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8 June 2017

Thirty-six years later, the trial of the El Mozote massacres could change El Salvador's history

Open Democracy


Originally published on on 7 June 2017

By Maria San Martin, HRD Visibility Coordinator

The reopening of El Mozote case brings a historic opportunity for truth and justice; the State and the public prosecution must rise to the challenge.

In September 2016, after 35 years of relentless struggle, human rights defenders in El Salvador seized a new hope for truth and justice with the reopening of the El Mozote case by the Second Court of San Francisco de Gotera. The judicial investigation had been closed in 1993, shortly after the General Amnesty Law was approved by the national parliament. It was not until last year, in July 2016, that the Constitutional Court in El Salvador declared the General Amnesty Law unconstitutional, opening the door for pursuing justice for war crimes committed in the country. El Mozote is the first case to be reopened involving crimes against humanity committed during the Salvadoran civil war (1979 - 1992).

The civil war in El Salvador pitted the military government against a leftist insurgency for more than 12 years, and resulted in an estimated 75,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared.

The brutal massacre in El Mozote is widely considered the worst atrocity committed during the war. On 10, 11 and 12 December 1981, the Salvadorian Army attacked a number of villages in the northeast of the country. Soldiers detained all the inhabitants, tortured and raped hundreds, and murdered between 900 and 1,200 civilians, mostly women and children.

The case is emblematic of the brutal attacks the civilian population faced at the hands of the military during the war.

Shorty after the General Amnesty Law was declared unconstitutional in July 2016, human rights defenders, survivors and victims' family members filed a request to reopen the case. Eighteen high-ranking military officials (three of them deceased) were charged, including former minister of defense, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, former joint Chief of Staff of the armed forces, Rafael Flores Lima, and former commander of the 3rd infantry brigade, Colonel Jaime Flores Grijalva. They are accused of crimes ranging from murder, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, acts of terrorism, robbery and aggravated damage under the 1973 Criminal Code, which was in force at the time.

“We have the strong advantage that, over the past 36 years, human rights defenders and organisations have undertaken arduous work to gather scientific evidence and document what happened over those three days,” said Alejandro Lening Díaz Gómez, member of human rights organisation Tutela Legal “Dra. María Julia Hernández”, complainant at the trial. The investigations and perseverance of victims and organisations such as Tutela Legal del Arzobispado and Tutela Legal “Dra. María Julia Hernández” resulted in national and international organisations like the Truth Commission in El Salvador, the international experts at the Argentine Forensics Team (EAAF) and the InterAmerican Commission and Court of Human Rights issuing reports and rulings on the evidence of the responsibility of the State in this and other indiscriminate attacks against civilians. “It has been demonstrated that the military carried out a planned, massive, systematic operation. The scale of the offensive was such that it wouldn't have been possible without the involvement of the different army corps. That is why the highest ranking officials are accused of these crimes against humanity”, explains Díaz Gómez.

On 11 May, former Salvadoran defense minister, Jose Guillermo García, the first accused to be summoned to court, declined the judicial order to attend trial. “For victims, human rights defenders and organisations, this is a dangerous sign. It could be the start of the same strategy to evade justice that we have seen over the killings of the Jesuits, for which impunity persists. We are worried that the prosecutors aren't willing to take a stand against this”. Tutela Legal notes that the Salvadoran mainstream media has largely failed to look critically at the role of the military.

“There is still an inclination in the media to provide the military with a space to defend themselves, and little space for human rights defenders and victims to uphold their demands. However, perpetrators have been identified and accused because the investigations have uncovered the truth. We are now battling to lead the way to justice and reparation".

Alejandro Lening Díaz Gómez, member of human rights organisation Tutela Legal “Dra. María Julia Hernández

Against this long-lasting prevalence of the interests of the military, Alejandro explains that the meaningful work of human rights defenders has granted them recognition, support by the population, and protection. “Human rights defenders and victims participate in the hearings, push the judicial processes forward, maintain the pressure… they has been very effective participation. There is a lot of expectation and interest as a result of the recent victories. But HRDs are daunted by the support granted by the State and the media to the military. The [former] military officers are transported by army cars, operated by the brigades of the area. We are investigating whether the 25 defendant lawyers are being payed by the Ministry of Defense. In some cases, the Office of the Prosecutor has made inexcusable mistakes". However, the recognition of the experience and perseverance of human rights defenders over the past 36 years has granted them protection against intimidation and harassment, and counter-balanced efforts to discredit and defame them. This enduring struggle has also allowed for the reemergence of the human rights movement in the country. “[HRDs] have an important presence in the defense of other social and environmental issues.”

The reopening of the Mozote case brings an unprecedented opportunity to achieve justice in El Salvador and to honor the victims and the arduous work of human rights defenders, as well as to demonstrate to the entire region that justice and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity are possible.

The Salvadoran State and Public prosecution must live up to this historic opportunity to achieve justice and heal the society, as well as to establish a precedent for other important cases where justice is pending, such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.

As El Mozote survivor Dorila Márquez stated in front of the InterAmerican Court for Human Rights in 2012, “We want to forgive, but we need to know what and who to forgive”.