SAN SALVADOR – The outcome of criminal proceedings against El Salvador’s 1981 army brass over the notorious massacre of around 1,000 people in the eastern village of El Mozote will determine whether or not the country bequeaths a courageous justice system to future generations, a prosecuting attorney in the case said in an interview with EFE.
Wilfredo Medrano said of the case against the then-senior army officials and leaders of the Atlacatl Rapid Reaction Infantry Battalion that the country would never be the same after these defendants are tried for serious human rights violations committed during the 1980-1992 civil war.
The legal proceedings in the El Mozote case date back to late March with the notification of the charges against the military officers, while testimony by 10 survivors of the massacre began in June.
The probe into the massacre was reopened after El Salvador’s Supreme Court in July 2016 overturned a 1993 law providing amnesty for war crimes during the civil conflict, which pitted government forces against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla coalition.
Witnesses, most of them women, have testified that soldiers, acting on orders of top military brass, executed entire families and slit the throats of children as young as five with corvos (a double-edged knife), the attorney said.
He said the testimony of six eywitnesses was still pending but that the judge already had hard evidence of the existence of the massacre, the brutality with which the soldiers carried it out and the criminal responsibility of senior military officials.
“The top brass from 1981 didn’t get their hands dirty” and therefore it is “very difficult to show they were the actual perpetrators,” Medrano said.
“But that doesn’t mean they can be absolved of responsibility” because “it was a small group of 40 officers who were roaming in that area and it was just a matter of bringing them together and telling them to stop those massacres,” he added.
Besides mass murder, the soldiers committed various other crimes, including rape, the destruction of homes, the burning of crops and the slaughter of domestic animals, he said.
A United Nations truth commission said in a 1993 report that between Dec. 10-13, 1981, units of the elite Atlacatl counter-insurgency battalion tortured and executed men, women and children in El Mozote and other nearby villages.
The massacre was one of the deadliest attacks perpetrated against civilians by a Latin American army and has been compared to Nazi atrocities and the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre.
In January 2012, then-President Mauricio Funes formally apologized for El Mozote, saying that “for this massacre, for the aberrant violations of human rights and for the abuses perpetrated ... I ask forgiveness from the victims’ families in the name of the Salvadoran state.”
Funes – of the leftist FMLN, which became a political party after the civil war – was the country’s first chief executive since 1989 not to come from the right-wing ARENA party.
Some 75,000 people died in the civil war, 12,000 were disabled and a total of 8,000 people disappeared, according to human rights groups.