Victim Witnesses in the Courtroom
First to testify in 2017 were 10 witnesses of 17 who originally had provided testimony in 1990 when the case was filed. They were now called to re-affirm their testimony in this new phase of the proceedings. In this article by journalist Nelson Rauda of El Faro we hear some of their remembrance of the tragedy.
The Day “The Offended” of El Mozote Silenced the Military
By Nelson Rauda
You have beaten me, lashing
your cruel fist in my face
(naked and pure
like a flower which gives birth
to the spring)
– Roque Dalton, The Offended’s Turn
Genaro Sánchez Díaz went to his mother Gregoria’s house every day. He still doesn’t know why he didn’t go there on December 11, 1981. “Maybe it was God,” he says, searching for an explanation. It was a Friday, the second day of the Salvadoran Army’s “Operation Rescue”, executed by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Batallion. The break in his routine saved his life that day, and so Genaro Sánchez is able to participate, 36 years later, in a hearing to expand his testimony in case number 238-1990, known as “The massacre of El Mozote and nearby places.”
At the time, Sánchez was a 49-year-old agricultural worker who lived, like he does today, in the village of La Joya in the municipality of Meanguera, Morazán, a four hour drive from the capital, in the eastern part of El Salvador. He says that when the soldiers came, his name was on the wanted lists, army notebooks containing the names of targets. Sánchez blames “orejas,” government informers who lived in or insinuated themselves into the communities, for giving exact details of his location and activities.
In addition to him, a 68 year old woman, Lidia Chicas, also testifies on September 28 in the Second First Instance Court of San Francisco Gotera. Her voice is barely a whisper, but it carries a message that no one can deny. Sánchez and Chicas are part of a group of brave campesinos who in 1990, in the midst of the war, with the military still in power, decided to bring to trial a massacre that killed more than a thousand people in four villages. The trial, carried out under the rules of the 1973 Criminal Code, calls Sánchez and the others “the offended parties,” a synonym for what we now call “victims.” The judge, Jorge Guzmán, calls them “the offended.” They feel offended. 36 years later, they still feel offended.
The first thing that Genaro Sánchez does before the judge is ask for forgiveness. “Good morning, please forgive me but at my age I don’t hear some words well,” he says. Then he explains why he is here: “I want to testify for the family that I lost.”
In his statement, Sánchez tells how he saw helicopters landing in Arada Vieja, how he saw soldiers shooting in the village of La Joya, how he escaped with his life partner and four children into the bush; how on the night of December 11, 1981, Sotero Guevara and Patricio Díaz came to his house crying because their family had been killed. The grieving couple and the Sánchez family went together to the Las Marías river, in La Joya. A week later, Sánchez went to Sotero’s home and found it in ruins, along with the bodies of Catalina Chicas, Petronila Chicas, Justa Guevara, Jacinta Guevara, Roque Guevara (who Genaro calls his son), Ambrosio Guevara, Lorenzo Vigil, Aminta Vigil, Pedro Vigil, and…
His story becomes rawer: “We threw five women, two girls and two boys into a hole. There were nine of them. And Jacinta was nine months pregnant… I touched one of the bodies to put it in the hole and the flesh came off. Further down, we found 16 more dead. Their families buried them. One body had been covered with a slab of rock and they used pickaxes to break the rock and cover it so that the animals wouldn’t eat it.”
During his testimony, Sánchez asks for questions to be repeated. Judge Jorge Guzmán takes note and requests consideration for the offended. “Remember that these are people who have been subjected to a difficult situation, who have been psychologically scarred. We have to respect them and I will be vigilant,” Guzman says, especially to the defense lawyers of the military officials.
But they don’t pay attention to him.
During the first cohort of expanded testimonies, four hearings prior, one of the offended was Irma Ramos Márquez, from Ranchería. She saw 30 dead people on December 12, and also saw dogs and pigs feeding on the bodies. Another was Hilario Sánchez Gómez, who hid on El Perico hill with 50 other people and saw columns of soldiers burning houses.
In September, María Teófila Pereira, Lucila Romero Martínez, Eustaquio Martínez Vigil, and María Amanda Martínez testified, providing further details of the massacre.
