On Monday, December 11, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the U.S. Department of Defense and two of its subagencies – the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) – under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The UWCHR is seeking access to information about three key atrocities committed in wartime El Salvador:
- the 1981 massacre of El Mozote, which claimed the lives of over 1,000 people in the worst massacre in the modern history of the Americas;
- the 1982 sweep through Chalatenango province popularly known as the “Guinda de Mayo,” which resulted in multiple massacres and forced disappearances; and
- the 1982 military operation named “Azenón Palma,” which involved multiple massacres and forced disappearances of civilians.
In these cases and others, the Department of Defense has refused to release documents requested by UWCHR researchers under FOIA; yet in many cases, our researchers have identified documents in the public domain which are responsive to the requests filed. We believe this demonstrates that the Department of Defense has failed to comply with its obligations under FOIA. We have appealed these determinations without success, leaving no remaining option short of litigation.
The UWCHR’s FOIA program
Since 2012, the UWCHR has filed over 500 FOIA requests of a range of U.S. government agencies. The U.S. government played a key role in the Salvadoran conflict, and thousands of relevant documents exist in U.S. archives. Through these FOIA requests, and an ongoing lawsuit against the CIA, we’ve obtained hundreds of pages of important primary-source material that has never before been made public. This information relates to human rights issues and specific cases of human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran armed conflict. Some has been introduced as evidence in Salvadoran courts.
Work for Justice and Healing
The El Mozote massacre is currently moving forward in the Salvadoran courts; atrocities associated with the Guinda de Mayo and Azenón Palma operations are currently being heard by various organs of the Inter-American human rights system. Documents obtained through this lawsuit could provide information useful in the cause of justice.
In addition, this work can also help bring about long-overdue healing for survivors. Forced disappearances were part of all three events; in some cases, children were ripped from their parents’ arms by advancing armies. The first-ever commission to investigate the forced disappearances of adults in El Salvador will begin its work next month. Information contained in U.S. documents could be useful to help families locate the remains of lost loved ones – and in cases involving children, potentially reunite with survivors.
No public funds are involved in this effort.