Twenty years ago in March, the government of El Salvador passed an amnesty law that granted immunity from prosecution to those responsible for crimes committed before and during the country’s civil war, which raged from 1980 to 1992. This law was promulgated only five days after a U.N. truth commission reported that an estimated 75,000 civilians had lost their lives in the conflict, more than 90 percent of them at the hands of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military and death squads.
Ostensibly intended to let the country move forward without being mired in the past, the law not only protected war criminals from prosecution but also precluded any investigation into their crimes. As a result, for two decades the law has thwarted justice for Salvadorans, forcing thousands to live without even the most basic knowledge about the fates that befell their loved ones.
Fortunately, this is starting to change. Last year, President Mauricio Funes apologized publicly for the massacre at El Mozote, calling it “the worst massacre of civilians in contemporary Latin American history.” That incident, one of countless mass killings that occurred during the war, took place on Dec. 11, 1981, when the Atlacatl Battalion — an elite Salvadoran army unit trained by the U.S. Army at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.—killed more than 900 people, hundreds of them children. In December 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled against the government of El Salvador in the El Mozote case, declaring that the amnesty law could no longer be used to deny justice to the victims of such acts.
In March, the Instituto de Derechos Humanos at El Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana and the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights convened legal advocates from around the world in San Salvador to demand justice in cases of wartime atrocities. Forty-four criminal cases were presented to the Salvadoran justice system. The victims include a labor leader whose wife and 11-year-old daughter were “disappeared” while he was tortured behind bars as a political prisoner; survivors of rural massacres, many of which erased entire communities from the landscape; and an adult daughter of two political activists who grew up never knowing the reasons for her parents’ disappearance. Many are now coming forward for the first time.
These are positive steps, but they’re not enough. Until the amnesty law is replaced with a law supporting truth, justice and reparations for victims on all sides of the conflict, injustice will continue to fester in Salvadoran society.
The peace process of the 1990s introduced modest reforms, yet the fundamental lack of judicial independence was never addressed. Despite the decades that have passed, the war’s legacy is very much present in El Salvador today, reverberating through national politics and especially through attempts to staunch criminal violence with militarized institutions.
In a climate of assured impunity, transnational gangs that traffic in migrants, drugs and weapons have flourished. The country’s homicide rate has consequently soared to unprecedented levels, and as doing business amid flying bullets drives away investment, the economy has stagnated.
Yet El Salvador’s recent efforts to remedy this situation are aimed precisely in the wrong direction. Instead of tackling, once and for all, the ways the hamstrung justice system perpetuates privilege for a few at the cost of the majority, the government has moved to re-militarize the security forces.
In this context, renewed examination of the crimes committed in El Salvador in the 1980s represents a chance to correct course. In the United States, it is an opportunity to examine the U.S. government’s role in abetting crimes against humanity, through its support of the Salvadoran counterinsurgency policy and its protection of the oligarchy’s death squads. As current U.S. policy in the Middle East has been shaped by the architects of past involvement in El Salvador, such critical examination is urgently needed. In the United States, as in El Salvador, it is time we listen to the voices of victims of the past, and insist upon reforms to avoid the tragic repetition of the same mistakes.