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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 336 | Julio 2009


El Salvador

And the Amnesty Law?

In 1993, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly approved the Amnesty Law “for the consolidation of peace” at then-President Alfredo Cristiani’s request. But the law didn’t consolidate peace; it fostered impunity, offended the victims and impeded any investigation of massacres and crimes against humanity committed under state responsibility during the military conflict. The next three Presidents, all from ARENA, firmly opposed eliminating or revising the law. Will it happen now, during Mauricio Funes’ mandate?

In his inaugural speech, President Mauricio Funes’ only mention of the long war his people lived through until 1992 was this stylized reference: “The Salvadoran people have had to travel a long road to get to this day. No effort and no sacrifice has been useless.” His coming to government, heavy with meaning, has awakened many hopes in many people, one of which is that the Amnesty Law will be revised and those who survived the massacres and other horrendous crimes of that war will receive just reparations.

The Human Rights Institute of El Salvador’s Central American University (IDHUCA) is one of the institutions that have decided to deploy all their efforts in that direction. And to establish a benchmark in that struggle, it set up an International Tribunal in the university chapel on March 25-27, a few days after Funes’ election, to apply retributive justice.

The state is responsible

For three days, six justices from El Salvador, Brazil and Spain, as well as IDHUCA lawyers, a state attorney and a sizable crowd, listened to various witnesses who were either victims or the relatives of victims of very serious human rights violations in events that happened almost 30 years ago. No one there could recall such total silence during a public act in the chapel, or such emotional applause after each intervention. At the end of this symbolic hearing, the tribunal’s president, Spanish justice José María Tomás Tío, ruled that: “The Tribunal has declared the state responsible in the tortures, summary executions, forced disappearances and massacres of thousands of people during this country’s civil conflict. In addition, it has called for the repeal of the Amnesty Law and the opening of an official investigation that will end the impunity of those responsible. And for the victims it asks for personal and collective moral, personal and economic compensation.”

We have a pending debt

The tribunal was set up alongside the tombs of the six Jesuit priests murdered by the Salvadoran army in 1989 and in front of a painting of Monsignor Romero, the “court-appointed lawyer” for so many victims in those tormented years.

The UCA’s rector, Jesuit José María Tojeira, explained the significance of the tribunal in the following way: “With justice denied to so many good people who were simply massacred and buried in forgetfulness by the amnesty law, we believe our society still has the pending debt of moving ahead with the process of truth, justice, reparation of the victims and reconciliation through forgiveness we’ve been talking about for so many years. This tribunal is attempting to provide that moral compensation to victims who never received even a thank you for having awakened our consciousness, or our legitimate indignation and our desire for peace with justice. It is also attempting to point the way to what must be a path of reconciliation that doesn’t fall into the ‘forgive and forget’ advocated by the amnesty laws.”

A survivor of Rio Sumpul speaks

Julio Ernaldo Rivera, a survivor of the Río Sumpul massacre, gave a 20-minute testimony to the tribunal with serenity, firmness and dignity.

On May 14, 1980, troops from the First Military Detachment of Chalatenango, the National Guard and elements of the paramilitary group ORDEN conducted one of the most emblematic massacres of the Salvadoran war. Dozens of men and women were murdered in Río Sumpul, most of them children, women and elderly people who were fleeing to neighboring Honduras but found their way blocked by the military. Although there has been an ongoing attempt to deny this crime, testimonies like Julio Rivera’s, who lost what remained of his family in that massacre, revealed the atrocities committed. Twenty-nine years later, Julio told the tribunal everything that happened afterward. His moving testimony is repeated below in full:

“First I want to greet this honorable tribunal. As others before me have said, we’re being given the opportunity to be heard for the first time in 29 years, which makes us feel useful and valued. We feel that the victims and we, the survivors, are being given our merited place. While we’ve struggled and worked to vindicate the victims, others have tried to erase them and are willing to invest all the dollars it takes to blot out that history, so the victims are forgotten. For that reason I reiterate my gratitude to all involved.”

