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Newly Declassified U.S. Embassy Cables Show Concern for El Mozote Massacre Trial

Jean Manes, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (Photo: Presidencia de El Salvador, public domain)
Jean Manes, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (Photo: Presidencia de El Salvador, public domain)

December 13, 2018

El Mozote: “A test case for civil war accountability”

On October 9th, 2018, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights received a second cache of declassified documents from its ongoing FOIA lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense. The 9 documents, 77 pages in total, had not been provided in response to the UWCHR’s initial FOIA requests, filed in December 2016 and March 2017, seeking information about the 1981 El Mozote massacre and former Minister of Defense José Guillermo García.

The release of these documents comes at a critical moment: as survivors commemorate the 37th anniversary of the El Mozote massacre, pretrial proceedings against 18 former officials of the Salvadoran Armed Forces high command (including General García), who are charged as material and intellectual authors of the massacre, are moving forward in El Salvador. Many Salvadorans, the U.S. government, human rights organizations, and the international community are closely monitoring this unprecedented opportunity to establish a modicum of truth, justice, and reparations for human rights violations within the Salvadoran legal system.

Towards this end, these documents help to highlight the progress that has been made towards accountability in El Salvador since the 2016 repeal of the 1993 Amnesty Law, which enabled the reopening of the El Mozote case on September 30, 2016. Furthermore, they illuminate a critical shift in U.S. diplomatic reporting on the El Mozote massacre, and demonstrate the U.S. Embassy’s consideration of the El Mozote trial as a “test case for civil war accountability” and a “barometer for the ability of the Salvadoran justice system to tackle its complex history and stubbornly entrenched impunity”.

At the same time, the fact that the UWCHR had to litigate to obtain these documents, the considerable redactions within them, and their only partial responsiveness to UWCHR’s FOIA requests, points to the fact that significant barriers continue to impede access to information from the U.S. government. Many questions about human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran armed conflict remain unanswered. Ultimately, further U.S. government action to declassify information and acknowledge its own responsibility in El Salvador’s brutal conflict will be critical for victims’ healing, the success of legal efforts in El Salvador, and for informing the public about historical atrocities which have been silenced for decades.

Highlights from the documents

The collection of documents consists of cables sent from the U.S. Embassy and Joint Chiefs of Staff in San Salvador from 1983 to 1992, as well as several documents from 2016 and 2017. Although the documents do not fully respond to the time period of interest in UWCHR’s FOIA requests (for example, no documents are from 1981, when the El Mozote massacre took place), these cables provide new insight into wartime dynamics and atrocities such as the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, UN involvement in El Salvador, and the alleged corruption and crimes against humanity committed by U.S.-trained Salvadoran Armed Forces and former Defense Minister García. (See below for the full list of documents with links to read and download.) Additionally, several of the documents provide contemporary U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reporting on the progress of the El Mozote massacre trial as well as the prosecution of other war crimes that are gaining increasing traction in the Salvadoran justice system following the 2016 repeal of the Amnesty Law.

Final Report on 1980 Assassination of Archbishop Romero

Read the U.S. Government’s “Final Report on 1980 Assassination of Archbishop Romero” prepared for the UN Truth Commission in El Salvador.

In addition to the contemporary cables discussed below, one of the most notable documents in this set is Final Report on 1980 Assassination of Archbishop Romero”, a confidential report prepared by the U.S. Government’s for the UN Truth Commission in El Salvador in August 1992, previously declassified during the 1990s under a different title. The report details the U.S. Government’s intelligence regarding Archbishop Óscar Romero’s assassination, illustrating the allegations against Former Defense Minister Garcia (from high-ranking members of the armed forces) that he and other military officials had knowledge of the assassination plan and “participated in the process of choosing death squad victims and ensured that local police were removed from areas where the killings were to occur”, including that of Óscar Romero. Gen. García would evade accountability for these allegations for decades, though he was eventually deported from the U.S. to El Salvador in January 2016 for his assistance and participation in an “‘active, direct, and integral manner’ with extrajudicial killings and torture during his tenure as Minister of Defense”.

Contemporary cables reveal Embassy view of historic war crimes trials

While the UWCHR did not anticipate the release of contemporary documentation, the U.S. Embassy cables written by Ambassador Jean Manes during 2016 and 2017 are particularly interesting for the ways in which they contrast with the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence community’s reporting on the El Mozote massacre and other war crimes in declassified documents from the 1980s and 90s. The earlier cables are characterized by the complete omission or minimization of reports of a massacre, skepticism or criticism of allegations, invalidation of survivor accounts, and an unwillingness to sanction the Salvadoran armed forces. Moreover, documents of the civil war period do not include any discussion of U.S. accountability for human rights violations.

El Mozote Massacre Trial: Test Case for Civil War Accountability

Read Ambassador Jean Manes 2017 comments on the El Mozote massacre trial and other cases of civil war atrocities.

