Military must respond in case of recent forced disappearances of youth

On the day the country was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Peace Accords, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued an important decision, ruling against the country's armed forces in a recent case of forced disappearances.  

The events in the case took place in February 2014 and arose from the military's role in patrolling El Salvador in support of the police in battling the country's gangs.  A group of youth were talking in front of their houses in the municipality of Armenia. Six or seven soldiers on patrol approached the group and at gunpoint forced five of the boys to accompany the soldiers.  They were taken from a zone controlled by the Barrio 18 gang to a zone controlled by MS-13.   Two of the youth were released, and they went off to wait for their three remaining friends.  Their friends never appeared, and to this date have never been seen again.

Parents of the youth, including one father who was a member of the police, immediately began questioning the military, petitioning the police, prosecutors and the PDDH, asking what had happened to the boys.    All their inquiries were met with a stone wall.

Given no other option, the parents turned to the Constitutional Chamber.  The legal proceeding was for a determination of habeas corpus, which essentially means to produce the body.   It is a legal process within the Constitutional Chamber requiring authorities to respond to claims that a person has been illegally deprived of his or her right to liberty.

The Constitutional Chamber wrote in its decision extensively about the evils of forced disappearances and that such actions by security forces represented violations of internationally recognized human rights.   The Chamber clearly did not believe the military authorities when they asserted that they had no information about the case beyond the fact that the youth had been asked to produce their identity cards.  

As a result of the Court’s decision, the Ministry of Defense must now provide a full accounting of the events of that day.    In addition, the decision of a lower court which had absolved the soldiers involved in the case from any responsibility has been set aside.   The attorney general’s office (the FGR) will now be investigating the criminal responsibility of the military members involved in the forced disappearances.

The decision of the Constitutional Chamber to release its decision on the 25th anniversary of the Peace Accords was clearly intentional.    The decision is a cautionary one – the abuses committed by El Salvador’s military in the years leading up to and during the civil war, can still be committed today.    The decision is also a success of the Peace Accords.   Prior to the conclusion of the civil war (and for many years after) it would have been impossible to imagine a court in El Salvador issuing an order like this one.  It would have been impossible to imagine a court refusing to believe the military’s story surrounding forced disappearances and issuing a court order to force the military to open its records and explain its actions.  It has taken 25 years, but the rule of law was just strengthened in El Salvador.

For a full description of all the proceedings surrounding this case, El Faro has an excellent summary here.   (in Spanish).