“My whole family was murdered”

“My name is Julio Ernaldo Rivera Guardado. I’m now 37 years old, but was 7 at the time of the massacre. I’m the only survivor from our family. Everyone else was murdered by that cruel and unjust war.

“My oldest, most beloved brother was murdered on January 16, 1980, when he was 13. He was the one I played with, fought with, the one I went with to leave food for my father when he was out working in the fields. The National Guard of Las Vueltas killed him with three shots from a weapon called a G-3, then ORDEN paramilitary agents cut off his head with three slashes of their machetes. One of the main perpetrators of that action was until recently the mayor of the municipality of Las Vueltas thanks to the ARENA party. It was one of its worst errors, since a criminal of that sort should be banned from exercising public office for the rest of his life.”

“Why are there no
telephones in Heaven?”

“On March 11, 1980, my mother was murdered, together with the rest of my siblings. I was thrown into a gully, left completely unprotected. A lady found me, took me home and hid me there because the paramilitary chief found out I’d survived and said: ‘My mission is to leave not even a seed of that family.’ He conducted three new house-to-house searches to kill me and thus make good on his threat against the Rivera family. I was only 7 years old.

“The same fate had already befallen my two aunts. They had been raped and tortured, dragged through a street, stoned and later killed. On May 14, another 13 family members were murdered in Las Aradas de Sumpul,. Now my mother, my aunts and all my siblings were dead. The only other survivors were my cousins, but they were killed in the Sumpul massacre, thus wiping out my whole family; 20 members brutally murdered, none of them guerrillas. They were all civilians.

“My mother was a member of the Committee for Political Prisoners and the Disappeared, and the crime the rest of my family committed was to belong to the Union of Field Workers (UTC), which had struggled peacefully, occupying the Cathedral and holding rallies and marches here in San Salvador to ask for fair salaries and respect for life and human rights. So my whole family was dead. When I see that people with relatives in the United States or other countries can call them by telephone, I can’t but feel a little envy and ask, ‘Why aren’t there any telephones in Heaven?‘ Everyone has that chance, that pleasure they feel when he phone rings and they receive a call from their relative in another country. I’m the only one with nobody to call me.”

“I’m going to tell
everything I recall…”

“I’m going to tell everything I can recall of the massacre. At only 7 years old I was privileged, because I’d been able to cross the Río Sumpul with my father a few days earlier. On May 13, Las Aradas was already militarized. This is a zone that lends itself strategically to a crime because it’s completely surrounded by mountains and also the river is furious. That day I was in Honduran territory, in a village called San José. The site of the massacre and the village are only separated by a river, so I was hidden on the other side, on a small rise behind some trees. My father, some other Honduran brothers and myself could see and hear very clearly everything that was happening.

“I want to ratify that this was a very well executed, previously planned plot by the Salvadoran and Honduran governments. On the Salvadoran side, there was active participation by the first Military Detachment, the National Guard and the Air Force. One air force action was to destroy a hammock bridge that joined the two territories so no Salvadorans could save their life by crossing it. The paramilitaries from ORDEN also participated actively because they could identify all the places where victims could take refuge, where they could hide. They also made incursions into Honduran territory, joining with soldiers from that country to identify those of us who were taking refuge and expel us.

“So the Honduran army launched a tremendous operation a few days before the massacre, going house to house, mountain to mountain, gully to gully in search of Salvadorans. Those of us in that territory were captured, beaten, pushed and insulted and forced back into El Salvador at gunpoint. One of the slogans of the Honduran soldiers was, “Out with the Guanacos [a pejorative term for Salvadorans], spread your fleas in your own territory.” If you don’t know what a flea is, it’s a small very, damaging insect found in dogs and pigs. That’s how we were treated by the Honduran army.”

“How was I able to save myself?”

“How were me and my father able to save our lives? Well, that was one of God’s genuine works. Those of us who could, hid from the Honduran soldiers and the paramilitaries, even under rocks if possible to avoid being found. By then all the Salvadorans had been expelled, but my father and I had managed to hide under a huge bunch of weeds at the bottom of a gully.

