While El Salvador marks 25 years Monday since the signing of the peace accords that ended a brutal 12-year civil war in 1992, hundreds of survivors and relatives of the victims of one of the most barbaric episodes in the armed conflict have had to be extremely patient in their wait for justice after more than 35 years of impunity.
El Salvador’s War on Terror
Between Dec. 11 and 13, 1981, soldiers from the the Atlacatl Battalion, a Salvadoran death squad trained at the U.S. military’s School of Americas, massacred almost all the residents of El Mozote, a small village whose residents were accused of being sympathetic to the cause of left-wing rebels.
Between 900 and 1,200 villagers were massacred without mercy, the majority of them women, children and the elderly.
El Salvador at the time was two years into a civil war between the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front — a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups — and a vicious military government backed by Washington. The war would not end until January 1992, after up to 80,000 people were killed and another 8,000 people disappeared.
A truth commission created by the United Nations the year the war ended published a report that concluded the El Mozote massacre was the worst war crime in the nation’s more than 12 years of civil war. However, it was not until 2012 that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, or IACHR, ordered reparations for victims, as well as the exhumation of remains.
Wilfredo Orellana is one of the lawyers who has fought for the rights of the victims. He has a history of working with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, a human rights organization created to help locate and identify Argentines disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship.
”The exhumations started a year ago, and so far the remains of 80 people have been identified," Orellana told teleSUR. "However, the process is slow because most of the remains are incomplete. When they were buried they were in an advanced state of decomposition and had been eaten by flesh-eating creatures."
Rufina Amaya is globally known as one of the few survivors of the massacre. She died in 2007, but her testimony helped reveal the extent of the atrocity to the world. Her heartbreaking testimony was documented in a series of books called “Fireflies in El Mozote.”
"Soldiers arrived in my village demanding residents turn over their weapons, but when they said they had none, the soldiers started killing people," she testified.
"Everything was a mistake. We lived from agriculture, from working, we had been grinding cane, making sweets. We did not believe that a massacre could come to our village, because there were no guerrillas there.
"People were pulled from their homes and divided into three groups. Men were beheaded, some women were raped and then killed. Children were locked up in a convent and then killed with flamethrowers.”
"God saved me because he needed someone to tell the story of what happened.”
Rufina was 38-years-old when horror struck the village. She lost her husband and four children. She survived after fleeing the village and hiding for more than eight days in a nearby mountain. Until the very end she bravely and fiercely fought for justice.
"Rufina would have loved to see how the process has advanced," Orellana continued. "Now the survivors and families of victims have new hope, especially because of the 22 former high-ranking military officials who’re facing prosecution over charges of crimes against humanity. Also, at least 200 people have received economic reparations from the Salvadoran state."
The prosecutions follow a ruling last July in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an amnesty law that was put in place in 1993 to shield perpetrators of civil war-era crimes against humanity and other crimes.
For years, successive national governments that came after the bloody episode denied having any role in the massacre. But in 2012, the government of President Mauricio Funes acknowledged the state’s role and apologized to the victims' families.
El Mozote became synonymous with the U.S. government’s support for atrocities in a brutal campaign to stave off left-wing and communist movements in Latin America and the rest of the developing world.