Could El Salvador's next president help civil war victims find justice?

The front-runner in tomorrow's election said the amnesty that protects guerrillas, right-wing officials, and soldiers from prosecution for civil-war-era crimes is no longer 'convenient' here.

Seth Robbins
Miriam Abrego sits in front of a mural commemorating a 1981 massacre, where about 45 people were killed, in her community of San Francisco Angulo, El Salvador. Abrego was shot twice but managed to survive, and now she, with the help of the Madeleine Lagadec Human Rights Center in San Salvador, continues to fight for justice for victims and their family members.

On the morning of July 25, 1981, Miriam Abrego was cooking chicken soup when she glimpsed a shadow in her doorway.

 A man called to her: “Ma'am, and your husband?” When she turned to face him, she saw he was wearing olive fatigues and black face paint. He shot her twice in the abdomen, while her six-month-old daughter sat nearby.

Certain that she was dying, Ms. Abrego could do nothing but lie there wounded and listen as soldiers went from house to house along her village's main street.

“I could hear the sound of gunfire,” she says, "the shouts of the children, the cries of the women, the dogs howling.”

The military trucks pulled out of town, their horns bleating as they left. "Then there was silence," she says. The massacre of about 45 people, many of them women and children, had taken less than 15 minutes.

“God permitted me to live so that I could one day give testimony to what happened,” she says.

Now, more than 30 years later, Abrego could finally get her day in court.

Last month, El Salvador's top constitutional judges ordered that the nation's attorney general investigate the massacre in San Francisco Angulo and charge any guilty parties.

The ruling was unprecedented in El Salvador, where an amnesty law has long blocked the prosecution of crimes committed during the Central American country's 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. Left-wing guerrillas, right-wing officials, death squads, and soldiers are all protected. Truth commission reports in 1992-93 show that most of the atrocities were committed by the Salvadoran military – backed, at that time, by the United States government.

More than a decade ago, the constitutional branch of El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that judges have the right to decide whether war-era amnesty laws apply in any given case. Never before, however, has the court demanded that an attorney general take up a particular case or face penalties.

Human rights officials say that all signs point to the possibility that blanket amnesty in El Salvador is eroding. In another recent proceeding hailed a positive step by human rights groups, the Supreme Court agreed to take on a constitutional case directly challenging the amnesty law. What’s more, the front-runner in El Salvador's presidential race tomorrow, Salvador Sanchez-Ceren, is an ex-guerrilla commander who has said that amnesty is no longer “convenient” for the country. Observers say that if he wins the runoff election, the chances of the law's survival are slim.

El Salvador is not alone in its struggle with amnesty laws passed quickly after dictatorships and civil wars.

In Guatemala, human-rights activists celebrated last year when Gen. Efrain Rios Montt was convicted for crimes against humanity. (The celebrations ended abruptly when Mr. Rios Montt's conviction was then thrown out on a technicality). Now, with a retrial scheduled for next year, a top court is asking a lower court to justify its earlier decision that a 1986 amnesty law did not apply in Rios Montt’s case, complicating matters further.

Southern Cone countries, such as Uruguay and Argentina, have seen their amnesty laws overturned – and, in the case of Chile, circumvented by decisions in international courts.

Yet undoing amnesty is not easy, and it does not usually fall in a single sweeping reform -- though “evidence suggests that amnesties do not last forever,” says Geoff Thale, program director at the DC-based Washington Office on Latin America. 

The process involves a slow chipping away at the laws via a number of legal and political challenges, Mr. Thale says.

“What we are seeing in both El Salvador and Guatemala is the beginning of that process,” Thale says. "But it takes time."

The 'threat' of losing amnesty

The prospect of opening war-era cases here has spooked some, with reams of potential evidence put in jeopardy in recent months.

On Sept. 30, the archbishop of El Salvador closed Tutela Legal, the Roman Catholic Church’s human rights office, which has investigated civil-war era abuses and contains an extensive and important archive of some 50,000 files. This includes taped testimony from survivors and victims’ families, as well as evidence of massacres. The closing occurred without warning, and church leaders gave conflicting explanations as to why. It led many to speculate about threats or political pressure. 

The closing was followed by an armed break-in and torching of records at Pro-Búsqueda, a prominent Salvadoran human rights organization that uses DNA evidence and testimony to reunite families whose children disappeared during the war.

In that incident in November, three gunmen barged into Pro-Búsqueda's offices, tied up its security guard, a driver, and one of its directors, then stole hard drives and files, and set several computers ablaze. The attack took place just days after several high-level military officials failed to appear at a Supreme Court hearing in a suit filed by the organization.

Mirla Carbajal, the organization's director, says many of the records held by Pro-Búsqueda could be used in future court cases. "You could see why someone would have an interest that this information does not exist," Ms. Carbajal says.

She says she is hopeful that the Supreme Court will eventually overturn amnesty altogether in El Salvador, and give aging victims the chance to denounce atrocities. "However, we know there are many forces against this," Carbajal says.

For now, human rights lawyers continue chipping away at amnesty.

'I am going to fight'

A single road still passes through the village of San Francisco Angulo, where humble houses alternate with crumbling brick facades of homes left empty after the massacre. In a wooded area nearby, shallow trenches mark mass graves where the townspeople buried their loved ones after the attack, carrying them in wheelbarrows and on their backs.

The remains in these graves were exhumed in 2006, with the help of the Madeleine Lagadec Human Rights Center in San Salvador. The organization's lawyers represent the victims and their families in fighting for an investigation of the massacre. 

Jesus Arias says he has been searching for justice ever since he saw his mother and sister killed in their home. After their deaths, Mr. Arias, then 16, joined the guerrillas. Following the 1992 peace accords, he opened an auto repair shop in San Salvador, where he still lives, and studied law in his spare time.

He doesn't need to look far to be reminded of his sister, who was 24 when she was killed. Arias helped raise his sister's son, Carlos, who was an infant when she died.

"I am going to fight until my last day," Arias says. "I, as a victim's family member, want to see a transparent process that covers up nothing for no one and that arrives at the truth. I want to know who were the true killers of my mother, my sister, and my aunts."

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