Last Updated: Friday, 31 October 2014, 07:43 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - El Salvador

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1992
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - El Salvador, 1 January 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca47c.html [accessed 31 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

Nineteen ninety-one saw a number of advances in respect for human rights in El Salvador. A unilateral truce declared by guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in November could be a prelude to a final cease-fire agreement, ending over a decade of brutal civil war. U.N.-mediated peace talks between the government and the FMLN produced several agreements which, if fulfilled, could transform the political landscape inside the country. In April, government and rebel negotiators agreed to establish a nonjudicial "Commission on Truth" to investigate major human rights cases over the past decade and make recommendations for their resolution; in mid-December, U.N. Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar appointed the three members of the Commission on Truth and announced that it would begin its work in 1992.48 In September, the two sides agreed in principle to reduce the size of the armed forces, eliminate two of the security forces most known for human rights atrocities – the Treasury Police and the National Guard – and create a new police force under civilian control that would be open to FMLN combatants. Negotiators agreed to establish an ad hoc commission to examine the records of senior officers with an eye toward purging human rights violators after a settlement.

More concretely, the United Nations launched in July an unprecedented effort to monitor human rights amidst the ongoing military conflict. With over one hundred observers (including thirty-one military and police advisers) and six regional and subregional offices, the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) is positioned to have a major impact on the observance of human rights in the country.49

Since the arrival of ONUSAL, both the armed forces and the FMLN appear to have taken greater care to avoid civilian casualties. In part, this can be attributed to the mission's deterrent effect; it can deploy its personnel anywhere in the country without prior notice, and visit prisons unannounced. However, the most important challenge facing ONUSAL remains that of encouraging the development of governmental institutions that have an interest in and responsibility for safeguarding human rights.

In many respects, however, the human rights situation remained grim, characterized by the steady diet of assassinations, abductions and violations of the laws of war to which the world has sadly grown accustomed over the last decade. There were fewer targeted political killings in 1991 than in the past, and greater freedom to organize politically. Nonetheless, the army and security forces remained responsible for numerous cases of torture, illegal detention, and indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population. Corpses mutilated beyond recognition continued to appear along roadsides or were dumped in local cemeteries, suggesting ongoing activities of death squads. Beginning in late May, a new group, the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front (FAS), issued several death threats against international humanitarian organizations and political activists, and appears to have been linked to the assassination of a trade unionist late in the year. ONUSAL and several members of the international press corps received written threats from FAS in November, as tensions related to an approaching cease-fire agreement rose.50 The government pledged to investigate the FAS, but so far has come up with nothing.

The FMLN also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, murdering two wounded U.S. servicemen, engaging in indiscriminate attacks that endangered or took civilian lives, and kidnapping and murdering civilians. Although the FMLN pledged to conduct a trial of two combatants it detained for the murder of the two U.S. advisers, it had yet to do so almost a year after their deaths. The delay raised serious questions about the FMLN's commitment to eradicate impunity within its own ranks.

Fighting throughout the country increased in mid-1991, as both the army and the FMLN attempted to enhance their positions in the U.N.-brokered talks prior to a cease-fire. War-related violations by the armed forces, including indiscriminate attacks and summary executions, rose as a result. However, human rights abuses were only partly related to the rhythm of the war; as in the past, they continued to occur because of the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for attacks on unarmed civilians.

Although the late-September conviction of an army colonel and one of his lieutenants for the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter was the first successful prosecution of a senior officer for a human rights violation, it is too early to say whether the verdict represents a break with impunity for high-ranking military abusers of human rights. An indication that the prosecution in the Jesuit case may have stopped short of senior military levels came in late November, when U.S. Representative Joe Moakley, chair of the Speaker's Task Force on El Salvador, announced that, according to his sources, high-ranking officers, including the current Minister of Defense, had participated in the meeting in which the decision to murder the Jesuits was made.

