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El Salvador struggles to come to terms with violent past

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The election of a former Marxist guerrilla as El Salvador's next president is not likely to spell the end of the country's controversial amnesty law that has shielded war criminals from prosecution in the killings of thousands of Salvadorans, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero 34 years ago Monday.

President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a top commander of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) before it became a political party, has been backing away from his 2013 pledge to seek the repeal of the 1993 amnesty law as a way of bringing about justice and closing the wounds of the 12-year armed conflict that left more than 75,000 dead.

But his thin margin of victory -- a mere 6,300 votes -- and the fact that his party does not control the Legislative Assembly would make it difficult for him to repeal a law that so deeply divides the country. At least not without international pressure and rulings from the Salvadoran Supreme Court.

Sánchez Cerén, the incumbent vice president, was declared the winner of a runoff election by the Supreme Electoral Authority on March 16, defeating Norman Quijano, a right-wing candidate staunchly opposed to the law's repeal.

Quijano was the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), founded by the late Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, a graduate of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas -- now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- and a death squad leader known as "Blowtorch Bob" for using blowtorches during interrogations. The U.N.'s Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded he gave the orders to assassinate Romero.

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The ARENA party was in power when the Salvadoran military assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989, and the U.N. Truth Commission announced in 1993 that 85 percent of the wartime killings were committed by the Salvadoran military and its death squads, and only 5 percent by the FMLN.

The Truth Commission had been given the task of "putting an end to any indication of impunity on the part of officers of the armed forces," but five days after the commission's report was released in 1993, the ARENA party pushed the Legislative Assembly to pass the amnesty law granting blanket impunity.

Quijano has said repealing the amnesty law "would be harmful to reconciliation ... why do we have to open the wounds 20 years later?"

But it would seem that the wartime wounds have never been closed, judging from a poll by the Public Opinion Institute at the University of Central America that showed more than 60 percent of Salvadorans want the law repealed.

And memories of the state-sponsored violence of the past only grew more vivid when Quijano called on the military to prevent Sánchez Cerén from taking office.

However, Salvadoran Defense Minister Gen. David Munguia quickly quieted fears by saying the military would not intervene and would abide by the decision of the Supreme Electoral Authority.

Meanwhile, Quijano's charges of election fraud have been refuted by international observers from the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department, all of whom claimed the election fair and free.

Sánchez Cerén's rather tenuous mandate will make it difficult for him to govern the country, which has one of the world's highest murder rates and is rife with gang- and drug-related violence.

The president-elect, a 69-year-old former public school teacher and minister of education, has advocated drug and crime-fighting policies that stress rehabilitation and education, rejecting the militarized "iron fist" policy Quijano promoted.

He's also called for economic equality, inclusiveness, and expansion of social welfare and health programs to curb poverty and illiteracy and overcome the social and economic inequalities that fueled the civil war.

When backpedaling on his pledge to seek the repeal of the amnesty law, Sánchez Cerén said the issue was really a matter for the country's high court.

In September, the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court accepted a suit challenging the amnesty law filed by the Jesuit Central American University's Human Rights Institute and other groups. The suit argues in part that the law violates the country's obligation to comply with international treaties on human rights.

The court has waited until after the elections to make a ruling in the case. Meanwhile, it has begun an investigation into the massacre at El Mozote, where more than 900 men, women and children were killed by Salvadoran troops armed, trained and advised by the U.S. Army.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered El Salvador to prosecute those responsible for the massacre, the amnesty law notwithstanding. The court, which also ordered that reparations be made, said such atrocities are not subject to an amnesty, that they are internationally recognized crimes against humanity.

To complicate the situation, San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas triggered international outrage in September when he shut the doors of the widely respected human rights office, Tutela Legal, just a month after the Supreme Court accepted the suit challenging the amnesty law. The office has evidence on thousands of killings and atrocities that could be used to prosecute war criminals.

Six weeks later, three gunmen broke into the office of Pro-Búsqueda, an organization that searches for missing children, many of whom were taken by the military, according to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The gunmen burned documents and destroyed computers.

Tutela Legal's files, however, have played a key role in several court cases in the United States and Spain involving Salvadoran military officers.

One U.S. case involves Inocente Orlando Montano, a former Salvadoran military commander the U.N. Truth Commission says was involved in the Jesuit killings. Montano, another SOA graduate, was sentenced in September to 21 months in prison for lying about his military background on U.S. immigration papers that allowed him to live in Boston for the last 12 years.

Spain is seeking Montano's extradition to face charges for his role in the Jesuit killings along with 19 others indicted in the case. Of the 20 men, 10 are graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, including former Defense Minister Gen. Rafael Humberto Larios; his vice minister, Gen. Juan Orlando Zepeda; the commander of the air force, Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo; and Gen. René Emilio Ponce, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Spanish court can't hear the case until one of the officers appears before it. The U.S. Justice Department has yet to decide whether to send Montano to Spain or deport him back to El Salvador when he leaves prison. The decision is a dicey one for U.S. officials, given the fact that the U.S. not only armed and trained the Salvadoran military but sent the government $4 billion in an effort to defeat the FMLN.

What's more damning are the specifics of the U.S involvement in the Jesuit case. For one, the U.S. Army had hidden the fact that Maj. Eric Buckland, a senior U.S. adviser in El Salvador, had told his superiors that Ponce was in on the plot to kill the Jesuits. At the time, Ponce was being groomed by the U.S. to become the next Salvadoran defense minister. (NCR, Dec. 10, 2004, and NCR, Sept. 23, 1994, "A look at declassified State Department documents.")

The U.N. Truth Commission later charged Ponce with ordering the murders of Jesuit university president, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, and all witnesses. It cited 26 Salvadoran military men, 22 of whom turned out to be SOA graduates.

The State Department has said it will work with Sánchez Cerén, but Salvadorans can be forgiven for being skeptical, given the historic U.S. interference in their country and the fact the Obama administration violated federal law by continuing to train Honduras soldiers at SOA after the Honduran military overthrew the nation's democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

Sánchez Cerén has pledged to work with the U.S., and in treading softly around the amnesty law, he is following in the footsteps of incumbent President Mauricio Funes, who has apologized on behalf of the state for the murder of Romero, El Mozote and the killings of thousands of innocent victims, but has never taken on the amnesty issue.

Their hesitancy does not sit well with many human rights advocates.

Benjamin Cuéllar, director of the Central American University's Human Rights Institute, has said apologies aren't enough. He told Latinamerica Press: "The worst death there has been with this government is that of the people's hope. There is no commitment to the victims or to truth."

Amnesty International has called for the amnesty law's repeal, saying it obstructs justice and holds no one accountable for well-documented atrocities.

In 2010, the first time the Salvadoran state publicly commemorated Romero, historian Fr. Jesus Delgado, author of a biography of the archbishop, made a sobering observation to the Los Angeles Times: "I don't think any party in power is going to have the political will to investigate. You need three generations for the emotions to calm. This continues to be an armed country, greatly polarized, a country without a culture of dialogue."

[Longtime NCR contributors Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.]

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