Impunity finally stands trial: The case of Herbert Anaya Sanabria
Those in power during the war years ensured permanent impunity,
allowing the victims to be condemned and the criminals to be covered up.
Today, 25 years after the Peace Accords and the repeal of the Amnesty Law,
the murder of Herbert Anaya Sanabria, which deeply shook the country in 1987,is putting impunity on trial, in which the whole judicial system will be judged.
On October 26, 1987, Herbert Anaya Sanabria, president of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES), was killed by three people who drove up to his home in a yellow pick-up and pumped six bullets into him.
Will truth prevail?
Anaya Sanabria had been kidnapped by the Treasury Police 17 months earlier. When he was finally set free on February 2, 1987, Rinaldo Glocher, then-chief of the Treasury Police, warned him that if he continued accusing the government of committing systematic human rights violations, his life and that of his family would be endangered. In the height of irony under the circumstances, Glocher labeled Anaya’s accusations slander.
The investigation of the human rights activist’s murder logically should have started with this clue to build an argument that would support the inquiry. That didn’t happen. Jorge Alberto Miranda Arévalo, a young man who said under torture that he had participated in Anaya Sanabria’s murder as a member of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) but later retracted his confession, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Today, now that the Amnesty Law has been declared unconstitutional, the case has been reopened at the request of Anaya Sanabria’s family. One would have hoped that truth would be prioritized over impunity at this point in the nation’s history. But justice remains lame, prioritizing the trial against Miranda Arévalo while totally disregarding the elements that Mirna Perla, Anaya’s widow, herself a human rights defender and former Supreme Court judge, has contributed to achieve a fair and exemplary process.
The logic of injustice and the struggle for justice
Herbert Anaya Sanabria was born in San Salvador in 1954 and grew up with his mother and siblings in the western city of Chalchuapa. He combined his studies with work, sometimes planting corn, other times picking coffee. He graduated with honors from high school, where he wrote poems that stand out for their human qualities and spirit of service. He identified with the figure of Jesus and from childhood stated that he would die at the same age as Jesus, which in fact he did.
Anaya Sanabria received a scholarship to study law at the University of El Salvador, where he increased his understanding of the logic of the social injustice he had known since he was a child and he began to struggle for justice. After graduating he became fully involved in the efforts of the “Salvador Allende” Revolutionary University Students’ Front (FUERSA). He soon discovered that student unions weren’t so much a way to obtain students’ demands as to fight against the military dictatorship.
He helped organize the Legal Support Brigades for peasants burdened with the excessively exploitive conditions in the countryside. He survived the massacre during the student march of July 30, 1975, which was brutally suppressed by the repressive forces, an event that changed for forever the pace and dynamics of the struggle between the people and the oligarchy. He also participated in the first takeover of the Cathedral after the massacre with a group of young people who made it to the end of the march. Together with students, peasants, religious and lay people, he denounced that barbarity and all those the government forces had been conducting over the previous months in Chinamequita and Tres Calles, in Usulután.
Work defending human rights
At 25 Herbert became involved in the CDHES. By then he had married Mirna Antonieta Perla Jiménez. They had three daughters and two sons. His commitment to work with the CDHES and his personal responsibilities led him to quit his studies and the work he was doing on the judicial branch.
As a member of the CDHES, Herbert defended political prisoners, investigated and documented individual and collective murder cases and forced disappearances. He frequently traveled to conflictive areas to document massacres, including the emblematic El Mozote massacre. The CDHES presented all those cases to the United Nations and the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
This work was done in critical conditions, in which those doing it had to overcome the fear of becoming part of the long list of murdered, disappeared, exiled, political prisoners and torture victims, all of whom had been accused of being criminals, subversives, communists and terrorists.
The power of international denunciations
The CDHES was born in 1978, one year after the February 28 massacre in the Plaza Libertad during a large protest the recent electoral fraud that placed General Carlos Humberto Romero in the presidency.
Miguel Montenegro, the current CDHES director, summarized the work done back then: “It was documenting and charging the government and armed forces nationally and internationally of committing serious human rights violations. We based our work on international treaties and the republic’s Constitution.”
During those first years of the CDHES, the same years Monsignor Romero was in the archbishopric, CDHES’ work had a lot of influence on international public opinion. That, of course, made it a threat to the military regime. Even though El Salvador’s governments never had much credibility among the people, they maintained some in the United States and Europe. As CDHES seriously affected that international credibility, the regime saw it as an enemy and systematically reacted against it.
