The US government issued a press release on Thursday informing that, on April 4, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Roberto Antonio Garay Saravia, a retired Colonel of El Salvador’s Army, for “assisting or participating in extrajudicial killings and for willfully misrepresenting this material fact in his immigration application.” According to ICE, Garay Saravia —a US legal resident since 2014— hid his role in the El Mozote massacre, where nearly 1000 Salvadoran civilians were assassinated in December 1981. The investigation also links him with three other massacres perpetrated between 1981 and 1984, at the start of the 12-year civil war in El Salvador.
Garay Saravia was at the moment a second lieutenant —one of the lowest-ranked officials indicted in 2016 for the El Mozote crimes before a Salvadoran court. ICE’s statement said that Garay Saravia was a “section commander in the Atlacatl Battalion, a specialized counterinsurgency unit responsible for several major war crimes from El Mozote to the Jesuit priests' massacre in 1989. ICE didn’t mention the fact that the Atlacatl elite unit was trained and financed by the United States government, as part of its counterinsurgency policy in Central America.
Immigration authorities also link Garay Saravia with the massacre at La Quesera, perpetrated between Oct. 21 and Oct. 31, 1981, in the rural areas of San Agustín, Jiquilisco, and Berlín, all in the Usulután department, in eastern El Salvador. Nearly 500 people were killed in a 10-day operation, which included participation from members of the Atlacatl and Atonal Battalions, the National Guard, the 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades, the Air Force, and members of the Civil Defense.
ICE also claims Garay had a role in the El Calabozo massacre, carried out in August 1982 in San Vicente, where the Atlacatl Batallion killed 200 “men, women, and children, detained without resistance”, according to the UN Truth Commission report about the war in El Salvador. ICE also mentions Garay in a third non-specified massacre in the Cabañas region.
An expert that assisted American authorities in the investigation revealed to El Faro that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) “have worked together for two years to put together a case against Garay Saravia and move for his deportation.” Members of the DOJ’s Criminal Division's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and DHS’ Human Rights Violators and War Crimes were involved.
The source said that second lieutenant Garay Saravia was “one of the operational commanders on the field in El Mozote,” but his role is still unclear “because that’s the information contained in El Salvador’s military files”, which remain sealed since the 80s and Nayib Bukele’s administration refused to open, backtracking on a promise that he would disclose them from “A to Z.”
On April 6, Adrián Meléndez Quijano, Garay Saravia’s attorney in El Salvador, said he still didn’t have official notice of his arrest or the evidence held against him.
Garay Saravia had been a side note in the El Mozote victims and survivors' long fight for justice. His name is not listed in the 1993 Truth Commission report, in a 2008 report by the Legal Protection Office of San Salvador’s Archbishopric, nor in a 2019 report by expert witness Terry Karl, a Stanford University professor. Karl, one of the top experts on Human Rights violations during El Salvador’s war, identified the chain of command of the El Mozote operation, during the last trial hearings in April 2021.
The search for documents on the Salvadoran massacres is still ongoing in the US, too. In June 2019, a Seattle federal judge ordered the Department of Defense to conduct an extensive search of files linked to massacres in El Mozote and El Calabozo, after the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) saw rejected 25 petitions under the Freedom of Information Act.
Angelina Snodgrass, director of the UWCHR, confirmed to El Faro on April 6 that Garay Saravia is listed as a “section commander” of the Atlacatl Battalion between September 1981 and September 1985, according to General Orders of the Salvadoran Army. Snodgrass said Garay was later transferred to the Arce Battalion and the Air Force. In 1986, Garay received the “course for combat officials” at Fort Benning’s School of Americas.
To achieve the deportation, US authorities have to prove before an immigration judge that Garay Saravia participated in the massacres and lied about it in official documents. An ICE Spokesperson told El Faro that Garay will “remain in ICE custody at Moshannon Valley ICE Processing Center in Pennsylvania, pending the outcome of his removal proceedings.”
If convicted, a New Jersey judge could impose a jail sentence on Garay Saravia, but the most likely outcome is that he’s issued a deportation order, as happened with other Salvadoran military officers accused of war crimes. “This is not a trial about his role in El Mozote, but his indictment in an open case in El Salvador carries weight for the judge’s decision,” said a source close to the investigation.
Following Garay’s arrest, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security John K. Tien issued a statement saying: “Individuals who have committed atrocities overseas will not find safe haven in the United States.”
El Salvador's Freedom
Once deported, Garay would recover his freedom: Salvadoran authorities have never issued a warrant against any of the officers accused of El Mozote. For nine years after the massacre authorities denied it ever happened, but Salvadoran justice opened a case in 1990 that led to the digging of the sites and the exhumation of hundreds of victims, mostly children until the process was halted by the Amnesty Law of 1993. Two decades later, with Amnesty deemed unconstitutional, the court of San Francisco Gotera reopened the case in 2016 but Jorge Guzmán, the judge who oversaw the procedure, never ordered any arrests.
Judge Guzmán found no way to notify Garay Saravia of the trial’s reopening. When Guzmán imposed in 2019 travel restrictions and an obligation to sign monthly at the court to the defendants, Garay Saravia documented through his lawyers that he lived in the US, and was granted to appear before El Salvador’s New Jersey consulate to sign.
The trial in El Salvador stopped again when the Bukele administration purged a third of the country’s judges in September 2021, Guzmán included. In October 2022 the new judge of the case, Mirtala Portillo, called 20 witnesses to hearings but backed down after the victims’ lawyers asked for clarification on some rule changes that she had introduced. That was the last movement of the trial, six months ago.
The El Mozote trial has been littered with legal and political obstacles for 42 years. Immediately after the massacre, the journalists who revealed faced brutal discrediting campaigns. Expert Terry Karl referred to it as a “sophisticated cover-up” by El Salvador’s government and the Reagan administration, who also hid that an American military advisor, Allen Bruce Hazelwood, knew about the operation as it happened, and was even in Morazán.
US policy has taken a turn over the last decades. In 2001, under the George W. Bush administration, the government created the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, which has deported 219 people to El Salvador since 2003, more than any other country. In 2018, the US Embassy in San Salvador admitted that it had “minimized” the El Mozote massacre in 1982.
In 2013, the US also arrested former Deputy Minister of Security, Inocente Montano, who at first faced immigration fraud charges like Garay Saravia, but was later extradited to Spain, where he was convicted for his actions in the 1989 Jesuits priests and their collaborators' massacre at the Central American University (UCA). Two former ministers of Defense were deported in the last decade: Carlos Vides Casanova, in April 2015, and José Guillermo García, in January 2016.
García, also a defendant in El Mozote, underwent a three-year migration trial. He had been convicted in a 2002 civil case for torture, under the Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act, which won’t be applied to Garay Saravia. Protesters received García at the airport, and he shouted “Look for them” when they asked him about the forced disappeared people during the war. He lived his life in freedom in E Salvador until October 2022, when he was arrested for another case, the 1982 assassination of four Dutch journalists.
Garay Saravia’s arrest is the first in history to cite the El Mozote massacre as a motive, either in the United States or in El Salvador.