Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The End of Impunity in El Salvador?

Salvadorans march to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and two others in San Salvador on Nov. 14, 2015. (photo: teleSUR)
Salvadorans march to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and two others in San Salvador on Nov. 14, 2015. (photo: teleSUR)

The End of Impunity in El Salvador?

By Michael Busch, teleSUR
18 January 16

 Former members of a U.S.-trained death squad in El Salvador may finally face justice after massacring 6 priests and two women 26 years ago.

  In El Salvador, the beginning of a new year brings with it the opportunity to heal old wounds.

   In the first weeks of January, nearly 20 retired military officers accused of human rights violations during the country’s civil war have been called to answer for their crimes. While the great bulk of the charges being leveled against the former soldiers relate to a single massacre carried out in San Salvador, at least one of the former commanders is known to have directed multiple atrocities during the 12-year conflict. In all, some 75,000 were killed during the war, while thousands more were disappeared in a rampage of human rights atrocities largely perpetrated by the U.S.-backed, right-wing government’s forces.

   The importance of these developments cannot be underscored enough.
In addition to the closure that may be offered to victims of civil war-era human rights abuses and their families, the apprehension and trial of accused war criminals in El Salvador signals the end of impunity enjoyed by members of the old guard—some of whom were responsible for brutal campaigns of violence, like the massacre of six priests and two others at a university in San Salvador.   

     On Nov. 16, 1989, a small band of soldiers stormed the campus grounds of the Central American University (UCA). Members of El Salvador’s elite Atlacatl Brigade—a death squad armed and trained by the United States—murdered a group of Jesuit priests, a campus housekeeper, and the woman’s teenage daughter. Among the dead was Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the university, prominent proponent of liberation theology, and a critic of the conservative ruling regime governing El Salvador during the war. The other five priests were Spanish nationals.  

    The military initially tried pinning the blame on FMLN rebels. The Actlacatl Brigade used weapons that had been captured from guerilla fighters and, after murdering those inside the compound, staged a phony assault on the campus to make it appear as if rebels had carried out the slaughter. In order to ensure that no one would question who was responsible for the UCA massacre, the troops placed a cardboard sign near their victims which read: “The FMLN has executed the spies who informed on them. Victory or death. FMLN.”

    Despite the fact that few believed the military’s deception, justice in this case—as it was for countless other victims of human rights violations during the civil war—has proved elusive. In 1991, a group of the officers involved were put on trial. Two soldiers were found guilty, and sentenced to prison. Shortly after, however, all of the accused were relieved of responsibility for the killings. An amnesty law approved by the legislative assembly following the 1992 peace accords offered the shelter of impunity to everyone implicated in war crimes over the previous decade.

  Until now.

   On Jan. 5, a Spanish court asked that arrest warrants be issued for the 17 retired military men connected to the slaughter at the university. The following day the Salvadoran government signaled its willingness to cooperate. Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales, speaking at a press conference, told reporters that “there is an obligation to prosecute these acts and, in the absence of domestic justice, there is an obligation to collaborate with the legal process that the Spanish National Court is leading in this case.”
Spanish authorities have tried to have the officers arrested in the past, but to no avail. In 2011, Spain pushed for their apprehension but was rebuffed by the Salvadoran high court. The court found that the warrants issued by Interpol for the 17 soldiers mandated that Salvadoran authorities locate the men in question, not apprehend them, and that the officers were protected under the old amnesty law governing civil war crimes. This changed last year in a welcome reversal by the court, which has opened the door to their arrest and extradition.

   The impending arrests aren’t the only sign that the limits of impunity for past crimes may have reached in El Salvador. A week after the 17 military officers were identified for arrest, a former minister of defense, Jose Guillermo Garcia Merino, was deported from the United States—where he had been residing since the late 1980s—to El Salvador for war crimes committed on his watch. Among other incidents, Garcia has been tied to the murder of four American nuns, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, as well as the Rio Sumpul and El Mozote massacres.

   In expert testimony included in the case of Garcia-Merino, Terry Lynn Karl, professor of political science at Stanford University, argued that El Salvador’s armed forces “engaged in a widespread pattern and practice of massacres, torture, and arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and other gross violations of human rights” under Garcia’s command. “General Garcia presided over the worst period of repression in modern Salvadoran history,” Karl wrote. “At least 75 percent of reported violence in El Salvador occurred during General Garcia’s tenure as Defense Minister.”

   These developments mirror a similar push for justice underway in the region more broadly. Most prominently, a series of actions have been taken against military officers in Guatemala accused of human rights violations in that country’s civil war. While the trial of former strongman Efrain Rios Montt has been subject to a lengthening series of delays, prosecutions of other alleged war criminals appear to be advancing successfully. And on the same day that El Salvador agreed to take action against those involved in the UCA massacre, Guatemala arrested 18 of its own retired soldiers for war crimes.
Even as Guatemala appears poised to make steady advances to ensure transitional justice, El Salvador faces many obstacles in following suit. Foreign courts were responsible for kickstarting these latest proceedings against Salvadoran war criminals while, to date, domestic courts themselves have not taken up the mantle of pursuing cases related to crimes committed during the war. Indeed, while government officials have promised to extradite the seventeen officers to Spain, none have yet been brought into custody. Nor is it clear what legal fate awaits Garcia following his deportation from the United States.
And there are still serious concerns about the selective nature of accountability in the country. The constitutional court’s recent ruling on “terror,” for example, came back into focus recently when Chief Inspector Joaquin Hernandez demanded that El Diario de Hoy be investigated for instigating “fear and terror” in its coverage of the gangs. Repugnant as El Diario’s politics may be, claims that the paper is abetting terror raise alarming questions about press freedom in El Salvador, and could set an ugly precedent in the government’s war against the gangs, and political opposition.   

   Nevertheless, the fact that government officials appear ready to play their part in the apprehension and prosecution of those charged with war crimes suggests an important shift has taken place in El Salvador. The ruling establishment has historically been wary of broaching issues of transitional justice leftover from the war. To his credit, former president Mauricio Funes took courageous steps by acknowledging the state’s role in wartime atrocities, but nothing came of it. Over the past several weeks, however, official reluctance to redress past wrongs seems to be dissipating.

    Whatever the cause—domestic or international pressure, successful internal maneuvering by brave judges and lawyers within the country’s judicial system, or something else—an opportunity to begin striking down the impunity haunting El Salvador for decades has presented itself. Will the government shy away due to the very real political risks involved in dredging up the past? Hopefully not. Will it honestly reckon with the country’s recent history, and those responsible for its bloodiest episodes, to ensure that justice for those victimized by a ruthless war is no longer denied, even after all these years?

Better late than never.

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