Juan Bautista Márquez has also testified; he was a witness to nearly all the massacres, because while he fled along with his family he passed through all the razed communities. Earlier this year, in March, Juan Bautista laughed when one of the defense lawyers for the accused officials denied, to his face, that the El Mozote massacre had occurred. The defense lawyers are like the military officials themselves: despite the evidence, the testimonies, they still deny everything. “They grabbed me from the door of my home. And he says there’s no crime. Like I’m not here? Is it not a crime to go and pull someone from their home?”, Bautista exclaimed.
Genaro and the rest of the offended remain key to the plantiffs’ legal strategy. When the case began, nine years had passed since the massacre, and the lawyers designed a plan to confront the Salvadoran justice system, in which each victim played a role in denouncing the massacre, like members of a choir. One went to file the first complaint: Pedro Chicas Romero. Next, Rufina Amaya, who spoke with the U.S. journalists who denounced the massacre in January, 1982, would be the star witness. The stories of the rest of the witnesses fulfilled different goals: narrating the massacres one by one in each village and town; telling of the rapes, the burned houses, the participation of different military units… An interminable litany of horror.
27 years later, the strategy has changed, one of the factors being the death of its protagonists. Of the 17 original offended, five have already died: Pedro Chicas, the first complainant; Rufina Amaya, the star witness; Sotero Guevara, the victim, alongside Genaro, of the La Joya massacre; Domingo Vigil Amaya and Raquel Romero, both survivors from Jocote Amarillo.
Of the 12 people still living, two are unable to testify in the trial due to health problems: Rosa Ramírez Hernández and Bernardino Guevara Chicas.
The other 10 ratified their testimony before the judge during June and September 2017. The oldest, at 93 years, is Anastacio Pereira Vigil. He was the first to testify, perhaps because he may have the least time left to denounce everything that he suffered. Pereira found the remains of his family in his sister’s home, and stated that there were many corpses in the church, but he did not go inside because he could not endure the smell.
The El Mozote trial is prosecuting the high command of the Armed Forces, 18 military officials who count among them former Minister of Defense José Guillermo García, who was deported from the United States in 2016 due to his responsibility for human rights violations. But aside from the officials, it’s as if the governments of El Salvador and the United States, which for years denied that anything had happened in El Mozote, were also on the docket.
In order to implicate Garcia, the plaintiffs aim to prove that the El Mozote massacre was carried out by multiple Army units, among them the Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Battalion, which acted on orders of the high command.
The strategy of the defense for the military officials is the same which many military officials used, and continue to use, to justify the deaths of approximately one thousand campesinos: the ties between the population and the guerrilla. To plant the idea that the offended were guerrillas and that the deaths were the result of direct confrontations or crossfire. The defense lawyers of today act like the military officials of the past.
27 years ago, in his original testimony, Genaro Sánchez said that he learned that the Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the operation because he was told by Rufina Amaya, the primary witness. Now Sánchez’s story is different. He says that he learned it was the Atlacatl Battalion because he heard it on Radio Venceremos, a guerrilla radio station.
The defense lawyers for the military officers are like sharks who smell blood when they hear the word “Venceremos” leave Sánchez’s lips. Radio Venceremos was the clandestine frequency of the guerrilla. Among the supposed military objectives which resulted in the massacres, in 1981 the Army aimed to capture and break up Venceremos.
“On what date did Rufina tell you that Atlacatl was responsible for the operation?”, asks the lawyer Rodolfo Garay Pineda, former director of prisons during the ARENA government, who serves as counsel for Colonels Roberto Garay Saravia and Rafael del Cid Aguirre. In a May interview with El Faro, Garay Pineda said that he still denies that the massacre occurred.
Sánchez doesn’t answer with the date, but says that Atlacatl was responsible for a great disaster. Garay insists that Sánchez clarify whether received the information about the operation from Rufina or from the radio. David Morales, the lawyer for the plaintiffs and former Human Rights Ombudsman, objects: “The defense is making an undue pressure. He has already stated that some points are different from what he said before.”
