San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador – Two former members of the Salvadoran military on Friday confirmed details given by the victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre in which 1,000 civilians were murdered by the military over the course of three days in what is described as the worst mass killing in modern Latin American history.
The two new protected witnesses testified in the ongoing case against 17 high-ranking military officers for the El Mozote massacre.
The witnesses were the first former members of the military to confirm the victims’ version of events – that soldiers forced innocent civilians, including kids and elderly, out of their homes in the country’s northern province of Morazan, shot them, and then burned their houses. The Salvadoran military has repeatedly denied this version of events, instead calling it a clash between soldiers and armed rebels.
In December 1981, the country was in the early days of a civil war that left more than 75,000 dead in a conflict between leftist rebels and the Salvadoran military. The massacre is considered one of the most brutal in Latin America in the 20th century for the large number of victims and brutal tactics used, including rape and torture.
A UN-backed truth commission identified the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion as the perpetrator of the El Mozote massacre. The Reagan administration provided millions of dollars of aid to the Salvadoran state during the country’s civil war in the name of fighting communism.
The witnesses, “Juan” and “Sol”, whose voices were distorted while they answered questions from behind a screen, identified themselves as former members of the Atlacatl Battalion.
One minute before the hearing was scheduled to start, a defence lawyer filed a petition for the hearing to be suspended. He argued that a 2006 law to protect witnesses did not apply to this case, which dates back before the law. The judge denied the motion.
Juan and Sol testified that soldiers took residents – children under 10, elderly women and men – from their homes and shot them. “How were they dressed?” asked one lawyer for the prosecution. “Humbly,” Juan said. Juan said that the soldiers killed for “pleasure”.
Sol said women and children were rounded up and taken to the church in the centre of the town. He recounted hearing gunshots and the screams of women and kids.
David Morales, a prosecuting lawyer, said he believes the new testimony helps establish the chain of command and solidify the role of high-ranking military officers in the massacre.
“The witness confirms clearly what the victims and survivors have said – that troops of the Atlacatl Battalion arrived to these previously designated places in northern Morazan and exterminated people,” said Morales, who is also the director of strategic litigation for Cristosal, a San Salvador based human rights organisation. “It also clear that these acts came from higher orders and that the Atlacatl Battalion carried out orders from the state.”
A lawyer for the attorney general’s office said that both witnesses had first-hand knowledge of the events, but never participated in any act of violence against the victims. Lawyers for the defence repeatedly questioned the first witness Juan about his own role in the massacre. The defence team declined to question the second witness.
When asked why Juan did not intervene, Juan responded, “Because I wasn’t in charge.”
Survivors and family of victims first tried to open a case for the El Mozote massacre in the early 1990s. But their path to justice was cut off for more than 20 years by an amnesty law passed shortly after the peace accords in 1992.
The case against 17 military officers for crimes against humanity, including torture, murder and forced disappearance, has been ongoing since 2016 when a Supreme Court decision overturned the country’s amnesty law for civil war-era crimes.
The case is the most emblematic attempt at justice for victims of the country’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. To date, there has been no conviction for civil war era human rights abuses in El Salvador in a national court.
Juan said he feared that he would be killed if he spoke up sooner.
So why testify now, he was asked.
“Because I still remember these injustices,” Juan said.