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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 142 | Mayo 1993


El Salvador

From Insanity to Hope?

“From insanity to hope” is the title of the report of the Truth Commmission, a real social bomb. So much so that ARENA proposed and approved in the Legistlative Assembly an amnesty law so that “pardon” and “forgetfulness” absolve the crimes and the criminals named in this report.

Omar Serrano

While people throughout El Salvador were commemorating the 13th anniversary of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero's assassination, the ARENA government pushed through a "Law of immediate and unconditional amnesty" in the National Assembly. The goal, of course, is for the country to "forgive and forget" the crimes and the corresponding criminals spelled out in the Truth Commission's recent report.

Awaiting the Report

Since prior to the date upon which the Commission's report was to be made public, the Salvadoran government and sectors close to it had undertaken a campaign to avoid the public disclosure of the names of people it implicated. They argued that, instead, the report should merely point out events and generic levels of responsibility.

The country's political opposition unanimously rejected this maneuver. In addition, there was even disagreement within the ARENA party, including from General Secretary and 1984 presidential candidate Armando Calderón Sol, and the international community, especially high level United Nations officials, took a solid stance in support of the report's full disclosure. In the end, the government, including President Cristiani, was forced to retreat from its desire to conceal the truth.

On the eve of the official presentation of the UN report, the only alternative left to the government and the far right was to attempt to discredit both the report and the commissioners themselves. The Salvadoran daily El Diario de Hoy spearheaded a campaign to undermine the prestige of two of the Commission's members, former Colombian President Belisario Betancourt and former Venezuelan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Figueredo. The campaign charged them with human rights violations and corruption in their respective countries, thus questioning their moral authority to judge others. Deputy Defense Minister General Juan Orlando Zepeda one of those implicated in the Commission's report held that the Commission had had scant time to carry out investigations that the Salvadoran justice system had been unable to undertake in 10 years.

On March 14, the day before the report was publicly revealed, President Alfredo Cristiani maintained that the most pressing matter was to "close once and for all this last page of the Salvadoran peoples' painful history." He, thus, asked the nation to "forgive and forget" all the acts of violence in the past and requested that the National Assembly immediately approve a general amnesty for all those whose names appear in the report.

A Social Bombshell

The Truth Commission turned over its report to the FMLN, the Salvadoran government and the General Secretary of the United Nations on March 15 at the UN offices in New York. Within the hour, the report had made the news in El Salvador and internationally. The Salvadoran media, particularly radio and television, covered the report in a faithful, clear, rapid and concise fashion.

Hearing the names of the direct or intellectual authors of the past decade's most significant crimes had a tremendous impact in El Salvador even though, in some cases, the report did little more than confirm what was already common knowledge. Nevertheless, seeing those names on the screen, or in print or openly read over the airwaves produced very emotional reactions. The polarization wracking the country came to light once again, but this time the greatest belligerence came from pro government sectors.

The Right Attacks

Undermining the report became the right wing's key goal. On the very day that it was made public, Calderón reacted in defense of the late ARENA founder Roberto D'Aubisson, charging that he has been the object of slander and accusations that have never been proven. Other rightwing parties, including the National Conciliation Party and the Authentic Christian Movement, joined this attempt to discredit the report.

Different organizations within the country, such as the Bar Association, the Judges' Association and even the Justices of the Supreme Court supported by a long list of employees from that institution among others, emphatically rejected the report.

What is suspicious and even contradictory is that all these sectors, at the same time as they questioned the report's veracity, gave their "immediate and unconditional" support to an amnesty for those implicated in it.

On the other hand, days went by and the military made no public appearance. "Silence is consent" was the popular wisdom. It was not until an extensive series of pronouncements and communiqués attacking the report had been produced that the military had the strength necessary to appear in public. As it had done during the days of the military's most brutal repression, the so called Tandona, headed by Ponce and Zepeda, expressed its official position on television. It called the report "illegal, unjust, incomplete, partial and antiethical," among other things. But Ponce the only one who spoke publicly never once said that it was untrue.

The Right's Arguments

From the very first, the government argued that the report "did not contribute to national reconciliation," which was one of the Truth Commission's key objectives. But the Commission had two additional objectives: to indicate the parties responsible for the different crimes and to establish justice.

The right wing's key arguments in its attempt to undermine the report's credibility are as follows:
1) It does not contribute to national reconciliation. To the contrary, it promotes polarization and hatred among the population.

2) It is incomplete and partial, because it only brings together a small sampling of violent acts that took place during the last decade, and does not take into account many of the crimes committed by the left.

3) It is illegal, because its recommendations violate some of the articles in El Salvador's Constitution, by questioning the judicial institutional framework.

4) It represents intervention in the nation's sovereignty, and a group of foreigners should not be permitted to dictate the policies that a country should follow.

5) It contains many contradictions and imprecise areas in all of its research.

Government and Army: 85%

The Truth Commission registered over 22,000 denouncements of serious acts of violence conducted in El Salvador between January 1980 and July 1991. More than 60% correspond to extrajudicial executions, over 25% to forced disappearances; 20% include denouncements of torture.

