The El Mozote Massacre: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

On December 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military detained and systematically executed virtually all of the 200 men, women and children in the small village of El Mozote in the northern part of the country.[1]


Now we look at a case regarding this Massacre before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission).[2]

The Petition to the Commission

In October 1990 (nearly nine years after the Massacre) the Oficina de Tutela Legal of the San Salvador Archbishop’s Office filed a petition with the IACHR alleging various human rights violations by the State of El Salvador in connection with the massacres in El Mazote and five other nearby villages.

The Salvadoran government did not seriously challenge the allegations as to what happened in the villages. Instead, it asserted that (a) the case was not admissible to the IACHR because the petitioners had not exhausted their remedies in the country; (b) there was a criminal investigation precipitated by a complaint that was not made until 1990; (c ) the investigation proceeded properly despite great external difficulties caused by the war; (d) the case properly was dismissed in accordance with the General Amnesty Law; and (e) and the petitioners had failed to appeal that dismissal.

IACHR’s Determination of Admissibility of the Petition

 In March 2006 (16 years after the filing of the petition and 25 years after the Massacre), the IACHR determined that the petition was admissible, i.e., eligible for further proceedings. The parties (petitioners and the government) were proper parties under the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition alleged violations of the Convention occurring within the territory of a party to the Convention after it had become such a party.

 Most importantly for admissibility, the exception to the requirement for exhaustion of domestic remedies was satisfied: the systematic violations of human rights in the country made it impossible to file a complaint prior to 1990, appeals of dismissals based on the General Amnesty Law were not necessary, and the state had the responsibility to initiate criminal proceedings based on the Supreme Court’s recognition or creation in 2000 of possible exceptions to that Law and had not exercised that option. In reaching these conclusions, the IACHR relied, in part, on the report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador.

IACHR’s Determination of State Violations

 On November 3, 2010 (20 years after the filing of the Petition and 29 years after the Massacre),  the Commission issued its 79-page merits decision that the “massacres at El Mozote and neighboring locales constituted an unconscionable breach of the most fundamental principles of the American Convention [on Human Rights]. The shocking number of men, women, children and older people who dies at the hands of the Atlacatl Battalion must remain etched in the memory of Salvadoran society so that events such as [these] . . . will never be repeated. The State of El Salvador has an urgent duty to pay its historic debt to the memory of the victims, their surviving relatives, and the people of the country . . . .” (¶ 339)

 More specifically, the IACHR concluded (¶ 340) that the State of El Salvador had violated:

  • (a) the rights to life, humane treatment and personal liberty of the victims who were executed extrajudically;
  • (b) the special rights of children who were executed extrajudically;
  • (c ) the rights to humane treatment and privacy of the women who were raped;
  • (d) the right to property of the murdered victims and the survivors whose homes were destroyed and whose means of livelihood were stolen or eliminated;
  • (e) the right to humane treatment of the survivors and relatives of the murdered victims;
  • (f) the right of freedom of movements and residence of those who were forcibly displaced; and
  • (g) the rights to a fair trial and judicial protection of the survivors and relatives of the murdered victims.

The Commission directly addressed the Salvadoran General Amnesty Law. That Law “and its application [for dismissal of the El Mozote criminal case] . . . are incompatible with the international obligations of the State of El Salvador under the American Convention [on Human Rights] . . . . [The] amnesty law can have no legal effect and cannot continue to be an obstacle to the investigation of the massacres in El Mozote and neighboring locales, nor to the identification and punishment of those responsible.” (¶ 330). This conclusion was supported by citations to numerous decisions to that effect by the Commission itself and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and to resolutions by the U.N. General Assembly (¶¶ 314-329).

As  a result, the Commission recommended that within two months the State of El Salvador : (¶¶ 341-342):

  1. “Make adequate reparations for [these] violations of human rights . . . , both in their material and their moral aspect, including the establishment and dissemination of the historic truth of the events, suitable commemoration of the victims who died, and implementation of an appropriate program of psychosocial care for the surviving relatives.”
  2. “Establish a mechanism to ensure that the victims killed in the massacres at El Mozote and neighboring vicinities are identified as fully as possible and take the necessary steps to pursue the exhumation, identification and return of the remains of those victims in accordance with the desires of their families. This mechanism must also facilitate the complete identification of the relatives of the murdered victims, so that they can be eligible for the reparations . . . .”
  3. “Render ineffective the General Amnesty Law . . .  as it prevents the investigation, trial and sanction of those responsible for human rights violations and the rights of victims to truth, justice, and reparation. Also, any other de jure or de facto obstacles, such as judicial or investigative practices, must be eliminated.”
  4. ” {T]he State should proceed immediately to investigate in an impartial, effective manner and within a reasonable time with the purpose to establishing the facts in a completely, identify the intellectual and material authors and impose the sanctions that correspond. In the immediate fulfillment of this obligation, the Salvadoran authorities cannot invoke the validity of the General Amnesty Law  . . . .”
  5. “Annul the General Amnesty Law . . .  and ensure that no similar legal mechanisms are activated to obstruct the clarification and punishment of crimes against humanity such as those that occurred in this case.”
  6. “Take the measures necessary to prevent similar events in the future, in observance of the duty to respect and guarantee human rights recognized in the American Convention [of Human Rights].In particular, implement permanent programs on human rights and international humanitarian law in the armed forces training schools.”

[1] A prior post set forth a brief summary of the facts of the Massacre, the investigation of same by the Truth Commission for El Salvador and the subsequent adoption of the Salvadoran General Amnesty Law and the dismissal of a criminal case on the basis of that Law.

[2]  Background about the IACHR is set forth in a prior post.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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