The arrest of Roberto Antonio Garay Saravia, a former Salvadoran Army officer by American authorities, could add fuel to the El Mozote massacre case. It has been over 41 years since this dreadful massacre happened, and Salvadorans are still waiting to know what transpired and who did it.
The massacre case was reopened in 2016 after 35 years of relentless struggle. On this date, human rights defenders, victims, and Salvadorans received new hope for truth and justice with the reopening of the El Mozote case by the Second Court of San Francisco de Gotera.
The judicial investigation was closed in 1993 after the Legislative Assembly approved the General Amnesty Law.
The amnesty law was approved days after the United Nations Truth Commission published its findings and recommendations. The commission stated that the Salvadoran army was responsible for several massacres in communities accused of supporting guerrilla groups.
It was not until July 2016 that the Constitutional Court in El Salvador declared the General Amnesty Law unconstitutional, opening the door for pursuing justice for war crimes committed in the country. El Mozote is the first case to be reopened involving crimes against humanity committed during the Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992).
By turning its back on a law that has done nothing more than let criminals escape justice for decades after committing serious human rights violations, the country is finally coming to grips with its tragic past.
Erika Guevara-Rosas in 2016.
The civil war in El Salvador pitted the military government against a leftist insurgency for more than 12 years and resulted in an estimated 75,000 dead and 8,000 disappearing.
The brutal massacre in El Mozote is widely considered the worst atrocity committed during the war. On December 10, 11, and 12, 1981, the Salvadorian Army attacked several villages, including El Mozote, in the Morazan Department.
Soldiers detained all the inhabitants, tortured and raped hundreds, and murdered between 900 and 1,200 civilians, mostly women and children. The case is emblematic of the brutal attacks the civilian population faced at the hands of the military during the war.
Shortly after the General Amnesty Law was declared unconstitutional in July 2016, human rights defenders, survivors, and victims’ family members filed a request to reopen the case.
Eighteen high-ranking military officials (three of them deceased) were charged, including former minister of defense, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, former joint Chief of Staff of the armed forces, Rafael Flores Lima, and former commander of the 3rd infantry brigade, Colonel Jaime Flores Grijalva.
They were accused of crimes ranging from murder, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, acts of terrorism, robbery, and aggravated damage under the 1973 Criminal Code, which was in force at the time.
Garay Saravia, arrested in New Jersey in 2003 and a lieutenant in 1981 at the moment of the crime, was one of the lowest-ranked officials indicted in 2016 for the El Mozote massacre before a Salvadoran court.
On May 2017, former Salvadoran defense minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, the first accused to be summoned to court, declined the judicial order to attend the trial.
“For victims, human rights defenders, and organizations, this was a dangerous sign. It could be the start of the same strategy to evade justice that we have seen over the killings of the Jesuits, for which impunity persists. We are worried that the prosecutors aren’t willing to take a stand against this”.
Tutela Legal noted that the Salvadoran mainstream media had largely failed to look critically at the role of the military.
“There is still an inclination in the media to provide the military with a space to defend themselves and little space for human rights defenders and victims to uphold their demands.”
Against this long-lasting prevalence of the interests of the military, Alejandro Lening explained that the meaningful work of human rights defenders has granted them recognition, support by the population, and protection.
“Human rights defenders and victims participate in the hearings, push the judicial processes forward, maintain the pressure… they have been very effective participation. There is a lot of expectation and interest as a result of the recent victories. But HRDs are daunted by the support granted by the State and the media to the military.”
Alejandro Lening Díaz Gomez.
The reopening of the Mozote case in 2016 brought an unprecedented opportunity to achieve justice in El Salvador and honor the victims.
As well as to demonstrate to the entire region that justice and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity are possible in El Salvador. However, as of April 2023, not much has been achieved!
The Salvadoran State and Public prosecution haven’t lived up to this historic opportunity to achieve justice and heal the society. As well as to establish a precedent for other cases where justice is pending, such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.
El Mozote survivor Dorila Marquez stated in front of the InterAmerican Court for Human Rights in 2012, “We want to forgive, but we need to know what and who to forgive.”