Is the truth finally arriving in El Salvador?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

A U.S. court is on the verge of making a major contribution to El Salvador’s struggle to end impunity.  A former Salvadoran military commander six weeks ago admitted in a Miami immigration court that his troops had engaged in human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in the 1980s.  More significantly, he confirmed that the U.S.-trained and -funded Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the horrendous massacre at El Mozote, a hamlet in which the elite Marine-style battalion killed an estimated one thousand peasants, mostly women and children, over three days in December 1981.  Until recently, current and former military commanders claimed that reports of the bloodbath were communist propaganda.  In his defense, General José Guillermo García, who was defense minister, said he was unaware of the soldiers’ actions at the time.  The judge responded skeptically, saying García “didn’t do what a military officer respectful of the law should have done in order to fully serve his country and his people.”

The General’s confession is no small matter.  An Amnesty Law passed in 1993, pushed by allies of the war-era government, put the lid on many investigations.  Its passage kept two mid-ranking officers convicted of involvement in the 1989 Jesuit massacre from serving their prison sentences, and it paved the way for other military and civilian leaders to cover up that atrocity. The air of impunity has endured for 20 years.  General García’s testimony provides the first real open window for Salvadorans to start learning about what happened despite strong efforts to keep the truth under wraps.  The political and economic elites’ defense of the Amnesty Law has focused on the argument that El Salvador should not be confronting its past if it really wants reconciliation and peace.  But two decades after the peace accord brought the end of the war, that kind of thinking is beginning to fade, and will continue to wane as Salvadoran society is confronted with the naked truth, the naked horrors.

The Obama Administration deserves some credit for advancing the legal case against García and a former colonel facing similar immigration charges in Boston, Inocente Orlando Montano.  Both processes have been encouraged by a U.S. policy of locating and ousting foreigners on U.S. soil who have been credibly accused of human rights violations abroad.  However ironic it is that some of the violations were committed by units receiving U.S. assistance, Washington is promoting an important lesson:  generals who once held in their hands power over citizens’ lives and deaths become common defendants – criminals – when the truth is known.  The impunity enjoyed by the colonels and generals – and their civilian sponsors – has grown roots in Salvadoran institutions and still feeds today a culture of obscurity, injustice and inequity that prevents the country’s progress towards development and modernity.  This vicious cycle will not will not end until they are held accountable.

Read the full text of this essay.

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