“That’s where we were when a Honduran soldier discovered us. He called to the others and said, ‘Look, there’s no one
here but this kid and this old man who’re Salvadorans, but we’re not going to commit the offense of turning them over to the Salvadoran army so it can kill them. Let’s leave them.’ They told us to get out of the hiding place, took us to a nearby house and said: “We’re going to leave this kid and old man here. Keep them until the massacre is over because I don’t want a little boy and an old man to perish as well.’ As the gospel says, there are wolves among sheep, but here it was the other way around; there were also sheep among the wolves, and this Honduran soldier wanted to save our lives. We were able to escape because I was 7 and my father over 60.”

Bloodthirsty animals

“When we were on that little hill, covered with weeds, we could see everything that was happening on the other side. We could see how the machine-gunning began. The Honduran army closed off the pass to Honduras so no one could get through. The Salvadoran army set up an ambush, encircling the people, and when the circle was closed the massacre began. They indiscriminately machine-gunned the population, which was largely children, elderly people, pregnant women, people who had suffered, who had gone hungry and couldn’t go on, so they were concentrated in that place. If the people made a mistake, it was thinking that those soldiers, those guardsman, that government had any human feelings, as is so often proclaimed. If they committed an error it was in believing that their lives would be spared because they were children, pregnant women and elderly and sick people. But those bloodthirsty animals didn’t care that they were defenseless; they committed that terrible massacre all the same.”

“We had to watch all this”

“We saw how like cowards they lined up the men and then machine-gunned them. We saw how children were snatched from the arms of their mothers, thrown in the air, speared with their enormous knives then thrown in the Río Sumpul. There are testimonies from people who survived and live in the municipality of Las Vueltas, like Mrs. Chinda. She’s still alive and says that the pregnant women were kicked to the ground or hit with a rifle butt, then their bellies were cut open with knives, the fetuses removed and after fits of laughter the soldiers and guardsmen threw the women into the river. We had to see all this.

“We also heard the children’s sad crying. ‘Mommy, mommy, daddy, daddy, let’s go, let’s run!’ We could hear the cries of the mothers calling for clemency: “Don’t kill us, we aren’t guerrillas, we’re civilians, we owe nothing!” Calling for them to at least spare their children’s lives. And the response to all that was laughter, insults, machine-gunning and the skewering of bodies with their enormous knives.

“Many people fought for their lives, and some succeeded, thank God,. Why not mention here—as there’s so much talk about leaders, about heroes—Father Beto, a North American; Father Fausto Milla, a Honduran; and the layperson Mario Arguiñal, who oblivious to the danger faced off with the soliders on the Honduran side, broke through the military circle, went into Río Sumpul and snatched children from the hands, almost the rifles, of Salvadoran soldiers to get them back to the other side.

“The soldiers opposed them but the two priests and the lay worker got into a shoving match, elbowing the military to give way. In so doing they saved the lives of many children, several old people and several women. These people deserve to be in that street in San Salvador that I hear is called the Street of the Leaders. One of them has now died.”

The worst affront

“So we had to live through that terrible history. That was what my eyes could see and my ears could hear. And it’s an achievement in itself, as I said initially, that our story is now being heard. That vindicates us and spurs us to keep on struggling forcefully for justice to be done, because we aren’t asking for vengeance or the death penalty for the material and intellectual authors of such a crime. We’re simply asking that justice be done, that the truth be established.

“I don’t know if you can imagine how sad and lamentable it is for us when both the successive governments after the massacre, including the current one, and the media deny that this crime ever happened, deny its victims ever existed, and oppose keeping the memory and history alive. That’s why we’ve been witnesses when people like Benjamín Cuellar (director of IDHUCA) want justice and to see the truth established. As many government officials, ministers and legislators strongly deny that such massacres have happened, they say they were combats and that any people who might have died—just a few, according to them—were guerrillas, terrorists. That’s the worst affront our victims can suffer, and the worst offense to us survivors.”