On March 10, 1991, El Salvador held municipal and legislative elections which were preceded by more election-related political violence than had accompanied the presidential elections of 1989. This increase occured despite the FMLN's restraint from carrying out military actions on and near election day. In late February, heavily armed men riding in a pick-up truck assassinated a candidate from the leftist Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN) along with his pregnant wife. Just days before the election, another UDN candidate was shot and wounded when a caravan of vehicles from the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party opened fire on campaign workers putting up posters. The Usulután offices of the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of left-of-center parties, suffered a grenade attack in late January; the offices were located two blocks from the Sixth Infantry Brigade, which is well guarded. Official investigations of these murders and attack have yielded no suspects and are going nowhere. In addition, in early February, the offices of the left-of-center daily Diario Latino were burned to the ground. The investigation has focused on internal squabbles at the paper and the theory that the plant was set afire by its own workers, largely ignoring the possibility that arson was committed by persons hostile to Diario Latino's political perspective. Despite this violence, leftist political parties scored unprecedented victories at the polls, picking up nine seats in the Legislative Assembly as the ARENA party lost its majority.

Throughout the year, opposition politicians and members of church and grassroots organizations representing peasants, women and repatriated refugees were subjected to death threats, detention, surveillance and break-ins. Some of the more notorious episodes from the months of June and July alone include the following:

  • In June, Legislative Deputy René Flores of the social democratic National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) received an unsigned letter in a Treasury Police envelope warning that he and his family would be killed. Two other MNR leaders received telephone death threats from someone who called himself the "Angel of Death." In July, two grenades were thrown at the entrance of the MNR headquarters as party activists entered the premises.
  • In early July, the Pequeña Comunidad (Small Community) of lay religious women was forced to abandon its residence after repeated threats and a break-in. The women received five telephone threats between July 2 and 5 accusing them of being guerrillas and warning them that they were being watched. On July 6, in broad daylight, the house was ransacked and 40,000 colones ($5000) destined for marginal communities was stolen. Telephone threats against two of the community's members continued through October.
  • In mid-June, agents of the Treasury Police and National Police arrested without a warrant twenty-seven members of the Salvadoran Association of Integral Development (ASDI), a legally incorporated group which provides technical training to peasants. The twenty-seven were accused of "subversive association." The police ransacked the training center, destroying and stealing equipment and vehicles. After six days of illegal detention, a justice of the peace ordered the release of the detainees for lack of evidence.

Further threats against popular groups and international organizations were issued by the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front. Beginning in May, the FAS threatened "sanctions" against businesses and individuals (and their families) who serve members of such organizations as the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.N. Observer Group for Central America (ONUCA), and the private Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World. As the human rights monitoring team ONUSAL prepared to commence operations in July, the FAS threatened to "let loose a truly bloody civil war" if "internationalists" were forced on El Salvador. Other FAS communiques were directed at the left-wing National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS); members of the National Association of Salvadoran Educators (ANDES); Mirtala López, an activist with the Christian Committee for Displaced Persons of El Salvador (CRIPDES); and members of the Construction Workers' Union. At least one of those threats appears to have been carried out. In late September, weeks after death threats to the construction union's secretary general, the body of another unionist, Miguel Angel Martínez Vásquez, was thrown on a main thoroughfare in downtown San Salvador. The body bore signs of torture and had four bullet wounds in the head.

A spate of kidnappings of wealthy Salvadorans also rocked the capital beginning in March and April, eliciting strong protests from the business community and leading to speculation that a mid-1980s kidnapping-for-profit ring run by active-duty and former members of the military might be back in business.51 The Chamber of Commerce blamed the "impunity and tolerance that the guilty enjoyed in the past" and called for greater protection for members of the private sector.52 Two prominent ARENA members, industrialist Guillermo Sol Bang and landowner Gregorio Zelaya, were kidnapped in July. The FMLN admitted holding Zelaya and released him in August; Sol Bang had not been released as of late 1991 and his captors remain unknown.

The military launched a sustained offensive in rural areas beginning in June. It moved into zones long under FMLN control as a way of disputing the guerrillas' claim to control territory, a key issue in the cease-fire talks. Because humanitarian workers were regularly denied access to rural areas (even in instances in which permission to travel had been worked out in advance with local military commanders) and journalists had only sporadic access, information on what took place during those operations is sketchy. However, available evidence demonstrates that some military actions have been aimed directly at civilians living in conflict zones, apparently to punish them for presumed guerrilla sympathies. In other cases, especially when engaging guerrilla forces in or near the civilian population, the military was responsible for civilian casualties as a result of indiscriminate attacks and excessive use of force.

