Prosecuting El Mozote, one of the worst war crimes in modern Latin American history

Written by Zach Goodwin

On December 11, 1981, a Salvadoran military battalion armed and trained by the United States government surrounded the village of El Mozote, a small town in the mountains of the department of Morazan, hugging the border with Honduras. Against a defenseless population, the batallion proceeded to systematically beat, rape, and kill nearly 1,000 people, over half of them children. It was the most atrocious of countless massacres perpetrated by government forces during the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992), and to this day it remains one of the largest and most heinous war crimes not just in Latin America but the world.

Nearly thirty-eight years later, the generals and politicians responsible for the planning and execution of the massacre remain largely untouched. But finally, eighteen ex-military officers connected to the massacre are currently facing prosecution for their actions, with victims for the first time in decades granted the opportunity to tell their stories in court.

But the end result is in doubt; impunity is ingrained into the Salvadoran institutional structure. The Legislative Assembly is still in pursuit of an amnesty law that would absolve perpetrators of guilt, close the case to the judicial process, and deny victims the justice they deserve.

David Morales, Critosal’s director of strategic litigation and head prosecutor of the El Mozote case, has been working on El Mozote since it entered the national conversation, as the dynamics of the war began to change in the late 1980s.

“It so happened that much of the surviving population from the massacre … had formed an enormous refugee camp in Honduras along the border, at a place called Colomoncagua. And towards the end of 1989, this camp dissolved and the population returned to the north of Morazan [El Salvador],” Morales said. “And therefore, from that year, although there was conflict, it came with the possibility of investigating the massacre.”

Morales was working at the time with Tutela Legal del Arzobispado, a human rights office affiliated with the Catholic Church in San Salvador. He and his colleagues began to work to document the testimonies of survivors, accompanying victims to file denouncements and pressuring the judicial system to order exhumations of relevant sites in El Mozote and throughout the country.

Tutela Legal succeeded in its campaign. The United Nations-led Truth Commission for El Salvador ordered exhumations in 1992, with an Argentinian-led team full of international experts uncovering some truly harrowing evidence, including a pit containing the skeletons of 133 girls and boys.

The UN Truth Commission published its final recommendations in 1993. But just five days later, the Legislative Assembly passed the 1993 Amnesty Law, which superseded all previous legislation that had left open the possibility of accountability. This was a complete and total amnesty, meant to protect even those implicated by name in the Truth Commission’s final report. The law effectively halted Morales’ and his colleagues’ progress on El Mozote.

“It paralized the judicial process,” Morales said.

What followed over the next quarter-century was a battle for justice and accountability waged not just by civil society actors in El Salvador but by actors in the field of international law, such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. The latter, deliberating in 2000 on a separate case of forced disappearance during the Salvadoran Civil War, ruled that El Salvador’s Amnesty Law was not absolute and could not apply to cases of grave violations of human rights. Twelve years later, the court extended this ruling to cover the massacre at El Mozote, and ordered the Salvadoran state to reopen the case.

In the meantime, Morales, Tutela Legal, and other civil society actors continued to apply pressure of their own. After spending ten years working for the state office of the Prosecutor for the Defense of Human Rights, Morales returned to Tutela Legal in 2006. That year, the organization presented an indictment to the Salvadoran courts demanding that the case be reopened. In the years that followed, Morales and Tutela Legal would continue to collect narratives, testimonies, and evidence. Its final report in 2008 would help motivate other legal actions such as the Inter-American Court’s 2012 order to reopen the case.

But despite the mounting domestic and international pressure, neither the Salvadoran courts nor the legislature made any moves to reopen the investigation. Every mandate was ignored. Justice for victims of El Mozote and other war crimes remained elusive.

But in 2016, in a monumental decision, the Salvadoran Constitutional Court ruled the 1993 Amnesty Law to be unconstitutional, and struck it down in its entirety. For the first time in 23 years, prosecuting the architects of the massacres became a possibility, and redresses for victims of the violence seemed to be on the horizon.

The ruling didn’t come from nothing. It was the result of years upon years of steady and unflinching advocacy from human rights groups worldwide.

“It’s a long fight to get these cases reopened. The 2016 unconstitutionality sentence was the final step,” Morales said. “It was possible because of all the other steps that came before, bringing the state of El Salvador to this decision.”

In 2017, following the nullification of the 1993 Amnesty Law, many more civil society organizations joined victims in their fight for justice. Seventeen human rights organizations, including Cristosal, which adopted the El Mozote case following the 2016 ruling, formed the Committee Against Impunity. As a united force, the committee has made itself one of the most prominent voices in the national discussion around transitional justice.

“The most important force in this fight … is the experience of unity and a joint effort among many organizations. We’ve been working with other human rights organizations making an effort to link together diverse organizations that are working to encourage transitional justice in El Salvador,” Morales said. “Not all will be historic organizations with 25 years working on the subject … but [all] are working to confront this wall of impunity I’ve been talking about.”

