When 93-year-old Don Tacho Pereira took the stand this June in the rural town of San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, he made history. Don Tacho lost seven family members in the December 1981 massacre of El Mozote; he only survived because he was away from home during the three-day killing spree that many still consider the worst massacre in the modern history of the Americas. But almost thirty-six years after the crime took place, for the first time, a Salvadoran court took Don Tacho’s testimony, and that of other victims in the El Mozote case.
Salvadoran victims of atrocities have struggled for decades to pursue justice for the crimes committed during their country’s twelve-year war. Many hoped the peace process would culminate in accountability, but this possibility was robbed from them by an amnesty law, passed just days after the United Nations Truth Commission published its findings that the US-backed government was responsible for the vast majority of wartime abuses. In 2016, the Constitutional chamber of the country’s highest court overturned that law. The decision offers a rare second chance at learning the truth of what transpired, recovering the remains of lost loved ones, and securing some measure of justice. It set the stage for Don Tacho’s historic testimony this June.
At the same time, however, the path ahead won’t be easy. In striking down the amnesty, the court did nothing to alter the character or composition of the country’s justice system. The cases human rights advocates have brought forward are now being heard by the same justices who, in many cases, have spent decades turning a deaf ear on victims’ cries for justice. The Salvadoran justice system is notoriously plagued with corruption, inefficiency, and scarcity of resources. The victims are drawn disproportionately from the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society; the defendants – 18 members of the former high command – remain among the country’s most powerful men.
What this meant in San Francisco Gotera this June, is that as octogenarian peasants came forward to share their most painful memories, they were summarily derided by a team of well-dressed attorneys who arrived – in vehicles with government license plates – to deny the truth of what transpired 35 years ago. At a public event in San Salvador, one of the defense attorneys even trotted out the tired canard that the massacre never happened.
Yet even in the face of such treatment, the victims have shown themselves to be resolute. “It was terrible to see so many crimes, to have to flee through the hills to survive, that’s what we lived, and I’m not making this up,” one survivor told the press. “That’s why we want this [trial] to continue, and for those who committed these crimes to ask forgiveness so that they can also be forgiven by God… [we want] for there to be a clarification and for it to be said who were responsible for ordering this massacre.”
In this context, the support of the international community is more important than ever. Since 2011 the UW Center for Human Rights’ “Unfinished Sentences” project has had the honor of working alongside Salvadoran human rights defenders seeking truth, justice, and reparations for crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict. Recent events have led us to intensify our efforts.
To date, we have filed over 550 FOIA requests of US federal agencies. One of these many cases gave rise to the lawsuit we filed against the US Central Intelligence Agency in 2015, which continues to date. Over the past year we continued our conversations with the CIA, which have resulted in the release of over 400 pages of previously-unseen information. These include several documents that shed light on important military operations in which atrocities occurred. One of these was admitted as evidence by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in early 2017; we anticipate the introduction of others in several pending cases. This summer, for example, our student research team constructed an exhaustive matrix of 205 pieces of evidence culled from US government documents relevant to the massacre of El Mozote. Work on other cases is ongoing.
As an interdisciplinary research center, we are also mindful that the courtroom is only one place in which to seek justice. While essential, efforts at legal accountability must be supplemented by other initiatives to promote healing, reparations, and guarantees that such crimes will never be repeated. Over the past year, our Center worked to support Asociación Pro-Búsqueda’s program of psychosocial support for families affected by the forced disappearance of children. Promoting the psychosocial health of victims is vital to ensure that those breaking the silence about atrocities are supported by trained psychologists and their own community at a critical time – and to interrupt the cycle of transgenerational trauma. We hope to expand on these efforts in the years ahead, as we continue to deepen our work in solidarity with those who struggle for justice in El Salvador.