Two examples are illustrative of the military's disregard for civilians living in conflict zones:

  • On August 17-18, army troops streamed into the town of Ciudad Segundo Montes, in Morazán, where approximately 8,400 refugees have resettled. Although no guerrillas were visibly present, soldiers shot randomly at civilian houses and fired grenades and mortars. Nine civilians were wounded by bullets or flying shrapnel, six were beaten, and twenty-three were overcome by tear gas. At least seven homes were damaged and hundreds of chickens killed. In a report on the incident, ONUSAL concluded: "There is no decisive evidence that armed members of FMLN were in the community at the time of the incidents. Everything would seem to indicate that the purpose of the military actions was to intimidate the civilian population in order to facilitate a military operation in northern Morazán."53
  • On September 3, a nine-month-old girl, Maira Norelvis Salazar Hernández, was killed and two others wounded in San José Las Flores as a result of firing and mortaring into the community by government soldiers. Although FMLN guerrillas were likely to have been present in the village at the time of the attack, the casualties indicate that the military fired indiscriminately and without sufficient concern for the civilian population.

Americas Watch has received information that on other occasions members of the military violated the laws of war by taking over the porches of civilian homes to set up defense positions; detaining civilians illegally and then forcing them to accompany troops during military operations; and bombing civilian areas long after battles with the FMLN were over. In one bombing episode in April, two civilians were killed. In another serious violation of the laws of war, the respected Salvadoran human rights organization Tutela Legal reported that in May soldiers of the Atlacatl battalion executed a wounded guerrilla they had captured and then mutilated the corpse. The soldiers boasted to local residents that they had killed a wounded guerrilla who was going to die anyway.

The FMLN was responsible for several summary executions and other abuses in 1991, perhaps none so infamous as the January 2 execution of two wounded U.S. servicemen after their helicopter was shot down over eastern El Salvador. Private First Class Earnest Dawson and Lieutenant Colonel David Pickett survived the crash and were executed by FMLN combatants shortly thereafter. A third U.S. serviceman, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Scott, died of wounds sustained in the crash.

After issuing two false reports about the circumstances of the servicemen's death, the FMLN announced on January 18 that it had detained two of its combatants for the murders and pledged to start a "clear and impartial" judicial process against them.54 Meanwhile, the Salvadoran government challenged the FMLN's right to try the defendants and demanded that they be turned over to the Salvadoran judicial system. Supreme Court President Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro warned that any foreigner or Salvadoran national participating in a tribunal to judge the guerrillas would be subject to criminal proceedings under Salvadoran law.

Because Americas Watch requested the chance to observe any FMLN trial that might take place, we had numerous exchanges with the FMLN over the course of the year.55 After hearing several times as early as March that the trial would begin soon, Americas Watch was told in early August that, although the FMLN had "defined the structure" of the tribunal to carry out the trial, it had decided to turn the servicemen's case over to the Commission on Truth. In a letter to the FMLN, Americas Watch expressed "disappointment" that the FMLN had not made more progress in fulfilling its obligations under international law to punish gross abusers, particularly since the commission had yet to be established and, in any event, it will not be empowered to try and convict people.

Meanwhile, in mid-July, a federal grand jury in Washington returned a four-count indictment against "Porfirio" for the murder of the two servicemen. The indictment was brought under the 1986 Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-Terrorism Act, which expands U.S. criminal jurisdiction to cover terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens overseas.

In late September, the FMLN notified Americas Watch that it had asked the Swiss government to detain the two accused on its territory, pending the inauguration of the Commission on Truth. The FMLN also notified Salvadoran Justice Minister René Hernández Valiente that it would turn the accused over to the Salvadoran government when judicial reforms agreed upon in the talks had been fully implemented.

Americas Watch is concerned that, despite what appear to have been initial good-faith efforts to investigate the case, the FMLN's repeated delays represent an inability or an unwillingness to provide timely justice for the accused.

Other notable examples of FMLN abuses in 1991 include the following:

  • On May 22, the FMLN launched a mortar attack on the First Brigade garrison in San Salvador in which three civilians were killed and others wounded. Only one of the seven mortars fired reached its target, with the rest falling on civilian houses in a heavily residential neighborhood. The use of such inaccurate means, even against a military facility, amounts to an indiscriminate attack in violation of the laws of war. Two more civilians were wounded in another indiscriminate attack on the First Brigade on May 28.
  • After denying responsibility, the FMLN admitted on August 5 that it had kidnapped wealthy landowner Gregorio Zelaya. It later accused him of organizing death squads and sought to justify the abduction as a means of compelling payment of a "war tax." Zelaya was released on August 24 to representatives of the church, apparently through the good offices of ONUSAL. In addition to violating the laws of war, the kidnapping violated the 1990 San José human rights accord, which committed the guerrillas and the Salvadoran government "to avoid any act or practice which constitutes an attempt upon the life, integrity, security or freedom of the individual."

