returned to the scene of the massacre. “Ay! to see that. A great disorder, the men who had remained, they put them face down…on top of each other, like a prank…and they cut branches and set them on fire.” As he talks about the dead bodies, his gaze moves across the ground as if he were looking for them in the dirt on the ground.

After the massacre, some of the survivors enlisted in the guerilla ranks. One of them was Marcial Bolaños, the present mayor of San Esteban Catarina. He claims that he was 16 when he escaped by having someone else help him bury himself and place rocks and leaves on top of him so that he wasn’t discovered. He tells how his father also survived because he made himself look dead. “My father survived using the blood of my brother and sister, Edgardo and Elsa. He covered his face with their blood,” he recounts in his municipal office. He says he joined the guerillas afterwards because, “what else was left? It was the bloodshed that that was so galling.”

Bolaños takes care to emphasize that the deaths of mother and his brother and sisters were what compelled him to join the guerrillas. He doesn’t accept the argument made at the time that the people who died at El Calabozo were guerrillas. “Just imagine it, my youngest sister, whom I loved and cared for, was eight months old. What kind of fighter was she? My other sister was three, the other one was five, and my brother was seven. How were they going to be guerillas?” he asks, furious.

The events at El Calabozo are included in the Truth Commission report under “Massacres of Peasants by the Armed Forces.” Other cases that fall in this section are the massacres of Sumpul and El Mozote. The report establishes that “the government informed the public that it had been successful in killing numerous guerrilla fighters,” but the commission concluded that there was sufficient evidence that “the members of the Atlacatl Battalion had deliberately killed more than 200 civilians—men, women and children—who had been taken prisoner without resistance.”

A Haircut Brings Freedom

Alonso, 72, tells how he saved himself during the operation. Instead of taking the path toward El Calabozo, he and his family walked towards another area known as Tortuguero. But “coming out on the street at Tortuguero, there were soldiers who started throwing flares. That was where they captured my father.”

The newspaper clipping reports the capture of 83-year old “terrorist” Cornelio Rosales. Alonso says his father was at least three years older. “I didn’t find out anything about my father until six months later. They took him to the San Vicente barracks.”

Alonso is sure they detained his father because “the soldiers said he was a guerilla. An old man, 86 years old, what kind of guerilla could he be?” A letter freeing Cornelio Rosales came months later, when they cut his hair in the barracks. While Cornelio Rosales got the haircut, a barber who worked for the army recognized him. They were distant relatives, and that was enough for him to gain his freedom.

“The son-in-law of my fathers’ niece worked in the San Vicente barracks. And that son-in-law was a barber. That’s how they got my father out of there,” Alonso says. When they were reunited, they talked about the treatment he received while he was detained, and “maybe they liked the old man because he was so passive. They didn’t torture him,” admits Alonso. To talk about his father makes him emotional. He chats for a few minutes outside of the church, and then he gets up on his horse to head home.

The Challenges of a Case without Bodies

A massacre survivor crosses the   Amatitán River   on January 26, 2018 / Photo Cristosal

A massacre survivor crosses the Amatitán River on January 26, 2018 / Photo Cristosal

“One has to respect the water,” says the judge in charge of this reopened case. The people of Amatitán know this well. The river, which is not so deep now, is the same one that carried away the remains of their families and neighbors in the winter of 1982.

This is one of the main challenges of this case. Besides the legal hurdles confronted over the last 26 years, there are other obstacles to overcome if individuals are to be held responsible for the massacre.

Despite programs for victim reparation and apologies that have been offered under the last two FMLN governments, access to official information about military wartime operations has typically been denied. Even as late as 2014, the Ministry of Defense prohibited personnel from the Institute of Access to Public Information (IAIP, by its initials in Spanish) from accessing documents about military plans and people in relation to human rights violations. Last April, the IAIP asserted that the Ministry of Defense had destroyed documents related to military operations.

The challenges of this case could already be seen in 1992, only a decade after the massacre. The official documents claim that during the first inspection, “undertaken the 29th of July and continued on the 1st of August 1992, it was determined that in the said location, it was difficult to find remains that will help establish the events that have been denounced, as much because of the time that has already passed as because of the characteristics of the place.”

In spite of the conditions, it was possible to find on that occasion “some remains of clothing, indicated by witness and victim Corina Roxana Aguilar Carrillo, as those worn by her mother on the day in question.” But today, more than 25 years later, the possibility of finding physical evidence of this sort is limited.

Around one o’clock in the afternoon, the inspection moves to another area. The line of people accompanying the victims and officials crosses the Amatitán River. Residents of the area cross the river gracefully, while the others slip on the rocks, getting their clothes and shoes wet. When Amado Carrillo sees that some people can’t get across, he finds a large tree trunk and places it over the rocks to make the crossing easier.

A few minutes later, the group comes to a green tomb with three crosses and two garlands left from the Day of the Dead; one is yellow and the other, white. The person leading the way to this site repeats what he said a couple of hours ago in his testimony: “The bones were all mixed up. I couldn’t tell you exactly who they belonged to.”

"The bones were all mixed up. I couldn't tell you who they belonged to," says a witness as he gazes at a grave which holds some of his family members' bones. / Photo Cristosal

"The bones were all mixed up. I couldn't tell you who they belonged to," says a witness as he gazes at a grave which holds some of his family members' bones. / Photo Cristosal

Hearing this, the judge comments to the personnel accompanying him from the Attorney General’s Office that it will be necessary to ask for intervention from the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropology in the exhumation of these victims. This team is the same one that worked on the exhumations for the massacre at El Mozote.

The judge talks about DNA and identifying the victims, but a comment by a member of the Attorney General’s Office cuts him short. They mention the words “supposed to,” and talk about working within limitations. He restrains his optimism.

The Right to the Truth

The massacre at El Calabozo has been officially recognized in recent years, and symbolic efforts have been made towards victims’ restitution. At the end of 2016, the Secretary of Culture named the site a cultural property, and declared that this designation was in fulfillment of the Program for Restitution for Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations during the Armed Conflict.

In August 2017, the Salvadoran state apologized to the family members. The residents approve of these actions; nevertheless, they still have low confidence when talking about justice through the courts.

Here, what is really being demanded is to know the truth and the motivations for these operations. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court resolved more than a year ago that finding out what happened “makes collective memory possible, and this allows the construction of a future based on the knowledge of the truth…in order to avoid further violations of fundamental rights.”

In this region, attitudes toward forgiveness are not universal. Some survivors and victims’ relatives say they are ready to forgive those who killed their loved ones. Others are not so sure they can do it. But they do agree on one thing: they need to have a judicial process in order to identify those who were responsible. They believe this will help the whole country write its history fairly. Amado Carrillo, the gray-bearded and gray-haired peasant, explains what he’s hoped for over the last 26 years, since he first made his demand: “It’s not vengeance here, but rather that what happened here is not forgotten.”

The El Calabozo memorial / Photo Cristosal

The El Calabozo memorial / Photo Cristosal

Report translated by Meg Mitchell for Cristosal from:

Guzman, V. (4 febrero, 2018). El Calabozo: El retorno de una denuncia 26 años después. Séptimo Sentida in La Prensa Grafica. Retrieved from


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