These more recent cables are noticeably different. For example, a cable drafted by Ambassador Manes, dated June 29, 2017, “El Mozote Massacre Trial: Test Case for Civil War Accountability”, is significant for its recognition that a massacre took place at the hands of the Atlacatl Battalion during “Operation Rescate”. The confirmation from the U.S. embassy that it was in fact a massacre of civilian non-combatants, and not an armed confrontation, is critical because it counters the narrative that has historically been employed by the Salvadoran government and armed forces (and communicated in some prior U.S. diplomatic and intelligence documents) to protect the perpetrators of the crime and discredit the accounts of survivors. The claim of armed confrontation’ serves as the defendants’ central argument in the trial of El Mozote, in which they are charged with “a range of crimes, including murder, aggravated rape, aggravated abduction, breaking and entering, robbery, aggravated abduction, acts of terrorism, and conspiracy”.

The Ambassador’s cable foregrounds positive assessments of the El Mozote trial, including one source’s view that “sufficient evidence exists to demonstrate the culpability of crimes against humanity and war crimes at El Mozote”. Ambassador Manes does not communicate complete confidence regarding prospects for justice: her comments highlight concerns about legal and forensic capacity, political will, and popular support for justice for crimes of the past. Despite this, however, these concerns are not used to further arguments against justice—indeed, the document’s title, “El Mozote Massacre Trial: Test Case for Civil War Accountability”, highlights the importance of the case despite these obstacles.

Perhaps most importantly, the newly-declassified cables authored by Ambassador Jean Manes in 2016 and 2017, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, highlight the U.S. Embassy’s growing acceptance of civil society arguments in favor of accountability for crimes of the past, acknowledging that “impunity for historic crimes can contribute to a culture of impunity today”.

A critical change in U.S. diplomatic reporting, and some allocation of accountability to U.S.

Salvadoran independent media outlet El Faro covers the newly declassified U.S. Embassy cable released to the UWCHR.

Salvadoran independent media outlet El Faro covers the newly declassified U.S. Embassy cable released to the UWCHR. Read their coverage here.

The fact that U.S. diplomatic corps has been closely following the El Mozote massacre trial and other investigations of civil war atrocities in El Salvador is unsurprising, considering the extensive political, economic, and military involvement of the U.S. in the civil war. Yet the U.S. government has historically averted any acknowledgement for its accountability in the war, such as the fact that the U.S. trained and supplied weapons to the Salvadoran army units which executed these crimes. Considering this, it is both surprising and promising that Ambassador Manes awards some accountability to the U.S., at least regarding inaccurate reporting and praise of Salvadoran armed forces: Manes is critical of the 1981 Department of Defense Woerner Report (which describes the rationale, development and implementation of the national military strategy of El Salvador as co-authored by the U.S. El Salvador Military Strategic Assistance Team and Salvadoran Armed Forces) for its “sunny description of the Salvadoran military” and its praise for the “high command’s reluctance to punish misconduct or extreme violence in favor of supporting loyalty”. Ambassador Manes is also critical of the U.S. Embassy’s reporting following the massacre, which “reported that there was no evidence to confirm that civilians had been systematically killed and which downplayed the gravity of the killings”.  In an excerpt from a 2017 cable, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes criticizes prior U.S. reporting on human rights abuses by the Salvadoran military. These assertions mark an important change in tone compared civil war-era documents such as “El Mozote After Ten Years”, a 1991 document (also released to the UWCHR through litigation with DOD) sent from Joint Staff Wash DC to DIA Wash DC, in which the agency describes the “story telling” of the El Mozote Massacre as having “passed into left-wing folklore”, and insists that Salvadorans in El Mozote had “a very convincing version of the ‘massacre’”. In addition to skepticism and an invalidation of survivor claims, this document and others demonstrate the U.S.’s reluctance to seek justice, which contrasts with contemporary pledges of continued support by the American Embassy for “creating strong democratic institutions in El Salvador, including the judiciary, which should help strengthen accountability and transparency for all types of crime, both current and historic”.

Towards justice and accountability

Overall, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights considers this new cache of documents to be illustrative in a number of ways. In addition to providing new insight on wartime dynamics and atrocities, these documents help to highlight the progress that has been made towards accountability for the Massacre of El Mozote and other war crimes over the past three decades. They also demonstrate the dramatic shift in U.S. intelligence and diplomatic reporting on, and U.S. government support of justice efforts for these atrocities. At the same time, these documents speak to the challenges of prosecuting a case such as El Mozote, in which the passage of time significantly increases the difficulty of proving culpability, defendants and the institutions they are affiliated to retain influence over the case, and institutional capacity and entrenched corruption pose significant impediments to justice.

Despite redactions and partial responsiveness, this documentation ultimately signals limited but important progress regarding U.S. recognition and support for justice for crimes against humanity committed during the Salvadoran armed conflict. However, the State Department’s newfound pledge to strengthen accountability and transparency in the Salvadoran judiciary, the traction that the El Mozote and other wartime cases are gaining in the Salvadoran justice system, and the U.S. government’s belief that the El Mozote trial could secure justice for victims, all reinforce the urgency of contemporary U.S. collaboration in declassifying further information about the El Mozote case and others of conflict-era atrocities—especially military and intelligence documents written during the period itself.

Read the newly declassified documents