U.S. Sanctions 13 Former Salvadoran Military Officers for 1989 Murders of Jesuit Priests

On January 29, 2020, the U.S. State Department sanctioned 13 former Salvadoran military officers for the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests.[1]

Ranging “in rank from general to private, [the following men] were involved in the planning and execution of the extrajudicial killings of six Jesuit priests and two others taking refuge at the Jesuit pastoral center on November 16, 1989 on the campus of Central American University in El Salvador:”  Juan Rafael Bustillo, Juan Orlando Zepeda, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, Francisco Elena Fuentes, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Pérez Vásquez, and José Alberto Sierra Ascencio.”

Under a U.S. statute, these individuals “and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.”

The Department’s statement also said, “The United States condemns all human rights abuses that took place on both sides of the brutal civil war in El Salvador, including those committed by governmental and non-governmental parties.” The statement concluded:

  • “The United States supports the ongoing accountability, reconciliation, and peace efforts in El Salvador.  We value our ongoing working relationship with the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them.  Today’s actions underscore our support for human rights and our commitment to promoting accountability for perpetrators and encouraging reconciliation and a just and lasting peace.”

Comment

Even though the sanction is not that significant, it was appropriate for the U.S. to do this.

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[1] State Dep’t, Public Designation of Thirteen Former Salvadoran Military Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights (Jan. 29, 2020).

 

Request for U.S. Records in Salvadoran Trial Over 1981 El Mozote Massacre

On December 10-12,1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, 978 men, women and children were massacred in the country’s northeastern village of El Mozote, the largest mass killing in Latin America’s modern history. Of those victims, 447 were age 12 and under while 4 were unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs.[1]

Eventually it had become clear that  “the Salvadoran military’s Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the massacre. But details were vague. The commanders of the Battalion remained free. So do the former senior defense officials who allegedly issued orders to the battalion. In the 1990s, the country approved an amnesty that protected war criminals. That law was declared unconstitutional in 2016 by a Salvadoran court, thereby clearing the way for reopening a Salvadoran criminal trial over this massacre.

Early Stages of Salvadoran Trial Over the Massacre[2]

Since that year (2016) a Salvadoran court has been conducting a trial of 16 former Salvadoran military commanders, including a former minister of defense, over this massacre. They are charged with murder, torture, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, forced displacement, acts of terrorism, illegal detention, theft and damages. The evidence implicated the involvement of the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been U.S.-trained, in contradiction of the original Salvadoran and American accounts of the massacre.

U.S. Congressional Decision To Help Salvadoran Trial[3]

In 2019 in establishing the annual budget for international aid, the Congress directed the U.S. Government to cooperate with El Salvador’s investigation of the El Mozote massacre in the following language:

  • “The [House] Committee [on Appropriations] directs the Secretary of State to work with the relevant federal departments and agencies to, as appropriate, assist the judicial authorities of El Salvador in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the El Mozote massacre. [This includes] the identification of and provision of related documents, correspondence, reproductions of Salvadoran documents, and other similar materials from January 1981 to January 1983.”
  • The Senate version stated, “The Secretary of State… shall encourage the Salvadoran Armed Forces to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators, including providing access to archival documents.” The bill also included a mandate for the Department of State to update its report on the current status of the Salvadoran trial.

In response to the Senate’s direction, the State Department on February 5, 2020, sent a letter to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, with a report on the Salvadoran government’s cooperation with the court’s investigation.[4]

Recent Developments in Salvadoran Case[5]

In January 2020, a retired Salvadoran air force general, Juan Rafael Bustillo, testified in the trial that that the Atlacatl Battalion had carried out the massacre, which was the first time a Salvadoran military official had admitted such responsibility. He said he had not taken part in this event, but that it had been conducted on orders by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of that Battalion who died in a 1984 helicopter accident.

After that testimony, the Salvadoran judge, Jorge Guzman Urquilla, concluded that the court did not have an important set of evidence: “U.S. documents that might shed light on how the massacre was planned and executed.”

