20 Years after the Salvadoran Truth Commission

20 Years after the Salvadoran Truth Commission

By Geoff Thale, Program Director and Adriana Beltrán, Senior Associate for Citizen Security

El Salvador’s Truth Commission, established as part of the Peace Accords that ended the long and brutal civil war in the country, issued its report twenty years ago today. The war in El Salvador included massive violations of human rights.  There were many well-known cases, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and teenage daughter, the El Mozote massacre, and thousands of other cases of extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and other human rights abuses. The Commission, led by well-respected international figures, was established to investigate “serious acts of violence… whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth” about those acts; this task included naming those responsible, when possible. Equally significant was the Commission’s responsibility to make recommendations intended to put an end to impunity for human rights violations. These recommendations are of particular interest today, when El Salvador is beset by alarming levels of criminal violence.

The Commission’s final report highlighted specific cases that illustrated the patterns of extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, massacres, and death squad killings that brought El Salvador to what the report described as a period of “madness.” In most of those cases, the Commission named individuals whom it believed to have perpetrated, ordered, or covered up the investigation of those cases. To end the impunity that permitted individuals to carry out these abuses, the Commission recommended the dismissal of any military officer or government official named in its report and proposed a series of changes to the judiciary and the police.

The Amnesty Law and a Legacy of Impunity for Armed Groups

Five days after the release of the Commission report, the Salvadoran National Assembly passed an amnesty law that granted “full, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those who participated in any way in the commission … of political crimes.” The amnesty law prevented not only prosecutions but also serious criminal investigations to determine legal responsibility for the cases cited in the Truth Commission report and for the thousands of other cases of human rights abuses that occurred in the course of the war. At the time, the argument was made that post-war political stability required a broad blanket amnesty that would not assign blame and would allow the various political forces in the country to look forward. Both domestic and international human rights groups objected strongly to the amnesty and continue to do so today. The fact that none of the cases cited in the Truth Commission report have been fully investigated or led to criminal prosecutions, much less to convictions or sentences, has resulted in the de facto continuation of what the Truth Commission called “the tradition of impunity for officials and members of the most powerful families who commit abuses.”[1]

The Commission’s Call for Institutional Reforms

Beyond investigations of illustrative cases, the Commission called for fundamental reforms in El Salvador’s criminal justice system, including changes in the judiciary, the police, and the Attorney General’s office. And it urged a full investigation of “private armed groups,” which were among “the most horrendous sources of the violence which swept the country.” The Commission identified the “serious danger that the death squads may become involved, as has happened in some cases, in illegal activities such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking and abductions for ransom.”

The alarming levels of criminal violence make the recommendations very necessary today. According to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, murder rates in El Salvador are amongst the highest in the world, at 69 per 100,000 in 2011. Beyond homicides, Salvadorans experience high levels of extortion, theft and robbery, domestic violence, and other crimes. There are multiple sources of the country’s criminal violence, including the illicit drug trade; gang violence; common crime; and criminal groups engaged in other forms of organized crime, including arms trafficking and human smuggling. But along with these chronic issues, El Salvador faces another problem: the penetration and corruption of state institutions by organized criminal groups, which undermine the rule of law.

The Truth Commission identified this issue. The illegal armed groups which arose during the war—which were made up of members of the security forces and civilians and often linked to military and security sector officials, and some business people—were never entirely dismantled. Some of them turned to criminal activity to support themselves, becoming involved in transporting drugs across Salvadoran territory, kidnapping, car theft rings, or contraband smuggling. They suborned judges and corrupted police, and they worked with and for politicians to generate profits and protect their activities. The failure to investigate and dismantle these groups in the years immediately after the war, as the Truth Commission had recommended, allowed the groups to fester and spread their pernicious influence.

The National Civilian Police: Still in Need of Reform

It is true that major structural issues—a weak economy and lack of economy opportunity, cultural disruptions, increased drug trafficking, and the transnationalization of gangs—contribute to  El Salvador’s insecurity. But these problems have been exacerbated by the failure to develop effective and accountable state institutions. Police forces and judicial institutions remain largely underfunded and badly resourced, marred by corruption scandals and weakened by extensive links to organized crime. Twenty years ago this month, the Truth Commission called for efforts to resolve these problems. Much remains to be done today.

The Peace Accords called for the creation of a new police force, completely independent from the military and based on a new doctrine of citizen security, prevention, deterrence through effective criminal investigation, and respect for human rights. The Truth Commission endorsed these recommendations.  The old security forces were gradually dismantled, and the new National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) was created in 1993. 

There is no question that today’s PNC stands head and shoulders above the pre-war and wartime security services. It is functionally distinct from the armed forces. Police are deployed throughout the entire country; they have a clear leadership structure and promotion system. There is a vetting system, an academy, and a system for police training. There are hundreds of criminal investigators.

And yet the PNC has major and continuing weaknesses. While the system is formally separate from the armed forces, the military has repeatedly been deployed in support of the PNC to deal with crime waves. Starting in the mid-1990s and almost continually since, there have been joint military and police patrols in selected rural and urban areas. These continuing deployments blur the line between police and military forces, a distinction that the Peace Accords established and the Truth Commission supported. In the last year, the appointment of senior military officials who are not on active duty but remain linked to the armed forces as the Minister of Public Security and the Director of the National Civilian Police only reinforce that concern.

Along with continuing ties to the armed forces, the PNC has problems with weak criminal investigations and the failures of internal control systems. Effective criminal investigation is at the heart of the PNC, and yet impunity continues. Studies suggest that overwhelming percentages of homicides in El Salvador do not lead to criminal convictions. In spite of notable advances on these issues in 2009 and 2010, changes in police leadership have once again raised questions about the leadership and organization of the detective divisions.

The weakness of the internal control system is another major and continuing problem. By law, the police must have an internal disciplinary system and an  Inspector General, who is charged with investigating complaints. Both the disciplinary system and the office of the Inspector General have been largely ineffective due to both limited budgets and political pressure. In 2009, President Funes named—and provided strong political support to—a well-known human rights attorney as Inspector General. But the Inspector General encountered serious political opposition, both among the ranks of the police and in the National Assembly. Following leadership changes in the PNC and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, the Inspector General resigned.

The Truth Commission called for the establishment of the rule of law and the end to de facto impunity in El Salvador. It identified those presumed responsible for a number of high profile human rights abuses and called for a series of institutional reforms, as well as an investigation into the continuing existence and possible mutation of death squads and illegal armed groups into organized criminal bands with links to politicians and the security services. But the amnesty thwarted further action on the specific cases, the process of institutional reform has been partial and uneven, and the danger of organized crime and its penetration of the state is perhaps higher today that it was in 1993. El Salvador and its friends in the international community need to face these challenges in order to consolidate the modern, democratic state that the Truth Commission called for and El Salvador deserves.

Photo: Dave Conner


[1] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly held that the amnesty law violates El Salvador’s international obligations under the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. In addition, recently the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Salvadoran government must ensure that the law is not an obstacle to the identification, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for serious human rights violations that occurred during the armed conflict. These rulings give human rights groups tools with which to file new cases to overcome the obstacle that the amnesty law presents.