People & Power

El Salvador: Quest for Justice

More than 20 years after the end of its civil war, the country is ready to confront and redress its bloody past.

More than 20 years after the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war, its legacy of pain and misery still lingers.

Until now, an amnesty has shielded from prosecution those suspected of atrocities. But the discovery of a secret directory of death squad targets has given campaigners hope that the guilty can at last be held accountable.

On this edition of People & Power, we investigate how evidence of atrocities committed by government forces during the civil war sparked efforts to overturn the amnesty laws.

Filmmakers’ view

By Bob Abeshouse and Joshua Phillips

When Latin America’s Cold War conflicts came to an end, many nations did not immediately hold their leaders responsible for the human rights atrocities committed under their tenure. But this is slowly beginning to change.

Today, in Guatemala, former general Rios Montt is being tried for genocide committed during the 1980s. And as that trial pushes ahead, many in Central America are asking if neighbouring El Salvador will also hold to account those responsible for atrocities committed during its civil war more than 20 years ago.

Between 1980 and 1992, around 75,000 Salvadorians were killed. Paramilitary death squads murdered roughly 8,000 civilians and torture and disappearances were rampant. And yet, the human rights community has doubted that anyone will be held to account.

While that feeling may finally be changing, one significant stumbling block remains: El Salvador’s amnesty law.

In 1992, the Salvadoran military and leftist guerillas signed a peace accord. A year later, the country’s legislative assembly passed an amnesty law shielding perpetrators from prosecution for their role in wartime atrocities. That law is still on the books, and continues to upset victims like Rosa Rivera, whose immediate family was killed by Salvadoran military and security forces.

It was very painful when they made the amnesty law of forgiveness and forgetting

by Rosa Rivera, victim of civil war violence

“It was very painful when they made the amnesty law of forgiveness and forgetting,” she says. “With the amnesty law, they protected, defended and absolved all those who committed the crimes.”

Rivera and other civil war victims are now pushing to overturn the law and to hold officials accountable for atrocities committed during the 1980s.

The new drive for justice has been fueled by the discovery of a military document called the Libro Amarillo, the ‘Yellow Book’ – a 254-page book produced by the Intelligence Department of the Estado Mayor Conjunto, El Salvador’s military high command during the civil war. It is the first list of human targets assembled by the military high command during the war to ever be publically revealed.

Since it was discovered in 2010, researchers have been carefully confirming the Yellow Book’s authenticity and visiting the families of those in it, so the book is only now being revealed.

Assembled between 1978 and 1987, the book contains photographs of nearly 2,000 civilians that it identifies as “delinquent-terrorists”, and details their known or suspected leftist political affiliations.

“The majority were intellectuals, writers, journalists, professionals and union members. Some are also workers and campesinos,” says Carlos Santos, a human rights activist who has been researching the book. So far, researchers have determined that about 200 people in the book were murdered and disappeared, many by death squads.

During the war, the Salvadoran military claimed that the death squads were independent groups. But, Santos says, “the Yellow Book is evidence that the Salvadoran state violated human rights systematically in this country”.

William LeoGrande, who worked on El Salvador policy for the US Congress in the 1980s, agrees. “A document like this, I think, confirms what most people thought at the time, that the … intelligence unit of the high command was putting together the list of targets,” he says. “And then those targets were being passed along to the special operations units, the death squads that would go out and kill them.”

During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made El Salvador one of the most important policy initiatives of his administration. As a result, El Salvador became the third-largest recipient of US aid – after Israel and Egypt – collecting more than $4bn in military and economic aid. But the administration needed Congress to sign off on military aid to El Salvador, and Congress asked for assurances that human rights conditions in the country were improving – particularly in relation to the death squads.

“The argument the Reagan administration made was that these were rogue units and rogue commanders, and it wasn’t the high command that was actually directing this,” LeoGrande says. He believes that the discovery of the Yellow Book finally puts that argument to rest, and says “there’s absolutely no question that US officials downplayed and ignored the atrocities that were going on” to guarantee aid and military support. The money, LeoGrande argues, “provided the Salvadoran armed forces with the means to conduct the human rights violations that they engaged in”.


Santos and other human rights activists hope the revelations in the Yellow Book will pressure political and judicial officials to investigate Salvadoran state atrocities. But not everyone wants to revisit the past.

Sigifredo Ochoa Perez served as a battalion commander during the war, but now serves as a deputy in El Salvador’s legislative assembly.

“We shouldn’t forget the past so that it won’t happen again. We have to acknowledge that both sides committed abuses,” he says. But Ochoa Perez adds: “We are now enjoying an incipient democracy which is working. Personally, I don’t think we should stir up the issue of the amnesty.”

Those who lived in the area where Ochoa Perez served say that his reasoning is self-serving.

“Ochoa Perez, above all, was the intellectual author of all that went on here,” says community cooperative leader, Carlos Bonilla, who still lives in the town of Santa Marta, in the region of Cabañas.