Open wounds

“They say you can’t open the wounds up again, and they’re right because you can’t open something that’s already open, right? These wounds are bleeding and can’t close until there’s some cure, until all that pain, anguish and sadness is cleansed. They will only heal when there’s a genuine reconciliation process. The previous governments, the current one and the one to come all have a great responsibility to establish truth and justice, and they have to do it. They can find out who was in that Military Detachment, the National Guard or the various security corps when those massacres were committed. The minister of defense, the minister of public security and justice and the attorney general can establish truth and justice. That’s what we’re asking for.”

“Ask me to forget?”

“Former President Alfredo Cristiani decreed ‘forgive and forget,’ thus usurping God because only He can pardon. I suppose there can be forgiveness but not forgetfulness. How am I going to forget what I lived through on May 14, 1980, on the banks of the Sumpul? How am I going to forget how they killed my mother? Jesús Guardado is the name of the man who killed her. Disgracefully, he was our second cousin. He gave the order for my family to be killed and, not content with that, said, ‘I’ll take care of this one,’ referring to my mother, who was his second cousin. ‘I want to kill her personally.’ I saw how my mother was grabbed by the hair, floored by a terrible kick to the head and knifed.

“How can the government feel the moral authority to ask me to forget that? And this isn’t rancor; it’s justice, it’s truth. Of course there must be pardon, above all when the material and intellectual authors find it in themselves to stand up there, or if their legs are trembling too much, to stay seated and acknowledge that those crimes were committed here, that these massacres did in fact happen, that they committed them and are asking to be forgiven. Only then can they be pardoned. Ever since I was little and went to catechism to prepare for my first communion, they told me that the first step to being forgiven is to recognize the sin. But these intellectual and material authors don’t recognize their sin and deny the existence of the crimes.”

“They have to recognize it”

“That’s the call we want to make to the government still in office, the one that will soon follow it and those to come in the future: we want a real investigation; not a faked or superficial one, but one that establishes justice and truth. Reparation is also necessary, not to enrich the victims economically because, as one of you so rightly said, ‘You can’t pay for someone’s life with money.’ But there has to be a way to make reparations for all the damage that was done.

“Let them recognize the massacre of Sumpul, Mozote and so many others as historic days. Let them be decreed national days instead of denying them; let this reality stop being ignored.

“It seems to me that the most basic, essential thing is the recognition of what happened, giving the victims their value and importance, ensuring reparation and that the intellectual and material authors ask for forgiveness so there can be an effective reconciliation.

“The laws don’t establish being able to ask for pardon. But then it seems to me the laws also don’t say anyone can kill so indiscriminately or, as Mr. José Ramón [one of the invited judges] said here, that children can be so brutally mowed down. And in any event, the laws in this country are ignored, when convenient, and all kinds of atrocities are committed.

“I will end here and again I thank you. As Monsignor Romero said, if one day they destroy my work and kill us, each one of you must become a microphone of the truth. That’s what I want to ask of you, so that what really happened in our country can soar and transcend, and be known the world over.”

Ten petitions, ten challenges

Before the Tribunal read the sentence, and after hearing the testimonies of Juan Bautista, who survived the massacre of El Mozote; Gloria Giralt de García Prieto, whose son was murdered; Orbelina Figueroa and Catalina Alfaro, who survived the massacre of La Raya; and others, Julio Rivera read in their name the ten petitions he had hand-written while listening to his companions-in-pain:

*Repeal of the Amnesty Law. *Comprehensive reparation for the victims (health, education, housing, care for elderly survivors).
*The state’s public request for the victims’ forgiveness for all the acts committed. *Recognition of a national day for the victims of all the violations.
*Clarification of what happened to the disappeared and the truth about all the acts.
*The inclusion and institutionalization of the truth in education programs in schools and barracks.
*The construction of a museum in each department.
*The purchase of the lands where the major massacres occurred and their official declaration as burial grounds and sacred lands.
*Cemeteries in different areas for those who fell.
*The creation of monuments to the fallen and disappeared.
That’s what Julio asked for, what all who have already forgiven but not yet forgotten are calling for from their pain. This will be one of most important challenges of Mauricio Funes’ new government.

Julio Rivera’s testimony and the news of the tribunal appeared in Carta a Las Iglesias, UCA – El Salvador, 1-30 April 2009.

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