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El Salvador: Justice Balanced on Razor’s Edge of Uncertain Politics

UW undergraduate Grace Sorensen, Prof. Sol Yañez of the University of Central America "José Simeón Cañas" and David Morales, lead prosecutor for the El Mozote case, at the site of the massacre memorial in El Mozote town plaza. (Photo: Angelina Godoy)
UW undergraduate Grace Sorensen, Prof. Sol Yañez of the University of Central America "José Simeón Cañas" and David Morales, lead prosecutor for the El Mozote case, at the site of the massacre memorial in El Mozote town plaza. (Photo: Angelina Godoy)

October 24, 2019

In recent years, human rights work related to wartime crimes against humanity has accelerated and intensified in El Salvador. While it’s still an uphill battle, the possibility of securing justice in key cases before the courts seems closer than ever before—generating hope among victims, but also more palpable resistance among those accused of crimes. 

In 2019, for example, the Salvadoran legislature considered a new amnesty law that would have ground the prosecution of wartime cases to a halt. It had been supported by deputies from major political parties of the left and right alike, and its passage was only narrowly avoided by an extraordinary mobilization of human rights leaders in El Salvador and allies around the world. This hard-won victory has allowed the justice process for cases like the 1981 massacre of El Mozote to continue creaking forward—for now.

Of course, the El Mozote case is far from the only example of grave crimes committed during the war, but it remains the best-known and most-documented of the many massacres that marred the decade of the 1980s. The case advanced in part thanks to the notoriety of those events, in which almost one thousand rural peasants, half of them children, were slaughtered by the Salvadoran military’s Atlacatl battalion. The case has also advanced thanks to the courageous commitment of the rural magistrate into whose court it fatefully fell several years ago: while not initially known as a human rights defender, his commitment appears to have been galvanized by the wrenching testimonies from over forty survivors. In recent weeks, he issued a second set of indictments against the powerful former members of the military high command, this time for crimes against humanity which include sexual violence. It appears likely the case will move to trial soon.

In this context, the UW Center for Human Rights has deepened its work with victims and advocates to recover and share U.S. records that shed light on past crimes. Given the ongoing refusal of the Salvadoran government to open its own military archives, this work grows in importance as investigations advance. In the past year, pursuant to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and ongoing litigation against the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense, UWCHR researchers have obtained dozens of never-before-seen documents relating to specific operations in which civilians were killed or disappeared by the Salvadoran Army. In May, a U.S. federal court judge ordered the Department of Defense to undertake unprecedented searches of its storage facilities to uncover additional documentation. And in July, the Department agreed to search a collection of intelligence documents first uncovered by our researchers, which purportedly includes interrogation reports by the Salvadoran military and may shed light on the whereabouts of those disappeared in major military operations.

In June, UWCHR director Angelina Godoy was appointed to serve as a technical adviser to the two Commissions created by the government to investigate forced disappearances, a new role that will facilitate further sharing of information between UWCHR researchers working with declassified US government records and the Salvadoran commissioners working with affected families. 

We look forward to continuing these collaborations over the course of the year to come. The work is more urgent than ever before: while justice for wartime crimes seems possible, for the first time, in El Salvador, its prospects remain balanced on the razor’s edge of uncertain politics. And given the Trump administration’s growing demonization of Central American migrants to the United States, we have deepened our commitment to ongoing work educating Americans about the history of the U.S.’ relationship to El Salvador. The need for U.S. institutions to support justice and healing processes in Central America is necessary, to address the violence of the past and present alike. In the years ahead, we are determined to continue this historical justice work alongside our growing research on immigrant rights in the contemporary United States. 

For project updates, visit the website of our Unfinished Sentences project, or follow the project on social media via Twitter or Facebook.