WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Office Protects Lega, E. Argueta)

26 Apr 2021 | News

Trial Expert to Explain Salvadoran Military Leaders’ Responsibility for El Mozote Massacre

[ Background: The testimony will be available live on El Faro website (elfaro.net) starting Monday, and summaries of the day’s testimony will be available in both English and Spanish every evening. ]

On Monday April 26, Professor Terry Karl will testify about the command responsibility of Salvadoran military leaders now on trial for their role in the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which over a thousand men, women, and children were murdered by Salvadoran troops. Terry Karl is a political scientist from Stanford University who has testified as an expert in several U.S. trials involving Salvadoran officials who moved to the United States and who were charged with human rights abuses. Karl will also testify about the cover-up of the massacre, including the role played by then-U.S. officials.

The El Mozote massacre took place in December of 1981, when Salvadoran troops entered a rural area of northern Morazan province, where FMLN guerrillas had been active. The residents of El Mozote and surrounding communities were largely apolitical, and not known as FMLN supporters. Nonetheless, troops rounded up community members, and over a three-day period, executed over a thousand civilians, including several hundred children. It was the largest single massacre of civilians in modern Latin American history.

Many of the troops involved came from an elite U.S.-trained unit, the Atlacatl Battalion. And at a time when the U.S. government, under President Ronald Reagan, was funding the Salvadoran government, training and advising the Salvadoran military, and fending off critics at home who accused Salvadoran forces of widespread human rights abuses, the massacre was a political embarrassment to the Reagan administration. Senior U.S. officials at first denied the massacre had happened, pressured news sources not to report on it, and insisted that the massacre had taken place without the knowledge or consent of Salvadoran officials.

After the Salvadoran civil war ended in 1992, legislation permitted family members of those killed to file criminal claims against the senior officers involved. However, the cases came to a halt after El Salvador approved a general amnesty law. In 2016, after decades of determined efforts by the family members and their attorneys, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned the amnesty law, and courageous judges on the country’s constitutional court allowed litigation to move ahead.

For more than four years, the families and their attorneys have pursued justice through the Salvadoran legal system. However, this case is not only about justice for those who died and their survivors, but is a test of the strength and independence of El Salvador’s justice system and the endurance of the country’s peace accords, the very foundation of El Salvador’s post -war democratic order. Under Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, both efforts to weaken or obstruct investigations in the El Mozote case, and a dismissal of the peace accords have been of grave concern as their implications are far reaching. On trial currently are 16 military officers involved in ordering, approving, supervising or leading the troops that conducted the massacre. They are part of a generation of military leaders who have always believed themselves above the law and immune from prosecution, able to commit abuses and exercise power without consequences. 

Under Salvadoran law, as it is being applied in this case, a judge conducts an investigation, hears witnesses, and gathers evidence before a trial goes to a final jury stage. The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of that first phase, and the judge has asked Professor Karl, who has studied, written about, and testified about the Salvadoran military, and about human rights abuses in El Salvador’s civil war, to serve as an expert witness.

She will present her testimony to the judge over several days, starting Monday, April 26. The testimony is likely to touch on the U.S. role in the training of Salvadoran troops, the role that U.S. officials played in covering up the massacre, the command and control structure of the Salvadoran military, and the potential responsibility of the officers on trial.

This is a critical juncture, where the court and the public will be able to hear from an internationally recognized expert about the case, and where the officers involved and the Salvadoran military will be under intense scrutiny.

The survivors, attorneys, human rights organizations, including Cristosal and Tutela Legal “Maria Julia Hernandez”, Salvadoran and international activists, Members of the United States Congress like Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and others who have advocated for justice, deserve immense credit, as does the lead attorney for the survivors,  David Morales. The judge in the case, Jorge Guzman, has stood up to political pressure to end the proceedings.

For those who have sought justice in this case, and those who believe a functioning judicial system is one of the prerequisites for a democratic society, this is a moment of hope. The United States, which has invested in strengthening the judicial system in El Salvador, and has, under the Biden Administration, seen the rule of law as a key issue in the region, should closely monitor this case, and support efforts to move it forward to a resolution.