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El Salvador murder pits retired colonel against ghosts of the civil-war era

Rivas believes his son was killed because of him: for his history as a witness, and for the likelihood he'd become one again in war-crimes trials. If he's right, the murder would represent a throwback to civil-war-era tactics in a country that’s enjoyed more than two decades of peace.

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    Carlos Rivas stands over his son's grave in San Salvador, El Salvador in November 2014. A retired army colonel who provided information on atrocities committed during El Salvador's 12-year civil war, Rivas believes his son was killed because of him.
    Seth Robbins
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During his 30-year career in El Salvador, Col. Carlos Rivas turned over a leader of a right-wing death squad, gave key information to the United States on the military's role in the murder of six priests, and survived two assassination attempts.

He retired from the Army in 1991, the year before the civil war here ended. He led an unassuming life until this past April, when his youngest son, Guillermo Rivas, was murdered in a shootout that also left his assailant dead.

Police immediately attributed the murder to a conflict at the family business, a security guard agency. But there was no conflict, according to Rivas, and Rivas says he saw signs of a planned assassination and cover-up, particularly when military officials got involved.

Rivas believes his son was killed because of him: for his history as a witness, and for the likelihood he'd become one again in war-crimes trials or cases involving more recent military misdeeds. With civil-war era amnesty laws currently under legal scrutiny, military leaders may particularly be feeling the heat. If he is right, the murder would represent a throwback to civil-war-era tactics in a country that’s enjoyed more than two decades of peace, but where fear and violence still push thousands to flee every year.

“El Salvador is a place that has been struggling for its democratic survival. We come from a really bloody war. We made a breakthrough with the peace accords,” says Hector Silva, a journalist and researcher at American University in Washington, D.C. But one thing the accords did not change “is the impunity culture,” Mr. Silva says. “People that hold power can get away with anything.”

After writing to El Salvador’s president with his concerns, and receiving no answers, Rivas went public, accusing high-level military officials of helping orchestrate his son’s murder. The country’s top general and his political adviser deny the allegations.

Now Rivas is being sued for defamation – a suit his supporters, including Silva, say is meant to intimidate him.

“I could never imagine that a son of mine would pay the consequences of my being in the military,” Rivas says. “They know I have knowledge of many things that still haven’t come to light.”

Amnesty and impunity

El Salvador’s US-backed campaign against leftist guerrillas was brutal, characterized by assassinations, disappearances, and massacres of entire villages. By the end of the 12-year civil war, which started in 1980, some 75,000 people had died as a result of the conflict.  

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of one of the war’s most notorious killings, when members of a US-trained Salvadoran battalion slaughtered the Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Analysts say the 1989 killings and the subsequent US congressional investigation marked a turning point in the war, and caused the US to withdraw military aid.

Two officers were convicted in 1991 of shooting the priests, but both were freed two years later under amnesty laws, which blocked the prosecution of war crimes. But that law is being challenged in the Supreme Court here. And a Spanish court – five of the six murdered priests were from Spain – is moving ahead with a case of its own.

“Among the military and retired military, there’s lot of sensitivity about amnesty and the possibility of prosecutions,” says Geoff Thale, a Central America expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “I think the colonel’s claim, without knowing all the specific details, is credible because of his knowledge of historic issues and because of a series of ongoing investigations about the role of the armed forces,” including recent allegations of weapons trafficking.

Rivas has always maintained that amnesty should be overturned, and in the 1990s, he provided vital information on the Jesuit murders, meeting with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) and other members of Congress.

Mr. McGovern said in a statement that he has always known Rivas to be a “man of integrity,” and that he will continue to monitor the progress of the investigation.  “Those responsible for this murder, including any intellectual authors, must be identified and brought to justice,” he said.  

That may be difficult in a country where crime is scarcely punished. From 2009 through 2013, only 15 percent of criminal cases that made it to court were resolved. Of the 9,500 murders between 2011 to 2013, only 5 percent resulted in convictions. In the past six years, the number of military forces involved in civil patrols have nearly doubled, to more than 11,000, while complaints against the military have quadrupled. But any case involving the military can be particularly tough to investigate. 

El Salvador’s attorney general has clashed publicly with the nation’s top military general while investigating allegations of military involvement in arms trafficking. 

A shootout and a lieutenant

Rivas, who has thick jowls and sweeping silver hair, is proud of his military service. It is his faith in the Army as an institution, and its ability to rise above corrupt and power-hungry men within it, that emboldened him to expose wrongdoings when others became complicit.

So ingrained is Rivas’s belief in the chain of command that it was to El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, an ex-guerrilla commander, whom he turned to after his son was killed. In a 14-page letter, Rivas laid out the circumstances of the murder, and why he believed it was plotted by defense officials.

