Seeking justice for 1982 murder of Dutch journalists
In early 1982, El Salvador was a dangerous place for journalists covering the civil war between FMLN guerrillas and the country's armed forces. Despite the danger, four Dutch journalists,Koos Koster, Jan Kuiper, Joop Willemse and Hans ter Laag, ventured out to the Department of Chalatenango to get an interview with guerrilla fighters. The Salvadoran army ambushed their group and killed all the journalists. The 36th anniversary of the killings is this week.
The ambush was one of the war crimes documented in the 1993 UN Truth Commission Report following the conclusion of El Salvador's civil war:
On the afternoon of 17 March 1982, four Dutch journalists accompanied by five or six members of FMLN, some of them armed, were ambushed by a patrol of the Atonal Battalion of the Salvadorian armed forces while on their way to territory under FMLN control. The incident occurred not far from the San Salvador-Chalatenango road, near the turn off to Santa Rita. The four journalists were killed in the ambush and only one member of FMLN survived. Having analysed the evidence available, the Commission on the Truth has reached the conclusion that the ambush was set up deliberately to surprise and kill the journalists and their escort; that the decision to ambush them was taken by Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, with the knowledge of other officers; that no major skirmish preceded or coincided with the shoot-out in which the journalists were killed; and, lastly, that the officer named above and other soldiers concealed the truth and obstructed the judicial investigation....
1. The Commission on the Truth considers that there is full evidence that Dutch journalists Koos Jacobus Andries Koster, Jan Cornelius Kuiper Joop, Hans Lodewijk ter Laag and Johannes Jan Willemsen were killed on 17 March 1982 in an ambush which was planned in advance by the Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, with the knowledge of other officers at the El Paraíso barracks, on the basis of intelligence data alerting them to the journalists' presence, and was carried out by a patrol of soldiers from the Atonal BIRI, under the command of Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza.
2. These same officers, the sergeant and others subsequently covered up the truth and obstructed the investigations carried out by the judiciary and other competent authorities.During the war a judicial investigation of the events came to an end in 1988 when the judge on the case sought asylum outside of El Salvador after receiving death threats, and the 1993 amnesty law prevented any prosecution thereafter.
From the International Institute of Social History:
The death of the journalists in El Salvador brought a storm of indignation to the Netherlands. In many obituary notices individuals and organisations spoke about their shock and support for the cause of justice. There were demonstrations in front of the American consulate in Amsterdam, where large crosses were placed with the names of the journalists. These crosses remained there for a long time. Public interest in Central America surged. The Dutch government investigated the killings, and published a report, which again caused heated discussions. With regard to journalism, the debate centered on the topic of committed journalism. Had the journalists gone too far? Were they biased? Had they deliberately taken too great a risk because of bias? Fellow journalist Gijs Wanders wrote: 'Koos and I felt it our duty to return again and again to that misery. Not just to report, but also to annoy the mighty with our presence. And to give the population the feeling that the dictatorship cannot surround a country with a curtain of silence. (cited in: 'Feiten over Midden-Amerika verzameld door de IKON, - [Facts about Central America, collected by the IKON] - Amersfoort 1982 pag.51).Now with the nullification of the 1993 amnesty law, there are calls to bring those responsible for the killing of the Dutch journalists to justice. The Fundación Comunicándonos and the Asociación Salvadoreña para los Derechos Humanos (ASDEHU) filed a complaint on March 13 asking for El Salvador's attorney general (FGR) to reopen the case and prosecute the military officers in command of the ambush. The complaint names Colonel Mario Adalberto Reyes Mena, ex-commander of the 4th infantry brigade based in El Paraíso, Chalatenango; Colonel Francisco Antonio Morán, ex-director of the Treasury Police, General Rafael Flores Lima, ex-chief of the Estado Mayor General of the armed forces; and General José Guillermo García, ex-minister of Defense. The ambassador to El Salvador from the Netherlands joined the human rights attorneys as they presented the demand, and expressed his hope that the FGR would investigate and bring the guilty to justice.
This complaint filed with the FGR is one of several seeking to reopen proceedings today for criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity during the civil war. To date, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has shown little interest in pursuing the cases, blaming a limited budget for his failure to advance human rights prosecutions for the time of the conflict.
A 2007 video produced by the University of Central America has a summary of the Dutch journalists case (in Spanish).
The attorneys and representatives of the victims held a press conference today after filing the complaint with the FGR:
Later, the victim's representatives released a video from the site of the murder in Chalatenango:
|The ambushed Dutch journalists.|