SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – El Salvador has launched its first commission to find people still missing from the nation’s civil war (1979-1992) in another small step toward reconciling with its past after years of demands from citizens for such an agency.
The commission, set to begin its work in the coming weeks, will seek to find people, and in practically every case the remains of people, that were forcibly disappeared by the military or right-wing paramilitary forces during the conflict so that their family members can finally find resolutions.
The move to establish such a commission comes just over a year after the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice nullified the General Amnesty Law, signed in 1993 as part of the peace treaty that ended the civil war, in a decision that opens the way for the prosecutions of war criminals.
Grave violations of human rights like kidnapping, rape, assault, torture and mass murder were a common occurrence during the Salvadoran Civil War, fought between government forces and rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The FMLN was established in 1980 as a consolidated entity of several left-wing organizations (and later guerrilla groups) aimed at overthrowing the violent military dictatorship that was ruling the country and committing mass slaughter against civilians and anti-coup protesters.
The dictatorship assumed control of El Salvador through a violent coup in October of 1979. The group of military figures called themselves the Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) and the JRG deposed President General Carlos Humberto Romero.
The JRG enacted violent policies that included crackdowns, arrests and mass murders of political opponents, unions leaders and rural farmers and laborers under the imposition of martial law and strict curfews.
At this point, the non-violent, left-wing political organizations converted into guerrilla groups and mobilized against government security forces as the consolidated Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), named in honor of revolutionary hero Farabundo Martí who was killed by Salvadoran forces in 1932 as he fought against extreme inequality and oppression.
As death squads roamed the country and carried out massacres under a “scorched earth” policy inspired by the US Army’s operations during the Vietnam War, the FMLN rebels retaliated and launched attacks against the government’s military installations.
The attacks by the Salvadoran Army intensified as the United States contributed to the slaughter, providing the Salvadoran government forces with significant amounts of aid in the way of funds, weapons and training during both the Carter (1977-1981) and Reagan administrations (1981-1989), despite worldwide knowledge of the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military (which included the killing of four American nuns) against civilians.
Interim civilian governments were in place during the 1980s, with Álvaro Magaña ruling from 1982 to 1984 and José Napoleón Duarte ruling from 1984 to 1989. These were essentially puppet regimes, however, and the political strings were still being pulled by the military. The systematic violations of human rights and civilian massacres nationwide continued, albeit at significantly lower levels.
As Alfredo Cristiani assumed the presidency in 1989, hostilities began to increase once again and the populace began to see just how devastated their country was after a decade of civil war. The standard of living had plummeted, unemployment was high, access to quality schooling and healthcare was scarce and large segments of the rural population did not even have access to water.
The casualty numbers were also stark: between 75,000 and 100,000 Salvadorans were dead (mostly civilians) while a million others were injured or maimed. At least ten thousand had disappeared and over one million Salvadorans were uprooted; approximately 25 percent of the country’s population fled El Salvador and over 500,000 were internally displaced.
Despite the compounding problems, 1990 saw another spike in violence as government death squads took to the countryside and city suburbs once again to conduct their “sweeps” in which civilians were massacred. The resurgence coincided with yet another cash injection from Washington to the Salvadoran military, this time from President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993), and opposition political parties were also targeted and their figures assassinated.
With tensions escalating, the United Nations was able to finally broker a peace deal, but before it was signed and instituted a ceasefire, several more large-scale attacks and executions were carried out by the military while the FMLN assassinated individuals linked with the government and sabotaged military activities.
In April of 1991, with negotiations intensifying, a ceasefire was finally reached. Months later, in January of 1992, the final signatures were applied to the Chapultepec Peace Accords at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. The FMLN demobilized and laid down their weapons in order to transform into a full-fledged political party. In 1993, the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace was drawn up and signed into law.
It was clear that one side benefited most from the Amnesty Law; the Truth Commission for El Salvador, a group of experts and researchers established by the UN at the end of the civil war to investigate human rights abuses committed during the violent period, has gathered information, received testimonies and investigated thousands of crimes committed during the conflict and determined that over 90% of the murders were committed by government forces.
Because of the Amnesty Law, however, no justice has been carried out against those responsible for these heinous acts. When the law was passed in 1993, it was rushed through the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador (just five days before the commission released its final report in March of 1993).
At the time, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador was dominated by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Cristiani, the then-leader who signed the bill into law, was also a member of ARENA. The party was established in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a US-trained Major in the Salvadoran Army and leader of death squads during the civil war who was even an outspoken believer in the notion that the JRG was not ruthless enough against the populace.
ARENA gained control of the unicameral Legislative Assembly and held the presidency from 1982 to 1984 through Álvaro Magaña and then again from 1989 to 2009.
After years of political struggle, the FMLN finally came to power through Mauricio Funes Cartagena in 2009, ending ARENA’s 20-year stranglehold on the presidency. In 2014, Salvador Sánchez Cerén was the winner of the presidential election and ensured that the FMLN would continue to hold the presidency.
In the months following Sánchez Cerén’s victory, various human rights groups and organizations signalled that they would seek to have the Amnesty Law overturned.
In spite of the change in government, dark forces that were leftovers from the war, mosty in the form of military figures and their business allies, still exist in El Salvador and they have tried to impede progress on the amnesty repeal by attacking the members and offices of human rights NGOs dedicated to uncovering crimes committed during the war.
In addition, several international human rights organizations, governments and judges have requested that US agencies like the CIA and Defense Department release classified documents related to the Salvadoran Civil War but have been denied by Washington.
Despite the attempts to sabotage, the rights groups managed to push the case all the way to the Supreme Court where the Amnesty Law was finally struck down because it is “contrary to the national laws that protect fundamental rights because the Amnesty Law prevents the fulfillment of State obligations to investigate, prosecute, punish and make reparations for grave rights violations.”
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, President Sánchez Cerén voiced his support for “another important step on the path of truth and dignity for the victims” by way of the future creation of the National Commission for the Search of Disappeared Adults. His call was heeded this week when the commission was finally created.
“With this new instrument of law and society, we reaffirm our deep-seated commitment to somehow pay at least part of the historical debt with which the victims of war were left,” Sánchez Cerén said at a ceremony where he was joined with relatives of the civil war’s victims.