A general on the stand

I attended a hearing on Friday, January 24 in the El Mozote massacre trial.   In one sense it was like testimony I had seen as a trial lawyer in many cases involving multiple defendants.  A defendant takes the stand to say -- "whatever you are accusing the other defendants of, it wasn't me, I was not there."    But in every other sense, the hearing was historic.   For the first time, a former general at high levels of the Salvadoran military was taking the stand in a Salvadoran court to tell what he knew about alleged war crimes.   
Bustillo waits to enter the courthouse

The setting was the long and narrow courtroom in the San Francisco Gotera court building. The space does not match the significance the unfolding trial. Here a former general of the armed forces of El Salvador took the stand to testify in the trial for the 1981 massacre of almost 1000 children, women, the elderly and other civilians in El Mozote and surrounding communities.

The ex- general testifying was Juan Rafael Bustillo.  In 1981 he was the general in charge of El Salvador's air force.  He is one of twenty ex-members of El Salvador's military who are defendants in the massacre case.  Beyond Bustillo, the defendants include general José Guillermo García, ex-minister of defense; general Rafael Flores Lima, ex-chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces; and Colonel Jaime Flores Grijalva, ex-commander of the Third Infantry Brigade, among others.

Before Bustillo could testify on Friday, a defense lawyer stood up to ask the judge to close the hearing to the public, including the victims' families and the press.  Contradicting his lawyer, Bustillo told the judge he wanted the victims' families to hear what he had to say and said "bienvenido" to the members of the local and international press who had gathered in the courtroom.   Judge Jorge Guzmán Urquilla refused to close the doors, finding that the public's right to know what took place in 1981 and was taking place in these proceedings was paramount, adding that the victims of the charged crimes were "all humanity."

The judge then advised the general that he had the right to remain silent in his trial and never testify.  Bustillo stated firmly his desire to testify.

Bustillo opened his testimony addressing the victims' families present in the courtroom.  
"First I want you to know that I have not come here to say that I am innocent, take those words into account, but to tell you that, in all correctness, that I am not guilty of any of the events at El Mozote and the surrounding areas."
Bustillo testifies before a packed courtroom

Bustillo's testimony was designed to distance himself from the military chain of command involved in Operation "Rescate" as the El Mozote operation was called. At the time of the December 1981 massacre, Bustillo was in command over the Salvadoran air force, which Bustillo asserted was always independent of the army. He acknowledged that the commander of the 3rd infantry brigade which operated in Morazán, Colonel Flores Grijalva, asked the air force to assign two helicopters for support of the brigade. These helicopters, according to Bustillo, could carry eight passengers and no armaments. They would not be useful for ferrying lots of troops for a big operation he said. According to the ex-air force general, none of the plans of the army's operation were shared with him.  As he had done in an earlier hearing, Bustillo urged his accusers to look at the 1993 UN Truth Commission report which does not mention him or a role for the air force in its section on the El Mozote massacre.

But while Bustillo was at pains to distance himself from the chain of command over the massacre, he did not attempt to deny that a massacre had taken place.  This was an important break from the stance the Salvadoran military defendants have always taken in the case. Despite the overwhelming forensic evidence and despite apologies for the massacre issued by Salvadoran presidents and commanders-in-chief Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the military in El Salvador has always claimed that any deaths at the massacre site were of guerrilla combatants or of persons caught in exchanges of gunfire between the army and guerrillas.

Bustillo, on the other hand, referred to the massacre as a "locura" initiated by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the elite Atlacatl Battalion.  "Locura" is also the word that the UN Truth Commission used in the title of its 1993 report to describe the atrocities of El Salvador's civil war.   He expressed his sorrow at the suffering of the victims' families, referring to the loss of his own son, a 19 year old university student killed in El Salvador in 1986.  Wars produce "nothing good" the general repeated.    

Bustillo claimed he first learned of the massacre when the rest of the world learned of it through reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post in early 1982.   (This seems somewhat doubtful since the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos, had been reporting the massacre in late December and into January 1982).  

Attorney David Morales
Following the hearing, attorney David Morales, who represents the victims, expressed his disbelief in some of Bustillo's testimony. According to Morales, it was not credible to say that an operation of this magnitude could take place without extensive coordination between all sectors including the air force. Morales also indicated that other people have reported seeing heavy helicopter activity during those days, much more than the incidental use described by Bustillo.

It is possible this will be the only time that one of the defendant Salvadoran military officers takes the stand to testify in his own defense.  The other defendants seem much less likely to waive their right to remain silent, especially while the Ministry of Defense continues to claim there are no longer any documents and files from that time period.  

On a personal note, I have been following the case of El Mozote for a very long time.  I have met with victims' family members, interpreted as they told their stories, read the investigation reports of journalists and stood many times in that hamlet in northeastern El Salvador and pondered the atrocity.  But this was the first day of the trial I had been able to attend.  

As this trial continues 38 years after the events in question, persons have questioned what purpose is served.  Doesn't a war crimes trial like this just open old wounds which the country wants to heal?   But as I closely observed the victims' families in that courtroom, I was watching wounds being healed.  There they were, humble inhabitants of rural El Salvador, and one of the most powerful generals of that period in El Salvador was facing justice and answering questions about what had happened to their loved ones.  In their bearing, in their interactions with the press and their advocates, and in the attention they paid to Bustillo, I saw persons who had their worth affirmed through this process. For whom the most important thing was to hear "Yes, your family members were slaughtered.  Yes, it was a crime against all humanity stands for.  And yes, a court in your country believes you have the right to learn the truth and see justice done."

Dorila Márquez, one of the victim family members, speaks to the press


Tom said…
Thank you for your witness and for sharing.
Greg said…
Last week the US Congress passed the Foreign Aid bill. In it is specific language from the House and Senate directing US SECSTATE to provide to ES GOV and the Court all archived documentation withheld to date ref El Mozote.

AMB Johnson, himself a Special Forces combat veteran of the war is a morally correct diplomat on the issue.

It is soul satisfying to see GRAL Bustillo do as he did. His example may encourage others in the docket to do the same at trial.

De Oppresso Liber!