 Salvadoran Judge’s Letter to U.S.Government[6]

As a result, the judge on January 27, 2020, sent a letter to  U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo with copies to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Robert P. Ashley, Jr. and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The judge’s letter requested “at minimum, any document in the possession of the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other defense or intelligence agencies” relating to the El Mazote massacre. The letter stated the following:

  • “I recognize and am thankful for Congress’ initiative in asking the State Department to look into information that the United States may have on this case. As a judge, I would hope that it would provide me with greater certainty and clarity on these heinous acts that are now part of our country’s history, something we are not proud of, but which the historical record will demand we adjudicate.”
  • “The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of its investigative phase and will soon move to sentencing. Though some expert military testimony is forthcoming, the main phases of the examination portion have been completed. Service members, including several soldiers and a general, have given their accounts of the relevant events, confirming that the massacre took place as well as the role played by various units of the [Salvadoran] Armed Forces. A lack of documents is the last big hurdle. Despite [Salvadoran] President Nayib Bukele’s assurances that he will collaborate, the [Salvadoran] Army has stuck to the position it’s taken since the investigation began in the 1990s: that no relevant documents exist.”
  • “Even if they no longer can be found in El Salvador, it’s still possible that there are copies or records of these files in the United States, a country that was closely involved with and aware of the [Salvadoran] Army’s operations in the 80s as part of its foreign policy agenda.” Though a good deal of documents were already declassified [by President Bill Clinton in 1983], the letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents.”
  • The letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents” and for files on “the operations of the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the Morazán area, including any information on military planning, operational planning, and war planning, and involving any of the military units that I have mentioned,” between 1981 and 1983.
  • The letter specifically solicited information on General José Guillermo García, General Rafael Flores Lima, and 14 others who were charged and remain alive; on Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, Mayor Armando Azmitia, and 14 others who were charged and are now dead; on the municipality of Arambala and the seven sites where the massacre took place; and on the four military units being held responsible: the Atlacatl Battalion, the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the Fourth Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, and the High Command of the Armed Forces.
  • The letter emphasized the need to “move forward with this case in an expeditious manner” and asks Pompeo for a response “within the period of time set forth by the law.”

A journalist for elfaro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, apparently added, “Among the [U.S.] files declassified in 1993, for example, are several diplomatic cables between San Salvador and Washington from January 1981, which make clear that then-U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton was consistently transmitting details about the operation that would ultimately result in the massacre. ‘[I]t is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote. It is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle… Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the number being cited in other reports circulating internationally,’ read an initial cable from Hinton, from January 1981.”

The elfaro journalist also said, “Later, in another communication, [Hinton] . . .  offered a different account of what may have taken place: ‘The estimated population of El Mozote during the massacre was about 300 inhabitants. The Atlacatl Battalion conducted Operation Rescate from December 6 to 17 of 1981. The guerrilla knew of the operation since November 15. The civilians present during the operation and the battles with the guerrilla may have been killed.’” Following Clinton’s declassifications, several agencies have continued providing documents in response to petitions from human rights organizations.

Additional support for U.S. production of such documents comes from an analyst for the U.S. National Security Archive, Kate Doyle, who believes the U.S. has additional relevant documents about the Salvadoran civil war that could and should be declassified.[7]

U.S. Government’s Response to the Judge’s Letter

To date, Secretary Pompeo has not responded to the court’s letter; nor have the three others copied on that letter. The subject came up again at a March 11th Salvadoran court hearing in the case when the judge said, ““This information could be very valuable to us. It could clarify what happened.” A State Department spokesman, however, said, “We do not comment on the Secretary’s correspondence.”

Conclusion

 Given the congressional demand that the U.S. cooperate with the Salvadoran investigation of the El Mozote massacre and the U.S. support of human rights by its recent publication of the  latest annual report about human rights in every country in the world and Secretary Pompeo’s proud creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, there is no excuse for any further delay in providing an affirmative response to the Salvadoran judge’s letter and the requested documents.

