Salvadorans Confront Painful Truth of War

THE report of El Salvador's Truth Commission, released March 15 at the United Nations, promises to spur the reform process here by airing responsibility for crimes commited during the nation's 12-year civil war and by prompting institutional changes necessary to a fair standard of justice and respect for human rights.

But the publication of the report has been surrounded by controversy over how best its findings can contribute to reconciliation and stability in El Salvador. Behind the controversy lie calculations of political advantage, ethical considerations, and differing commitments to the goals of the peace process.

El Salvador's long and costly civil conflict - which pitted the guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) against US-backed regimes of the center and right - came to an end in January 1992 with the signing of a UN-brokered peace accord. The war, in which some 75,000 Salvadorans died, saw thousands of killings by death squads, political assassinations by both sides, and massacres of civilians by the Army.

The job of the three-member Truth Commission, set up in July 1992 under the peace accord, has been to uncover and assign blame for the worst of these abuses, including the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests, and a series of peasant massacres.

Panel members - Belisario Betancur, former president of Colombia; Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart, former foreign minister of Venezuela; and Thomas Buergenthal, professor of law at George Washington University - said the founder of the ruling ARENA party, the late Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, was behind the archbishop's killing and formation of death squads, and the country's defense minister and vice minister, among others, were responsible for the Jesuit murders.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said on receipt of the report that "Salvadorans must pass through the catharsis of confronting the truth" if impunity for the crimes in question was to be ended and their repetition avoided.

The panel's recommendations come as key aspects of the peace accord, including removal of top Army officers involved in atrocities and a crucial reform of the judiciary, seem stalled.

The logjam may now be broken: The Commission has recommended replacement of the country's entire Supreme Court, a separate investigation into the notorious death squads, and the dismissal of 40 members of the armed forces, many of them high-ranking officers. These include Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce and Vice-Minister Gen. Orlando Zepeda.

The report also recommends a ban on holding public office for at least a decade of FMLN commanders who stand accused of murdering local public officials during the mid-1980s.

The Commission said the toll of victims of military and death squad violence runs to almost 10,000, and those murdered by the guerrilla forces at about 400.

It is not yet clear to what extent the commission's findings will be heeded. FMLN leader Joaquin Villalobos, who was himself cited in the mayors' murders, responded positively March 15: "We are willing to abide by the Commission's recommendations," even if they lead to prosecution. "We are willing to be cellmates of this country's generals, politicians, and rich people."

President Alfredo Cristiani's reaction was more cautious. With his military brass and politicians and businessmen in his right-wing ARENA party implicated, he may have more to lose than the FMLN. As the release of the report neared, he recommended an amnesty for all those implicated, suggesting this was necessary "to close off any temptation of revenge or reprisals."

Mr. Cristiani also announced he would send a special envoy to the UN to explain steps his government will take to cleanse the Salvadoran armed forces.

On March 13, Peter Romero, top-ranking US diplomat in El Salvador, had stated that $11 million of US military assistance would be withheld until the purge of the Army is completed. Many analysts here believe that Cristiani will thus have little choice but to comply.

He is also likely to lose on the question of a quick amnesty. Along with the FMLN, civilian left and religious leaders oppose the president's drive for "total and complete pardon." Ruben Zamora, leader of the Democratic Convergence, says: "For me, the important thing is first to learn the truth; second, to implement the recommendations in the report; and third, to pardon the people."

No one on the Salvador political spectrum opposes an eventual pardon. Nor do many think that moving forward on prosecution of offenders immediately makes sense.

The Commission recommended postponing judicial proceedings until the judicial system itself - long the haidmaiden of military impunity - is reformed.

Many here insist that a sustained grappling with the truths contained in the commission report is essential - to help heal the victims of the war, and inflict at least a moral and political punishment on the victimizers. Discrediting and removing the top officers in the Salvadoran Army, in this view, will serve as an example for their replacements.

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