This year marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed on March 24, 1980 by one of El Salvador’s infamous government-backed “death squads”.
As archbishop, Romero spoke out about economic inequality and violent government repression. The anniversary of his murder always triggers reflection on the nightmare the country experienced during the 1980-’92 civil war, which left 75,000 people (mainly civilians) dead, 8000 “disappeared” and 50,000 permanently disabled.
During the war, in which the US-backed military dictatorship sought to put down a left-wing insurgency, civilian and military groups engaged in a systematic murder campaign with total impunity. State institutions turned a blind eye or provided support to this organised terrorism.
Romero’s murder and the massacre of dozens of people that occurred at his funeral outside the Cathedral of San Salvador was testament to the unbounded power of these terrorist groups.
El Salvador has not had public investigations or trials since its long civil war ended. Many people argue these are necessary to heal a country after conflict, by re-uniting a population based on acknowledgement of truth and punishment for those responsible for the most atrocious crimes.
The passing of another anniversary raises the issue of whether the war is now a closed chapter or whether the pursuit of truth and justice remains relevant as the country seeks to move forward.
The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won last year’s election, with FMLN-backed candidate Mauricio Funes winning the presidency.
Funes defeated the candidate from the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), giving El Salvador its first democratically elected left-leaning government.
Journalist Mark Weisbrot labelled it an “historic victory” and “not only another step toward regional independence but a triumph of hope against fear” in a March 29, 2009 British Guardian article. Weisbrot pointed out Arena, founded by death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, “made fear their brand”.
The FMLN was formed in late 1980 as a guerrilla coalition uniting several rebel groups. After the 1992 peace accord that ended the civil war, it was transformed into a political party. The FMLN has proposed March 24 be legislated as a “national day” in Romero’s honour.
D’Aubuisson, who died in 1992, was known to have ordered and planned the killing of Romero and was never punished for his crimes. Arena governed the country from 1989 until last year’s elections and continues to celebrate its infamous founder.
Even those responsible for massacring entire villages of peasants, such as at El Mozote, where hundreds of children were machine-gunned after their parents had been tortured, raped and killed, have never faced trial.
El Salvador’s recovery is hindered while the truth is not officially acknowledged and those responsible for horrifying atrocities live comfortably in positions of political and economic power.
Most on the right dismiss war crimes trials as opening old wounds and insist on the need to move on. The left argues the right shouldn’t speak on behalf of victims, that such wounds have never healed and those responsible must face justice.
The findings of the Report of the United Nations Truth Commission on El Salvador, which was created by the peace accord to investigate human rights abuses and identify the perpetrators, indicates the reason for this polarisation.
The commission registered more than 22,000 complaints of serious acts of violence that occurred in El Salvador during the war. Agents of the state or groups allied to them were implicated in 85% of these complaints, while FMLN fighters were implicated in just 5%.
As a component of the peace agreements, the state and the FMLN agreed to be bound by the commission’s recommendations. The report accused many senior right-wing military and political figures of serious human rights crimes and recommended they be tried.
The truth commissioners stated in their report that they “saw a glimmer of hope dawn in the hearts of the Salvadoran people when it became clear that the truth would soon be revealed” through the examination of systematic atrocities committed both individually and collectively.
This hope was short-lived.
The old adage goes “the first casualty of war is the truth”, but it doesn’t always recover when peace returns. In March 1993, just days after the report’s publication, then Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani decreed an amnesty law to protect the accused.
The next three presidents, all from Arena, firmly opposed repealing or revising the law.
This culture of impunity helps shape the El Salvador of today, which has a disturbing homicide rate and continued disappearances. It remains one of the world’s most violent countries.
Placing the worst war criminals on trial is not simply to punish or appease those seeking revenge. A process of investigation, identification and punishment would give public access to long-concealed truths and symbolise a future in which such crimes are not be tolerated.
War crimes trials are designed to acknowledge damage caused, which can which can dissolve past loyalties and prejudices and pave the way to closure. In the words of the Truth Commission, the process, “...asks for personal and collective moral, personal and economic compensation.”
Trials allow people to see former heroes as criminals and to recognise their mistaken judgement. They help victims let go of the need for revenge and minimise its passing to future generations.
But it can be argued that war crimes trials are not an affirmation of truth as they merely examine one component of a complex apparatus, excusing the general population for their role in the crimes and bringing a closure based on an incomplete narrative.
War crimes are not solely carried out by the few that are tried. They are systematic and often involve the co-operation and complicity of thousands.
It is true war crimes trials do not expose all the complex realities of war. However, in our search for the whole truth we should not sacrifice the opportunity for some truth. Trials provide greater exposure to truth than society would otherwise have.
Through war crimes trials, we focus on key members of brutally destructive social networks. There is an important role for the media and other commentators during and after the trials to ensure the individual cases are discussed within the reality surrounding them and that the most minor and indirect roles are not forgotten.
War crime trials do not expose the whole truth, they expose specific truths, leaving individuals better placed to piece together reality.
The truth commission stated that it was created to investigate serious acts of violence because the impact on society urgently demanded that the public should know the truth. In El Salvador, most of the population are victims, still living in poverty without the awareness of UN report or the luxury of downloading it.
As such, many citizens are not even aware of massacres such as occurred at El Mozote, or the well-documented imbalance of culpability throughout the civil war.
Arena, which can take no other position without opening up key members to potential prosecution, continues to label the peace process a success and the amnesty law a vital component of national reconciliation.
In Funes’ successful campaign for president, he said would govern with the spirit of Romero. The FMLN’s coming to government has awakened the “glimmer of hope” that the truth commission spoke of more than 15 years ago.
If the FMLN government can continue to increase its support and achieve a parliamentary majority in the next election, it is likely the amnesty law will be repealed, ending decades of impunity.
Absurdly, after the peace accords, the accused had the power to decree they would not be investigated or tried. Peace is a fundamental component of freedom, but is hollow without access to truth.
A country that chooses to deny its people the truth is not a country at peace. As we reflect on Romero’s legacy and consider the difficulties of exposing long buried truths, it is worth taking a moment to jump forward another 30 years and consider the consequences of denial through the eyes of the future.