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The Massacre of El Mozote: 36 Years of Struggles for Truth and Justice

Monument to the victims of the massacre of El Mozote. Photo: Ernesto Zelaya, Wikimedia Commons
Monument to the victims of the massacre of El Mozote. Photo: Ernesto Zelaya, Wikimedia Commons

January 3, 2018

Decades after the infamous massacre of El Mozote, the fight for accountability continues. The massacre of El Mozote was committed during “Operation Rescue,” a counterinsurgency operation spearheaded by the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion in December of 1981 in the department of Morazán in northeastern El Salvador. Over several days, the Salvadoran military killed at least 978 people in El Mozote and surrounding areas, the majority children under 12 years old, in what is considered the largest massacre in contemporary Latin American history. The brutality of the massacre is best described in the words of surviving witnesses themselves. Despite domestic and international denunciation of the massacre, perpetrators of the massacre have avoided accountability for decades.

In El Salvador, significant state resistance and an amnesty law passed in 1993 created seemingly insurmountable barriers to justice for victims in the case of El Mozote. However, the Supreme Court’s 2016 repeal of the longstanding amnesty law reignited hopes for justice. Over 30 years after the fact, the criminal investigation of the El Mozote massacre was reopened by the Second Court of the First Instance of San Francisco Gotera in 2016, presenting an unprecedented opportunity to achieve truth and justice for grave human rights violations. Eighteen former high-ranking military officials, including former Minister of Defense José Guillermo García Merino, face charges including murder, aggravated rape, and acts of terrorism; and dozens of survivors and eyewitnesses of the massacre have given testimony in court, some for the first time.

As the Mozote case continues to advance in the Salvadoran justice system, a partial timeline of accountability efforts demonstrates the tenacity of survivors and advocates who have struggled for 36 years to achieve justice for the massacre.

Timeline of Accountability Efforts:

December 6, 1981- The Salvadoran Armed Forces initiate “Operation Rescue,” a major counterinsurgency “sweep” targeting the northern department of Morazán. According to declassified CIA documents, the operation involves 4000 troops, approximately one-third of the Armed Forces, and is scheduled to last until December 24.

December 10-13, 1981- Units of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, principally the Atlacatl special forces battalion, carry out “scorched earth” massacres in El Mozote and surrounding towns. In El Mozote, hundreds of women and children are gathered in a church building near the town square where they are machine-gunned and burned to death.

January 27th, 1982- The New York Times and The Washington Post publish articles by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, respectively, about the massacre of El Mozote, drawing international attention to the atrocity. The articles are based on the journalists’ visit to the scene of the massacre in January and the testimony of surviving eyewitness Rufina Amaya.

1989- Denial of the massacre by Salvadoran authorities and government silence prompts Tutela Legal, the Human Rights Legal Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador, to launch an initial investigation of the massacre of El Mozote.

October 26th, 1990- A criminal complaint by Pedro Chicas Romero, a survivor of the massacre of La Joya, is filed before the San Francisco Gotera Court of the First Instance, before the presiding judge, Federico Portillo Campos. The complaint opens the official criminal investigation of the massacre of El Mozote.

May 8th, 1991- Judge Federico Portillo suspends the reception of witness testimony; effectively denying hundreds of witnesses and family members of victims the chance to testify about El Mozote, as well as provide the identity of deceased family members.

May 27th, 1991- Anthropologists from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) meet with Tutela Legal and Judge Portillo to negotiate their participation in the exhumation and forensic analysis of El Mozote massacre sites. Judge Portillo resists the involvement of the EAAF and states that he is not at liberty to make decisions without the instruction of the President of the Salvadoran Supreme Court, Mauricio Castro.

November 12th, 1991- Tutela Legal releases the initial results of their investigation to the public. The report establishes the chronology of the massacre and proves the perpetration of the massacre by various units of the Salvadoran army, including the Atlacatl Battalion, Salvadoran Air Force, Artillery Brigade “Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Osorio”, Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, and the Commando Instruction Center of San Francisco Gotera.

The report also establishes a preliminary identification of 765 victims; and documents Judge Portillo’s lack of independence, the failure of the attorney general to investigate, and the Supreme Court’s efforts to deter the criminal investigation.

