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New Fronts in the Battle over History in El Salvador

The sons and daughters of the war and the postwar generation don’t buy the forgive and forget narrative that was imposed. And they have begun to ask questions, and have conversations. The painful truth, suddenly, is beginning to sprout.

 
 

In the first week of March, experts from the Attorney General’s office will resume digging a trench in the middle of the campus of the University of El Salvador—the largest and only public university of the country—searching for the bodies of students who were assassinated in the beginning of the war. The Salvadoran Civil War (which was fought from 1980 to 1992 and resulted in the death of 75,000 people and the displacement of around 750,000) ended almost three decades ago, but its legacy still reverberates throughout the country. Its memory, despite the best efforts of some of the most powerful war criminals, is still very much alive.

Since January 2020, experts from the Attorney General's office have been digging up in the El Salvador's University campus, searching for the bodies of student leaders, assasinated in 1980, at the beginning of the war. Photo courtesy of Ederson Sibrián/ UES Communications Secretary.
 
Since January 2020, experts from the Attorney General's office have been digging up in the El Salvador's University campus, searching for the bodies of student leaders, assasinated in 1980, at the beginning of the war. Photo courtesy of Ederson Sibrián/ UES Communications Secretary.

During the last week of February, a PhD candidate asked me if El Salvador is “a reconciled country”—if it has come to terms with its past. It was a peculiar week to ask that question, but a good question to ask. A day before, we published a story about a valiant judge in a small town who directly requested from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo documents that would serve as evidence in the El Mozote massacre trial, where the U.S.-backed army killed a thousand civilians. Later that same Wednesday, the Legislative Assembly passed a new “reconciliation law” that would broadly benefit those who are convicted of war crimes. These two currents coexist and struggle against each other in the small Central American country: the pursuit of truth and justice by the victims and allies against the self preservation of the powerful elite who ruled the country during war, and continues to dominate its politics today. 

Almost everyone in this country has some connection to the war. A direct personal connection for those who are older, through their childhood traumas for those who were born at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, or through our parents or grandparents for those of us who were born in the nineties. The war touches all of us, even those who didn’t live through it. My father was an organized student at the left leaning University of El Salvador and my mother is the daughter of a right-wing politician, and I myself, at 28, have been covering the El Mozote trial and other war cases for the last four years. You might think these former allegiances and alliances would divide a family. They don’t. We are a small country, and we are all intertwined.

For decades, the prescription for Salvadorans to get over our collective trauma was, simply, to forgive and forget. In order for that to work we needed at least two basic pillars: impunity and silence. Twenty-eight years later, impunity has become endemic: approximately just 6 percent of murder cases in El Salvador in convictions. El Salvador, that is, has been and remains a good place to get away with murder. Silence is the other pillar: because of shame, because it was too painful, because the wounds were too fresh and open, families didn’t and don’t talk to each other about war. As politicians continually warn, dealing with the war crimes would “reopen the war wounds.”

That’s why the El Mozote trial is so critical. For the first time, 17 members of the High Command of the Army in 1981—when the war was at its height of savagery— faced a trial and the actual possibility of prison time. If General José Guillermo García, who was considered the most powerful person in the country in the beginning of the 80s, were to be convicted, it would deal a serious blow to the pillar of impunity. The clear message would be that you can no longer get away with a massacre of civilians in El Salvador. 

As the trial—reopened in 2016 and still ongoing—develops, the pillar of silence has also been receiving serious blows. As it turns out, the sons and daughters of the war and the postwar generation don’t buy the forgive and forget narrative. And they have begun to ask questions, and have conversations. The painful truth, suddenly, is beginning to sprout. 

In 2019, Julio Lopez’s “La Batalla del Volcán” documentary was released. It was supposed to run for a few days, but it stayed on for a month, and sold 3,000 tickets, a rare high number for a production filmed in El Salvador. Similarly, Marcela Zamora’s “Los Ofendidos” documentary came out in 2016, a few months before the amnesty law that prevented the investigation of war crimes was eliminated by the Constitutional court. In her film, Zamora explores the capture and torture of her own father at police headquarters. These were two films that broke the mantle of silence. I know of neighbors in rural areas who live near their family’s murderers, and who coexist on a daily basis. I know former guerrilla chiefs and military officials who share book clubs. Reconciliation is possible, but not automatic. 

Though less ubiquitous than in neighbouring Honduras and Guatemala, the Salvadoran army is still powerful, as president Bukele made sure everyone noticed during the recent events on February 9 (or 9-F, as it’s since become known), when he took over the Legislative Assembly using both soldiers and policemen. That day meant more than just the threat to the country’s constitutional order—it was also a deliberate negation of the past. Those events were a sign of a dangerous backsliding—another cover-up of history, instead of its illumination.

When the Assembly members barely approved the new reconciliation law, on February 26, they argued it was in the country's best interest and would serve the purpose of strengthening peace in El Salvador. I’ll admit the law is not all bad. There are elements that were taken directly from proposals of both the victims and human rights organizations. It creates a National Reparations Council, for example, a center for the documentation of historical memory, and it even forbids public buildings to be named after persons convicted under the law. And yet, the law also guarantees reduced prison sentences for those convicted of war crimes, and offers no civil responsibility to the victims.

I think the answer to the question that the PhD candidate asked me is that El Salvador is not reconciled with itself. In order to do that, everyone must make concessions. Historically, the concessions have only been made from one side. Members of the Assembly have now made some concessions, but they need to make corrections as well: they need to continue to dig up and exorcise the past. Salvadorans can handle the truth, even if it is a dark truth, and even if it implies serious consequences. But we must bring the truth to the surface first.

Reconciliation will not happen, cannot happen, without truth and justice. Those who still deny history, like El Mozote massacre deniers, will be left behind. The shovels on the campus of the University of El Salvador have been turning up dirt since January 16, the 28th anniversary of the Peace Accords. President Bukele refused to commemorate the date, his Interior minister even saying they couldn’t afford to waste time “watching doves being thrown in the air”. When the workers finally get the bones out, everybody, including the President, would do well to reflect that the country cannot move forward if it forgets all the dead beneath our feet.

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