Nineteen ninety-one distinguished itself as a year in which the judicial system produced incomplete or thoroughly unjust outcomes in a number of prominent cases, including the Jesuit case. The investigations of two new crimes – the murders at El Zapote and at the offices of the Council of Marginal Communities (CCM) – were woefully inadequate in exploring possible complicity by the armed forces. As the following examples illustrate, the judicial system, including the U.S.-funded Special Investigative Unit (SIU), seems most efficient when it is protecting members of the military from the consequences of their own crimes.56

  • On January 21, several armed men stabbed or shot to death fifteen men, women and children, all from the same extended family, in the town of El Zapote, on the outskirts of San Salvador. Within weeks of the massacre, the SIU announced that the motive for the crime was a family dispute and named three prime suspects, two of them former members of the military and one a deserter from the civil defense force. The three men were arrested in late February, along with two women alleged to be the intellectual authors of the murders. Based on court records and interviews with survivors, Americas Watch believes that the murders could have resulted from a family feud. However, the government's investigation never seriously considered the possibility of military involvement, and on occasion actively sought to dismiss it. A memo from the First Brigade, which patrols the area, stated that "it is dismissed that our units are involved in said killings." The military has been slow to cooperate with judicial authorities, stonewalling on a justice of the peace's request to identify troops operating in the area of El Zapote or to provide logbooks of troop movements. Judicial authorities themselves appear to have avoided leads pointing to the armed forces. For example, an investigating judge tried to persuade one of the survivors of the massacre to change her testimony after she stated that the men who killed her family were soldiers dressed in camouflage green.
  • Martín Ayala Ramírez, a CCM nightwatchman, was found hacked to death and bound hand and foot to a post in the CCM's offices on July 8. His wife, Leticia Campos, was found stabbed and unconscious, but survived the attack. Many suspected National Police involvement in the break-in and murder because the crime occurred only days after members of the National Police forcibly evicted families belonging to the CCM from vacant lots that they had occupied in the capital. On August 6, the armed forces announced the detention of two suspects, José Luis Anaya and Gilberto Antonio Contreras, who appeared on television and radio broadcasts confessing to the crime, claiming robbery as a motive. A third suspect, former CCM worker Marta Contreras, was arrested in early September and is alleged to have been the intellectual author of the crime. While it appears plausible that the three detained were involved in the crime, anomalies in the investigation and judicial process suggest that a different motive that would implicate further suspects may have been behind the killing.
  • On October 9, 1991, a Salvadoran jury acquitted thirteen members of the civil defense force of the July 30, 1981 murder of seven civilians in the town of Armenia, Sonsonate. The charges arose from the murder of approximately two dozen members of a local soccer team, apparently after a dispute with soldiers at a military roadblock. The bodies of some of the victims were dumped into a well and others were found in a nearby river.57 An excavation of the well in May 1986 organized by the governmental Commission on Investigations yielded the identifiable remains of four people. Sufficient evidence to bring murder charges was ultimately gathered on seven victims. After hearing only the first round of defense arguments on October 9, 1991, the jury abruptly acquitted all thirteen defendants, some of whom had confessed to having participated in the murders. Troops from Sonsonate's Sixth Military Detachment were in plain view surrounding the courthouse, and the jurors sat in full view of the defendants. Within days of the verdict, the attorney general's office protested the ruling and petitioned to have it annulled, citing provisions of El Salvador's criminal code that allow for dismissal when "one or more votes which decided the verdict were obtained by bribery, intimidation or violence."58
  • On October 12, 1991, a jury convicted Jorge Miranda Arévalo for the 1987 murder of Herbert Anaya, the outspoken head of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES-NG). The Salvadoran government based its case against Miranda on a confession obtained during twelve days of illegal incommunicado detention by the National Police. In the confession, Miranda claimed to have acted as a lookout for members of the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) guerrilla group who murdered Anaya. The charges of FMLN involvement in Anaya's assassination were announced by then-President José Napoleón Duarte in a January 1988 press conference. Within weeks of the government's announcement, Miranda recanted his confession. While admitting to being a member of the ERP, he said that he had been coerced and given three injections while in police custody. First Criminal Court Judge Luis Edgar Morales dismissed the murder charge for lack of evidence, but his decision was overturned by an appeals court more sympathetic to the government's case.59 Miranda's defense lawyers have indicated that they will petition for an annulment of the conviction.

