The El Mozote massacre, 39 years later
Thirty nine years ago, Salvadoran troops commenced a scorched earth operation in the remote, rural community of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in the department of Morazan in northeast El Salvador. Over the next few days, with savage brutality, they would slaughter almost 1000 civilians, including more than 400 children under the age of 12, in the worst single massacre in the history of Latin America.
As the 39th anniversary of the El Mozote massacre passes this week, there are prospects that year 40 might be the year that judgment is rendered in a Salvadoran court against the former high military command for its responsibility for this crime against humanity. Since El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court overturned an amnesty law in 2016, Judge Jorge Guzmán has been pushing forward in his courtroom in San Francisco Gotera with a criminal prosecution of those officers involved.
If a trial reaches resolution, it won't be as a result of support coming from the administration of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele or prior governments. The power of the military continues in this small country, and despite occasional nods to the entitlement of the victims to justice, the presidents who are nominally in charge of the armed forces have never forced the military to release its records and disclose the information it has about the massacre. Most recently, Bukele has supported the military in thwarting a judicial order that the court and experts be allowed to examine military archives.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch explained:
On the morning of September 21, a judge arrived at military headquarters in San Salvador with a warrant to review the military’s records regarding the 1981 El Mozote massacre, one of the largest mass killings in modern Latin American history. Soldiers blocked the judge from entering, blatantly refusing to comply with the judicial order. The judge went to six other military facilities in the following weeks. Each time, soldiers prevented the judge from examining the records.
It came as a slap in the face to Salvadorans reckoning with one of the most horrific episodes in the country’s 12-year civil war. It also signaled a reversal of President Nayib Bukele’s commitment to guarantee access to military records.
In a press conference held on September 24, president Nayib Bukele put five binders on display, assuring he had “declassified the archives,” would turn the binders over to the investigators, and adding that most of the military archives from past decades were “destroyed” by previous governments. He further claimed that the judge was being motivated by "political interests" in his public dispute with the military and its commander-in-chief over the historic records.
Subsequently it turned out that the files exhibited by Bukele at that press conference were only copies of information already turned over to the court by the Sanchez Cerén administration in the years from 2016-2019. David Morales, one of the attorneys for the victims, stated that "the file boxes exhibited on the national broadcast were nothing more than a fake, a farce, to justify the obstruction of access to the military archives."
Judge Guzman responded to a reporter's question stating that "blocking the inspection hurts not me, but the victims of El Mozote."
Finally, as Elizabeth Hawkins says in Slate:
A crucial test of El Salvador’s democratic institutions, and of the state’s capacity and willingness to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated, the case has come to represent the struggle to hold the Salvadoran military accountable and to transform El Salvador’s culture of impunity. As the 39th anniversary of the massacre approaches, it remains to be seen whether it’ll succeed.