Torture and murder of many Commission members
In October 1980, Maria Magdalena Henríquez, the CDHES press coordinator, was kidnapped and killed. CDHES administrator Ramón Valladares Pérez, was kidnapped and murdered that same year. Director Carlos Eduardo Vides, public relations coordinator América Fernanda Perdomo and Dr. Roberto Rivera Martelli, a collaborator; were all disappeared in 1981 and 1982. In 1983, Marianella García Villas, the CDHES president before Anaya, was murdered. And in 1987 a bomb exploded in the CDHES installations.
As Miguel Montenegro recalls: “In May 1986 we were imprisoned for defending human rights.” Herbert Anaya was the first to narrate what happened, describing how he overcame the torture he went through for 15 days, in solitary confinement inside the clandestine prisons of the Treasury Police. “Do you want more or are you going to talk? No answer from me. The self-defense mechanism is operating. I am far away; I’ve climbed to the highest parts of Mother Earth, I await a restless little cloud, the plush bulges of brilliance and heat catch my attention, it’s coming, it’s close! I leave with it.”
“They killed him in front of his children”
The CDHES members captured that year (Miguel Montenegro, Reynaldo Blanco, Rafael Terezón and Herbert Anaya) were taken to the Mariona prison, where they met up with Joaquin Cáceres. Under Herbert’s leadership, they collected testimonies of the tortures suffered by political prisoners. The study was given to the IACHR and to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for El Salvador. And based on these testimonies Anaya wrote his book, Tortura en El Salvador (“Torture in El Salvador”) with drawings, descriptions and statistics on the use of different torture techniques.
Domitila Miranda, a personal friend of Anaya and founding member of the Committee of Christian Mothers and Relatives of Prisoners, Disappeared and Murdered (COMAFAC) says: “When they released Herbert, he said he felt happy, but he knew he wasn’t going last long.”
On October 26, 1987, Herbert left his home in Zacamil de Mejicanos at quarter to 7 in the morning to take his five children to school. He was just getting into his car when the men came up to him and shot him with a 9 millimeter gun. “Herbert died instantly,” his widow Mirna Perla told me; “I didn’t hear anything because I was in the house and the gun had a silencer. Only five minutes earlier I had sent the children out to go to school with their father. They came back to the house with a woman, our neighbor, who said to me: “They just killed your husband.” The neighbors were all out in the street, agitated. I left with my children when they said to me, “He’s dead, there’s nothing do be done.” I dropped the children off at school, asking the priests for help and went to the CDHES; all the members and press were already there.”
“Thousands came when they heard”
“A friend suggested we hold Herbert’s wake in front of the US Embassy because this crime is just as much their responsibility as the Salvadoran government’s. I agreed that it should be denounced, but called for caution because I was scared. I thought that if they had killed Herbert so brutally in front of the children, with him being such a public figure, they wouldn’t respect anyone. I remembered that only five people had gone to Marianella García Villas’s funeral because of fear. I didn’t want to expose people.
“But once they gave us Herbert’s body back, we couldn’t fit everyone in the funeral home that night. There were people from the social movement, the unions, all the people Herbert had ever worked with. Amidst great indignation, both national and international, it was decided to take him to the Cathedral in the morning, despite Monsignor Rivera y Damas’ warning that he would never allow the Cathedral to be taken over again and his threat to excommunicate whoever participated in such an action. However, that day, priests and nuns convinced him he couldn’t do such a thing with so many people there as he would have to excommunicate them all. We were thousands.”
The impact of the crime
“The night of October 27, we marched with Herbert’s coffin to the US Embassy, where his wake continued,” Perla recalled. “And from there we took him to the University of El Salvador. We tried to take him to the Chancellery, seat of the National Reconciliation Commission, which was responsible for the recently started dialogue with the FMLN-FDR to end the war. Herbert’s wake went on for six days, with everyone enraged by his murder, while we awaited delegations from all around the world that were coming for his funeral.”
The impact caused by Herbert Anaya Sanabria’s assassination was so great the dialogue between the FDR-FMLN and the government, resumed only 21 days earlier, this time in the framework of the Esquipulas II Central American Accords, was cut off. On October 29, Social Democrat Reni Roldán resigned from the National Reconciliation Commission in protest over the killing of Anaya and the disappearance of Salvador Ubau the previous months. He classified both events as examples of an “institutionalized pattern.” That same day the FMLN-FDR suspended their participation in the dialogue.
Why implicate the United States?
