The expert testimony delivered this week in El Salvador has revealed significant new details about what many consider most brutal massacre of the country’s 12-year civil war decades ago.
Victims, experts and lawyers say the five days of trial hearings in El Mozote uncovered new information about the scope of U.S. knowledge about the 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 civilians by the Salvadoran forces trained by the United States, as well as by the Salvadoran chain of command.
“The fact that there are experts who give professional testimonies reiterating and corroborating the truth that the victims have maintained all these years is a way of reparation, of clarifying the truth and of sending an echo through the international community,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a lawyer for the victims’ legal team through the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) based in Costa Rica, he told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.
The hearings came at a time when the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden was pressuring Central American governments to practice good government, crack down on corruption, and reduce impunity.
They also fuel renewed demands for US accountability and apology, which in the 1980s allocated billions of dollars to the Salvadoran government as part of its commitment to fighting communism in the region, often turning a blind eye. to abuses of rights. .
The U.S. government has not yet apologized for its role in human rights violations in El Salvador, including the El Mozote massacre, although it has apologized for other Cold War atrocities in the region, such as the Guatemalan and Argentine genocide. Dirty War.
“It would be a great relief for us as survivors, that we lost so many family members, [to receive an apology from the US government]”Said Rosario Sanchez, a survivor of the El Mozote massacre who attended hearings at San Francisco Gotera court in Morazan this week.
“The US also has a responsibility because they should not have given money for these atrocities,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.
The El Mozote case reopened in 2016 after the country’s Supreme Court overturned a 1993 amnesty law that prevented the prosecution of human rights abuses committed during the war.
An estimated 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in fighting between a left-wing armed rebellion and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army between 1980 and 1992. A UN Truth Commission attributed about 85 percent of the violence during the conflict against the Salvadoran state.
The El Mozote massacre took place over three days in December 1981, since Salvadoran soldiers raped and killed civilians in several villages in the Morazan region, northeast of El Salvador.
Seventeen Salvadoran military officers are currently facing charges related to the killings, including torture, rape and enforced disappearances. Victims’ lawyers say a judge could decide that the case, still under investigation, will continue until the second phase of formal trial in late 2021.
During this week’s hearings, American academic and Central American expert Terry Karl stated that the Salvadoran army employed an “extermination strategy” in El Mozote and described a subsequent cover-up by of Salvadoran and American officials.
Karl said a U.S. military adviser, Sergeant Major Allen Bruce Hazelwood, was present in the Morazan department, where the massacre took place.
“If this had been made public, US aid would have been cut because it was illegal,” Karl said during his testimony, which was based on investigations in El Salvador dating back to 1981, in extensive interviews. with key actors in Salvadoran civil society. war and a review of archival materials.
He also said the U.S. was aware that the Salvadoran military was using napalm, a highly flammable mixture banned by the United Nations for use against civilians in 1981.
David Morales, a lawyer for the San Salvador-based human rights group Cristosal, which is part of the victims’ legal team, told reporters in court that Karl’s story overwhelmingly showed that such military operations “only they could be carried out with the planning, orders, supervision and concealment on the part of the Salvadoran high command ”.
Clever Pino, a former Peruvian colonel and expert in counterinsurgency tactics, also stated on April 29 and 30 that a new military document showed Operation Rescue, the official name of the army for what happened in December 1981, which had been ordered by high-ranking officers.
This detail was especially revealing, as the military has refused to comply with a court order to allow the case judge to review military records, a major challenge for the case.
“The systematic denial by the Salvadoran Armed Forces of Operation Rescue is a disinformation strategy,” Pino said during his testimony, adding that the tactic “is used when the facts are too obvious or compromising and there is only one denial left “.
The Salvadoran government has not issued any public statement on this week’s testimony through official channels. Neither the president’s office nor the defense ministry responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment in time for its publication.
In the past, the Salvadoran Armed Forces said fighting in El Mozote was between the army and rebel fighters, rather than unarmed civilians.
Reparations and justice
Immediately after the El Mozote assassinations, the U.S. embassy in El Salvador also denied that a massacre had taken place and denied that any U.S.-trained troops were involved in any way. But the release of declassified State Department documents in 2018 showed a change in the stance of the U.S. embassy.
Jean Manes, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 2015 to 2019, wrote to the State Department cables about the El Mozote case that “the embassy continues to support the creation of strong democratic institutions in El Salvador, including the judiciary, which should help strengthen accountability and transparency for all types of crimes, both current and historical. “
This week, a political attaché at the U.S. embassy told reporters at the trial that the U.S. “supported the rule of law and an independent trial here in El Salvador,” without directly mentioning U.S. involvement. in what happened in El Mozote. “We believe that efforts to ensure accountability for human rights violations are important to ensure justice for the victims,” the official said.
For his part, Biden said that fighting impunity and corruption are priorities for his administration, as it develops about 4 billion dollars aid package in Central America to address what it considers to be the root causes of migration an increase in arrivals on the southern border of the United States.
“The jury still doesn’t know if everything that’s been said so far is really rhetorical or if there’s any interest from the U.S. government to correct such horrific episodes,” said Oscar Chacon, executive director of Alianza Americas, an organization for immigrant rights an approach to Central America, he told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, for the victims of the El Mozote massacre, the trial offers an opportunity to demand accountability and make their voices heard. In addition to an apology, Sanchez said he believes the U.S. should contribute to repairing the victims.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered reparations in 2012 and the Salvadoran government at the time agreed on a list of them, but lawyers for the victims say the state has only followed suit. about 15 percent of those promises.
Sanchez added that anyone involved in the killings should be fair. “No matter what country they are from, if they were involved in what happened in El Salvador, we have the right to face trial.”