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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Student Reflections from the National Assembly of Victims in El Salvador

January 12, 2018

In November 2017, UWCHR director Angelina Godoy, accompanied by UW students Emily Willard, Angie Tamayo, and Clare Morrison, traveled to El Salvador to attend the National Assembly of Armed Conflict Victims. The assembly was the first to be held following the 2016 repeal of an amnesty law which had blocked efforts to investigate crime against humanity committed during El Salvador’s 12 year armed conflict. Around 195 victims came together from different corners of El Salvador to talk and support each other. Some had to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning to make the long drive to the Central American University (UCA) campus in San Salvador.

The assembly was an opportunity for communities of victims to receive updates on the legal case for the massacre of El Mozote, reopened following the overturning of the amnesty law; as well as the recently created National Commision on the Search for Disappeared Persons. One woman from El Mozote and one from San Salvador opened the day by asking all of those present to remember lost loved ones: “Their spirits are lighting the way for us as we turn the page to a new chapter, working together for a new dawn.”

David Morales, the lawyer spearheading the El Mozote case, spoke about the necessity of building off momentum of the overturning of the amnesty law to push for accountability. Morales also talked about the importance of obtaining access to legal archives to get more information for all the victims. He said, “A court sentence is a tool, but not the final goal. Impunity can only be transformed by the defense of human rights from the roots of the communities.”

Victims shared their reactions to the case and brainstormed ways to better support each other and the Mozote legal process. Many spoke of the symbolic value of the El Mozote case for victims across El Salvador. One woman shared, “If we can achieve justice for El Mozote, we’ll achieve justice for all of us.”

During their trip, Professor Godoy and the students also met with Sol Yañez, a psychology professor at the UCA. Currently, the Center is working with Professor Yañez on the beginning stages of a project to explore the role declassified documents can play in the healing process of victims, not only for legal purposes, but as a tool to validate their experiences.

Below, UW students Emily, Angie, and Clare share their reflections on the experience.

Memorial for the victims of the 1989 massacre at the UCA

Memorial for the victims of the 1989 massacre at the UCA

Emily: Traveling to El Salvador with the CHR was a special opportunity because we happened to be there for the anniversary of the massacre of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16 year old daughter. We attended the memorial mass on the UCA campus, and the next day met with victims groups that traveled from all over the country. I started to do research on human rights in El Salvador in 2009, when I began to research the Jesuit Priest Massacre at the National Security Archive to collect information that could be used as evidence against alleged perpetrators in the National Court in Spain. Over the years, I searched for additional documents specifically in the case against Inocente Orlando Montano. When we were in El Salvador, we received news of his extradition from the U.S. to Spain to face charges. It was a very special moment to see this success. I am eager to continue to work with the declassified documents, but now to find ways to share them with survivors of massacres, and families of the disappeared. I am motivated by the resilience of the survivors to continue this work in seeking justice for everyone who suffered during the war.”

Angie: “I did not imagine I was going to be able to go back to El Salvador so soon after my trip in August where I volunteered at ProBusqueda to develop a Psycholegal Proposal. This time the purpose of the trip was to participate in the First Victims’ Assembly after the Amnesty Law was made unconstitutional. On one hand, it was heartbreaking to see the old faces of the victims that have been fighting for decades against the Salvadoran government to get what they deserve: Justice. On the other hand, it was encouraging to see that despite all the revictimizations suffered after the initial human rights violations, there is still hope in their lives. The Mozote case represents a symbol of hope for victims across El Salvador. But the challenges they have to deal with are plentiful, from logistics and resources, to having only two lawyers defending the case. Despite the many limitations, in the assembly there was a cry of unity to support the community of El Mozote, because if they win, it will be a victory for everyone.”

Clare: “My experience at the assembly reaffirmed the importance of the work that the Center for Human Rights does to support the struggle for justice in El Salvador. It was incredibly humbling to to be in the presence of people who have continued fighting for justice for so many years, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. During the assembly, I spoke with a woman whose five siblings were disappeared in the 80’s because of their involvement in church groups. She told me about about the slow and discouraging process of attempting to hold the people that did this to her family accountable. Although she has worked with several lawyers to attempt to bring their cases forward, nothing has come of her efforts. For this woman, just like the other victims at the assembly, El Mozote is a sign that perhaps finally, things are beginning to change. Now more than ever, it is crucial to ensure that the international community does not forget stories like these and continues to support efforts to hold human rights perpetrators accountable.”