During the 1980s, few serious human rights violations occurred in El Salvador that the US government didn’t know about, acquiesce to, participate in or view with complacency.
“Reagan’s policy, which President José Napoleón Duarte implemented, was to exterminate all opposition,” explained Anaya’s widow. “Besides, financing the repression and the war with over US$1 million a day was big support for the government. Herbert was one of the most critical voices against the government and imperialism during a time when almost nobody said anything because of fear. Back then CDHES’s work in San Salvador was virtually clandestine and its main branch was in Mexico.”
“When Herbert was in the Treasury Police’s prison,” Perla went on, “there were US advisers there, directing the work of intimidating the political prisoners. They decided who would be killed, who would disappear and who would go to trial. They directed the tortures, sometimes brutal and sometimes more sinister with few blows, because the purpose wasn’t to kill, but to morally break the revolutionaries. That’s why I say the US was behind his murder. Or at least, gave approval for his killing.”
A month earlier, Herbert had been invited to a university event in the United States. He went to apply for his visa accompanied by Lisa Brodyaga a US lawyer in solidarity. The consul said to him: “We won’t give you a visa because you’re a subversive.” “Saying that to him was virtually like saying he was condemned to death!” Brodyaga said.
Perla added that “the people from the Marin Interfaith Task Force, a US religious solidarity organization that accompanied CDHES during those years, later obtained declassified documents from the State Department; in 2012 I believe. There were reports of when they tortured Herbert and also about his death. At the time it wasn’t of great interest to me because all the dates and names had been crossed out. Nothing could be read.”
A new victim: Jorge Alberto Miranda
Anaya’s friend Domitila Miranda had her own related story to tell: “At the time they killed Herbert, between 6 and 7 in the morning, my son Jorge was on his way to the high-school where he was studying. On December 21st they captured him as he and a group from an urban commando were going to sabotage a Pepsi truck. They didn’t do it because one of them saw a police patrol and fired a shot. The police grabbed Jorge and kicked him around.
On December 30 they brought him home to me blindfolded, with his hands tied... I saw that he had a very distressed look; he was drugged and gaunt. “Lady,” they said to me, “we’re going to search your house because he says there are arms here.” I responded that ‘he’s saying that only because you’ve tortured him, but there are no arms here.’ They searched, found nothing and left again with Jorge.
“Then on January 4, 1988, at 5 in the morning, heavily armed men arrived again, in an armored car. Once in the car, the public prosecutor, who was there, told me and Jorge’s father: ‘You need to come with us because they need you at the police station. We’re going to send your son to the Mariona penitentiary. He’s going in an Armed Forces pick-up and we’ll go in a private car. You are going to collaborate with us.’ Then he said: ‘We’ve given Jorge Alberto 12,000 colóns in cash for him to give to you.’ And what was that money for? What had he agreed to do? We were poor, but we didn’t want money. The news on the afternoon of the day they committed him to Mariona said they had finally caught the persons guilty of Herbert Anaya Sanabria’s murder.”
Jorge recants a month later
The process against Jorge Alberto Miranda that same day began by trying him for participation in Herbert’s assassination. While undergoing torture that consisted of threats, sleep and food deprivation and drug injections, he had signed an extra-judicial confession stating that he had been part of a People’s Revolutionary Army operative to murder the CDHES president. National and international press were invited to tape and broadcast his statement.
Miranda recanted his confession a month later, while still in prison. He admitted being a member of the ERP-FMLN but denied having anything to do with Anaya’s murder or even knowledge regarding it. He was calmer, no longer under the effects of drugs and torture; he had received family visits and was accompanied by other political prisoners. At the time of his new statement no press was present, but a court clerk had come to write it out and take it back to the courts, with no public knowledge.
1990s: There’s no verdict
Two years later, Judge Luis Edgar Morales Joya ruled a stay of proceedings in Miranda’s favor after a second investigation revealed a violation of due process and of his rights. The case pointed to a possible procedural fraud to hide the real people responsible. Soon after, the judge was the victim of an attack in his home and had to flee the country. The following year, 1991, Jorge Alberto Miranda was sentenced to 30 years in prison for homicide and acts of terrorism, but five months later the Amnesty Law took effect and Miranda was set free.
In 1993, the Commission on the Truth concluded that “it didn’t have the time needed to deal with the quandary” in the case of Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria’s murder: “to gather enough evidence suggesting possible responsibility of a state security corps or a death squad and more evidence suggesting the possible responsibility of the People’s Revolutionary Army.”
