The World

The 39-Year-Old Massacre That Still Haunts El Salvador

A recent military crackdown shows the country still hasn’t escaped the legacy of a brutal civil war.

A soldier in camouflage wearing a black face covering holds an assault-style rifle.
A soldier stands next to a sanitary perimeter imposed by San Salvador’s municipality to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on May 6. Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—This country’s brutal civil war ended nearly 30 years ago, but it many ways, it still feels like a battleground. Soldiers in combat gear patrol the streets alongside heavily armed police; razor wire runs atop many buildings and homes. Those who can afford to do so live in gated communities with private security, while guards stand at the entrance of many businesses. These days, however, they seem to spend most of their time taking customers’ temperatures and directing them to the hand sanitizer.

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In February, at the direction of President Nayib Bukele, soldiers occupied parliament in an attempt to pressure lawmakers into approving an increase in military funding. Weeks later, Bukele ordered one of the world’s longest and most restrictive pandemic lockdowns. Military checkpoints were set up around the country, and those deemed to be violating quarantine were arrested. When the legislature and courts attempted to block these moves, Bukele accused them of “being on the side of the disease” and refused to follow the courts’ orders.

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Human rights defenders who challenged the military’s actions were threatened—as were journalists who published investigative reports critical of the president and his Cabinet.

While Bukele took office in June 2019, these tensions are decades-old. Scholars generally agree about the basic facts of El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted from 1980 until 1992: A small but powerful economic elite, supported by the military, resisted demands for reform and became increasingly repressive, leading the left-wing opposition to organize and take up arms. As part of its Cold War “containment” policy, the United States provided funding and military support to the right-wing government.

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War crimes were committed by both sides, but the United Nations later found that U.S.-backed Salvadoran government troops and their allies were behind most of them. Perhaps the worst atrocity—the massacre of around 1,000 innocent villagers in the hamlet of El Mozote on Dec. 11, 1981—looms large over society in El Salvador today, pushing the country into a constitutional crisis and raising crucial questions about justice, memory, and the country’s fragile institutions.

On that day, the elite Atlacatl Battalion invaded El Mozote and killed virtually all of its inhabitants, raping the women and desecrating the bodies. Although American journalists publicized the event several weeks later, and a 1993 U.N. Truth Commission report criticized the government for failing to investigate it, the perpetrators seemed destined to get away with it. Shortly after the commission’s report was released, El Salvador’s legislative assembly passed a sweeping amnesty law aimed at absolving the military commanders responsible for ordering the assault.

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It took two decades for the Salvadoran government to apologize—though there was still no meaningful attempt to investigate the massacre. Then, in 2016, El Salvador’s Supreme Court found the amnesty law unconstitutional, leading to a historic moment that same year, when a local judge, Jorge Guzmán, reopened the case against more than a dozen former top military officers. The prosecutor general called witnesses to testify about what had happened, but the military archives remained closed. Requests to the United States to release its own records related to the massacre have gone unanswered.

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In 2019, Guzmán ordered the military to open its archives to allow court-appointed inspectors to search for evidence that could shed light on who was responsible for the massacre at El Mozote. Then came Bukele: Having run on a platform of being the first “postwar” president, he promised that his administration would open the archives “from A to Z,” claiming, “the only way to heal the wounds of the past is for the truth to be known.” But this June, he suddenly reversed course, citing concerns about national security—the same argument made by every previous administration.

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Guzmán rejected that claim and scheduled the inspections at eight locations throughout the country between Sept. 21 and Nov. 13. When he and his team arrived at the first stop, a military base in San Salvador, they were blocked by soldiers before being confronted by a top Defense Ministry official clad in fatigues. Days earlier, the military and police, along with health officials, were deployed to several towns, while a number of others—including San Francisco Gotera, where the case was being heard—were blockaded for “sanitary reasons.” Movement was restricted while coronavirus tests were administered. In a Sept. 23 address to the nation, Bukele railed against his enemies, including the courts, the human rights ombudsman, and U.S. lawmakers who had sent him a letter expressing concern.

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He also accused Guzmán of being motivated by allegiance to leftist guerrillas and a desire to tarnish the image of the government and military.

The health ministry denied those deployments were politically motivated, claiming the soldiers were simply protecting health workers. But experts pointed out that the government’s own pandemic statistics did not suggest that infections in these towns were higher than in other parts of the country. Instead of ensuring public health, the deployment of troops to onetime guerrilla strongholds—and the very town whose court Bukele is defying—made for a disturbing scene. Salvadorans have watched with familiar unease as the clash between Guzmán and the military has unfolded. Security protocols have been stepped up at human rights organizations, especially those associated with the case, as many still recall the disappearances and murders of lawyers and activists who dared to stand up to the military and elites. These days, the most visible attacks take place on Twitter; Bukele’s enthusiastic followers denounce anyone they consider to be his enemies.

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More complicated still, Salvadorans themselves continue to disagree about what happened during the war, as well as about who was to blame. Some see the guerrillas as freedom fighters, while others consider them terrorists who provoked the military. Either way, many Salvadorans believe the military is central to the country’s fragile stability: Soldiers take an active role in law enforcement, which includes reining in the street gangs blamed for much of the country’s ongoing violence.

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But as a friend and local human rights lawyer, Marina Ortiz, recently reminded me: “Militarization is not necessary in a democracy.”

Those I’ve spoken to have floated a few theories about Bukele’s apparent change of heart but most boil down to a single one: “He’s the same as the rest.” The economic elite and the military, many believe, are still on the same side ruling the country. Either way, says Ortiz, “If the president was actually committed to justice, he would act differently.” Still, she adds that Guzmán’s initiative is a huge step forward, since in the past, the judicial branch would have likely colluded with the cover-up.

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In the weeks following the standoff, the military presence on the streets seemed to increase. On a recent Sunday night, my partner and I decided to drive past the Paseo el Carmen, a popular strip of bars and restaurants in the Santa Tecla suburb, to see how it looked following the coronavirus lockdown. We noticed three soldiers in fatigues walking down the sidewalk—a quotidian sight—but something felt different than usual. Instead of simply strolling along, they were walking with purpose, gripping the automatic weapons that usually hang from their shoulders. After turning the corner, we saw a group of young men dispersing. We quickly drove away, but with a feeling of unease.

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The next morning, as I walked the dog a few blocks from home in my nongated neighborhood, I was approached by two tactical police officers in fatigues. “What’s your dog’s name?” one of them asked in a friendly voice. “Do you walk him every day?” I shared the dog’s name but answered vaguely, feeling instinctively (though possibly irrationally) that I did not want to divulge information about my routine. A few hundred yards on, I passed another pair on patrol, this time a soldier and a police officer in complementary green-and-blue fatigues. As I walked away, I thought about Ortiz’s words: “If the El Mozote case is successfully brought to trial, it is a message to the next generation that we are healing,” she told me. “If not, we are sending the message that the military can do whatever it wants.”

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A crucial test of El Salvador’s democratic institutions, and of the state’s capacity and willingness to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated, the case has come to represent the struggle to hold the Salvadoran military accountable and to transform El Salvador’s culture of impunity. As the 39th anniversary of the massacre approaches, it remains to be seen whether it’ll succeed.

Much is a stake: El Salvador is the second-leading country of nationality of those granted asylum in the United States (mass migration was sparked by the civil war, sending hundreds of thousands northward). Today, those seeking protection believe their government is unwilling or unable to protect them from violence. The Salvadoran military still faces accusations of human rights abuses in their fight against crime, while the criminal justice system is rife with impunity. Many once placed their hopes in Bukele to usher in a new era, but they are quickly becoming disillusioned.

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