Nayib Bukele's words and actions on El Mozote massacre

Seventh in a series

At the start of his presidency, it appeared that Nayib Bukele might be a backer of justice for the victims of the El Mozote massacre. But as we reach the 40th anniversary of the massacre, Bukele's antagonism towards the actual court proceeding which could bring justice, belies his rhetoric.

On Nayib Bukele's first day in office, he ordered that the name of Domingo Monterrosa be removed from the barracks of the Third Infantry Brigade in San Miguel:

A few days later, Bukele tweeted to the victims of the massacre that "your struggle is my struggle." Bukele then met with family members of the victims of the El Mozote massacre and expressed his commitment to reparations and the pursuit of justice in this case.

Later in 2019, Bukele's public statements still appeared to support forward progress in the trial of the massacre case. On November 1, 2019, after Judge Jorge Guzmán issued a ruling that the government must open its records to inspection, Bukele stated:
"We are for the truth to be known in its entire spectrum: from A to Z. What's more, if the judge asks us from A to F, we will go to Z".

But soon Bukele's office would announce that, in fact, the military had no records and that any files had long before been destroyed. So in early 2020, the judge appointed expert archivists whose role would be to inspect military archives and make a report on what, if anything, they found. Dismissing the objection of government lawyers, the judge stated "Judicial decisions are not negotiated ... They are imposed."

Judge Guzmán along with the archivists then arrived at several military installations seeking access to inspect military archives, and time and again the guards at the gates refused to let the judge pass.

In a nationally broadcast press conference on September 24, 2020, Bukele then accused Judge Guzmán of being involved with a campaign by the left-wing FMLN party to damage Bukele's image. He asserted that the judge had no jurisdiction over military records and that only the president had the right to decide what had to be delivered. Bukele made a show of delivering a series of file boxes which he said contained information about the massacre. Yet in the same press conference Bukele presented Milena Mayorga as El Salvador's new ambassador to the US. Mayorga, is the daughter-in-law of Domingo Monterrosa and has been very public in her praise of the commander of the El Mozote massacre.

(It turned out that the file boxes of records which Bukele made a show of delivering were ones which had already been turned over by the Sanchez Cerén administration).

Bukele's denial of access to records has been condemned by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, but no additional records have been delivered or access granted to archivists to verify the historical record.

On December 17, 2020, in the middle of the electoral campaign for seats in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele made his first trip to El Mozote as president. In a speech before residents of the community, Bukele portrayed himself as the president who had done the most for the restoration of this village in northeastern El Salvador.  His speech several times acknowledged the massacre, and spoke of the need for justice and imposition of criminal responsibility, and he repeatedly said that his government was the only one which has made reparations, by making improvements in the community of El Mozote that had been neglected by preceding governments.  But Bukele's words which were most remembered, and which he tweeted out later were "The war was a the Peace Accords...  The Peace Accords were a farce -- a negotiation between two leaderships, but what benefits did it bring for the Salvdoran people?" and saying "I was only five months old [at the time of the massacre], so I am not going to ask forgiveness."      

Bukele in El Mozote, Dec. 17, 2020

Watching Bukele again today, I struggle to understand how the fight against a regime which would murder hundreds of women and children was "a farce," and how peace agreements which stopped such massacres should be disparaged.

Bukele made another campaign stop in El Mozote just a month later, flying in by helicopter to bring toys to children, filmed with Christmas elves, music and smiling children.

Finally, Bukele struck his hardest blow against the process for justice this past September. His government enacted a law which terminated from their position every judge over 60 years old. Judge Jorge Guzmán who has handled the Mozote case for the past five years, is 61, and the law removed him from his courtroom in San Francisco Gotera.

Judge Guzmán issued a letter stating that he would leave office on the effective date of the law and would only return if the law were declared unconstitutional, repealed, or enjoined. He wrote:
There is no doubt that the victims, who are the center of the ‘El Mozote and neighboring communities’ proceedings, will see, as so many times before, their pilgrimage to justice extended. However, [standing against this law] has to do with a struggle as important as their case, the absolute and indispensable respect for the Constitution of this country. If the Constitution is not respected, there is nothing more left to respect...

Nelson Rauda of El Faro, interviewed Judge Guzmán:
Do you think that the objective of the reform to the Law of the Judicial Career was to affect the investigation of El Mozote or is that just a collateral effect?
I believe that it has a much greater purpose, to affect not only this case, but to affect other possible cases of serious human rights violations that could be brought. Let us remember that the Truth Commission recommended the investigation of 32 cases, including those attributed to the Armed Forces and those also attributed to the FMLN. The idea, I believe, is to impact all these cases. Controlling the most emblematic cases through judges who are inclined to favor the perpetrators, such is the direction of the Casa Presidencial.

(Video from the interview).

Although Salvadoran court administrators offered to make a special exception to allow Judge Guzmán to continue, the judge has stated that he would not agree to being a special exception to an illegally passed law. He has said that he would only return to the bench if the law is repealed or if his return is ordered by the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights.

Today, December 10, 2021, Bukele made another trip to El Mozote.  (It was apparently hastily arranged, community members reported only learning something was up when Bukele administration workers showed up in town yesterday).  

For the most part, Bukele's remarks were a rehash of what he had said a year earlier, listing off public works projects to represent reparations for the tragedy.  In addition, Bukele showed that he cannot get over the fact that the lawyers from Cristosal and Tutela Legal, the most zealous advocates for the victims of the El Mozote massacre, are also some of his strongest critics, denouncing what they call Bukele's authoritarian policies. In his remarks today, he criticized "NGOs and associations" who had enriched themselves, he alleges, on donations for the El Mozote massacre case, exploiting the tragedy without bringing anything to the people of El Mozote.  

His assertions are counter-factual, however.  It was the advocates from Tutela Legal who started walking with the victims in seeking justice in 1990 before the war was over.  It was the advocates who, stymied by the Amnesty Law, went to the InterAmerican Court of Justice to get an order to the government of El Salvador that it pay reparations, that it identify the victims, that it educate the public, and that it investigate and bring justice for the victims. Bukele is right that the governments of ARENA did nothing for the victims of El Mozote and the FMLN governments of Funes and Sanchez Cerén dragged their feet, but those were failures of the Salvadoran state and not failures of the human rights and civil society organizations which have been accompanying the people of El Mozote.  

While Bukele could talk about public works projects in the town and the delivery of computers to school children, completely missing from Bukele's discourse today was any discussion of support for finally reaching legal accountability in the Salvadoran justice system for those military commanders responsible for the massacre.       

For more, see Bukele guarantees impunity in Latin America’s worst massacre (Americas Program)