Status of El Mozote massacre case
Where does the war crimes trial for the 1981 massacre of children and others in El Mozote and surrounding communities stand at the beginning of 2023? It has been more than 41 years since the massacre -- is justice for approximately 1000 victims and their families any closer?
Over the five years after the El Mozote massacre case was reopened in 2016, Judge Jorge Guzman heard not only from the the humble campesinos who are witnesses and victims in his courtroom in San Francisco Gotera, but also from witnesses from the Salvadoran military and from experts who drew the lines of responsibility to the colonels and generals who gave the command for the massacre.
Defense lawyers are no longer arguing about the fact that a massacre occurred. Now, the defense argues to eliminate individual responsibility of particular military officers, but the fundamental fact is now acknowledged that the Salvadoran armed forces committed this atrocity.
A hard blow against the process for justice took place in September 2021. The Bukele government with a new super majority in the Legislative Assembly enacted a law which terminated from their position every judge over 60 years old. Judge Jorge Guzmán who had handled the Mozote case for the past five years, was 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he would leave office on the effective date of the law and would only return if the law were declared unconstitutional, repealed, or enjoined. That has not happened. 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.
Subsequently, Salvadoran judicial authorities placed judge Mirtala Teresa Portillo de Cruz in charge of the case. Portillo, however, has not moved the El Mozote massacre case forward since then.
|Judge Mirtala Portillo de Cruz|
The judge scheduled a hearing this past October 31 to hear five witnesses in the case, but at the last minute the proceeding was adjourned because one of the defendants had requested to be present, but couldn't be. As of this writing, those witnesses have not returned to the court to testify.
Also highly worrisome is Judge Portillo's decision to block the press from access to her courtroom, despite the fact that the case has not been declared bajo reserva (under seal). Under Judge Guzman, all prior hearings of the case were open to the press, including this writer. In fact, hearings which took place in April 2021 were moved to a larger space in a nearby hotel so that the public could attend and were livestreamed over the internet. Unfortunately, in Judge Portillo's first scheduled hearing on October 31, 2022 courtroom security blocked the press from entering. Although the stated reason was to avoid "revictimizing" the witnesses, representatives of the victims of the massacre were unaware of any request to close the hearing.
For its part, the current government highlight its efforts to provide "reparations" through infrastructure improvements in the zone around El Mozote, and the delivery of land titles and contributions towards dignified housing for affected families. Today the Minister of Housing, Michelle Sol, was in El Mozote for the delivery of titles and housing plans to affected families. On January 18, 2023, the Legislative Assembly named Rufina Amaya "Highly Meritorious Daughter of El Salvador post mortem" for her "outstanding merits, courage and bravery to denounce the events and seek justice for the inhabitants of El Mozote." Amaya was one of the sole survivors of the massacre, who managed to tell her story to the international press in the months and years afterwards.
The government has not, however, done anything to advance the process of accountability for the 42 year old war crimes, such as opening military archives to inspection, or providing resources to bring the trial to a swift conclusion.