This conclusion is buttressed by the following words in the March 11, 2020, State Department’s report about human rights in El Salvador:[8]

  • “In February [2019], in a renewed effort to shield the perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, a group of influential legislators proposed a draft national reconciliation law. Despite Constitutional Court rulings in 2016 and 2018 that expressly prohibited a broad and unconditional amnesty, the proposed bill would have granted amnesty to several high-level officials who enjoyed immunity from prosecution due to their positions in the recent administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Victims’ rights groups, other civil society actors, and the international community successfully campaigned against the proposed bill, and President-elect Bukele stated his strong opposition to an amnesty bill and expressed his support for additional consultation with victims. On May 29, [2019] the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to immediately suspend consideration of the proposed law. The proposed bill eventually lost support among legislators and failed to reach a floor vote.” (Section 2.E)
  • “Despite a June 2018 Constitutional Court order directing it to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense had not produced the requested documentation as of November 12 [2019]. On November 1, President Bukele stated that he was committed to the truth and that he would release the records. Previously, the Ministry of Defense claimed the El Mozote archive records were destroyed in an accidental warehouse fire. Civil society and victims’ groups continued to press for release of these archives.” (Section 2.E)
  • “On April 23, [2019] the judge in the El Mozote prosecution issued an order adding three new charges against the 16 remaining defendants: Torture, forced disappearance, and forced displacement. He also imposed several provisional measures on the defendants, including a prohibition on leaving the country or contacting victims, and a requirement that the defendants physically appear in court biweekly. The defendants appealed these rulings, which were affirmed by an intermediate appellate court. On February 14, [2019] the Legislative Assembly approved a transitory law establishing mechanisms designed to allow family members to be added to the El Mozote victims’ registry.” (Section 2.E)

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[1] See generally list of posts in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADORThe massacre of children and others at El Mozote, El Salvador Perspectives (Dec. 10, 2017); Posts about El Mozote. El Salvador Perspectives.

[2] Zabiah, El Mozote judge asks the United States for confidential documents on the massacre, elfaro (Mar. 5, 2020) (Zabiah #1).

[3] Zabiah # 1, supra; H. Rep., 116th Congress, 1st Sess., Rep. 116-78, State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2020 (May 20, 2019); H. Rep., Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill (May 5, 2019); H. Rep. Comm. on Appropriations. Public Witness Hearing: State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (Mar. 12, 2019).

[4] Letter, State Dep’t to Senator Leahy (enclosing three-page report) (Feb. 5, 2020)(hyperlinked to Zabiah #1, supra).

[5] Zabiah #1, supra; Zabiah, General Bustillo breaks the officers’ script and admits that ‘rudeness’ occurred in El Mozote, elfaro (Jan. 26, 2020); Schwartz, What the El Mozote Massacre Can Teach Us About Trump’s War on the Press, The Intercept (Jan. 28, 2020); El Salvador general admits army carried out El Mozote massacre, Aljazeera (Jan. 25, 2020); Pierce, It’s a Bull Market for Bashing the Press. Under Conservative Governments, It Often Has Been, Esquire (Jan.27, 2020); Renteria, Salvadoran general admits army carried out infamous 1981 massacre, Reuters (Jan. 24, 2020).

[6] Zabiah #1 , supra.

[7] Alvarado, “The attorney general can ask the United States for information about El Mazote,” elfaro (Mar. 23, 2018).

[8] State Dep’t, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador (Mar. 11, 2020).

Salvadoran Attorney General Requests Reopening of Jesuit Priests Murder Case

On December 5 El Salvador’s Attorney General advised a Salvadoran court that the case over the 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests should be reopened. This follows a similar request on November 27 by the Institute for Human Rights of the University of Central America (UCA), where the priests lived and worked.[1]

The defendants in the case are the alleged intellectual authors of the crime: former president, Alfredo Cristiani; the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, René Emilio Ponce (now deceased); ex-commander of the Air Force, Juan Rafael Bustillo; Deputy Defense Minister, Juan Orlando Zepeda; Public Security Vice Minister, Inocente Orlando Montano; the former commander of the First Infantry Brigade, Francisco Elena Fuentes; and the former Minister of Defense, Rafael Humberto Larios.

