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Judge Jorge Guzman spent six years gathering evidence from survivors of one the most horrific massacres in latin America’s modern history. It was the killing of over a thousand people by the Salvadoran army during its civil war.
For over 40 years, former military officers, including the minister at the time of the massacre, have been accused of everything from kidnapping to rape and murder. The military and the Salvadoran elite have repeatedly sought to block any accountability for the massacre, and the current president, Nayib Bukele, a 40-year-old right-wing populist who is often compared to Donald Trump and reminds some of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, may have just succeeded. He has not made any secret of his desire for the investigation to be terminated.
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On Aug. 31, the legislature, controlled by Bukele’s party, fired every judge in the country older than 60. Guzman is 61. The dominant view in El Salvador is that Guzman was trying to end the investigation.
Bukele’s demise of the judiciary is his latest move in increasing his power and poses a threat to the Biden administration. In a speech the U.S. president made on the same day, declaring that human rights would be at the heart of their foreign policy. He said that diplomacy will prevail over military might to achieve this goal. For the past forty years, the United States has had a complicated relationship with El Salvador. It is not known what sanctions Washington will invoke.
Bukele will not give in to pressure. After the Supreme Court overturned several executive orders by Bukele, the legislature fired five justices and replaced them all with loyalists. In response, Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted that the United States had “deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy.” Bukele answered with a string of tweets: “With all due respect,” he wrote, “we’re cleaning our house and this isn’t your responsibility.”
On Sept. 3, El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that Bukele may run for reelection in 2024, despite a term-limits provision in the constitution. He also touched off another controversy last week by adopting bitcoin as an official currency; since 2001, it has been the U.S. dollar. Many believe this is an attempt to protect El Salvador’s economy from financial sanctions imposed by the Biden administration.
The U.S. State Department condemned the “decline in democratic governance” in El Salvador and called on Bukele to respect “the separation of powers and the rule of law.”
The assassination in March 1980 of the country’s revered Roman Catholic prelate, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, by a right-wing death squad touched off a simmering revolution. To end decades of military-oligarchy rule, a coalition of leftist guerrillas and political groups united under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The United States supported the government with hundreds of millions in military and economic aid. This was done to stop the spread of communism.
In December 1981, the Atlacatl, a Salvadoran army battalion, pillaged, plundered and raped its way through El Mozote and several other peasant villages in the northeastern part of the country. Soldiers called the villager to the square and made them lie down on the ground. The soldiers took the old men and tortured them for any information that might have led to their sons joining the guerrillas. They then executed them. The executions of women were carried out. A few women, including those with babies, were taken to the convent that is located behind the Roman Catholic Church. They fired upon them and threw stones. A forensic exhumation years later found the bodies of at least 143 individuals, 90% of them under the age of 12; their average age was 6. The massacre was discovered by journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and a photographer who arrived at the scene weeks later. The bodies were found in the cornfields, and in mud houses that were being eaten by vultures. The Reagan administration denied government troops were responsible for the massacre. The American Embassy in El Salvador stated that the guerrillas were responsible, while the conservative supporters of the Reagan administration claimed it was “guerrilla propagandism.” Official U.S. documents classified by the Clinton administration confirmed the Atlacatl battalion’s role.
The struggle for justice on the part of the survivors and the relatives of the victims has been arduous, marked by defeats, victories and more defeats. In 1991, the legal aid office of the Roman Catholic Church petitioned the court to conduct an investigation. The court requested information from the Ministry of Defense about the operations, but was told that there was no information.
Two years later, a peace agreement ended the decade-long civil war, and a United Nations Truth Commission concluded that the government was responsible for at least three-quarters of the 75,000 civilians killed during the war. The right-wing political parties controlled the National Assembly and passed a broad amnesty bill. They did so quickly and without any hearings.
The victims challenged the law in the Salvadoran Supreme Court. They were unsuccessful. In 2011, they filed a case with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In its 152-page opinion, the court said there was no dispute that “the Armed Forces executed all of those persons it came across: elderly adults, men, women, boys and girls, they killed animals, destroyed and burned plantations, homes, and devastated everything community-related.” As for the amnesty law, the court found that it was in contravention of the Salvadoran government’s “international obligation to investigate and punish the grave human rights violations relating to the massacres of El Mozote and nearby places.”
Armed with this decision, the victims went back to the Salvadoran Supreme Court. In 2016, it ruled the amnesty law invalid. Guzman opened the investigation again and began to take testimony from survivors. Although the case is sometimes called a trial, it is more like what is called in the United States a preliminary inquiry. At the end Guzman can either dismiss charges or recommend criminal prosecution. The El Mozote investigation was slow because Guzman, one of the few judges in the area, has been involved in a lot of criminal and civil cases.
Amadeo Sanchez told the judge that he was 8 at the time of the massacre and had survived by fleeing into corn and sisal fields with his father. They heard the screams and shooting of young girls being raped. Sanchez returned to the village and found his mother’s bodies, along with two of his siblings, as well as the bodies of aunts, uncles, and cousins. He testified that he saw the corpse of a woman shot in the head in one adobe home. A 1-day-old boy was next to her. Sanchez said that Sanchez had cut his throat and made a motion with his hand to slice it. On the wall, soldiers had scrawled, “Un nino muerto es un guerrillero menos” — “One dead child is one less guerrilla.”
Another witness, Maria Rosario, told the judge that 24 members of her family had been killed, including her mother. She looked at the defendants who were seated in rows on folding chairs when she gave evidence. She wanted to scream “assassins,” she said in a 2018 interview. “But I couldn’t allow myself to do so because the judge was right infront of me. You just endure the pain that you feel.”
Bukele has been as determined as his predecessors and the military high command to quash the investigation. Guzman wanted to execute a warrant to search military bases for documents related to the massacre. Bukele told the armed forces to not comply. Soldiers were stationed at different bases to stop the judge from entering. Bukele, in a televised address broadcast to the nation last January, accused Guzman as a member the FMLN. This party has since become a political party. This claim is absurd.
He also accused the victims’ lawyer, David morales, of becoming a millionaire from his representation. The 55-year-old Morales began seeking justice for the victims when he was an intern in the legal aid office of the Roman Catholic Church; he now works for a nongovernmental human rights organization, Cristosal. Morales has now finished presenting witnesses before the court and stated that he expected Guzman’s ruling to be imminent, prior to Bukele’s dismissal. Morales fears that the investigation will end unless Bukele is forced to reverse his decision by international and domestic pressure.
Raymond Bonner covered El Salvador for The New York Times in the early 1980s and was one of the first journalists to report on the massacre at El Mozote. He is the author and editor of Weakness & Deceit: America & El Salvador’s Dirty War. Retro Report is currently working on a documentary that will cover the massacre. Nelson Rauda is an El Faro journalist, an El Salvador-based online news agency.
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