The most visible example of partial justice came in the case of the Jesuit murders. On September 28, 1991, a five-person jury convicted Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides of murder in the 1989 deaths of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, who oversaw the operation on the campus of the Central American University, was convicted solely of the murder of fifteen-year-old Celina Mariceth Ramos. All seven other defendants were acquitted, including the lieutenant who received the order to kill the Jesuits and the private, Oscar Amaya Grimaldi, who confessed to having murdered three of the priests and then retiring to their kitchen to drink a beer.60

The jury's verdict, for the first time in Salvadoran history, affixed responsibility for a human rights crime on a senior commander. At the same time, it sent the bizarre message to Salvadoran troops that they could kill with impunity as long as they claimed to be following higher orders.61 The irrationality of the verdict – which allowed triggermen to go free and convicted a junior officer for a murder he did not commit – itself suggested a fix. Representative Moakley refused to rule out this possibility when he called for a probe into evidence that one of the defendants who was found not guilty had threatened to implicate other senior officers unless he were acquitted.62

Following the trial, Moakley fueled the long-held suspicion that Colonel Benavides did not act alone in ordering the Jesuit murders. Citing what he called "experienced, respected, and serious" sources in the armed forces, Moakley reported in a November 18 statement that "the decision to murder the Jesuits was made at a small meeting of officers held at the Salvadoran Military School on the afternoon prior to the murders." Those present at the meeting included the current minister of defense, General René Emilio Ponce; his vice-minister, General Orlando Zepeda; the head of the First Brigade, Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes; and the former head of the air force, General Juan Rafael Bustillo. According to Moakley, "the initiative for the murders came from General Bustillo, while the reactions of the others ranged from support to reluctant acceptance to silence."

The Salvadoran High Command rejected the charges. But the behavior of the armed forces during nearly two years of official investigation – ranging from destruction of evidence to perjury to professed amnesia – gave Moakley's accusations the clear ring of truth.

In ways large and small, 1991 saw a continuation of official obstructionism in the case. On January 8, two government prosecutors resigned from their posts, protesting the attorney general's interference in their investigation. They later went to work for the Jesuits. In mid-February, the High Command sent a letter to the justice minister, ostensibly requesting further investigation of mid-level officers to "establish the truth in this delicate case."63 In fact, all but three of the officers had already testified,64 and the High Command in the letter specifically ruled out institutional responsibility for the murders. "We are clearly assured," they stated, "that institutional responsibility in this case does not exist." In May, Defense Minister Ponce threatened to sue the Jesuits' lawyers for libel after they filed a court document charging members of the High Command with either having authorized the massacre or presiding over a "collective criminal enterprise" in the heart of the armed forces.65 The judge in the case, Ricardo Zamora, rejected numerous requests by the Jesuits' lawyers to call additional senior officers for questioning or to request further documentation from official sources,66 apparently viewing attempts to obtain the military's cooperation as futile.

The Right to Monitor

Throughout 1991, the ability to monitor human rights in El Salvador was severely curtailed by restrictions on freedom of movement for journalists and church and humanitarian workers. The military regularly restricted access to conflict zones, inhibiting the delivery of humanitarian supplies as well as the flow of information. While direct attacks on human rights monitors were rare, an Americas Watch board member was present at one serious incident in May in which troops fired shots at the feet and over the heads of a delegation of the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America, which was attempting to visit repatriated communities in Morazán.

In addition, CDHES-NG reported illegal searches of two of its members' homes, one by uniformed police and another by men in civilian dress, in August and September. Another former member of CDHES-NG was arrested and interrogated by the National Police in September. Following four death threats in September by the FAS, Mirtala López, secretary for human rights and legal affairs of CRIPDES, fled the country. She has since decided to return.

