With victims bearing witness, judge expands charges against military officers accused of perpetrating 1981 El Mozote Massacre

Written by Zach Goodwin

On July 18, in front of a packed courtroom in San Francisco Gotera, the capital of El Salvador’s northeastern department of Morazán, a judge expanded the charges against seventeen military officers implicated as the architects and executors of the 1981 El Mozote Massacre, which resulted in the death of nearly 1,000 civilians, most of them children.

The expanded charges include three new counts of torture, forced displacement, and forced disappearance, added to pre-existing charges including aggravated homicide, rape, and terrorism. The judge also implicated an eighteenth military official, Coronel Jesús Gabriel Contreras, who had not previously had charges brought against him. Of the eighteen accused officers, only thirteen made an appearance at Thursday’s hearing.

The expanded charges represent a significant development in the thirty-five-year plus fight for justice for victims of El Mozote. After a 1993 Amnesty Law effectively halted the Salvadoran judiciary’s ability to prosecute war crimes, nullifying the findings and recommendations of the 1992 UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, victims and their advocates were left unprotected while war criminals walked free. 

The Salvadoran Constitutional Court ruled the Amnesty Law to be unconstitutional in 2016, and struck it down in its entirety. In the three years since, it has been an uphill battle for human rights and victims’ groups, with the Legislative Assembly just this past May attempting to pass a resuscitated amnesty law that would have returned the country back to the pre-2016 norm. 

David Morales, Cristosal’s director of strategic litigation and head prosecutor of the El Mozote case, said that Thursday’s hearing accomplished its purpose. 

“The [hearing] is so that the accused know … what they are accused of and so that they can exercise their right to a defense,” Morales said. “Accordingly, the hearing has achieved its purpose. As you know, [the officers] are now formally accused of three more crimes derived from the validation of the case as a crime against humanity.”

Morales also denounced the dismissive attitudes of the accused, noting their lack of remorse. 

“I did not hear any display of asking for forgiveness, an apology, or regret,” Morales said.

The hearing brought to Morazán a variety of different government and civilian groups affiliated with the case. The courtroom itself was divided by the aisle; the victims sat on the left, while the accused sat on the right. Outside, a veterans’ group picketed in favor of the implicated generals. Victims and advocacy groups also demonstrated outside, waving signs demanding justice and expressing their solidarity. Some had arrived at seven in the morning, and stayed well through the heat of the day. The hearing itself was scheduled to start at ten, but was delayed by more than 20 minutes. 

Among those accused, General José Guillermo García is perhaps the most notorious. He served as the Minister of Defense from 1979 until 1983, and oversaw military operations at El Mozote and elsewhere. He sought asylum in the United States for many years, but was extradited in 2016 by a Miami court to face trial for executions and abuses perpetrated by the armed forces during the Salvadoran Civil War. 

Almost all of the eighteen accused have been promoted in military rank since the massacre. Some even hold positions in government. At the hearing, several generals defended their actions, saying that they were just following orders and that the “irregularity” of the war called for extreme measures. 

Morales said that he hopes that both the accused generals and the current administration of President Nayib Bukele will cooperate with the ongoing investigation, and called for the declassification of government documents related to the El Mozote mission. He also condemned the defenses offered as inadequate.

“A mission meant to exterminate civilians is not a constitutional mission,” Morales said. “To the contrary, [the acts] constitute grave crimes against humanity.”

Paulina P