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El Salvador: A New Opportunity for Peace by Baltasar Garzón

November 25, 2014

(An excerpt from our 2013-2014 Annual Report)

Editorial by Baltasar Garzón
Just a few weeks before the newly-elected Salvadoran president, the FMLN’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén, takes office—and following a tumultuous electoral process in which the opposition party, ARENA, went so far as to demand the nullification of the electoral results when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal refused its request for a vote-by-vote recount—it appears evident that the great challenges faced by this new administration will go hand in hand with problems from the past.

Although the incidence of femicide declined some 76% between 2011 and 2013, according to the Feminist Network on Violence Against Women (RED-FEM), the statistics continue to show regrettable levels of impunity, owing in large part to judges’ reluctance to apply the Special Holistic Law for a Life Free of Violence for Women, passed in 2011. Salvadorans continue to labor under the yoke of citizen insecurity, as the Minister of Security, Ricardo Perdomo, has recognized; last month he noted that after the end of the “truce” signed between the most violent gangs in 2012, the levels of organized crime have begun to climb. As a result, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports that El Salvador has the highest youth homicide rate in the world.  We must also remember that over one-third of the Salvadoran population continues to find itself forced into the role of the eternal migrant, while the international community does nothing to protect migrating Salvadorans from all sorts of abuses by government authorities or narcotrafficking mafias; this helps feed a climate of total impunity in the face of rampant extortion, forced recruitment, or sexual exploitation practices.

El Salvador also finds itself in a critical moment as regards to justice. Reprisals against human rights defenders have become widespread in the country, including the sudden closure of Tutela Legal, a human rights organization originally founded by Monsignor Romero, and a devastating attack against the offices of Pro-Busqueda, an organization dedicated to investigating the forced disappearances of children during the war. This makes it more necessary than ever to support the cause of justice in El Salvador.

During the armed conflict in El Salvador (1980-1992), women, children, and the elderly were eliminated in a systematic fashion that left no witnesses, in the context of military operations unleashed with the sole objective of exterminating the civilian population on a massive scale. For the Salvadoran Army and its associated death squads, “cleansing” rural areas implied eliminating anyone who might be able to provide supplies, hiding places or information to the guerrillas.

The community of Santa Marta, in the department of Cabañas, was one of the zones hardest hit by the Salvadoran state’s policy of terror. Assumed by the Army to form the social base of the FMLN guerrillas, this territory witnessed horrendous patterns of repression—indiscriminate massacres and stigmatization of peasants as terrorists. The inhabitants of this area were, in all cases, presumed guilty.

One of these massacres, the Massacre of Santa Cruz, took place in November 1981, ending the lives of hundreds of civilians at the hands of forces under the command of Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, who today serves as a deputy in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. The Colonel coordinated an operation that for nine days bombarded seven communities in the municipality of Victoria (San Jerónimo, San Felipe, La Pinte, Peñas Blancas, Santa Marta, Celaque and Jocotillo), and blocked the population’s attempt to flee towards refugee camps in nearby Honduras with support of the Honduran military.

Despite international pressure, and the fact that in 1978 the General Assembly of the Organization of American States had sanctioned the Salvadoran government for flagrant human rights violations occurring in its territory, the Salvadoran Army described this military campaign as one of the most successful “cleansing” operations in the country.

The siege, which by day included machine gunfire from the air and by night featured incursions by ground troops, forced the communities to take refuge outside their homes, hiding in caves or amidst the wilderness. Survivors report that their homes were the primary target of attacks.

Last November, Salvadoran citizen María Ester Hernández Hernández had the courage to file a penal complaint before the offices of the Attorney General, naming the retired Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez as responsible for the death of five of her relatives in the Massacre of Santa Cruz. For the first time, this initiative names a sitting Salvadoran government official and is accompanied by representatives of victims’ organizations and human rights defenders, among these the Baltasar Garzón Foundation (FIBGAR). The aim is not only to reclaim María Ester’s rights as a victim, but also to end the climate of impunity enjoyed by those who violated human rights on a massive scale during the Salvadoran armed conflict.

Thanks to the amnesty law, Colonel Ochoa Pérez (Ret.) currently serves as a member of the Salvadoran legislature, continuing to wield power and enjoy impunity despite his disregard for human rights. This is abhorrent. Not one person has been held responsible for ordering crimes against humanity committed in the context of the armed conflict. Fortunately, however, some historic advances were seen last year.

In an unprecedented decision, the Attorney General’s office announced last September that, following the sentence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it would open investigations into the Massacre of El Mozote and some 32 other abuses committed during the war. Just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court indicated that it would rule on the constitutionality of the amnesty law. This ruling is now expected literally any day. By the same token, last month in a historic verdict, the same Court ordered the Attorney General to investigate the 1981 massacre at San Francisco Angulo, indicating that the failure to do so would deny victims their right to justice.

As regards to the case of Ester Hernández, a door to hope has been opened. An investigator has been assigned to the case; in addition, on March 31 of this year, an American anthropologist who survived the massacre, Phillipe Bourgois, gave a sworn declaration before the special unit at the Attorney General’s office in charge of investigating crimes committed during the armed conflict. Al-though at first Bourgois’ testimony was offered as an eyewitness account, his declaration led investigators to determine he was also a victim of the massacre. His complaint will be added to that filed by Ester Hernández against Colonel Ochoa Pérez (Ret.).

We can assert, therefore, that advances are being made in El Salvador, though a greater effort is still required. I applaud the events of last March in the community of Santa Marta, the site of the Sixth Restorative Justice Tribunal, for their attempt to afford victims their due reparation. Opening spaces such as this one is crucial to allow victims to come together and receive support, in order to not only end the silence imposed by perpetrators, but also to encourage victims themselves to take the lead in demanding their own rights to justice and truth.

On June 16, 1979, Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero offered a message of hope and reparations in his homily—an expression that one year later would cost him his life. “I have faith, brothers and sisters, that one day all of these shadows will come out into the light, that so many disappeared, so many assassinated, so many unnamed cadavers, so many kidnappings by unknown parties, will have to come to light. Then, perhaps, we will be left speechless knowing who was responsible.” Today, 35 years later, those responsible for such atrocities continue to set the pace of an exhausted country, extorting their fellow citizens, beating women. The pending debt to the Salvadoran people has yet to be paid. But it is not possible to build a democracy and secure social well-being without pursuing accountability. Investigation and prosecution of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in El Salvador are necessary for the words of Msgr. Romero to come true, for the new president’s mandate to achieve true democratic dignity, and for Salvadoran society to reach the just peace it longs for.

This essay by international human rights advocate and Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzón was published May 20, 2014 in El País. Baltasar Garzón served as Puffin-ALBA Visiting Lecturer in Human Rights at the University of Washington during the past two academic years, where he contributed his expertise as an advisor to the Unfinished Sentences project.

Baltasar Garzón is an attorney and president of FIBGAR.

Translated by Angelina Snodgrass Godoy and Ursula Mosqueira for Unfinished Sentences.

Read Full 2013-14 Annual Report