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Advances and Setbacks in Litigation for Salvadoran War Records

July 23, 2019

Recent days have brought new developments in the University of Washington’s long-standing lawsuit against the US Department of Defense for access to records pertaining to wartime atrocities in El Salvador.

In this case, originally filed in December 2017, the University of Washington seeks the declassification of US documents pertaining to the armed conflict, focusing particularly on three cases: Operación Rescate, in which the December 1981 massacre of El Mozote and nearby communities took place; Operación Teniente Coronel Mario Azenón Palma of August 1982, in which the massacres of El Calabozo and la Conacastada took place; and the military operation popularly known as the “Guinda de Mayo,” in May and June 1982, in which multiple killings and dozens of forced disappearances were reported.

The lawsuit seeks records from two sub-agencies of the Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and US Southern Command (SouthCom), which at the time of the incidents in question was located in Panama. To date, 41 documents have been released to the UWCHR as part of this lawsuit, which is the third brought by UWCHR against agencies of the US federal government.

 On June 7, 2019, US Federal District Court Judge Marsha Pechman issued an order compelling the Department of Defense’s Southern Command (known as SouthCom) to carry out unprecedented searches of its documents from 1980-82. Among other things, the Judge’s order gave the Department of Defense 30 days to recover physical records from inactive storage facilities, interview former employees, and produce legally-mandated archival forms that document the whereabouts of relevant records produced during this period. 

On July 5, 2019, the Department of Defense responded to this by filing a status report with the court. Their report alleges that although they undertook all the steps required by the court, none of these efforts produced additional documentation relevant to the cases under investigation. However, certain elements of the Department’s submission contain information that is demonstrably false. For example, one of the former employees interviewed asserted that there was no DoD-level policy governing records management during his tenure at Southcom from 1991-2005, but a brief internet search of DoD policies turns up a series of department-wide directives, manuals, and policies on records management, dated 1997, 2000, and 2003. 

The UW Center for Human Rights maintains the position that given the depth of US involvement in the Salvadoran armed conflict, it is implausible that further documentation does not exist. The challenge is simply summoning the political will to locate it.

In fact, using information provided in the July 5 status report, UWCHR researchers located the below SF-115 form, a government archivist’s record submitted to the US National Archives in 1993, that refers to a collection 90 cubic feet in size containing records of the CAJIT (Central American Joint Intelligence Team), including “reports of Salvadoran Army interrogations” and “reports of atrocities,” as well as other records potentially of great value to those investigating human rights violations committed during the armed conflict. Because the records also contain substantial numbers of records captured from the FMLN, these records could shed light on crimes reportedly committed by both sides of the conflict.

The University of Washington has asked the Salvadoran Attorney General Raúl Melara to join us in asking Judge Pechman to compel the Department of Defense to recover and declassify these records.

National Archives and Records Administration SF-115 form describing a collection of documents from the Central America Joint Intelligence Team (CAJIT) pertaining to the conflict in El Salvador

(This post was originally published on July 16, 2019 on the website of the UWCHR’s Unfinished Sentences El Salvador project.)