El Salvador / Historical Memory
Top Former Military Officers Arrested for 1982 Murder of Four Dutch Journalists
Fred Ramos

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Gabriela Cáceres, María Luz Nóchez y Carlos Dada

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General Guillermo García, the minister of defense and strongman of the Salvadoran Army in the early 1980s, has been detained for his alleged responsibility in the murder of four Dutch journalists in 1982, members of the judicial branch involved in the case and two relatives of the victims confirmed to El Faro. Also arrested was Colonel Francisco Antonio Morán, the former director of the defunct Treasury Police, a fearsome security force tied to massacres, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial activities attributed to death squads.

The arrests were ordered on October 13 by Judge María Mercedes Argüello of the trial court in Dulce Nombre de María, Chalatenango, after finding sufficient grounds for the accused officers to face trial for the murder of Jacobus Andries Koster, Jan Cornelius Kuiper, Hans Ter Laag, and Johannes Jan Willemsen, Dutch journalists ambushed and executed by the Salvadoran Army on Mar. 17, 1982, in rural Chalatenango.

General García and Colonel Morán were detained in the early hours of Friday, October 14, in their homes in San Salvador. Their first hearing was set for Monday, October 17. 

The court also ordered the arrests of Colonel Mario Adalberto Reyes Mena, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade of El Paraíso; Colonel Rafael Flores Lima, ex-chief of the Joint General Staff; and Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza, of the Atonal Battalion.

The warrant states that the Attorney General’s Office requested the detentions for the crime of homicide as defined in the Penal Code of 1973/74, no longer in effect but applicable in this case. It is the same statute used in the El Mozote massacre case, opened in 2016 by the court in San Francisco Gotera, Morazán. The preliminary investigation into the murders found that Colonels Reyes Mena and Morán and Sergeant Canizales Espinoza were the direct authors of the crime, whereas General García and Colonel Flores Lima stand accused of omission.

General García, minister of defense from 1979 to 1983, has been tied to other crimes from the Salvadoran civil war, like the murder of the four Maryknoll Sisters at the hands of security forces in December, 1980, and the El Mozote massacre, in which 978 unarmed civilians, most of them children, were murdered by Salvadoran Army commandos in December, 1981. In those years General García commanded all of the troops of the Army and security forces.

General García, a staunch ally of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s counterinsurgency, gained asylum in the United States in 1990 and lived there until his deportation in 2016, when a Florida judge determined that he “directly participated or aided” in these and at least nine other crimes registered during his years as strongman. It is the first time that he is detained for war crimes in El Salvador, given that in the El Mozote case he was issued alternative measures to detention.

Judge Argüello also requested a report from Salvadoran customs authorities on the cross-border movements of the remaining accused, she wrote in the warrant, “in order to establish their current country of residence and, if necessary, request their extradition.”

In 2018, Dutch journalists from the investigative program Zembla found Reyes Mena living in the United States and revealed secret U.N. documents in which he shared information on the operation with commanding officers and U.S. military advisor Bruce Hazelwood.

To their interview request the colonel responded: “The case was investigated by the [Salvadoran] President [Napoleón] Duarte [1984-1989]. The ambassador of Holland spoke with the personnel of the brigade. The U.S. government investigated and found nothing against me.”

Family members of the victims hope that the United States will extradite him. “I was very surprised to see the news yesterday [Saturday] reporting the detention of García and Morán. It’s good news,” Gert Kuiper, the brother of Jan Cornelius Kuiper, one of the murdered journalists, told El Faro over the phone from Holland. “Now it’s up to the United States to cooperate in the capture and extradition of Reyes Mena. The idea is that they send him to El Salvador.”

In March, 2022, Sonja Ter Laag, the sister of Dutch journalist Hans Ter Laag, visited the site of his 1982 murder in rural Chalatenango. It was her first visit to the country. Photo courtesy Sonja Ter Laag
 
In March, 2022, Sonja Ter Laag, the sister of Dutch journalist Hans Ter Laag, visited the site of his 1982 murder in rural Chalatenango. It was her first visit to the country. Photo courtesy Sonja Ter Laag

“[The accused] can still manipulate justice to avoid being convicted, but this step is also a signal to Salvadoran society in the sense that, even though it’s something that happened 40 years ago, it’s still possible for those responsible to face justice,” he added. “This is important not only for us, the family members, but also for Salvadoran society. The truth always comes to light.” 