The judge sustains the objection. Garay Pineda returns to his seat, but not before saying, “It is clearly established that the witness is contradicting himself.” The lawyer wears an olive green jacket, a white shirt and red tie. He looks over his shoulder at a group of men who have entered the room. He raises his eyebrows with a wide, arrogant smile beneath his mustache.
Another lawyer, the Colonel Adrián Meléndez Quijano, continues the cross examination.
“Do you know where the radio was located?”
“It was mobile,” says Sánchez.
Another lawyer, Roberto Girón Flores, asks, “Did you see who had the radio?”
“No, only the leaders had the radio,” says Sánchez.
“Do you know where the radio was?”
“It moved around Guacamaya, or Arambala,” says Sánchez.
Girón Flores turns to the audience and smiles. Garay Pineda is more effusive, acting like he is celebrating a goal: he raises his arms and spins in his seat, while looking to his left at the opposing team. “Alright! Alright!”, he says, laughing. For a long time, those who deny the El Mozote massacre have said that the victims were guerrilla. Garay Pineda, who has said that El Mozote was a “guerrilla cemetery,” thinks this line of argument will discredit Sánchez. The military lawyers, and the military officials, have always wanted to turn Sánchez and the rest of the offended into armed guerrilla.
The defense’s moment of triumph ends as Judge Guzmán plays down the lawyers’ winks: “Sánchez is simply stating widely known facts regarding the radio,” he says.
Genaro Sánchez’s turn on the stand ends with a final statement. After Judge Guzmán thanks him for his testimony, Sánchez replies, “Yes, it is the truth.”
Lidia Chicas’s turn on the stand is about to be postponed. Judge Guzmán calls a prosecutor, a plaintiff, and a defense lawyer to his office. The witness feels sick: she has vomited, she appears to be trembling, but she seems to be improving, and everyone decides to continue.
Chicas is 68 years old, and she gave her testimony for the first time in August 1992. She wears a sweater and a blue handkerchief tied on her head. She walks to the bench to deliver her testimony, assisted by a man who acts as a support.
She speaks very softly, far from the microphone. Lidia Chicas is nervous. Lidia Chicas is afraid. It pains Lidia Chicas to speak about how she was offended: “On December 13, 1981, at 6 in the morning in the village of Poza Honda, in Meanguera, I saw a great number of men in green uniforms armed with rifles and machetes. At about 8 in the morning they began to kill the people who lived there. I heard the people shouting, and the sound of blows like cutting a banana tree, while I was hiding in some bushes…”
“I saw when they killed Sinforoso Reyes with their machetes, and his wife Eugenia Díaz, who was pregnant, and their four children, who were minors. The children were talking to their father and mother. They said, ‘Mommy, get up!’, but how could they get up? They were already dead.” Lidia’s denunciation is spoken in a very low voice, but its content is a deafening scream.
Lidia’s parents, Pablo Chicas and Florentina Mejía, were killed in the massacre. Her brother Omar was slashed in the face and his fingers were mutilated. Her sister Agustina was on a rock with her skirt lifted and her underpants down. Her three younger siblings, her grandmother, three uncles, aunts, cousins… in total, 55 of her relatives were killed in the massacre.
“She said 55?”, I ask another reporter covering the hearing. Yes, she said 55. If a thousand people died in the El Mozote massacre, 5% were Lidia’s relatives. The silence in the courtroom is unbearable.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs and the prosecutors ask their questions:
“Why do you say that it was the army that killed the people?”
“Because it was them, I saw them.”
“Who helped you to bury the people?”
“Just me and my husband.”
“How did this affect you?”
“All I had left was my daughter, I have nothing.”
“How many of your family members have been exhumed?”
“I don’t remember anymore.”
Her hands are trembling as she drinks a cup of tea. Now it is the defense’s turn to ask her questions, but something has happened. When Lidia finishes and the lawyers representing her finish their questions, no one in the opposing group can say anything. They are mute. None of them has any questions. The hearing ends and the sharks have lost their teeth. Lidia has silenced them.
When El Mozote happened, Salvadoran law didn’t call those who suffered a crime “victims.” It called them “the offended party.” Roque Dalton’s poem comes to life: