El Salvador / Historical Memory

El Mozote judge asks the United States for confidential documents on the massacre

Thursday, March 5, 2020
Nelson Rauda

Archives on the Mozote massacre, in the San Francisco Gotera courthouse. Photo by El Faro
Archives on the Mozote massacre, in the San Francisco Gotera courthouse. Photo by El Faro's Víctor Peña. 

Judge Jorge Guzmán Urquilla of the Examining Court of San Francisco Gotera has asked United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for all the documentation that the U.S. has yet to make available regarding the massacre at El Mozote and the military officials accused of perpetrating the crime. The request came in the form of a letter sent on January 27, 2020, which used U.S. laws as a basis for demanding that the White House collaborate with the El Mozote investigation.

The information requested by Judge Guzmán includes “at minimum, any document in the possession of the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other defense or intelligence agencies.” Copies of the letter were sent to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, DIA Director Robert P. Ashley, Jr., and CIA Director Gina Haspel.

The judge’s petition is based on American laws. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate approve an annual international aid package. For the 2020 fiscal year (from October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020), Congress specifically noted cooperation on the El Mozote case as part of its foreign appropriations for the year.

“The Committee [on Appropriations] directs the Secretary of State to work with the relevant federal departments and agencies to, as appropriate, assist the judicial authorities of El Salvador in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the El Mozote massacre,” reads the document passed by the House of Representatives. This includes the “identification and provision of related documents, correspondence, reproductions of Salvadoran documents, and other similar materials from January 1981 to January 1983.”

A similar Senate version was approved. “The Secretary of State… shall encourage the Salvadoran Armed Forces to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators, including providing access to archival documents,” reads the Senators’ bill. The text also includes a mandate for the Department of State to update its report on the current state of the trial. In this report, U.S. authorities foresee arguments in the case beginning “in the first half of 2020.”

The legislation opened the door for Judge Guzmán to make an extensive request.

“I recognize and am thankful for Congress’ initiative in asking the State Department to look into information that the United States may have on this case,” wrote Judge Guzmán. “As a judge, I would hope that it would provide me with greater certainty and clarity on these heinous acts that are now part of our country’s history, something we are not proud of, but which the historical record will demand we adjudicate.”

The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of its investigative phase and will soon move to sentencing. Though some expert military testimony is forthcoming, the main phases of the examination portion have been completed. Service members, including several soldiers and a general, have given their accounts of the relevant events, confirming that the massacre took place as well as the role played by various units of the Armed Forces. A lack of documents is the last big hurdle. Despite President Nayib Bukele’s assurances that he will collaborate, the Army has stuck to the position it’s taken since the investigation began in the 1990s: that no relevant documents exist.

Even if they no longer can be found in El Salvador, it’s still possible that there are copies or records of these files in the United States, a country that was closely involved with and aware of the Army’s operations in the 80s as part of its foreign policy agenda. Though a good deal of documents were already declassified (President Bill Clinton made over 12,000 documents available in 1993), experts contend that the country is in possession of even more information.

Among the files declassified in 1993, for example, are several diplomatic cables between San Salvador and Washington from January 1981, which make clear that then-U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton was consistently transmitting details about the operation that would ultimately result in the massacre. “[I]t is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote. It is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle… Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the number being cited in other reports circulating internationally,” read an initial cable from Hinton, from January 1981.

Later, in another communication, he offered a different account of what may have taken place: “The estimated population of El Mozote during the massacre was about 300 inhabitants. The Atlacatl Battalion conducted Operation Rescate from December 6 to 17 of 1981. The guerrilla knew of the operation since November 15. The civilians present during the operation and the battles with the guerrilla may have been killed.”

Following Clinton’s declassifications, several agencies have continued providing documents in response petitions from human rights organizations. These are what Judge Guzmán is after. In his letter, he asks for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents.”

The request for documents is extensive. It specifically solicits information on General José Guillermo García, General Rafael Flores Lima, and 14 others who were charged and remain alive; on Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, Mayor Armando Azmitia, and 14 others who were charged and are now dead; on the municipality of Arambala and the seven sites where the massacre took place; and on the four military units being held responsible: the Atlacatl Battalion, the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the Fourth Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, and the High Command of the Armed Forces.

The judge also asks for files on “the operations of the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the Morazán area, including any information on military planning, operational planning, and war planning, and involving any of the military units that I have mentioned,” between 1981 and 1983.

The letter emphasized the need to “move forward with this case in an expeditious manner” and asks Pompeo for a response “within the period of time set forth by the law.” This window can vary, but sources close to the process have told El Faro that the judge’s request can be used by U.S. policymakers to pressure the State Department to respond.

By press time, the Department of State had yet to confirm receipt of the letter or provide any response to its demands. The judge did not follow all the typical steps for presenting such a procedural request to a foreign country. Usually, the court must refer a petition to the Supreme Court of Justice, which must in turn send it to the Foreign Ministry, which is tasked with forwarding it to the appropriate international representatives, in this case the U.S. Embassy. “There’s no legal prohibition on direct petitions. It’s up to the United States whether or not to respond to it,” said Judge Guzmán on the matter.

*Translated by Felipe De La Hoz

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