On the morning of September 21, a judge arrived at military headquarters in San Salvador with a warrant to review the military’s records regarding the 1981 El Mozote massacre, one of the largest mass killings in modern Latin American history. Soldiers blocked the judge from entering, blatantly refusing to comply with the judicial order. The judge went to six other military facilities in the following weeks. Each time, soldiers prevented the judge from examining the records.
It came as a slap in the face to Salvadorans reckoning with one of the most horrific episodes in the country’s 12-year civil war. It also signaled a reversal of President Nayib Bukele’s commitment to guarantee access to military records.
Three days after the judge’s first attempt to execute the order, President Bukele explicitly backed the military’s refusal. The judge, he said, “ha[d] no jurisdiction over the Armed Forces.” Bukele also asserted that the president was the only authority entitled to declassify military files.
To deflect attention from the military’s disregard for the order, President Bukele accused the judge of responding to “political interests.”
Nearly 40 years after the massacre, the memory of its brutality still shakes Salvadorans. The massive scale of the atrocity is part of the horror. Between December 11 and December 13, 1981, the Salvadoran Army killed 978 people, including 533 children, in and around the town of El Mozote. The Atlacatl Battalion, a US-trained military force that had been dispatched to the area to fight leftist guerrillas, took unarmed civilian villagers from their houses in the middle of the night and killed almost all of them. Many were raped and tortured.
President Bukele then made the shocking allegation that many of the records related to the massacre had been destroyed. He said he would hand “all of the existing military records” over to the judge. However, he did not provide any details about the alleged destruction of the files, nor did he request an investigation.
On October 27, the court reported it had received the military records that Bukele said he had found after conducting a search of the barracks. However, the information they contained was almost identical to the records the previous government had provided to the courts, stating that the presidency had no additional information on the massacre. In any case, because the judge cannot enter military headquarters himself to examine the records, there is no way to verify that all the relevant files were handed over.
Justice has long been denied to the victims and family members of the El Mozote massacre. In 1990, almost 10 years after the killing, a judge finally opened an investigation, but a 1993 Amnesty Law halted proceedings. Fortunately, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that the amnesty law should not be applied to human rights violations. The court found El Salvador responsible for the massacre and ordered that it conduct investigations to hold those responsible to account and provide reparations to the victims.
In 2016, El Salvador’s own Supreme Court ruled that the Amnesty Law was unconstitutional and a judge resumed proceedings. So far, 17 former Army commanders and a former defense minister have been charged with murder, rape, forced disappearance, torture, and other crimes.
Upon taking office, Bukele pledged that his government would respect the rights of the massacre’s victims even “without a judicial order.” In fact, his first order as president was to remove the name of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of the battalion responsible for the El Mozote massacre, from a wall at an army barracks. The gesture suggested a turning point in the government’s commitment to justice.
However, the army is now openly obstructing justice with Bukele’s backing, contributing to ensure the impunity of those responsible for these heinous crimes. Almost 40 years after the massacre, the victims are still waiting for their day in court.