Immediately after the report is released, Judge Portillo and the district attorney attempt to incorporate a false rumor about landmines in the zones where the El Mozote Massacre took place into the criminal investigation, effectively stalling case progress.

January 16th, 1992- A Peace Agreement is signed in Chapultepec, Mexico, between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Salvadoran government. The Peace Agreement establishes a UN Truth Commission to investigate crimes committed during the war.

May 7th, 1992- In response to pressure from the Truth Commission, Judge Portillo orders the judicial inspections of the sites where the El Mozote massacre took place.

October 13th, 1992- Start of initial exhumations of the victims of the El Mozote massacre in the ruins of a convent adjacent to the town church.

November 12th, 1992- Tutela Legal presents a formal criminal complaint before the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) for violations of due process in the criminal trial of the El Mozote case.

November 13th-17th, 1992- Exhumation of remains in the ruins of the convent adjacent to El Mozote church, are performed by EAAF and the Santa Tecla Institute of Forensic Medicine and of the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal Acts.

March 15th, 1993- The Truth Commission for El Salvador presents the findings of their investigation of the El Mozote massacre to the Secretary General of the United Nations in New York. The report confirms earlier claims of Tutela Legal and entails recommendations for the Salvadoran state to “use the means at its disposal to carry out a serious investigation of violations committed within its jurisdictions, to identify those responsible, to impose the appropriate punishment and to assure the victim adequate compensation”.

March 20th, 1993- The Salvadoran Congress passes the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace (1993), five days after the Truth Commission’s report to the United Nations. Establishment of the law formally closes investigations of the El Mozote Massacre and nearby sites and grants unconditional amnesty to perpetrators of the massacre, including all crimes against humanity and crimes of war committed during the Salvadoran civil war.

2000- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declares the Amnesty Law in violation of the American Convention of Human Rights and recommends the repeal of the law by the Salvadoran state.

2000-2004- Despite the closing of the El Mozote case under the 1993 Amnesty Law, the Second Court of the First Instance of San Francisco Gotera responds to the consistent pressure of Tutela Legal and approves new exhumations by the EAAF of the El Mozote site.

April 2005- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reopens their investigation of the case of the Massacre of El Mozote.

March 24th, 2006- The case of the Massacre of El Mozote is formally admitted into the Inter-American Court.

November 23rd, 2006- Tutela Legal accuses the responsible military parties of the El Mozote Massacre and nearby sites of murder, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated deprivation of liberty, and several other criminal charges before the San Fransico Gotera Court of the First Instance.

December 8th, 2010- In response to a petition by Tutela Legal and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issues a series of recommendations to the Salvadoran state, granting two months to comply with the commission’s recommendations.

March 8th, 2011- In response to the Salvadoran state’s failure to comply with IACHR recommendations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights submits their case against the Republic of El Salvador to the Court’s jurisdiction.

January 16th, 2012- Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes issues a public apology for the massacre and acknowledges the government’s responsibility for killings.

October 25th, 2012- The Inter-American Court of Human Rights finds the Salvadoran State responsible for the perpetration of the El Mozote massacre and related human rights violations, in addition to the violation of due process. Demands are made to the Salvadoran government to take action in response to the ruling.

July 13th, 2016- The Constitutional Chamber of Supreme Court of El Salvador declares the 1993 amnesty law unconstitutional.

September 30th, 2016- By order of the Second Court of the First Instance of San Francisco Gotera, Morazán, the criminal investigation of the El Mozote massacre originally opened in 1990 is reopened.

Survivors of the El Mozote massacre, who were parties to the 1990 complaint, are cited to give testimony in pretrial proceedings in the El Mozote case.

March 29, 2017- The judge investigating the El Mozote massacre notifies 18 former military officers of charges against them. The high-ranking officials include three retired Generals: Rafael Flores Lima, Juan Rafael Bustillo Toledo and former Minister of Defense José Guillermo García.

November 30, 2017- Additional witnesses who were not parties to the original complaint begin giving testimony. These witnesses and survivors are coming forward publicly for the first time.


El Mozote: Lucha Por La Verdad y La Justicia. Tutela Legal Archbishop of San Salvador, 2008.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Massacre of El Mozote and Nearby Places v. El Salvador. 25 Oct. 2012.