As part of the 2016 unconstitutionality ruling, the Salvadoran Supreme Court ordered the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly to pass a “national reconciliation” law that would include comprehensive reparations for victims of the civil war. After ignoring the mandate for two years, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly did eventually move to pass the National Reconciliation Law in May 2019.

But the law didn’t actually include reparations for victims. It was instead co-opted into a new amnesty law. Under the proposal, prosecuted war criminals would face no jail time, and could only be fined up to 20% of their liquid holdings (and only if found guilty). The proposal also neglected to guarantee any funding for reparations, and ultimately spent more time focused on protecting victimizers than protecting victims.

“Regrettably, the Assembly, far from trying in good faith to complete its deadline, dedicated itself to creating processes not towards following the court order but towards generating a new, hidden amnesty,” Morales said. “It’s reproachable, very much against the law and the constitution, disloyal to the population and to the victims, and in violation of human rights.”

“The primary objective of this second [law] was precisely to protect the freedom ... of war criminals,” Morales added. “It was a manipulation of justice.”

In the Legislative Assembly, this manipulated Law of National Reconciliation had wide support from a varied coalition of political parties. All of them stood to benefit from having their wrongs from the civil war era absolved by law.

It appeared that the Legislative Assembly had the votes, and that little could stop the national reconciliation proposal from becoming law. But national and international human rights organization mounted a campaign against it anyways. The Committee Against Impunity spearheaded the effort, but support came from all sides, from the European Union to the United States’ Embassy to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights to the United Nations. At the last possible second, the consensus in the legislature fractured.

The law didn’t pass.

“We consider this to be a great accomplishment for the victims and for the human rights organizations,” Morales said. “They had the votes, they had all the sufficient party pacts, they had the President of the Republic [Salvador Sánchez Cerén] on their side. And, formally, they could have adopted it, but the fight of the organizations, the victims, and the international community, I think it stopped it from being adopted at the last moment.

Two months later, the danger remains that the Legislative Assembly might try to revive the National Reconciliation Law. But Morales said this is less likely now. The legislature has lost a lot of its coherency, and the voting blocs that existed in May have largely dissolved. There is also now increased vigilance from the global human rights community.

“But we’re clear to the danger,” Morales said. “They’re still very powerful.”

Since May, human rights and victims’ groups have introduced their own transitional justice legislation, despite the fact that only one legislative representative supported the coalition in its effort. The law is firmly focused on the victims’ needs, guaranteeing financing for reparations and establishing a restorative justice approach to prosecutions, where victimizers who collaborate with transitional justice and truth-finding efforts will see their sentences reduced. Most importantly, it restores the position of victims as agented actors.

“An important part of the fight … is that the victims, along with the human rights’ organizations, achieved their own legal proposal [establishing] access to justice and comprehensive reparations for victims of the armed conflict,” Morales said. “[It’s] a law with a real focus on human rights and approved by the victims.”

Still, the fight is far from over. Beyond all of the developments that have occurred in just the past twenty-five years, there remains the complicated question of how to extend accountability to all aggressors of the Civil War — including those whose influence came from abroad.

“The role of the United States [during the Civil War] … was one of concealment, one of complicity in its public silence, in many cases, and one of continued support — above all, military support to governments that gravely violated human rights,” Morales said.

Two American journalists broke the story of El Mozote in The Washington Post and The New York Times in 1982. The administration of Ronald Reagan vehemently dismissed the reports as Marxist propaganda. Over the course of the twelve-year war, the American government sent over $4.5 billion in military aid to the authoritarian government; 60% was under the table, unapproved by Congress. Units like the Atlacatl Battalion — responsible for the massacre at El Mozote and other atrocities — were directly trained by American military advisors.

Rights groups have sought the vast declassification of Reagan-era documents, in the hope that they will reveal the main perpetrators and architects of military operations in El Salvador. Washington has released several batches of related documents, the most recent being in 2018, but questions and omissions still remain.

“I believe it should be their duty to collaborate with justice. Their duty as people, their duty as public servants of the United States who were there in that historic moment,” Morales said. “And, obviously, if at some point there emerges proof about someone’s direct responsibility or participation, then they would have to submit themselves to justice, because these are crimes against humanity.”

“However, we haven’t gotten that far,” Morales added. “Now, the advances we are waiting for at the very least is the declassification of the information.”

The thirty-eighth anniversary of El Mozote will be this upcoming December. For victims of that massacre — and for those massacred at El Calabozo and the Rio Sumpul, for those disappeared in the dead of night and those executed by death squad in the heat of day, for those who have had to persevere through the deaths of their parents and their siblings — justice remains an attainable but elusive goal.

But one thing is for sure: victims and their advocates are still fighting to correct the wrongs done to them all those years ago. And they don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

Paulina P