Summary of 1993 UN Truth Commission Report on El Salvador
The Commission on the Truth (herein “Truth Commission”) was so named because its very purpose and function have been to seek, find and make public the truth about the acts of violence committed by both sides in El Salvador during a civil war in which more than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed. This report attempts to set out, with detailed examples based on extensive testimony and investigation, responsibility for some of the worst and most widespread violations of human rights in El Salvador between 1980 and July 1991.
Peace is always made by those who have fought the war. With the support of the United Nations, the parties in conflict explicitly established this Commission and gave it its mandate under the peace accord. In so acting, the government OF El Salvador and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) abandoned fratricide and embraced the principle that the responsibility for acts of violence must be publicly recognized, that victims must be remembered and that the perpetrators must be identified.
This report is based also on the principle that individuals, even those caught up in the fury of civil war and the orders of superiors, are accountable for their actions. By committing themselves to remember the tragic violence of their recent past and by calling for accountability in their new national quest for peace, the Salvadoran people and their leaders have set a standard that offers hope in a world ravaged daily by newly terrible civil wars and gross abuses of human rights.
For their vision and their courage in embracing these ends, the government, the former guerrillas and the people of El Salvador deserve the praise and respect of the international community. The members of the Truth Commission believe that El Salvador’s commitment to face the past will go far to strengthen the determination to find out the truth, to put an end to impunity and cover-up, and to encourage reconciliation by means of democratic processes instead of violence.
Bitter though the truth may prove to be in some cases, recognizing what happened in El Salvador is the first essential step to assuring that it will not happen again. For more than a decade a convulsion of violence seized El Salvador. The army, security forces and death squads linked to them committed massacres, sometimes of hundreds of people at a time. They also carried out targeted assassinations of many others, including the country’s archbishop and six Jesuit priests.
The FMLN guerrillas also followed a logic of violence that led to grave human rights violations. They killed, kidnapped and disappeared civilians, dissidents within the rebel movement, public officials, mayors, judges and unarmed U.S. military personnel.
This outburst of violence has deep roots in a history of violence in El Salvador that permitted political opponents to be defined as enemies to be eliminated. A mentality of violence affected all sides in the war. It was reinforced by the lack of
credible judicial system. Such hatred, killing and acceptance of injustice must never again be allowed in El Salvador to destroy dialogue, tolerance, and reconciliation.
Truth alone, however, is not enough to attain the further goal of national reconciliation and reuniting the Salvadoran family. Forgiveness also is indispensable. The abuses and the pain inflicted on tens of thousands of people in El Salvador will not and should not be forgotten. It is the Commission’s hope that the sense of justice that truth gives voice to, will in time help them to forgive.
By accepting the challenge of truth and of peace, the government and the former guerrillas in El Salvador have assumed a special responsibility. Salvadoran society– a society of sacrifice and hope– is watching them from the vantage point of history. The future of the nation summons them, a nation which is moving forward under the influence of one dominant idea: to lift itself out of the ruins in order to hold high, like a banner, the vision of its future. It is the Commission’s hope that a more just El Salvador will arise from the ashes of a war in which all sides were unjust.
The Mandate and Methodology of the Truth Commisssion
The Commission was composed of three international notables selected by the Secretary General of the United Nations in consultation with the parties: Belisario Betancur, former president of Colombia; Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart, former foreign minister of Venezuela; and Thomas Buergenthal, Professor of Law, George Washington University.
The Commission was not established as a judicial body. Instead it was given six months under the terms of the Salvadoran peace accords to carry out four main tasks: to clarify the worst human rights abuses of the war by all sides; to study with special care the impunity with which the Salvadoran military and security forces committed abuses; to make legal, political or administrative recommendations to prevent a repeat of past abuses; and, finally, to stimulate national reconciliation. Both the guerrillas and the government committed themselves to carry out the Commission’s recommendations.
In seeking, as mandated, the most thorough accounting possible of human rights abuses in the war, this report names the institutions and those individuals whom the Commission found responsible in the cases it studied.
The Commission received direct testimony from 2000 sources relating to 7000 victims and information from secondary sources relating to more than 18,000 victims. Given this amount of testimony, the Commission could only deal with a small portion of the thousands of abuses committed in the war. It chose to select a sample of cases that either reflected the most shocking events of the conflict or formed part of a broader, systematic pattern of abuse.
All witnesses who requested it, were guaranteed confidentiality to protect their lives and encourage frankness. Based on the number of corrroborating accounts and other evidence in a particular case, the Commission used three levels of certainty in reaching its conclusions: overwhelming evidence, substantial evidence and sufficient evidence. Some cases could not be resolved. The testimony of a single witness or other single source, no matter how compelling, was deemed insufficient to make a judgment if not backed up by other evidence.
Before addressing specific cases presented in the report, the Commission also provides a chronological overview of the history of violence from 1980 to 1991.
