During El Salvador’s “dirty war” in the 1980s, which pitted leftist guerrillas against an entrenched alliance of generals and oligarchs, the army committed atrocity upon atrocity with impunity. In one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history, in December 1981, soldiers from an American-trained battalion slaughtered nearly 1,000 peasants—women and old men and children, some too young to walk, average age 6—in El Mozote and the surrounding villages.
After a Sisyphean struggle, justice and accountability seemed within reach when in 2017 a judge began hearing evidence against 20 former high-ranking military officers, including the former minister of defense. But now a boulder of injustice is once again about to roll over the victims. The Salvadoran assembly is considering an amnesty for crimes committed during the civil war. It is called the National Reconciliation Law, but as readers of Orwell might have guessed, it is anything but.
“This is mocking the victims,” Amadeo Sanchez, who was 8 years old at the time of the massacre, said on Tuesday in front of the parliament, where he was with other El Mozote victims to protest the law. He had survived because he’d fled into the hills with his father before the soldiers arrived in his village, he told me in an interview last year after testifying in court. “They want to favor the ones who committed the crimes,” he said about the politicians, who are scheduled to vote on the law today.
When he came out of the hills and returned to his village, Sanchez told me, he found the bodies of his mother, siblings, and neighbors, including a woman who had been shot in the head. Next to her lay her one-day-old daughter. Her throat, he said, had been cut.
On the wall, he told me, the soldiers had scrawled in blood, Un nino muerto, un guerrillero menos: “One dead child is one less guerrilla.”
The proposed law would limit the crimes for which a former combatant can be convicted. But most radically, it would remove the possibility of jail time even for those convicted of a war crime or crime against humanity. The maximum sentence would be community service of three to 10 years. Even that figure would be reduced if the defendant is over 65 years old, a category that includes the former minister of defense, José Guillermo García.
But the charges against García, which include rape, kidnapping, and murder, would have to be dismissed anyway: Only the direct perpetrators of human-rights-abuse crimes can be prosecuted under the legislation, not those who may have ordered the killings, effectively negating the legal doctrine of command responsibility.
For good measure, lest there be any doubt that the proposed law is aimed primarily at stopping the El Mozote investigation, another provision requires that all trials be held in the capital, San Salvador. The El Mozote proceeding is being held in a small courtroom in San Francisco Gotera, a gritty agricultural town that is the capital of Morazan province, where the massacre occurred.
Just as the victims have been struggling for justice, the perpetrators of the atrocities, and their supporters, have been doggedly seeking to continue the immunity they have long enjoyed.
In 1993, within weeks of a peace accord that ended the 12-year civil war, the conservative Salvadoran assembly passed a sweeping amnesty. The El Mozote investigation, which was in its initial stages, was shut down. The amnesty law was upheld by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 2000.
The victims took their case to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, which found no dispute as to the facts. As part of a counterinsurgency scorched-earth policy, the court said, “the Armed Forces executed all of those persons it came across: elderly adults, men, women, boys and girls, they killed animals, destroyed and burned plantations, homes, and devastated everything community-related.”
So the victims went back to the Salvadoran Supreme Court. This time the court ruled the amnesty law invalid. In 2017, the judge in Gotera hauled the defendants into his courtroom and began taking testimony from survivors and relatives of murdered families.
The American ambassador in El Salvador, Jean Manes, has endorsed the trial. “The El Mozote case is an important, positive step for rule of law and ending impunity in El Salvador,” she wrote in a cable to Washington in 2017. But she saw what was coming: “a replacement of the Amnesty law which could impact the ability to prosecute the El Mozote case and others.”
The United Nations human-rights council has called on the Salvadoran assembly to reject the proposed law. And Fabian Salvioli, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of nonrecurrence, said in a statement, “I express serious concern at this attempt to open the door for a de facto amnesty and eliminate the enforcement of criminal sanctions for severe human rights and humanitarian law violations and crimes against humanity.”
In an open letter to the Salvadoran legislators, the families of four American churchwomen raped and murdered by Salvadoran soldiers in December 1980 have also registered their opposition: “In the name of our beloved Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel, we appeal to you to reject wholeheartedly the bill calling for a second General Amnesty.”
The letter goes on, “A General Amnesty, especially in the El Mozote case, would be another denial of the humanity of those who were killed so wantonly.”
If the amnesty law passes, the immunity will continue for those who killed so wantonly.