U.S. Policy

Despite Congress's decision in 1990 to withhold fifty percent of El Salvador's military aid as a protest over the Jesuit murders, the Bush Administration was reluctant to deviate from the long-standing U.S. policy of support for the Salvadoran armed forces. The Administration did go on record – at times in conjunction with the Soviet Union – in favor of a negotiated settlement to the Salvadoran conflict. But its selective application of U.S. law to enable it to restore military aid sent mixed messages and squandered precious resources that could have been used to press the armed forces to prosecute all those responsible for the Jesuit murders.

For example, less than two weeks after the FMLN's murder of two wounded U.S. servicemen, the Administration announced that it was restoring the aid frozen under the 1990 law. According to President Bush's January 15 determination, the FMLN was continuing to receive significant shipments of weapons from abroad and had engaged in violence against civilian targets during a late 1990 offensive.67 The Administration did not cite numerous acts of violence against civilians by the Salvadoran government which had been documented even in the State Department's own annual human rights report to Congress. The justification did not directly mention the FMLN's murder of the servicemen, but that incident provided an opening for the Administration to restore aid while criticism of the FMLN was at its height.

To its credit, the Administration did not actually release any of the aid for several months.68 Then, on June 27, shortly after a visit to Washington by Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, the Administration announced that it was releasing $21 million, or half of the withheld aid, to purchase spare parts and "non-lethal" equipment such as medical supplies and rations. The Administration hoped to blunt congressional criticism by pledging that none of the aid would go for arms and ammunition, studiously avoiding mention that about eighty million dollars of undisbursed military aid from previous years remained in the pipeline and was available for expenditure on lethal items.69 The quantity of pipeline aid meant that the release of the $21 million was done for political and not security reasons.

Frustration over the ease with which the Administration undermined congressional efforts to condition aid as an incentive for military reform in areas of peace and human rights led to several efforts in the House and Senate to tighten aid restrictions for fiscal year 1992. The House, after twice postponing votes at the Administration's request to avoid interference with the U.N.-brokered negotiations, failed to schedule a vote on El Salvador aid conditions.

An effort in the Senate, led by Senators Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy, to include pipeline aid in the fifty percent withheld from fiscal year 1992 funds and to give Congress a role in deciding whether aid should be released, resulted in a standoff. The Senate defeated, 56 to 43, an amendment to remove the Dodd-Leahy proposal from consideration. In a rebuff to the Administration, five Republicans defied telephone calls from President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker and voted not to end discussion of the aid question. Republican Senator John McCain then began a filibuster. Senators Dodd's and Leahy's attempt to end the filibuster fell eight votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to invoke cloture.

The year-end Continuing Resolution appropriated funds for the first six months of fiscal year 1992, based on the levels and conditions of the previous year. In a letter to House Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairman David Obey, Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger pledged to release aid at the rate of $3.5 million per month unless there was "a radical change in the military situation in El Salvador." A vote on the remaining portion of aid is expected in early 1992.

U.S. actions on the Jesuit case complimented the efforts of the Salvadoran military to limit the scope of the investigation. On the record, the State Department insisted that "neither the Salvadoran government, nor the United States government, will tolerate any attempted coverup."70 But the United States continued to withhold from the judge a videotape of U.S. military adviser Major Eric Buckland's 1990 interview with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in which he discussed advance knowledge of a plot to kill the Jesuits.71 A transcript was finally turned over to Judge Zamora in May 1991, revealing a confused and often inarticulate Buckland who was willing to tolerate human rights violations to win the war and accepted the murder of the priests because Central American University Rector Ignacio Ellacuría was "dirty."72

The United States cooperated to a limited extent with a request by Judge Zamora for depositions of nine U.S. citizens with knowledge about the case. Over the summer, under a process known as letters rogatory, the U.S. Justice Department deposed six former U.S. military advisers and two former Embassy officials, as well as Major Buckland's sister. However, the State Department refused to allow lawyers for the Jesuits to be present, thus limiting the information that might be elicited. The Justice Department also engaged in a blatant conflict of interest, simultaneously acting as the agent of the Salvadoran government in the letters rogatory process and as counsel for those being deposed, again potentially blocking the emergence of useful information.

As 1991 drew to a close, U.S. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger promised Congress that the United States would continue to "press vigorously on the issue of human rights in general, and prosecutions in the Jesuit case in particular."73 One sure indication of U.S. seriousness would be to release documents on the Jesuit case currently withheld on grounds of national security – documents which would show how much the U.S. Embassy, State Department and intelligence agencies knew about the murders before and after they occured. At a minimum, the Bush Administration should add its voice to the dozens of members of Congress who have opposed amnesty for those convicted of the Jesuit murders.

