The entire post might go up on Al Jazeera sometime in March or April if the issue is still relevant, but I thought that I would share this with you now. I wrote it last Saturday and as of right now I might have to add the Florida trial and anything that happens with Inocente Montano. What else?
Can El Salvador continue to resist calls to investigate war time atrocities?
Can El Salvador continue to resist calls to investigate war time atrocities?
While much of Latin America has made significant progress in the fight against impunity for crimes committed by their country’s armed forces during the Cold War (Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Guatemala, etc.), El Salvador has so far been able to withstand domestic and international pressure to pursue justice for victims of the armed conflict. However, its “successful” resistance to such pressure might not last for much longer.
During the civil war in El Salvador, approximately 75,000-80,000 Salvadorans were killed, including an estimated 6,000-8,000 disappeared. Mitchell Seligson and Vincent McElhinny estimate that over fifty thousand of those killed were civilians. On January 16, 1992, the Government headed by Alfredo Cristiani of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the commanders of the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas signed a comprehensive peace agreement to end the war at a ceremony in Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.
Six months later, investigators set out “to examine systematic atrocities both individually and collectively.” After investigating many of the most serious and high-profile atrocities from the 1980s, the Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12 Year War in El Salvador, found that eighty-five percent of the reported human rights violations (including extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, and enforced disappearances) were committed by members of the State’s official and unofficial security forces. The FMLN was responsible for five percent of all reported human rights violations.
The United Nations delivered its damning report on March 15, 1993. The Salvadoran right immediately criticized the finds as biased, incomplete, and illegal. Five days later, on March 20, ARENA and its allies in the Legislative Assembly passed a blanket amnesty law, the 1993 General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace (Decree 486), in the name of national reconciliation that shielded both military and guerrillas.
For nearly the next two decades, the ARENA controlled the presidency and had no intention of overturning the amnesty law or in any way holding human rights violators accountable for their civil war era crimes. While representatives of the FMLN apologized for any human rights violations that they had committed during the civil war, they never made overturning the amnesty or prosecuting human rights violators a priority. Prior to the 2009 election, the FMLN’s presidential ticket made it clear that they were not prepared to call for an end to the amnesty.
However, President Mauricio Funes, who was elected at the head of the FMLN ticket in 2009, has made some progress on recognizing the State’s role in wartime atrocities. He and his administration have apologized to the Salvadoran people for a number of crimes committed by the State including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, the forced disappearance of children, and honored the Jesuits slain in 1989 with the nation’s highest honor. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, President Funes has shown little interest in moving beyond apologies.
On May 30, 2011, a Spanish judge issued arrest warrants for twenty former members of the Salvadoran armed forces for their roles in the murders of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in November 1989 on the grounds of the Central American University “José Simeón Cañas. Five priests held Spanish citizenship. The Salvadoran courts and government refused to extradite the suspects to Spain or to open criminal proceedings against them in El Salvador. In August of that year, the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that they only needed to locate them men and that they would not be extradited because an official request had not been received. While rejecting the Salvadoran court’s justification for not moving against the accused, the Spanish judge then formally issued an extradition request in November 2011 which the Salvadoran Supreme Court then simply denied in May 2012. The defendants are not under arrest in El Salvador but they run the risk of arrest and extradition to Spain should they leave the country at any point.
One of the men wanted in Spain is Inocente Orlando Montano. He was arrested on immigration violations in Boston, Massachusetts in August 2011. The authorities took him into custody because he lied about his military background when he entered the United States and when he applied for Temporary Protected Status. The immigration judge could send him to prison for his immigration violations or look to begin proceedings to have him expelled to his home country of El Salvador or extradited to Spain where he is wanted in connection with the Jesuits’ murders. However, the judge appears to be considering giving Montano a longer prison sentence in the US for violating immigration laws because of his long history human rights abuses as Vice Minister of Defense for Public Security. A longer prison sentence in the United States or his extradition to Spain could place additional pressure upon the Salvadoran government to act.
Over the last twenty years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (also the IACHR) have issued rulings or passed resolutions calling on the Salvadoran State to investigate the forced disappearance of children. In 2010, President Mauricio Funes authorized the creation of the Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda de Niños y Niñas Desaparecidos to help find out what happened to the hundreds, if not thousands of missing children. However, the country’s armed forces have not made public any records that might shed light on the disappeared as ordered by the IACHR and President Funes has been unwilling, or unable, to force them to open up the military archives.
Recently, the Associated Press ran a story on a number of children who were disappeared during the civil war in El Salvador. At least one dozen children were adopted during the war by members of the country's armed forces. Some children were subsequently raised by the soldiers who kidnapped them. Other children were given away to be raised by strangers. Finally, there were a number of children sold into the international adoption process where they ended up with families in the US, France, and Italy. While most of the information is already known, its international and national coverage should make it more difficult for the Salvadoran State and current and former military officers to stonewall investigations on missing children. As Marcos Aleman writes in the AP article, the Salvadoran military is the region’s second military “proven” to have engaged in child abductions during the Cold War. Argentina’s General Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted of baby thefts and sentenced to fifty years in prison in July 2012.
After condemning the amnesty law in 1994, 1999, and 2003, the IACHR ruled in December 2012 that that the country's 1993 amnesty law was invalid and that the government must investigate the massacre at El Mozote. Upwards of one thousand Salvadorans were killed in and around El Mozote in December 1981 during the largest massacre of El Salvador’s civil war. Most of the victims were women, children, and elderly. Many were raped and tortured before being burned to death. Very few remains were of military-aged men who might have served in the guerrillas. The IACHR called on the government to investigate the massacre at El Mozote, assist in the exhumation and identification of the remains, compensate victims and their families, and to not let the country’s amnesty law stand in the way of holding the perpetrators’ accountable.
March 20th is an appropriate date for the Salvadoran congress to overturn the amnesty law that it passed twenty years ago. It’s possible that, at the time, the amnesty was the price that Salvadorans had to pay for the military and economic elite to agree to civilian rule and to the incorporation of the FMLN into the political system as a political party. However, no one took the victims’ into consideration when they passed the amnesty.
It’s also possible, if not certain, that those who perpetrated or supported the repression against the civilian population during the war will provoke instability and warn of a military coup if there is any attempt to overturn the amnesty. In June 2011, ARENA and its allies in the Legislative Assembly unsuccessfully moved to neuter the Constitutional Court when it believed that the court might find the amnesty law unconstitutional. ARENA officials and retired military officers have voiced their strong displeasure with the president after each of his apologies.
However, if brave prosecutors, judges, and elected officials in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil and elsewhere can successfully overturn their country’s amnesty laws or push ahead with criminal proceedings in spite of the existence of such laws and in the face of threats from those accused, so can prosecutors, judges, and elected officials in El Salvador. The survivors and the family members’ of the victims from the massacres at El Mozote, the Rio Sumpul, el Calabozo, and elsewhere deserve justice.
In addition, no Latin American government that has pushed to hold human rights violators accountable has succumbed to a successful coup. It’s unlikely that those who are against trials in El Salvador would like to be remembered as the first.
[See also Colin, Hector, and Tim I and II on recent developments.]