What happened in El Salvador were crimes against humanity ... and no amnesty law can protect this type of crimes.

by Baltasar Garzon, Spanish jurist

Another Santa Marta resident, Luis Rivas, recalled the violence that plagued the area, and ascribed it to military forces under Ochoa Perez’s command.

“There were people who were tortured and were burned in a fire alive,” says Rivas. “There were others who were pulled out of their homes, their heads were placed on a tree trunk and they were beheaded. That was their way to instill fear in the people.”

Ochoa Perez attributes the accusations to partisan differences. “When one is at war,” he says, “there are going be detractors and then you have those who praise you.” He adds: “I have never been accused officially by the United Nations or anyone else of violating human rights.”

The 1992 United Nation’s Truth Commission on El Salvador only had the resources to investigate a few emblematic cases of atrocities committed during the war. Overall, it received more than 22,000 complaints of serious acts of violence. The Commission found that 85 percent of the cases were attributed “to agents of the state, paramilitary groups … and death squads”. They also found that opposition guerilla groups, known as the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (or FMLN), were accused “in approximately 5 percent of the cases”.

Salvadoran human rights lawyer Benjamín Cuellar and his organisation, IDHUCA, have been developing 43 cases involving civil war atrocities that were not included in the Truth Commission Report. “There are so many cases, victims who are still being searched for and whose children and grandchildren will continue to seek truth, justice and compensation,” he says.

On March 20, noted Spanish jurist, Baltasar Garzon, joined Cuellar in the Salvadoran capital, San Salvador, to announce their new cases involving atrocities. They used the date to mark the 20th anniversary of El Salvador’s amnesty law, and to emphasise how the country remains an outlier in Latin America in seeking accountability for Cold War atrocities. On that same day, throngs of victims marched to the Salvadoran attorney general’s office where they filed their cases seeking the investigation and prosecution of atrocities.

Rosa Rivera is one of those who filed a case on behalf of her family members who were killed.

“It is the first time I have submitted this type of legal demand,” she says. “I feel so happy because I can see that there are a lot of people that are also supporting the effort of the victims. Together we are stronger.”

Garzon famously issued an arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He is now affiliated with the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights, which has helped facilitate research surrounding the new cases and a renewed push for reversing the amnesty law.

“What happened in El Salvador were crimes against humanity,” says Garzon. “There were massacres. There were assassinations of people in a systematic way. There [were] extrajudicial executions, forced disappearance. All of these acts are crimes against humanity, and no amnesty law can protect this type of crimes.”

Revisiting war wounds

According to Jeannette Aguilar, the director of the Public Opinion Institute at the University of Central America, the time might be ripe to revisit El Salvador’s war wounds.

“According to our most recent survey,” she says, “more than 60 percent of the population wanted to overturn the amnesty law,” she says. “More than 70 percent of the population agreed to investigate violations against human rights committed during war time.”

However, politicians and judicial authorities in El Salvador have so far shown little interest in overturning the amnesty law. Cuellar and Garzon also submitted a petition to the country’s Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the amnesty law. But Justice Belarmino Jaime expressed a reluctance to abolish the law.

“Some people want to start prosecuting the army and not the guerrillas,” he says, “while others want to prosecute the guerrillas and not the army. So it is necessary to be prudent.”

Cuellar went to Washington, DC to try to build support for overturning the amnesty law in the US. “The United States is still the most influential country in El Salvador,” he says, adding that he believes pressure from Congress could help move things forward.

A lot of the people that were killed were killed with guns that we gave them

by Jim McGovern, US congressman

US congressman Jim McGovern has worked on El Salvadoran issues for years, and even led a congressional task force that investigated the killing of six Jesuit priests by members of an American-trained unit.

“A lot of the people that were killed were killed with guns that we gave them,” he says. “A lot of the perpetrators of some of these crimes were people we trained in the United States. I think we have a special responsibility to demand there be some accountability.”

McGovern says he supports efforts to hold perpetrators responsible – inside and outside of El Salvador. McGovern pointed to a former Salvadoran officer living in the US, Inocente Orlando Montano, who is currently facing jail time for immigration fraud, and could be extradited to Spain for his alleged involvement in the 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests.

Montano’s case is rapidly developing, but other Salvadoran officials have faced punishment in the US for their civil war human rights abuses.

Top Salvadoran generals, former generals Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, were granted asylum in the US in the late 1980s. In 2002, Salvadoran torture victims successfully sued them for command responsibility for torture and other atrocities. Now the US Department of Justice is seeking to deport them back to El Salvador.

Juan Romagoza was the lead plaintiff in the case against generals, and says he was brutally tortured by troops under Vides Casanova’s command. He promises to keep fighting for justice if the generals are deported back to El Salvador.

Even if they return home, and the amnesty law still stands, he pledges to “continue denouncing them – fight so the amnesty law gets eliminated. I’d even go to the airport to greet and to tell them that we are going to judge them.”

For Romagoza and others, El Salvador is finally poised to confront and redress its bloody past.

He says: “There are many factors coming together to begin a search for the truth.”


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