Ensuring accountability for past human rights violations in El Salvador

Miriam Abrego (left) with two other survivors of the San Francisco Angulo massacre at a meeting with the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of non-Recurrence during his visit to El Salvador in May 2019. © OHCHR

It has been nearly 40 years since Dorila Márquez survived the horrific attack that left hundreds dead, including her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.

“It was purely a miracle I survived,” she said. Márquez and a few others had hidden in her home when the soldiers came. Over the course of the day, Márquez heard the screams, gunshots and explosions. It wasn’t until she exited her home the next day that she saw the scale of the violence – burned homes and fields, dead livestock and so many burned bodies.

Over the course of three days, in December 1981, soldiers of the El Salvador Army murdered nearly 1,000 civilians in El Mozote and other northeastern towns. El Salvador’s civil war lasted from 1980 to 1992.

Survivors and families have spent years fighting for recognition, justice and reparations. Decades of denial of the massacre by former governments, a new administration and bureaucratic mazes have stalled the reparations process.

Since 2016, the OHCHR Regional Office for Central America, has been working in El Salvador to provide technical assistance and support in relation to transitional justice. The Office provides technical and legal support to the country’s Attorney General’s Office and civil society for the investigation and criminal prosecution of crimes against humanity and war crimes that were committed in the context of the armed conflict.

“It was only after the 2016 rejection by the Supreme Court of the 1993 amnesty law that victims and family members could envision getting justice and dream of the truth hopefully being known,” indicated Marlene Alejos, former Regional Representative for Central America and Head of the UN Regional Office.

Overturning the amnesty law made it possible to finally bring to trial those involved in the massacres. Julio César Larrama, from the Attorney General’s Office, said “this not only opened up the chance for prosecutions of those involved, but it also showed the need for better training on handling such cases.”

“We know that these events occurred many years ago, but if you talk to a victim of a serious violation of human rights it is as if those events occurred yesterday,” he said. “We do not want to cause double suffering and that is why we asked the UN Human Rights Office for support.”

Alejos said that one of the Office’s main contributions was the Attorney General’s 2018 adoption of the “Policy on Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes,” elaborated with technical support from the Office after consultation with survivors, civil society and prosecutors. The policy contains an action plan and toolkit to assist the Attorney General’s Office in the investigation and prosecution of transitional justice cases.

Larrama, who is the coordinator for prosecutors working on cases stemming from the armed conflict, said the UN Human Rights Office facilitated important information exchanges with counterparts from other countries in similar situations, such as Colombia and Guatemala.

“They had a much longer war than ours and have obtained very good results in the cases they have aired.”

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