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Newly Released Department of Defense Files Recount El Salvador Military Operations

October 4, 2018

In El Salvador, survivors of massacres, torture, and forced disappearance have struggled for decades to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict from 1980-1992—and two years ago, their efforts got a vital boost when the Constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court overturned the amnesty law that had long served as an impediment to justice. Since then, the UW Center for Human Rights research team has stepped up its efforts to gather information from US government archives that might help families and their advocates uncover the truth of what happened, as part of the process of pursuing justice and healing in the wake of mass atrocities. Recently, CHR researchers were pleased to receive the first major cache of newly-declassified documents from our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the US Department of Defense, filed in December 2017.

The 34 documents, which are publicly accessible via UW Libraries, include records from the Defense Intelligence Agency and US Southern Command, two sub-agencies of the Department of Defense specifically named in the suit.  A majority of these documents appear to have been made public for the first time now, confirming the importance of ongoing FOIA work—including the use of litigation—even this many decades after the events in question. They reveal key operational details about military operations, deeply relevant to many families’ ongoing search for basic information about the context in which loved ones were victimized or abducted. Sadly, they also reveal frustrating limitations to agencies’ compliance with FOIA, underscoring the need for greater transparency across the board.

Also included in the newest addition to the UWCHR El Salvador FOIA Collection, but unrelated to the lawsuit, are a series of National Intelligence Daily reports generated by the CIA from 1981-1983. The documents provide information about tactical updates, political objectives, and foreign policy issues regarding the Salvadoran government, military, and insurgent forces.

UW v. Department of Defense

At the conclusion of El Salvador’s bloody conflict in 1992, the US government agreed to release two collections of documents relevant to wartime abuses, which according to the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, had been committed by Salvadoran government forces in an overwhelming majority of cases. President Clinton issued an Executive Order mandating a broad declassification of records involving specific cases highlighted in the Truth Commission’s report; Congressional Republicans subsequently advocated for a release of documents shedding light on abuses by the leftist FMLN. Since that time, individual researchers have continued to seek information from US records using FOIA. To date UWCHR has filed nearly 600 FOIA requests, of 6 different federal agencies. While many have resulted in the release of new documents, in some cases UWCHR has been forced to resort to litigation to compel agencies to comply with federal law. In 2015, for example, we filed suit against the Central Intelligence Agency, initiating a process that recently reached a successful conclusion.

In 2017, we filed suit against the Department of Defense, who had denied us access to information about major Salvadoran military operations including the notorious December 1981 Operation “Rescate,” during which the massacre of El Mozote occurred, and the August 1982 Operation “Teniente Coronel Mario Azenón Palma”, during which the massacres of El Calabozo and La Concastada occurred. Both massacres were accompanied by forced disappearances, including of children, and were documented in the Truth Commission’s report. We also sought information about an operation in the department of Chalatenango during May-June 1982, popularly known as the “Guinda de Mayo,” which resulted in an unknown number of deaths and the forced disappearance of dozens of children. In all three cases, UWCHR student researchers had filed multiple FOIA requests, to which DOD officials responded that no documents about these cases existed within their collections.

The release of documents from military and intelligence agencies is particularly vital to ongoing justice efforts. First, such documents contain the most detailed information about the day-to-day prosecution of the war on the ground, including the names and locations of participating units, their commanders, and key details of what reportedly transpired. Yet the majority of documents released at war’s end were from the US State Department—an important source for information about diplomatic relations, international politics, and the efforts to respond to public allegations of abuse leveled by human rights organizations and Congressional critics. For families seeking answers to questions about the whereabouts of lost loved ones, or the institutions and individuals responsible for their deaths, however, defense and intelligence archives are likely to contain richer details. For this reason, this new cache of documents is very important and its release is encouraging, even as it highlights the depth of the challenge advocates still face in accessing information about wartime abuses.

Highlights from Newly Released Documents

The collection of newly-declassified documents consists primarily of Defense Intelligence Notices and cables related to operations of the Salvadoran Army in the departments of Morazán and San Vicente (where the massacres of El Mozote, El Calabozo, and La Concastada took place) during 1982, 1983, and 1987. The documents reveal the the US government’s access to detailed information on Salvadoran Armed Forces operations, including prior intelligence regarding planned operations, the locations and objectives of specific military units, and summaries of completed operations.

For example, a newly declassified June 25, 1982 DIA Defense Intelligence Notice titled “El Salvador: Counterinsurgency Operations” offers a highly granular summary of upcoming military actions in Northern Morazán department. Notably, the actions are characterized as a continuation of Operation “Rescate,” suggesting that the Salvadoran military conceived of its notorious December 1981 incursion into the area—during which time the massacres in El Mozote and surrounding villages transpired—as part of a months-long operation involving the elite US-trained battalions:

“The Salvadoran military reportedly used 21 and 22 June to reorganize and resupply elements of operation ‘Rescate’ in Northern Morazan department. …The resupplied units are now organized in two task forces with clear missions. The first, consisting of the Atlacatl and Belloso Battalions, is to attack North to seize Perquín. The second, consisting of the Atonal Battalion and a 3-company composite unit (Cuscatlan), is to attack North from Torola to seize San Fernando then, on order, attack east to seize Perquín. The two original composite attacking forces, groups Alpha and Bravo, are apparently to remain in position to the rear without specific missions.”