It also stated that Jorge Miranda’s rights had been violated in the treatment he got from police and the legal system, and that the State had not complied with the international law in its duty to protect human rights or “duly investigate Herbert Anaya’s assassination, as well as process and punish those guilty.”
The case reopens
In November of last year, Herbert’s family asked the Mejicanos Trial Court to reopen the case because someone unrelated to the murder had been tried and judged for it. The court agreed to resume the case where it had been left years ago, with Miranda’s 30 year sentence.
This March, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez announced that Herbert Anaya Sanabria’s case would be reopened at the request of his family within the framework of the Amnesty Law repeal. His statement seemed important. It was the first case the Attorney General’s Office had requested to reopen since the repeal of the Amnesty Law in July 2016. Meléndez also opened the possibility of any interested person or relative coming to his office to broaden the investigation against other criminals and masterminds who had participated in other crimes.
However, when Perla and her attorney, Jimmy Ortiz, showed up at the Attorney General’s Offices asking for the attorney assigned to the Anaya case, nobody had heard about the attorney general’s statements. “They subsequently assigned us two advisers,” says Ortiz, who feels the attorney general’s statements were just talk, “but the told Perla to present the charge so they could learn more about the case and in that way actually start an investigation.”
Clues to investigate
Perla obeyed, presenting a lawsuit that even included clues on where to investigate. It obviously contained a recommendation to accept her statement as a relative as well as that of Jorge Alberto Miranda. She also asked that Morales Joya, the judge who dismissed Miranda, be interviewed along with former National Police Chief Reinaldo López Nuila, now vice president of the Technological University of El Salvador.
She further demanded that “they ask the US State Department for the files on the actions of their military advisers stationed in the Intelligence Sector of the Treasury Police during the dates in which my husband was tortured in that security corps, because there were two US military advisers there at the time.”
“I’m both afraid and hopeful”
Perla told me that “one finds interesting names of people who arrested Herbert and Jorge Alberto Miranda in all documentation written to give the impression they had investigated and sentenced Miranda, even names of police instructors, secretaries and interrogators, torturers who were the same for both Herbert and Miranda. The name of a police officer who was surveilling Herbert near our house is mentioned.
This document states that he arrested a suspicious person he thought was subversive. But he then let the guy go because he had a National Guard ID!”
“All these things are in Miranda’s case file in the Mejicanos Court,” Perla told me; “including Herbert’s file when he was imprisoned because, according to the Investigation Commission of Criminal Acts at the time of his death, they supported the argument that the ERP killed him because he was a member of that organization and was causing internal problems. The file is made up of six parts, “but the first part isn’t there. They are public documents, but not public enough because it was very, very hard for me to get to them!”
“I’m still very afraid that something could happen to Miranda and the witnesses,” she admitted. “I even fear for the actual killers in Herbert’s murder. But I’m also very hopeful that this time the facts will be cleared up. There has to be justice for those who killed him, not so they spend long, long years in prison, but so they are morally punished... if they are still alive. And Herbert’s name must be cleaned, a man who worked so hard to build a different country.”
“I feel I’m a victim”
While Perla talks about having hope, she admits to feeling “re-victimized, in the first place because it’s the Attorney General’s Office that should be taking the initiative, not me. From the time the Amnesty Law was repealed, they should have started calling the victims and requesting our version…. They should take my version and subject it to an objective scientific investigation. Instead, the Attorney General’s Office offered to investigate Miranda’s superiors and those leading the ERP-FMLN back then, trying to implicate them also.
“They made me file a charge with all the formalities. I’m a lawyer and can do this. But, what about the victims and families of other cases? Filing a charge is difficult even for me. I’m a victim and this whole process unsettles me; it makes me feel sick. And I continue to be afraid that they could do something to me because in this country assassins are still not punished.”
Impunity in the dock
Those answers and actions from the Mejicanos Court and the Attorney General of the Republic are what characterized the judicial system and the Public Ministry’s institutions during the war years. Back then it was normal to apply impunity based on extrajudicial confessions with the purpose of condemning the victims and protecting the criminals. The institutions worked with procedures typical of the low-intensity warfare strategy.
Twenty-five years after the Peace Accords, one would expect something different, a process favoring justice and not impunity. More than judging the victim’s murderer, this case will judge El Salvador’s entire current justice system. In Herbert Anaya Sanabria’s case, impunity is going to trial.
Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and the envío correspondent in El Salvador.