In El Salvador, Left Joins Right in Asking for War-Crimes Amnesty

The proposed law would protect perpetrators of crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings from both camps.

By Raymond Bonner

Mr. Bonner reported from El Salvador for The Times in the early 1980s.

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The memorial at El Mozote, where a Salvadoran Army battalion slaughtered nearly 1,000 children, women and men in 1981.CreditCreditSusan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

During El Salvador’s brutal, bloody civil war, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or F.M.L.N., a coalition of leftist guerrilla groups, and Arena, a far-right political party that had its own death squads, were deadly enemies, killers and killed.

From the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which was organized by Arena’s founder, to a peace agreement in 1992, thousands of peasants were massacred. Union leaders and students had their thumbs tied behind their backs with wire, then were shot in the head, their bodies left behind shopping malls as a warning to others. All together some 75,000 civilians were killed during the war.

The military acted with impunity, and had immunity.

Now the F.M.L.N., which has 23 seats in the 84-member Legislative Assembly, is supporting legislation by Arena, which has 37 seats, that is tantamount to a de facto amnesty for crimes committed during the war. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but this?

A vote is expected on Wednesday as the parties rush to pass the legislation before a new president, Nayib Bukele, is sworn in on Saturday. He has expressed opposition to the measure. The current president, Sánchez Cerén, was an F.M.L.N. commander during the war and has been linked to at least one crime that could be prosecuted if there is no amnesty — the kidnapping of a wealthy businessman.

The proposed amnesty would also protect the perpetrators of a crime that lives in infamy as “the massacre at El Mozote.” In December 1981, a Salvadoran Army battalion, whose officers had just returned from counterinsurgency training in the United States, slaughtered nearly 1,000 children, women and men in El Mozote and surrounding villages. After separating the village men, whom they took away and executed, the soldiers ordered the women and children into the convent behind the Roman Catholic church. They opened fire with their automatic weapons, then set fire to the building, falling beams crushing the skulls of victims, dead or alive. Many of the children were toddlers; the average age was 6.

After years of legal setbacks, survivors and relatives of family members began to see the light of justice in 2016 when a judge reopened an investigation into the El Mozote massacre. He has summoned 20 former senior military officers, including the former minister of defense, Jose Guillermo García, into his simple courtroom in San Francisco Gotera, a gritty agricultural town in eastern El Salvador, and read the charges, among them rape, kidnapping and murder as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Peasants from local villages have come before the judge to relive the horror. Amadeo Sánchez told the judge that he had escaped into the nearby hills with his father. From his hiding place in the sisal bushes, he saw two young girls pulled out of their mud-and-wattle hut by soldiers and taken to the river. He heard them screaming “Mamá, they’re raping me.” He then heard gunshots, and silence.

When he returned to his village, Mr. Sánchez found the bodies of his mother and two siblings. He also saw a young mother lying in her bed, shot in the head. Next to her lay her 1-day-old daughter. Her throat had been cut.

On the wall, he told me, as he had the judge, the soldiers had scrawled in blood, “Un niño muerto, un guerrillero menos” — “One dead child is one less guerrilla.”

“This is mocking the victims,” Mr. Sánchez said last week of the amnesty proposal, which he had come to protest in front of the Assembly building.

If the measure is passed, the El Mozote trial will be terminated, said David Morales, who has been representing victims and survivors for nearly 20 years, since his days as a recent law school graduate working for the archbishop’s legal aid office. “It will be impossible to continue,” he said.

For good measure, and ensuring the end of the trial, the legislation says all trials must be held in the capital, San Salvador.

What’s more, under the new legislation only direct perpetrators of such crimes as murder, rape, kidnapping and torture could be prosecuted, not the captain, colonel or general who ordered it. In the event there was a trial of any lower-level soldier, he would not be at risk of a jail sentence under the proposal, not even for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The F.M.L.N. defends its support for the measure. “It’s not true that it’s an amnesty law,” Nidia Díaz, an F.M.L.N. leader, said in a statement last week. She described it as a “Special Transitional Law for National Reconciliation, Truth, Justice, Reparations and a Guarantee of No Repetition.”

Another party leader, Jorge Schafik Hándal, whose father was the leader of the Communist Party and a guerrilla commander during the war, borrows a page from President Trump, denying reality. Asked by a reporter for El Faro, an online news organization, about the lack of jail sentences in the proposed law, Mr. Hándal, an F.M.L.N. member of parliament, responded angrily, “You haven’t read the law.”

The journalist had. Article XII states that any “penalty of imprisonment” imposed before or after the new law takes effect “will be suspended by the judge.” Imprisonment “shall be replaced” by community service, from three to 10 years.

The United Nations Commission on Truth for El Salvador, established by the parties as part of the said peace agreement, found that the military and its allied death squads were responsible for an overwhelming majority of the killings during the war.

But the commission’s report also details evidence of “extrajudicial killings” and violence by the F.M.L.N., including the assassinations of American Marines in the Zona Rosa, an upscale district in the capital, and of many small-town mayors.

The families of four American churchwomen raped and murdered by soldiers in December 1980 have called on the legislators to “reject wholeheartedly” the proposed amnesty. In an open letter, the families continue that an amnesty, “especially in the El Mozote case, would be another denial of the humanity of those who were killed so wantonly.”

The American Embassy in El Salvador has also endorsed the trial. “The trial of 20 defendants, many from the military’s former high command, may provide a barometer for the ability of the Salvadoran justice system to tackle its complex history and stubbornly entrenched impunity,” Ambassador Jean Manes wrote in a cable to Washington when the judge in Gotera reopened the investigation and began taking testimony.

The political barometer readings, as a measure of justice, will fall if the forces of left and right succeed in enacting an amnesty.

Raymond Bonner is the author of “Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War.”

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