A Defense Intelligence Agency "Tactical Update" provides a rarely-seen summary of the results of a completed operation.

A Defense Intelligence Agency “Tactical Update” provides a rarely-seen summary of the results of a completed operation.

In another example, an August 5, 1987 Defense Intelligence Agency “Tactical Update”, previously classified as secret, offers describes an operation entitled “LTC Domingo Monterrosa Barrios,” also in Morazán.  The 19-page document includes highly detailed information on the command hierarchy and disposition of specific military units, a blow-by-blow recounting of their activities, and a quantitative summary of the operation to date. This operation was named in honor of the former commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, killed in 1984 by the guerrillas in Morazán, just like the “Azenón Palma” operation named for a military officer felled in the area that operation targeted; this practice of naming operations for military heroes killed in the same geographic area suggests a desire to avenge fallen comrades and perhaps punish the local population assumed to have contributed to their deaths.

Relatedly, several documents offer commentary on the mindset and motivations of the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Particularly notable is a December 7, 1982 DIA Defense Intelligence Notice entitled “El Salvador: Counterinsurgency Operation” describing an operation in the department of La Unión: “Once committed, the military will quite likely believe its prestige is at stake and that it must regain the towns regardless of cost,” the document concludes. Such attitudes may have increased the propensity for violence.

Unanswered Questions

The rich details revealed in these documents are a boon to UWCHR’s ongoing research into wartime abuses; their release confirms the success of the access to information strategy used in this case and our previous litigation against the CIA. We are very proud of these victories. At the same time, however, a detailed review of the documents released also underscores the depth of the challenge faced by access to information advocates even in these unusually “successful” cases.

For example, most of the documents released were from periods later than those of greatest interest to our researchers: we received no documents from 1981, and very few documents that corresponded to the time periods we requested in 1982. Since the military operations during the early years were large-scale campaigns supported by US training, aid, and advisors, it is unlikely that no relevant documentation exists. Have documents vanished? Has the agency been truly exhaustive in its search efforts? It is difficult to know.

In addition, at least two of the documents produced in response to the UWCHR’s lawsuit are more heavily redacted than copies already available thanks to previous declassifications; while FOIA presumes that the passage of time should permit greater transparency, in these cases, the process is having the opposite effect. For example, a December 1991 Defense Attaché cable, “El Mozote After Ten Years”, reporting on commemorations of the massacre, originally released during the 1990s with minor redactions, was re-released to us with extensive segments redacted. The document itself is mostly notable for its shockingly cynical response to the first public commemoration of the El Mozote massacre, dismissing the “alleged massacre” as “left-wing folklore”, and focusing on details such as purported low turnout and “well rehearsed” accounts by survivors.

A side-by-side comparison shows extensive redactions in the 2018 declassification of a Defense Attaché report entitled "Mozote After Ten Years", compared to minor redactions in a version originally declassified during the 1990s.

By comparing the earlier, largely unredacted version of the document to the version recently released to us, we can see that the information now being withheld includes largely benign, general descriptions. It is difficult to understand how the release of such information could imperil US national security—the legal justification used to exempt much of the newly redacted information—particularly given the fact that it has already been released, without apparently triggering any adverse effects.

Another example of improper redaction of previously-released material is a 1991 retransmission of a 1982 Defense Attaché cable recounting a “Conversation with Atlacatl Battalion Officers Concerning Alleged Mis-conduct of the Army in Morazan Department”. Previously declassified in the 1990s with minor excisions, it was released now with extensive redactions, many of which conceal information about the operation’s now-deceased commander, Domingo Monterrosa. Given that the document was released decades ago in unredacted form, and Monterrosa died in 1984, the argument that providing access to this information now would threaten national security strains credulity.
A side-by-side comparison shows extensive redactions in the 2018 declassification of a Defense Attaché report entitled "Conversation with Atlacatl Battalion Officers Concerning Alleged Mis-conduct of the Army in Morazan Department", compared to minor redactions in a version originally declassified during the 1990s.

Toward truth, justice and reparations

Overall, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights is encouraged by the release of newly declassified documents by the Department of Defense. Victims and advocates in El Salvador have long sought access to the truth about these crimes as part of their effort to achieve justice. The information contained in the documents recently released can assist in the healing process, and aid in ongoing efforts to locate the disappeared; it can also provide evidence in legal proceedings, such as the ongoing investigations in the case of the massacre of El Mozote. Our team looks forward to the declassification of more documents. We will continue to monitor and submit FOIA requests to the Department of Defense and other agencies, share information with the public in the United States and El Salvador, and work to help our partner organizations pursue accountability for human rights violations both domestically and internationally.