The El Mozote Massacre: The Truth Commission for El Salvador and the Subsequent Salvadoran General Amnesty Law and Dismissal of Criminal Case


El Mozote
El Mozote

On December 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military (Atlacatl Battalion) detained and systematically executed virtually all of the men, women and children in the small village of El Mozote in the northern part of El Salvador. The men first were tortured and then executed. Then the women were killed. Finally the children were killed. Over 200 of the victims subsequently were identified plus many others who were not so identified. This happened as part of the military’s “Operacion Rescate” that sought to eliminate the guerrilla presence in the area and that also committed massacres in other villages at the same time.[1]

In late January 1982 information about the massacres started to become publicly available, and protests began. The Salvadoran government, however, “categorically denied” that a massacre had taken place and did not immediately initiate any judicial investigations of the events.

Over eight years later (1990) criminal proceedings were commenced in El Salvador, and in November1992 court-ordered exhumations started.

These horrible crimes have reverberated ever since then.

The Truth Commission for El Salvador in March 1993 delivered its report on the El Mozote Massacre, which will be described below along with the immediate Salvadoran adoption of the General Amnesty Law and its being the basis for dismissal of the country’s criminal case about the Massacre.

Additional posts will discuss the following subsequent developments regarding the Massacre:

  • In March 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) made a preliminary decision in a case about the massacre, and four years later (November 2010), it made its decision on the merits.
  • On January 16, 2012, the President of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, made an important public statement about his Administration’s decisions regarding redresses for the Massacre.
  • On October 25, 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which had accepted the IACHR’s appeal from its own decision in order to enforce its recommendations, rendered its judgment in the El Mozote case and released that judgment to the public on December 10, 2012 (International Human Rights Day).

Truth Commission for El Salvador

The Truth Commission for El Salvador[2] in its April 2003 report found “full proof” that Atlacatl Battalion  soldiers “deliberately and systematically killed . . . more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population” of the village of El Mozote. There was “sufficient evidence” that these troops committed other massacres at the same time in nearby other villages. Names of the officers in charge were given. The Commission’s findings on what happened at El Mozote were aided by its retention of an international forensic team that conducted exhumations at the village and by its interviewing eyewitnesses. These efforts constituted a major advance in establishing the truth of the most egregious crimes.

In addition, the Truth Commission found that the Armed Forces High Command had “repeatedly denied” that a massacre had occurred and that Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia (“full evidence) and Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff General Rafael Florez Lima (“sufficient evidence”)  had initiated no investigation of the matter. Finally, the Commission found that the President of the Supreme Court “had interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.”

El Salvador’s Adoption of the General Amnesty Law

Only five days after the delivery of the Truth Commission Report, El Salvador’s National Assembly adopted the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of the Peace (Decree 486).[3] It granted in Article 1:

  • “a full, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those who participated in any                 way in   the commission, prior to January 1, 1992 [the end of the civil war], of political crimes or common crimes linked to political crimes or common crimes in which the number of persons involved is no less than twenty. “

This law’s Article 6 stipulated that the amnesty shall apply “to the persons referred to in article 6 of the National Reconciliation Law . . . of January 23, 1992 [i.e., to those who would be named or implicated in the anticipated Truth Commission Report].” In addition, Article 2 of the Law broadened the definition of “political crime” to include “crimes against the public peace,” “crimes against the activities of the courts,” and crimes “committed on the occasion of or as a consequence of the armed conflict, without regard to political condition, militancy, affiliation or ideology.” Article 4 stated that all pending cases should be dismissed and all individuals being held should be released while anyone charged in the future could obtain dismissal of the charges. In addition, Article 4 provided that the amnesty extinguished all civil liability.

Dismissal of El Salvador’s El Mozote Criminal Case

As noted above, a Salvadoran criminal case about the massacre was commenced in 1990, and in late 1992 court-ordered exhumations started. However, the court suspended the exhumations in February 1993 and declined to hire international forensic specialists to assist in this effort, at the urging of the President of the country’s Supreme Court.

 In September 1994 the court dismissed the criminal case on the basis of the General Amnesty Law, and there were no appeals of that dismissal. (In 2000 Oficina de Tutela Legal obtained a court order for resumption of the exhumations as it was not covered by that Law.) [4]

Thus, no one was ever convicted for this crime in El Salvador.

[1]  This post supersedes a prior post about the El Mozote Massacre. This preliminary factual statement is based upon the Truth Commission report and Mark Danner’s The Massacre at el Mozote. There also is a detailed account of the Massacre in the November 3, 2010, decision of the IACHR (¶¶ 55-75) that will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[2] The mandate and procedures of the Truth Commission were discussed in a prior post.

[3] A prior post reviewed the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the General Amnesty Law and the Salvadoran courts’ rejection of challenges to the constitutionality of the Law. Another post reviewed U.S. courts’ refusal to use the Law to dismiss civil cases against Salvadorans while another post talked about a 2011 Salvadoran controversy regarding its Supreme Court that may have been related, in part, to another possible challenge to the validity of the Law.

[4]  IACHR, Admissibility of  El Mozote Massacre, Rep. No. 24/06, ¶¶ 17, 19  (Case No. 10.720 Mar. 2, 2006).

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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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