Arrests made in Dutch journalists case

Forty years have passed since their crimes were committed.   But in the past week, former military figures from El Salvador's civil war have been arrested for their roles in the cold-blooded killing of four Dutch journalists covering that war.  

In early 1982, El Salvador was a dangerous place for journalists covering the civil war between FMLN guerrillas and the country's armed forces.   Despite the danger, Dutch journalists, Koos Koster, Jan Kuiper, Joop Willemse and Hans ter Laag, ventured out to the Department of Chalatenango to get an interview with guerrilla fighters.   The Salvadoran army ambushed their group and killed all the journalists. 

The ambush was one of the war crimes documented in the 1993 UN Truth Commission Report following the conclusion of El Salvador's civil war:

On the afternoon of 17 March 1982, four Dutch journalists accompanied by five or six members of FMLN, some of them armed, were ambushed by a patrol of the Atonal Battalion of the Salvadorian armed forces while on their way to territory under FMLN control. The incident occurred not far from the San Salvador-Chalatenango road, near the turn off to Santa Rita. The four journalists were killed in the ambush and only one member of FMLN survived. Having analysed the evidence available, the Commission on the Truth has reached the conclusion that the ambush was set up deliberately to surprise and kill the journalists and their escort; that the decision to ambush them was taken by Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, with the knowledge of other officers; that no major skirmish preceded or coincided with the shoot-out in which the journalists were killed; and, lastly, that the officer named above and other soldiers concealed the truth and obstructed the judicial investigation.... 
1. The Commission on the Truth considers that there is full evidence that Dutch journalists Koos Jacobus Andries Koster, Jan Cornelius Kuiper Joop, Hans Lodewijk ter Laag and Johannes Jan Willemsen were killed on 17 March 1982 in an ambush which was planned in advance by the Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, with the knowledge of other officers at the El Paraíso barracks, on the basis of intelligence data alerting them to the journalists' presence, and was carried out by a patrol of soldiers from the Atonal BIRI, under the command of Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza. 
2. These same officers, the sergeant and others subsequently covered up the truth and obstructed the investigations carried out by the judiciary and other competent authorities.
During the war a judicial investigation of the events came to an end in 1988 when the judge on the case sought asylum outside of El Salvador after receiving death threats, and the 1993 amnesty law prevented any prosecution thereafter.

After the amnesty law was nullified, the Fundación Comunicándonos and the  Asociación Salvadoreña para los Derechos Humanos (ASDEHU) filed a complaint on March 13, 2018 asking for El Salvador's attorney general (FGR) to reopen the case and prosecute the military officers in command of the ambush.  The ambassador to El Salvador from the Netherlands joined the human rights attorneys as they presented the demand, and expressed his hope that the FGR would investigate and bring the guilty to justice.

The case was reopened, and now arrest warrants have been issued by the judge.

 El Faro English describes the week's developments:

General Guillermo García, the minister of defense and strongman of the Salvadoran Army in the early 1980s, has been detained for his alleged responsibility in the murder of four Dutch journalists in 1982, members of the judicial branch involved in the case and two relatives of the victims confirmed to El Faro. Also arrested was Colonel Francisco Antonio Morán, the former director of the defunct Treasury Police, a fearsome security force tied to massacres, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial activities attributed to death squads.

The arrests were ordered on October 13 by Judge María Mercedes Argüello of the trial court in Dulce Nombre de María, Chalatenango, after finding sufficient grounds for the accused officers to face trial for the murder of Jacobus Andries Koster, Jan Cornelius Kuiper, Hans Ter Laag, and Johannes Jan Willemsen, Dutch journalists ambushed and executed by the Salvadoran Army on Mar. 17, 1982, in rural Chalatenango.

General García and Colonel Morán were detained in the early hours of Friday, October 14, in their homes in San Salvador. Their first hearing was set for Monday, October 17. 

The court also ordered the arrests of Colonel Mario Adalberto Reyes Mena, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade of El Paraíso; Colonel Rafael Flores Lima, ex-chief of the Joint General Staff; and Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza, of the Atonal Battalion.

The 89 year old Garcia was deported from the US in 2016 after a federal court found him guilty of serious violations of human rights prior to his entry to the US.  He has also been linked to other civil war atrocities such as the massacre at El Mozote and the killing of four US churchwomen.

Judge María Mercedes Arguello also ordered that authorities begin an extradition process against Col. Mario Adalberto Reyes Mena, former commander of El Salvador’s 4th Infantry Brigade, who currently resides in the United States. Reyes Mena is alleged to have given the orders in 1982 to kill the four Dutch journalists.  The massacre occurred in Santa Rita close to the base of the 4th Infantry Brigade in El Paraíso, Chalatenango.

Dutch journalists from ZEMBLA tracked Reyes Mena down through social media activity to a house in the United States. He has reportedly been living in the US since 1984, two years after the massacre. From NL Times:
Zembla tracked down the colonel who ordered the murder of the four Dutch. The now 79-year-old Mario Reyes Mena has been living in the United States for four years. Zembla found him through his three adult children, who are active on social media. 
In 1993 a United Nations truth commission concluded that Reyes Mena  was responsible for the ambush and the murder of the Dutch journalists - Koos Koster, Jan Kuiper, Joop Willemsen and Hans ter Laag. That same year an amnesty law was passed in El Salvador, which meant that he could not be prosecuted in that country. 
The ZEMBLA team tweeted the video of meeting Reyes Mena at his front door where they asked to speak to him about the allegations in the Truth Commission report.

Reyes Mena is seen answering the door in an ARENA T-shirt and angrily telling the reporters that he was never charged with anything. The video begins in English and later their conversation switches to Spanish.

The families of the victims and the Dutch government have been seeking justice in this case throughout the past 40 years.  As prospects for reopening the case brightened, they published a multimedia website in English and Spanish which presents the story of the massacre, the historical context and the quest for justice.

Dutch news outlets reported reactions to news of the arrests:

For Gert Kuiper, the brother of the murdered Jan Kuiper, the news about the arrests came as a big surprise. “It’s really good news, I’m hopeful that they will be brought to justice. These arrests give me hope that impunity will be nullified,” he told NOS. Kuiper is also happy that El Salvador is asking for the extradition of Colonel Reyes Mena, the leader of the unit that shot the Dutch. He left for the United States two years after the murders and still lives there. “The Americans can hardly let him live his life in Virginia unmolested,” says Kuiper.

Gert Kuiper and other relatives received the news about the arrests from their lawyers. Zembla reports that representatives of the Dutch Public Prosecution Service are going to El Salvador to speak with the suspects.

Advocates for the families held a press conference on Monday, October 17, to praise the actions of the court:

It is a very important case, considered as a crime against humanity, for which truth and justice have been demanded for 40 years. It is one of the crimes described in the report of the [UN] Truth Commission for El Salvador; thus we must recognize the courage of the judge,” said Oscar Pérez, president-director of Fundación Comunicarnos, an organization that, together with the Salvadoran Association for Human Rights (ASDEHU), is advancing the case in El Salvador.



Greg said…
And this -

"Fat and sassy
Why is retired Salvadoran army officer, Colonel Mario Reyes Mena, living comfortably in Virginia even as Dutch prosecutors continue to petition the U.S. Government to extradite him to the Netherlands for trial at the Hague?"