The University of Washington filed a lawsuit to force the CIA to release declassified documents that could help bring to justice a U.S.-backed army officer suspected of killing hundreds of civilians during El Salvador’s brutal crackdown on left-wing rebels, local news outlets reported Monday.
The university’s Center for Human Rights filed the lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, alleging that the CIA is illegally withholding information on retired Salvadoran Army officer, Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, who is currently under criminal investigation for complicity in the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre in El Salvador.
The lawsuit hopes to support justice-seeking survivors of the U.S-backed counterinsurgency against left-wing rebels that left more than 75,000 people dead and over 30,000 disappeared between 1980 and 1992.
“Access to the documents ... could facilitate justice proceedings in these and other cases of grave rights abuses,” the lawsuit claims.
Ochoa was a high-ranking officer in a country ruled by a small elite and guarded by the military, who “adhered closely to the United States’ suggested wartime strategy,” according to the legal proceeding.
There is “ample evidence,” the suit claims, that he led troops who opened fire on unarmed civilians at Santa Cruz on Nov. 14, 1981, and again in the town of El Calabozo in August 1981. It alleges hundreds of civilians died in the attacks.
It also claims Ochoa was complicit in blocking humanitarian aid to areas allegedly occupied by left-wing rebels, and that he set up “free-fire zones” where troops could shoot and bomb with impunity, regardless of civilian populations.
While the CIA has previously declassified 20 documents relating to Ochoa, the agency responded it can “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of records, citing national security exemptions.
U.S. Role in Supporting Justice in El Salvador
Since 2013, the UW Center for Human Rights has filed over 200 Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on the large-scale massacres and kidnappings that were carried out during the Salvadoran civil war.
For Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, the center’s director, the United States “has a debt with El Salvador to help clarify the events that transpired in the country” since it “heavily promoted the war.”
Consequently, the center works directly alongside Salvadoran human rights advocates to obtain the information they need to attain justice in their home country, Godoy told teleSUR.
Access to information, which can be crucial evidence in a court case against perpetrators of war crimes, stands central in this international partnership according to Mirla Carbajal, a Salvadoran lawyer who represents survivors of human rights violations, including the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre.
“What military officials are saying now is that all the information has been destroyed and that there are no archives on what happened,” Carbajal told teleSUR English.
“We know everything was recorded by the U.S. because Salvadoran military did not act without it being registered by the United State since they were financing the war. They needed to have clarity on what they were doing,” she added.
Salvadoran System of Impunity: Past & Present
In a country commonly associated with gang violence and the absence of the rule of law it is easy to assume El Salvador has greater concerns than investigating war crimes from two decades ago.
Godoy disagrees, however.
“Many people think it’s old news, old history,” the researcher said about the civil war, “but the issues of the past have never been resolved; for people and communities affected by these massacres the pain is still palpable and the need for justice still very present.”
For Godoy, the present issues that El Salvador faces, like criminal violence, is directly linked to a larger “structure of impunity,” which has made it possible for yesterday’s war criminals to be today’s top business executives and leading politicians.
“It is not surprising that a justice system that has stood idly by numerous atrocities and has allowed those crimes to go uninvestigated now for decades, that that same justice system struggles under the burden of contemporary crime,” Godoy explained.“Until the Salvadoran justice system eradicates the root of impunity, they are not going to be able to deal with neither the crimes of the present or the past. Addressing these issues that happened in the war is actually a key part in restoring the rule of law in El Salvador,” she added.