Another former Salvadoran military officer and intellectual author of the crime, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, earlier was convicted of the crime in El Salvador and now is imprisoned in that country.

Montano, as reported in previous posts,[2] is now in Spain facing the same charges in a Spanish court. Apparently he is asserting the following defenses: (a) he had no knowledge of the orders to kill the priests, (b) he was not part of the military chain of command; and (c) at the time of the assassination of the Jesuits, former President Cristiani was present in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces. At least one of these defenses is supported by an attorney for the Salvadoran military, who is asserting that Montano had no command over military personnel since as deputy minister he only could give  orders to members of the military corps security.[3]

In response, the prosecution in Spain is arguing that Montano was present at the Salvadoran Military General Staff meetings when the orders were given to commit the murders and that as Deputy Minister of Defense and Public Security he was empowered to command the security forces (National Police, National Guard and Treasury Police) while as a Colonel he had command over the military units.

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[1] Labrador, Prosecutor requests the reopening of the Jesuits case in El Salvador, El Faro (Dec, 7, 2017)

[2] See posts in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[3] Burgos, Montano’s defense sins innocent, El Faro (Dec. 5, 2017).

Salvadoran Responses to Invalidation of Its Amnesty Law

As reported in a prior post, the Supreme Court of El Salvador in July 2016 invalidated the country’s 1993 Amnesty Law that had barred criminal prosecution of the most serious violations of human rights during their civil war.

In response the Salvadoran government is preparing legislation to implement that decision and replace that Amnesty Law. In addition, there have been recent important developments regarding three of those violations: (1) the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; (2) the 1981 El Mozote massacre; and (3) the 1987 assassination of human rights advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria. All of these developments originally were posted in Tim’s El Salvador Blog and are re-posted or incorporated here with permission.[1]

New Legislation

The Salvadoran government is preparing draft legislation to implement the court ruling and replace the amnesty law. According to an article in Salvador’s El Faro newspaper, the Salvadoran government is seeking advice on such a new law from Juanita Goebertus, an expert Colombian lawyer who participated in the peace accords signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. [2]

The key issue is what crimes that were committed during the war are not protected from prosecution and those that are so protected.  The ruling of the court only nullified the amnesty law as it applied to “crimes against humanity.”

Tim’s El Salvador Blog suggests the only crimes against humanity and perhaps war crimes are not exempt from prosecution, but I think that is too narrow. An apparent quotation from the Supreme Court decision in that Blog says the non-exemption applies to “the cases contained in the report of the Truth Commission, as well as those others of equal or greater gravity and transcendence.”

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides in Article 1 that it shall have “jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern,” which are specified (with definitions) in Articles 6, 7 and 8 as “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes,” and “the crime of genocide.”[3]

According to Tim’s Blog, another issue to be addressed in the new legislation is “whether perpetrators of crimes against humanity will face criminal punishment including jail time.” A Salvadoran newspaper “suggests that both ARENA and the FMLN would like legislation in which the possibility of jail time is eliminated.  What is left unclear is what process will exist to judge responsibility for these crimes and what reparations might be available to victims.    Nor is it clear if the victims have had a voice in defining any of this process.”

Romero Assassination

On March 23–the day before the 37th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero–“human rights lawyers filed a petition with a court in the capital of San Salvador to reopen the case of this assassination.   They are asking the court to proceed judicially to establish the facts and the responsible parties for this horrible crime.” [4]

El Mozote Massacre

Previous posts have discussed the 1981 massacre  near the Salvadoran village of El Mozote and various legal proceedings regarding this atrocity. [5]

“Twenty ex-members of El Salvador’s military, including high-ranking generals, [this March] have been cited to appear in court in San Francisco Gotera, in Morazan department, in connection with the 1981 El Mozote massacre. On March 29 a Salvadoran court held a hearing to notify nine of these men, including former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, ex-chief-of staff Rafael Flores, five other former colonels and two others who did not appear in court that they are being investigated for their alleged roles in the El Mozote massacre. Former Defense Minister Garcia had no comments to the court or the press regarding this development. On March 30 an additional nine former military officials were similarly notified. [6]

This is the first case in a court in El Salvador involving El Mozote and the first case to proceed after last year’s nullification of the 1993 Amnesty Law.”