On the morning of April 23, Guillermo Rivas, who was 34, returned to his home in a suburb of San Salvador, after dropping off his wife and 2-year-old daughter with a relative. A gunman stalked Guillermo through the garage and into his dining room. He shot Guillermo seven times in the back, abdomen, and knee, according to the police report. Guillermo, who always carried his revolver with him, managed to shoot his assailant six times, twice in the head.

Within minutes of the shooting, officials from several agencies arrived and cordoned off the scene – acting with rare speed in a country where bodies can lay on the street for hours. When the elder Rivas arrived, his son’s body had been placed in a police pickup; the gunman’s was still inside the blood-spattered house.

Authorities told local reporters at the scene that Guillermo had been killed by a disgruntled former employee of the family’s security firm. But the dead man turned out to be Vladimir Morales, a hit man associated with one of El Salvador’s two major gangs. That Guillermo had been able to defend himself, leaving the assailant’s body behind, was “the beginning of the unraveling,” says his older brother, Carlos Alfredo Rivas.

Other anomalies that Rivas recounted in his letter to the president were the presence of three high-level security officials, who would not normally take part in the investigation of a civilian’s murder. Among them was Lt. Oscar Gomez, who carried military identification and was part of an Army intelligence unit.  

Gomez arrived before homicide investigators and the medical examiner. When he greeted Rivas at the scene, he already knew his name and rank, asserting that he was there to “help with the investigation.” A police report says Gomez insisted on entering the house and viewing the assassin’s body.

For two weeks, Rivas repeatedly called Gomez for updates on the investigation but received evasive answers. Finally, Rivas said, Gomez agreed to meet him.

Days later, Gomez was found dead.

Speaking out

After the president failed to respond to his letter, Rivas went public with his suspicions in a series of articles written by Silva, the Salvadoran journalist.

“Some people within the military and police are still engaged in these dark methods,” Silva says. “It’s kind of by the playbook on how you cover up things.”

Silva quoted portions of Rivas’s letters alleging that El Salvador’s defense ministry, led by Gen. David Munguia, and Munguia’s political adviser, retired Col. Simon Alberto Molina, had converted an Army intelligence unit into a paramilitary death squad connected to gang hit men. Molina’s lawyers slapped Rivas with a defamation suit, demanding damages of $300,000.

In an interview at defense headquarters, Molina says he sued because there is no proof of Rivas’s allegations.

“I feel that my honor has been damaged,” he says. “This has hurt my friendships, family, my children.”

Molina’s defamation suit is unusual, because the criminal investigation is still pending. Jose Aristides Perla, a legal expert not representing either party, says that such suits should be carefully scrutinized by the courts before being allowed to proceed. Even if it doesn’t go far, a defamation suit like this one can still produce a “chilling effect,” he says, generating “a dangerous precedent in terms of freedom of expression.”

Silva, who has been named as a witness, calls Molina’s suit a form of harassment, to quiet Rivas. “These guys are bullies,” he says.

Officials questioned

A spokesman for El Salvador’s attorney general said that there was no evidence to date linking Guillermo Rivas’s murder to a conflict at the family business. He confirmed that investigators were still seeking information from the armed forces. 

In October, Munguia, the defense minister, and Molina gave testimony on the case, and the peculiar role of Gomez.

Both maintain that the lieutenant had been investigating the death of a soldier nearby when he was dispatched to the scene, following erroneous reports that another soldier had been killed. Though Gomez’s name appears on the police report, he was never part of the investigation, the officials say, and his subsequent death was happenstance.

Molina says Gomez “had his problems with drugs and alcohol,” though this had not kept him from being lent to an intelligence unit this past March. Gomez, according to Molina, died on the street after an all-night drinking binge in which he’d threatened bar patrons with a broken bottle and got beaten up by gang members.

“He was completely swollen, his whole body, because his liver failed,” Molina says.

The government certificate given to Gomez’s family lists his cause of death only as a buildup of liquid and blood in the lungs. 

Waiting for answers

On a recent afternoon, Rivas stood over his son’s grave, still decorated from November’s Day of the Dead, with flower petals arranged in heart shapes.

He’s not able to visit the cemetery often, now that he’s running the security agency without his son, and helping care for his young granddaughter. In the back of his green pickup sits the car seat he uses to take her to and from preschool.

In recent months, Rivas has received death threats on the phone and random visits from self-described investigators who never returned. He’s still waiting to see whether the suit against him will be admitted to the courts, and whether he will ever find answers in his son’s murder. The investigation is now more than seven months old.

“They can’t hurt me anymore,” he says. “I am not staying quiet, because when we do, we become accomplices.”  

Editor's note: a previous version of this story misstated how many people were held accountable for the murders at the University of Central America.

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