Court begins investigation into El Calabozo massacre

The historic case is in the criminal investigation phase under the jurisdiction of the San Sebastián court of first instance in San Vicente.

The Truth Commission report details how the Atlacatl Battalion killed more than 200 people on August 22, 1982, next to the Amatitán River, north of the department of San Vicente in El Calabozo. Amado Carrillo, now the main witness in the case, tells of more than 300 people who remained located in front of that tributary.

David Morales, private prosecutor in the case, presented the accusation against the alleged perpetrators in 2006, but the case did not advance because of the Amnesty Law. In 2016, after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice repealed the Amnesty Law, Morales, the victims’ representative and also the former Human Rights Ombudsman, urged the reopening of the case.

"This time, unlike in 1992 and 2006, we expect the justice system to comply with the law. In 1992 the trial was abandoned, in 2006 it was arbitrarily closed; now that the case is reopened we hope the justice system’s attitude toward a crime like this has changed in accordance with the law," Morales said.

At 78 years old, Carrillo still works in the fields. "I do agricultural work for little bits at a time," he said. He lives in Amatitán Abajo. Unlike other survivors, he was one of the few who did not flee the place, choosing instead to hide to save his life.

Carrillo's memory remains intact. In order to survive, he had to flee and hide in the mountains. He remembers a lot children and elderly people in the area at the time, a memory that still brings sadness. As the main witness of the case, he was responsible for describing each event in detail, pointing out the places where the tragedy happened.

Amado Carrillo, the main witness in the El Calabozo case, points to places along the Amatitán River where he saw the Atlacatas he describes the 1982 massacre of hundreds of unarmed villagers by the Atlacatl Battalion.   / Photo Cristosal

Amado Carrillo, the main witness in the El Calabozo case, points to places along the Amatitán River where he saw the Atlacatas he describes the 1982 massacre of hundreds of unarmed villagers by the Atlacatl Battalion. / Photo Cristosal

"I have not forgotten in memory or in thought, that here was the place where the Atlacatl Battalion began firing," he said, pointing to the other side of the river. "I saw three or four people. We know they were from the Atlacatl Battalion because they identified themselves," he added during his statement.

The same day Carillo escaped death, many others lost their lives. It was the last time Fernando Bonilla, barely 18 years old at the time, saw his spouse, parents, two sisters and younger brother. Their loved ones were killed a few meters away from the Amatitán River.

"I went back there with my brother-in-law, but by then the bones were all in the water. Some of them had been carried away by the water. I went looking for the others downstream, but I could not find them. I could only find pieces," Bonilla said, pointing to the grave where the remains of his relatives are buried.

Although 36 years have passed, he trusts that the justice system can someday restore the tranquility that was stolen from his whole family, most of them younger than 14, by those responsible for this cruel act.

El Calabozo is located in the middle of a mountain with little shade, where at midday the temperature exceeds 95 degrees. Hidden between maicillo plantations and dry weeds in arid soil, there is a river about to dry up, almost like the hope of those who lost their loved ones in 1982.

Carrillo recounted the massacre last week to give the judge and prosecutors more information about the case. This time, journalists were there to document the area too. Although the case was filed for the first time in 1992, this time it was the survivors who detailed the events that happened there, as ordered by the judicial system.

The Defendants

In 2006, several former members of the Armed Forces high command were accused in the San Sebastián Court of First Instance, including José Guillermo García, former Minister of Defense; Rafael Flores Lima, former Chief of Staff; Rafael Bustillo, former Chief of the Air Force; Adalberto Landaverde, former chief of Artillery; and Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez and Domingo Monterrosa, commanders of the operation.

On the day of the massacre, families living in San Esteban Catarina and surrounding areas fled the Armed Forces operation and took refuge on the banks of the Amatitán River, close to El Calabozo. Carrillo, the Attorney General’s main witness, says nearly 300 people—most of them children, women and older adults—were machine-gunned there.

"Day and night you could hear mortars, machine guns, and planes dropping bombs," recalls Maria Herrera, a member of the victims' committee. Herrera lost a cousin and two nephews in the tragedy. She says her cousin's wife and another nephew disappeared that day as well.

The residents in and around El Calabozo are united in their hunger for justice. Herrera also asks for “something more important:” that the guilty ask for forgiveness. She says a crime like this is impossible to forget. She hates carrying every detail in her mind, because with them the pain, anguish and suffering of an entire people is re-lived.

The Truth Commission

The Truth Commission’s report "From madness to hope" says there is "enough" evidence that the Atlacatl Battalion "deliberately" killed more than 200 civilians: men, women and children who were captured without resistance. According to the report, Salvadoran authorities denied the massacre. Furthermore, there is no trace of the investigation authorities claimed to have carried out.

Translated from Archila, B. (February 5, 2018). Juzgado inicia investigación sobre masacre de El Calabozo. El Mundo. Retrieved from

Hannah Rose Nelson