The ability to monitor human rights in El Salvador was also compromised by renewed verbal attacks by the U.S. government on the Archdiocesan human rights office, Tutela Legal. Long-standing U.S. hostility toward the office exploded over remarks attributed to its director, María Julia Hernández, regarding the case of the two U.S. servicemen executed by the FMLN.74 Public criticism by the State Department was widely reported in El Salvador, prompting further verbal attacks on Tutela by the ruling ARENA party. When Hernández visited the United States several weeks later, she was detained by Customs agents for an hour and a half and her papers and personal belongings were searched. Later, in another apparent act of intimidation, two FBI agents purporting to be seeking her testimony for a U.S. grand jury showed up unannounced at the door of her hotel room rather than making a prior appointment or even calling her from the lobby phone. The denunciations and harassment of Hernández were truly shameful, continuing the Reagan Administration's sad tradition of hostility toward El Salvador's principal human rights organization.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch continued to devote considerable resources to El Salvador in 1991, providing current information through its office in San Salvador (in place since 1985) and its staff in Washington to hundreds of journalists, congressional aides, diplomats, attorneys, scholars and activists. Several publications throughout the year provided an in-depth look at various aspects of the human rights situation. In March, Americas Watch published El Salvador and Human Rights: The Challenge of Reform, reviewing the previous year of human rights abuses leading up to the 1991 municipal and legislative elections. In August, Americas Watch published a study, "El Salvador: Extradition Sought for Alleged Death Squad Participant." The newsletter focused on the effort to extradite from the United States to El Salvador alleged death squad participant César Vielman Joya Martínez, who had provided extensive testimony on the Salvadoran military's death squad activities. The newsletter opposed extradition because he would not receive a fair trial in El Salvador and was likely to face severe threats to his safety. In November, Human Rights Watch along with Yale University Press published Human Rights since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, a comprehensive review of the past decade of human rights violations and U.S. policy in that regard. In December, Americas Watch published an analysis of the trial in the Jesuit case.

Americas Watch publications and staff were regularly quoted in major newspapers and radio broadcasts in the United States, as well as in the local press in El Salvador. Articles by Americas Watch staff also appeared in major U.S. publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. A representative of Americas Watch testified before two House subcommittees in February and April on human rights conditions in El Salvador. In addition, Americas Watch had frequent exchanges with the U.S. and Salvadoran governments and the FMLN regarding particular human rights cases and overall human rights practices.

Americas Watch focused considerable attention on several prominent cases in 1991. Americas Watch maintained extensive contact with the FMLN regarding the case of two murdered U.S. servicemen described above, requesting to observe any trial of their combatants and urging a swift investigation and prosecution of the accused. Americas Watch submitted an affidavit on behalf César Vielman Joya Martínez calling on U.S. judicial authorities to deny his extradition to El Salvador. Americas Watch continued to monitor the Jesuit case, sending an observer to the trial in September and filing Freedom of Information Act appeals for relevant documents that are being withheld by several U.S. agencies.

Americas Watch continued its involvement in a class action lawsuit brought by the American Baptist Churches and other religious institutions on behalf of Salvadoran and Guatemalan applicants for political asylum in the United States. An out-of-court settlement of the case required Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum adjudicators and judges to obtain independent information on conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala. A representative of Americas Watch briefed U.S. immigration judges in May and the State Department's Human Rights Bureau in July. Americas Watch also submitted written comments challenging the State Department Human Rights Bureau's characterization of conditions in El Salvador.


Those named were Belisario Betancur, former president of Colombia, Reinaldo Figueredo, former foreign minister of Venezuela, and Thomas Buergenthal, president of the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights.

ONUSAL was established pursuant to a July 26, 1990 Agreement on Human Rights (known also as the San José Accord) between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN. ONUSAL was originally designed to monitor human rights only after a cease-fire, but a consensus quickly emerged in Salvadoran society that it should set up office earlier.

The far right reacted strongly to progress in the peace talks, accusing President Cristiani and ARENA president Armando Calderón Sol of treason.

In early April, Salvadoran Channel 12 television reported that seventeen businessmen or their relatives had been kidnapped, for ransoms as high as one million dollars.