The Foundation Comunicándonos and Salvadoran Association for Human Rights filed a criminal suit on behalf of the victims’ relatives in March, 2018, after the amnesty for civil war-era crimes was repealed. Pedro Cruz, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told El Faro that after not seeing a proactive response from the Attorney General’s Office they carried out their own investigation to construct their own hypothesis and concluded that Colonel Reyes Mena was one of those responsible. 

“There was no active participation from the Attorney General’s Office, so we undertook our own investigation, though it was very limited because we don’t have access to everything that their office does,” he told El Faro.

On Sep. 22, 2022, the plaintiffs asked the court to order Reyes Mena’s arrest but received no response. Two weeks later, the Attorney General’s Office made the same request, including the other four accused. Cruz said he did not know why the Attorney General’s Office had done so, “when they had shown no interest in the case for four years.” He added, “I don’t know if they did it to not be left behind when we presented the petition for the arrest warrant.”

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment from El Faro.

The Crime

Six days before the Dutch journalists were murdered by members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, they were summoned to an interrogation by the General Directorate of the Treasury Police. The four of them worked for the Dutch television agency IKON and were working on a video report on the guerrilla’s zones of influence in San Salvador and other parts of the country. The summons only named lead reporter Jacobus Andries Koster, who the armed forces suspected of guerrilla ties after finding his contact information in the pocket of Jorge Luis Méndez, a fighter killed in Usulután.

Jan Cornelius Kuiper, Hans Ter Laag, and Johannes Jan Willemsen accompanied Koster. Colonel Francisco Antonio Morán, director-general of the Treasury Police and lead interrogator, questioned Koster about his ties to “terrorists.” According to Foundation Comunicándonos, “Morán warned the journalists that he was ‘against informers [reporters] who sympathize with the subversives.’”

Headline from El Diario de Hoy on Mar. 12, 1982: “Foreign journalist contact for subversives”. The article records Koster’s summons to the Treasury Police for an interrogation on his relationship to a detainee tied to the guerrillas. Six days later, he and three of his colleagues from Dutch television agency IKON were murdered. Photo: Foundation Comunicándonos
 
Headline from El Diario de Hoy on Mar. 12, 1982: “Foreign journalist contact for subversives”. The article records Koster’s summons to the Treasury Police for an interrogation on his relationship to a detainee tied to the guerrillas. Six days later, he and three of his colleagues from Dutch television agency IKON were murdered. Photo: Foundation Comunicándonos

According to sources who testified before the Truth Commission and representatives of the Dutch Embassy, the journalists received warnings after the interrogation that they should leave the country for a time, due to imminent danger. The journalists continued their coverage and were murdered on Mar. 17, 1982, in Santa Marta, a tiny town in Chalatenango, two kilometers from the El Paraíso Infantry Barracks.

The day before they were murdered in what the plaintiffs have called an “ambush,” a death squad calling itself Maximiliano Hernández Martínez had published a list of death threats against 35 journalists. None of the four Dutch journalists was included in it. At least 40 died during the 12-year civil war.

“This happened forty years ago, but our family’s pain has not subsided. I still miss my brother,” Sonja Ter Laag, sister of Hans Ter Laag, told El Faro over the phone from Holland.

In March, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder, she traveled for the first time to El Salvador. “I declared as an aggrieved party before Judge Argüello. I told her that when I saw the picture of my brother dead it marked me forever. The judge was also stricken when she saw it. She immediately asked me for all the pictures I have, and I sent them to her. I am very happy, but surprised to see the arrests. I did not think this would happen.”

During her visit, Ter Laag asked to be taken to the place where her brother was murdered with his three colleagues. “Lots of soldiers and police officers came with us. I asked what they were doing there and they told me that the Embassy had requested that they come for our protection. I asked myself how we could be protected by the same people who killed my brother.”

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