“The cited officers include  general José Guillermo García, ex-minister of defense; general Rafael Flores Lima, ex-chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces; Colonel Jaime Flores Grijalva, ex-commander of the Third Infantry Brigade; General Juan Rafael Bustillo, ex-commander of the Salvadoran Air Force; and other lower ranking officers involved in the events.”

“The crimes alleged include murders, aggravated rape, kidnapping, acts of terrorism and other offenses.”

“The actions of the judge in San Francisco Gotera responds to a petition by the legal team for the victims headed by Tutela Legal ‘María Julia Hernández.’    The human rights lawyers have complained about the slow, passive approach being taken by the Attorney General’s office which has not moved the case forward despite the removal of the Amnesty Law and a judgment of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights requiring the government of El Salvador to investigate and prosecute these crimes against humanity.”[7]

“The December 1981 El Mozote massacre was perhaps the worst atrocity of El Salvador’s twelve year civil war.  All but one of the civilians taking refuge in the small village of El Mozote, more than 800 men, women, children and babies, were brutally killed by the Salvadoran army.  It is a tragedy the world must never forget.”

Assassination of Human Rights Advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria

“Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez announced that his office is reopening the case involving the 1987 assassination of human rights advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria.According to an Amnesty International Report in 1988, his killing, carried out by men in plain clothes using silencers on their guns, followed repeated harassment and threats directed at Anaya himself and at other independent human rights monitors in El Salvador.” 

“Although a trial convicted an ERP guerrilla member,Jorge Miranda, for the murder, most believe that the assassination was carried out by government forces. Miranda was released from prison because of the now invalidated Amnesty Law, but the Attorney General said that Miranda would need to be tried again and that if any relative or other interested persons had information about other material actors or intellectual authors of the crime, the prosecutors would pursue any leads.”

Conclusion

We will be paying close attention to Tim’s El Salvador Blog to keep us apprised of further developments on these matters.

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[1] Amnesty or restorative justice?, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 28, 2017); Oscar Romero–37 years after his assassination, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 24, 2017); Court cites high military commanders in El Mozote massacre case, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 15, 2017); Salvador Attorney General opens new war crimes case, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 22, 2017); Historic first step towards justice at El Mozote, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (Mar. 31, 2017). Congratulations and appreciation for Tim’s faithful publication of his blog for the last 13 years.

[2] Rauda, Presidencia busca una nueva ley que permita a los criminales de guerra evitar la cárcel, El Faro (Mar. 26, 2017).

[3] The Rome Statute also includes in Article 5(1) (d) “the crime of aggression” as within the jurisdiction of the ICC, but it was not defined until the States Parties did so at the Review Conference of June 2010, and its ratification and applicability is a complex subject that does not need to be addressed here since the crime of aggression seems less relevant to instances of civil war like El Salvador’s.

 

[4] There have been numerous posts about Romero and his assassination. See posts listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[5] See posts listed in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: EL SALVADOR. A recent article describes the aftermath of the massacre. (Maslin, The Salvadoran Town That Can’t Forget, The Nation (Mar. 30, 2017).)

[6] Ramos, El Mozote sienta en el banquillo al general del Ejército más oscuro, El Faro (Mar. 30, 2017).; Rauda, Pedro Chicas resurrects to prosecute those responsible for El Mozote, El Faro (Apr. 1, 2017)(Google translate).

[7] The decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the El Mozote massacre was discussed in this post: The el Mozote Massacre: Inter-American Court of Human Rights Determines El Salvador Violated the American Convention on Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 16, 2012).