Chamber of Commerce paid announcement, La Prensa Gráfica, April 4, 1991.

ONUSAL, "First Report of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador," September 16, 1991, p. 22.

The communique said that a rebel named "Porfirio" had carried out the executions, under orders from subzone commander "Domínguez." However, two investigators from the Catholic Church who interviewed members of the rebel unit in early February were told that a rebel named "Aparicio" was in charge. The discrepancy has not been explained.

Americas Watch also had a lengthy exchange with the U.S. State Department, which complained that observation of the trial would lend it legitimacy. We explained that our position regarding the fmln's obligation to investigate and punish crimes committed by those within its ranks was identical to the position that the State Department had taken in the mid-1980s regarding abuses by the contra rebels in Nicaragua. The rationale for wanting to observe – to ensure that a grave violation of the laws of war did not go unpunished and that the accused received a fair trial – were also explained to President Cristiani.

In one departure, a court sentenced three men in May for their participation in the June 1985 murder of thirteen people, including four off-duty U.S. Marines, at a sidewalk café in San Salvador's Zona Rosa. The attack was carried out by the FMLN.

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Underwriting Injustice, 1989.

Central American University Institute for Human Rights (IDHUCA), Proceso, No. 491, October 16, 1991.

Following Judge Morales's dismissal of the murder charge, he was demoted and transferred to another court. He fled the country in 1991 after a bombing attempt on his life.

As of mid-December, neither of the two convicted officers had been sentenced. The judge was also due to rule on lesser charges – destruction of evidence, conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, and perjury – involving other soldiers as well as those convicted and acquitted.

Cynthia Arnson, "Bizarre Justice in El Salvador," The New York Times, October 3, 1991.

Joe Moakley, "Justice Disserved in El Salvador," The Washington Post, October 14, 1991.

Investigators for the Moakley Task Force in January called the failure to investigate officers in the chain of command between the colonel and the enlisted men who were charged in the case "the most puzzling aspect of the investigation," and speculated that the military hierarchy "controlled who was questioned, who was detained, and who was charged." Memorandum from Jim McGovern and Bill Woodward to Hon. Joe Moakley, January 7, 1991, pp. 5 and 7.

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "Update on Investigation of the Murder of Six Jesuit Priests in El Salvador," March 25, 1991, p. 2.

"Nota Informativa para la Prensa," May 6, 1991, San Salvador, p. 3 (Document prepared by the two private prosecutors for the Jesuits).

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "Jesuit Murder Case Update," August 1991, p. 2.

For example, the 1990 (fiscal year 1991) law required aid to be cut in full if the government failed to conduct a thorough investigation of the Jesuit murders, failed to negotiate in good faith during the peace talks, or engaged in abuses against civilians. Conversely, the President was authorized to restore aid in full if the FMLN failed to negotiate in good faith, received sophisticated weaponry from outside the country, or engaged in abuses against civilians.

To soften criticism, the Administration had said that it would not release the aid for sixty days, to encourage a negotiated settlement of the war.

Congressional Record, June 27, 1991, p. S 8916 (remarks of Senator Patrick Leahy).

Richard Boucher, State Department briefing, March 13, 1991.

See Americas Watch, El Salvador and Human Rights: The Challenge of Reform, 1991, pp. 77-80.

Transcript of the Video Declaration of Major Eric Warren Buckland, January 12, 1990, Washington, D.C., pp. 7, 8, 11, 12 and 15. Another U.S. adviser interviewed by the FBI, Major Samuel Ramírez, also stated his belief that the Jesuits "were actively involved in soliciting the people to take up arms against the government." See Thomas Long, "U.S. Officials Have Information on Jesuit Case, Court Believes," The Miami Herald, July 2, 1991.

Letter from Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Representative David Obey, chair of the House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, October 23, 1991.

In early February, Hernández and another church representative visited the FMLN combatants who were detained for the murders. A transcript of her remarks to the press after the visit was ambiguous as to whether Hernández herself termed the murders a "mercy killing" or was simply repeating the justification given to her by the guerrillas. On February 7, without having even seen a transcript of Hernández's remarks, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler lambasted Tutela Legal, saying that "we are appalled" that a human rights group "would accept without question the account of those implicated in the crime." Tutela Legal had already clearly denounced the murders as grave violations of international humanitarian law.

Copyright notice: © Copyright, Human Rights Watch

Search Refworld

Countries