- 1. The killings of six Jesuit priests
- 2. Extra-judicial killings:
San Francisco Guajoyo Six leaders of the Democratic Revolutionary Front; Four American churchwomen; El Junquillo; Four Dutch journalists; Attack on FMLN hospital and execution of a nurse; Las Hojas San Sebastian Garcia Arandigoyen; FENASTRAS and COMADRES Hector Oqueli
- 2. Extra-judicial killings:
- 3. Forced Disappearances:
Ventura and Mejia Rivas Hernandez Chan Chan and Massi
- 3. Forced Disappearances:
- 4. Massacres of peasants by the army:
El Mozote; Rio Sumpul; El Calabozo
- 4. Massacres of peasants by the army:
- 5. Death Squad Killings:
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero; Mario Zamora; Tehuicho Killings of agrarian reform advisers at Sheraton Hotel
- 5. Death Squad Killings:
- 6. Violence by the FMLN:
Murder of mayors Zona Rosa Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria Napoleon Romero Garcia (Miguel Castellanos) Francisco Peccorini Lettona Attorney General Jose Roberto Garcia Alvarado Jose Francisco Guerrero Two American survivors of a helicopter shot down by the FMLN Kidnapping of Ines Duarte and Villeda Murder of a judge in Carolina
- 6. Violence by the FMLN:
Summary of conclusions in some of the major cases studied
1. Jesuit Priests: The Commission found that in November 1989, several members of the Salvadoran Army high command ordered the murder of the Jesuits. Officers at the military academy organized the killings. Elements of the army Atlacatl battalion murdered the six priests, their housekeeper and her young daughter; then atttempted to leave evidence falsely implicating the rebel FMLN.
For their part in ordering the killings, the Commission calls for the immediate dismissal and banning forever from military and security duties of Defense Minister, General Rene Emilio Ponce; Vice-Minister General Orlando Zepeda; former vice-minister of public security Col. Inocente Montano; Chief of Staff, General Gilberto Rubio Rubio; former Air Force commander, General Juan Rafael Bustillo; Col. Francisco Elena Fuentes, and Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides. For their part in covering-up the killings, the Commission cites Army chief of staff General Gilberto Rubio Rubio; the former commander of the Atlacatl battalion, Col. Oscar Alberto Leon Linares; and the legal adviser to the army high command, Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto.
2. El Mozote: The Commission finds that the army killed over 200 people in El Mozote, including women and children in 1980. It cites former Atlacatl battalion commander Col. Domingo Monterrosa Barrios; Col. Natividad de Jesus Caceres Cabrera, a major at the time of the massacre. The Commission also cites Supreme Court President Mauricio Gutierrez Castro for improper interference in the judicial proceedings concerning the investigation of the massacre.
3. Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero: The Commission finds that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered the assassination of the Archbishop and that Army Capt. Eduardo Avila and former Capt. Alvaro Saravia, as well as Fernando Sagrera played an active role in the assassination. The Commission further finds that the Supreme Court of El Salvador played an active role in impeding the extradition from the United States of Capt. Saravia.
4. Assassinations of Mayors by the FMLN: The Commission finds that the General Command of the FMLN approved the killing of civilian mayors and that the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) of the FMLN was responsible for the killing of at least eleven mayors. The Commission cites ERP commandantes Joaquin Villalobos, Ana Guadelupe Martinez, Mercedes del Carmen Letona, Jorge Melendez, and Marisol Galindo for having responsibility for the
The Truth Commission concluded its report with wide-ranging recommendations aimed at removing human rights violators from public offices, reforming the justice system and the Armed Forces, as well as to promote human rights, democracy, the rule of law and national reconciliation.
I. Those cited for human rights abuses in the report
The Commission recommends that those individuals it found to be responsible for serious abuses of human rights who today hold public or military office should be removed immediately. They
should also not have access to public office, or a public role, in El Salvador for at least 10 years. They should also be prohibited from ever holding any military or security responsibility.
Based on its investigation, the Commission calls for the removal from the Salvadoran armed forces or from any other public office of more than 40 military personnel. They include Minister of Defense General Rene Emilio Ponce; Vice-Minister, General Orlando Zepeda; Chief of Staff Gen. Gilberto Rubio Rubio, former Air Force commander, General Juan Rafael Bustillo; former vice-minister for public security, Col. Inocente Montano; Col. Francisco Elena Fuentes and former commander of the Atlacatl battalion, Col. Oscar Alberto Leon Linares, among others. All of the above officers are cited for their role in either ordering or concealing the murder of six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. Former National Guard commander,
General Eugenio Vides Casanova, is cited for playing a role in the cover-up of the murders of four American religious workers.
The Commission also recommends that former rebel FMLN leaders be barred from holding public office for a decade. They include the commandantes Joaquin Villalobos, Ana Guadalupe Martinez, and Jorge Melendez, among others. They are cited as the commanders responsible for the murders of more than 11 civilian mayors.
The Commission also lists Captain Alvaro Saravia and Captain Eduardo Avila for the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Avila is also cited, along with Lt. Rodolfo Isidro Lopez Sibrian
and Major Mario Denis Moran as being responsible for either ordering or concealing the killings of three agrarian reform advisers at the Sheraton hotel.
The Commission cites some former military officers who are now deceased, but who played a major role in the civil war. They include former Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who is cited for
organizing death squads and ordering the murder of Archbishop Romero. Also cited is deceased Col. Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, for being the commander in charge of the massacre at El Mozote.