Those who testified attributed 85% of the incidents to agents of government, paramilitary groups allied with it and death squads. The armed forces were accused in almost 60% of the cases; security forces, in 25%; members of military escorts and civil defense squads, in 20%; and death squads, in over 10%. Responsibility was attributed to the FMLN in 5% of the cases.

In spite of the enormous quantity of cases, these denouncements do not cover all of the acts of violence occurring in the established time period. In three months, the Commission was only able to receive testimony regarding a significant sample.
(Truth Commission Report, p.49).

Ponce: "We Only Did What We Were Supposed To Do"

At no time has the military denied committing the crimes of which it has been accused. It rejects the report but does not deny that the military itself committed the massacres that took place in El Mozote or along the Sumpul River, or the assassinations of the US nuns and lay missioners, the Jesuit priests and the two women who worked for them, as well as thousands of other Salvadorans. Never has the armed forces demonstrated even a glimmer of repentance for these crimes or attempted to ask forgiveness of the Salvadoran people, as the FMLN leadership has done.

Naturally, the armed forces also did not express a willingness to refrain from involvement in these kinds of acts of violence in the future. This same attitude was taken by some Supreme Court Justices, particularly Chief Justice Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro.
The military officers profoundly believe and they openly express this that everything they did was for the good of the country, to save El Salvador from the clutches of Marxist Leninist aggression. In announcing their retirement, top army officers Ponce and Zepeda declared that they "had fulfilled their duty and served the country throughout their career."

Corruption in the Judicial System

The Truth Commission's report touched on all the different structures that have crucified the Salvadoran people. In addition to bringing out the truth in terms of the role of the armed forces, it also shed light on the shadowy justice system. The Commission did not dare to recommend follow up of the legal processes indicated in the report, because the justice system "suffers from many deficiencies, and thus is not capable of dealing with these cases as justice would demand." Thus the Commission's first recommendation, before any follow up of the indicated cases is undertaken, is for a thorough going restructuring of the justice system.

The report thus touches the "untouchables" of Salvadoran society: the justices of Salvador's Supreme Court. It even directly points the finger at Chief Justice Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro for interfering in the investigations surrounding the Mozote case. The Commission recommends the resignation of Gutiérrez and all the justices.

This is one of the points that hit the right wing hardest. A huge number of statements in Gutiérrez' support have been made, and Gutiérrez himself said only God will remove him from his post. But, just like the military officers, he has never denied doing what he is accused of.

Death Squads

The death squads, linked to state structures either through active participation or tolerance, reached such a level of control that they went beyond the level of an isolated or marginal phenomenon to become an instrument of terror, which systematically practiced the physical elimination of political opponents.

Many of the civilian and military authorities in power during the 1980s participated in, promoted and tolerated these groups' activities. In spite of the fact that these still latent clandestine structures have not recently made their presence known, they could be reactivated at any time that those in high levels of power were to apprise that a "dirty war" could be resumed in El Salvador. Since these death squads constituted the element that destroyed any remaining vestige of a state of law during the armed conflict, the Salvadoran government should not only assume an alert and resolved attitude to prevent their resurgence, but also solicit international aid for their total and absolute eradication.
(Report, p.158)

Truth, Justice and Forgiveness

With much less fanfare, in paid ads in a variety of media, some of the country's democratic social and political sectors have declared their support for the Commission's report, also stating their opposition to the amnesty law as it is being implemented by the government.

The Archdiocese of San Salvador, the University of San Salvador, the Central American University (UCA), social organizations that bring together peasants, students and workers, and political parties including the Democratic Convergence, the FMLN and the MNR recognize the report's overriding importance as well as its validity.

And instead of "forgiving and forgetting," they demand "truth justice forgiveness." Those implicated in the report must first acknowledge their participation in the events spelled out in it. Forgiveness only makes sense after that first step.

But almost all the expressions of support for the report and opposition to amnesty have been from the leaders of movements and organizations. The great player that is absent during this particular moment in El Salvador's history is the grassroots sector, which, unlike on other occasions, has not surged forth with protests or strong positions. The support of virtually the entire right wing for President Cristiani's amnesty law and the scant popular protest against it greatly facilitated its approval.

Polemical Amnesty

On March 20, ARENA, the National Conciliation Party and the Authentic Christian Movement approved by simple majority the Law of General Amnesty benefitting those implicated in the Truth Commission's report.

The government's behavior promoting this law in such a desperate fashion was surprising. Why such fear? At the very least, until there is a thorough restructuring of the judicial system, currently controlled by the right wing, it was unlikely that those implicated by the report would be sanctioned.

In their attempt to discredit the report, the rightwing political parties who so hurriedly pushed through the amnesty law were actually acknowledging its validity. Amnesty is not offered to innocent parties. Turning to the option of amnesty implies a recognition that those benefitting from it are guilty of the crimes with which they have been charged. None of those implicated by the report with the exception of the FMLN have openly recognized their guilt, and none have asked for mercy through amnesty. Thus it is jarring to see the government's haste in granting amnesty to those who supposedly do not need it.

From a legal point of view, the amnesty law is clearly a violation of Article 244 of the Salvadoran Constitution: "The violation, infraction or alteration of Constitutional mandates will be punished by law; and the civil or criminal responsibilities incurred, with such motivations, by public, civil or military officials will not be subject to amnesty, commutation or pardon during the presidential term in which they were committed."
It is thus surprising that the government, which on the one hand staunchly defends constitutionality, on the other hand so flagrantly violates the Constitution in its support of officials who committed crimes during Cristiani's presidency.

From an international point of view, legal violations exist as well. El Salvador is signatory to a number of international human rights agreements, which clearly specify that violations classified as "massacres and disappearances" are not subject to amnesty. The Salvadoran Constitution also establishes that all international accords regarding human rights "form part of Salvadoran legislation."
The amnesty law also violates the Chapultepec Peace Accords, which establish that the cases presented by the Truth Commission must be taken up and resolved by the corresponding tribunals and the appropriate sanctions applied.

So why does Alfredo Cristiani, such a calculating man, and one so dedicated to maintaining his "image" both nationally and internationally, promote the amnesty law, even before reading the Commission's report? Two clearly political motivations lie behind his actions.

In the first place, with this amnesty, Cristiani is expressing his will to perpetuate impunity in El Salvador. What he intends is not to comply with the Commission's recommendations, as has been expressed by governmental representatives to COPAZ, the Commission for Peace, maximum national authority created to oversee the implementation of all the peace accords.

In the second place, the approval of the amnesty law has the goal of maintaining among the Salvadoran population a "psychosis of terror and skepticism." The Truth Commission presented the truth to the people, but amnesty says, in effect: they are guilty, but absolutely nothing will be done to them.

The implementation of the Commission's recommendations would be the last card played, at the very least, to set in place a precedent against impunity, historically seen as quite natural in El Salvador. The population is beginning to feel skeptical and desperate: "Everyone knows now who the guilty ones are, and there they are, still around, so this whole thing will never be resolved."

International Support

The Truth Commission and its report enjoy almost total support at the international level, as was clearly expressed in the ceremony in which the report was made public. El Salvador, the smallest nation on the continent, continues to make international news because of the meaning its peace process holds for the whole world and, in particular, the United Nations. The Salvadoran peace process is the only one that has been successful. UN efforts in Bosnia, Cambodia, Angola and other places have not even come close to producing the kinds of results that have been seen in El Salvador. In many ways, El Salvador has become a model for the new role that the UN proposes for itself in the future.

Alvaro de Soto, the UN Secretary General's representative in the ongoing Salvadoran peace process, holds that all the recommendations made by the Commission are obligatory and should be complied with by the government. UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali himself, the Group of Friendly Nations and the majority of European nations all made declarations along the same lines. Since before the report was published, the United States has been withholding military aid to the Salvadoran government. At this time, US pressure is key to the implementation of the Truth Commission's recommendations. Internationally, the correlation of forces is more than favorable for the progress of the democratization process in El Salvador, which rests on compliance with all the peace accords hammered out in Chapultepec.

Shafick Handal, general coordinator of the FMLN, has expressed time and again that, at the negotiating table, it was quite clear to the government, the FMLN and the UN that the Truth Commission would study only a sampling of the crimes committed during the 1980s specifically, the most significant human rights violations. The cases to be studied were to meet certain criteria established by the Commission itself. With respect to the report's recommendations, it was agreed that a sort of "blank check" would be given to the Commission, with both the government and the FMLN committing themselves to accepting and implementing those recommendations.

From the very first, the ERP the only FMLN organization whose key leaders are mentioned in the report announced its full respect for the report and said it would comply with the recommendations. Later, Joaquín Villalobos, one of those implicated, called the document "incomplete" because it only mentioned his organization, and none of the other groups that make up the FMLN. Uninten tionally, Villalobos thus gave the right wing a weapon in its attempt to totally discredit the report.
"All of us take responsibility for what is pointed out in the report, not just the ERP; all of us acknowledge guilt and ask the people's forgiveness," was the clarification made later by both Handal (from the FAL) and Leonel González (FPL).

The social bombshell that is the Truth Commission report will resonate for a long time and is one more challenge to El Salvador in its struggle to pass from insanity to hope.

US Responsibility

Because of their clandestine nature, it is not easy to establish all the ties between the death squads and private enterprise. But the Truth Commission has not the slightest doubt about their close relationship and the danger presented to the future of Salvadoran society by private businesspeople or members of wealthy families who feel that they can act, as in the past, with impunity in financing paramilitary groups of assassins.

At the same time, it is important to point out that the United States government tolerated, apparently with little official attention, the activities of Salvadoran exiles living in Miami, especially between 1979 and 1983. This group of exiles directly financed and indirectly helped to direct death squads, according to testimony received by the Commission. It would be useful for investigators with more time and resources to clarify this tragic history, in order to assure that this tolerance of people tied to acts of terror in other countries will never be repeated in the United States.
(Report, p.164).

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