Crime & Justice

Survivors of Salvadoran massacre still waiting for justice 40 years later

By Sara Acosta

Meanguera, El Salvador, Dec 10 (EFE).- Fidel Perez and Maria de la Paz Chicas, both survivors of the 1981 El Mozote massacre, had great hopes in 2016 when the overturning of an amnesty law led to the opening of an investigation into the killings of nearly 1,000 people by an elite unit of the Salvadoran army.

But the recent forced retirement of the judge conducting the probe has left them pessimistic about the chances that those responsible for one of Latin America’s worst atrocities of the 20th century will ever face a reckoning.

“We have lost so much time, 40 years already and there is no justice,” Maria, who was 11 in 1981, told Efe as she reflected on the pursuit of accountability for the deaths of 25 of her relatives.

The bloodbath took place during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war pitting government forces against leftist FMLN guerrillas.

A United Nations commission said in a 1993 report that during the period Dec. 10-13, 1981, units of the Atlacatl counter-insurgency battalion “deliberately and systematically” tortured and executed men, women and children in El Mozote and other nearby villages in the municipality of Meanguera, 187km (116mi) from San Salvador.

The killing spree was accompanied by rape, the destruction of homes, the burning of crops and the slaughter of domestic animals.

The Salvadoran government lists 1,730 victims of El Mozote: 988 fatalities; 48 survivors; 665 family members of the dead; and 29 people who were forcibly displaced.

“It was like a desert here,” Maria de la Paz said, recalling the scene 40 years ago following the massacre. “The only things to be seen were coyotes, skulls, pieces of bones.

“We collected (the bones), put them in piles and covered them, and when the forensic doctors came to carry out exhumations we handed them over,” she said.

In 2016, 23 years after the conflict ended in a negotiated peace, the Supreme Court struck down the law that shielded combatants from prosecution for war crimes and Judge Jorge Guzman opened the El Mozote case.

Guzman moved forward despite obstruction by the armed forces and right-wing President Nayib Bukele and was ready to bring a dozen current and former military brass to trial when congress moved in September to require judges step down at 60 or after 30 years on the bench.

“For us, the families of all of those who died here, it’s like reopening the wounds, it’s like the pain starting over again because we think that as much as we have suffered, justice does not exist for us,” Maria, 51, told Efe.

Fidel Perez, who testified before Guzman at a hearing in November 2019 about seeing his mother and 3-day-old sister slain, aid that the El Mozote survivors and families have yet to hear from the judge who took over the case, Mirtala Portillo.

“We have not met, we have no contact. We don’t know what attitude she has toward us,” the 46-year-old said. “We want to see justice done, because this cannot go unpunished. If that were to happen, it would be yet another blow for us.” EFE sa/dr

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