The Commission cites civilian participants in human rights abuses. Among these is Fernando (El Negro) Sagrera, for helping plan the murder of Archbishop Romero and Hans Christ for assisting
in the killing of three agrarian reform experts at the Sheraton hotel. Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto, former legal adviser to the Army high command, is cited for helping conceal the role of senior
officers in the killing of the six Jesuit priests. Hector Antonio Regalado, the former head of security for Roberto D’Aubuisson, is cited for organizing and managing death squads.
The president of the Supreme Court, Dr. Mauricio Gutierrez Castro is cited for improper interference in the legal investigation of the massacre of El Mozote.
II. The FMLN
In broad terms, the Commission finds the FMLN responsible for having committed “grave acts of violence” including assassinations, disappearances and kidnappings during the war that violated human rights and humanitarian law. The Commission received more than 800 denunciations of grave violations by the FMLN, including nearly 400 killings and over 300 disappearances.
The Commission calls on the FMLN to renounce forever all forms of violence in the pursuit of political ends.
III. The Armed Forces
The vast majority of abuses studied by the Commission were committed by members of the armed forces or groups allied to them. In order to promote the urgent need in El Salvador to professionalize the military, bring it under civilian control and instill it with a respect for human rights, the Commission makes the following recommendations:
1) Immediate removal from the military of all officers cited for human rights and other major violations.
2) Steps to assure civilian control of military promotions, the military budget and all intelligence services.
3) A new, legally backed, provision permitting military personnel to refuse to obey unlawful orders.
4) Steps to cut all ties between the military and private armed groups or other paramilitary groups.
5) The profound study of human rights at the military academy and in other officer training courses.
IV. Death Squads
The Commission finds that death squads, often operated by the military and supported by powerful businessmen, land-owners and some leading politicians, have long acted in El Salvador and remain a potential menace. The Commission received testimony on more than 800 victims of death squads.
This problem is so serious that the Commission calls for a special investigation of death squads in order to reveal and then put an end to such activity. The Commission is especially concerned by the close relation between the military, hired assassins and extremists within the Salvadoran business community and some affluent families, who resorted to killing to settle disputes. This practice must end.
The Commission also is concerned that Salvadoran exiles living in Miami helped administer death squad activities between 1980 and 1983, with apparently little attention from the U.S. government. Such use of American territory for acts of terrorism abroad should be investigated and never allowed to be repeated.
V. The Justice System
The Commission finds that the system of justice in El Salvador is highly deficient. It makes several recommendations to address this profound problem that permitted the abuse of human rights in El Salvador.
1) The report calls for the immediate implementation of constitutional reforms requiring the turnover of the present members of the Supreme Court. In particular, the president of the court, Dr. Mauricio Gutierrez Castro, is cited for unprofessional conduct.
2) Bring about a true separation of powers between the executive, legislature and the judiciary in order to de-politicize the administration of justice and in particular the Supreme Court in El Salvador.
3) The power of the head of the Supreme Court and its centralized power over the rest of the judiciary should be reduced.
4) The report calls for the already created Independent Judicial Council to be made truly independent, so that it can oversee the functioning of the judicial system. This group will review the professional capacity of all serving judges. This group should be given the power to appoint or remove judges, taking that power away from the Supreme Court.
5) Judges should be provided adequate salaries.
6) Extra-judicial confessions should be prohibited; the right to a lawyer should be strengthened; strict limits should be placed on pre-trial detention; those who can order detentions should be limited and defined; the right of habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence should be strengthened.
7) A list should be kept and made public of all detention centers and all those who are detained in them.
8) The new civilian national police force should be fully supported.
VI. Human Rights
El Salvador needs to fortify awareness of and respect for human rights. The new office of the National Counsel for the Defense of Human Rights should be strengthened and extended to
have regional offices in each department of the country. Officials in the human rights office should be allowed access anywhere in the country. The constitution should guarantee human rights. El
Salvador should ratify and implement all major human rights accords not already approved by it. The Commission also urges El Salvador to accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of
Human Rights, something all other Central American states have done.
The Commission feels justice demands punishment for the violations of human rights. But it is not itself constituted to specify sanctions and recognizes that the present Salvadoran judicial system is incapable of fairly assessing and carrying out punishment. Therefore the Commission feels it cannot recommend judicial proceedings in El Salvador against the persons named in its report until after judicial reforms are carried out.
VIII. National Reconciliation
The Commission believes that justice also demands that the victims of human rights violations by all sides in the war be publicly recognized and be given material compensation. The report lists the names of more than 18,000 victims it received testimony on.
The report calls for a special fund to be established for this purpose. It will be given resources by the government and be supported by a recommendation that one per cent of all foreign aid be directed to the fund. The Commission expresses the hope that the international community will assist the government of El Salvador to carry out this recommendation.
A national monument should be erected, listing the names of all the victims of the war. A national annual holiday should be declared to remember the dead and celebrate reconciliation.
This report should be discussed and analyzed at a national public forum in El Salvador.
The Commission calls on the United Nations to monitor compliance with all recommendation
Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador