Historic amnesty ruling in El Salvador met with controversy

A mural dedicated to Archbishop Oscar Romero, a prominent Salvadoran activist who was assassinated during the country's civil war. (Credit: Alison McKellar/Flickr)

El Salvador’s Supreme Court has struck down an amnesty law from 1993 that has protected soldiers, paramilitary groups and guerrilla fighters over their actions during the country’s 12-year civil war.

The Salvadoran civil war resulted in about 75,000 deaths and 8,000 disappearances primarily among civilians, according to Spanish newspaper El País, and a million refugees, most finding their way to U.S. cities.

Rights groups welcomed last Wednesday’s ruling, which declared the amnesty law unconstitutional in that it denied Salvadorans the right to justice and compensation for war crimes. The decision gives hope to thousands that war-time human rights violations can now be prosecuted.

“Today is an historic day for human rights in El Salvador,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director for Amnesty International. “By turning its back on a law that has done nothing but let criminals get away with serious human rights violations for decades, the country is finally dealing with its tragic past.”

Among the cases that could be reopened or investigated are the slaughter of six Jesuit priests and two of their employees (1989), the slaughter of more than 1,000 farmers in El Mozote (1981) and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980).

But reactions to the ruling have been mixed. Some fear that revoking the law could tear open old wounds in the country’s deeply divided political system.

Hector Perla, assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told TeleSUR that the decision might represent a “double-edged” sword; the decision is a major landmark in working toward transitional justice, but it could allow El Salvador’s right-wing ARENA party, which drafted the amnesty law, to launch a destabilization campaign against the government.

“I would never underestimate the Salvadoran right-wing’s willingness to use political scorched earth tactics,” he told TeleSUR, explaining that the country’s conservative factions have long vowed to bring charges against former rebel leaders if amnesty were lifted. Such cases, he argued, could divide the current government and distract it “from enacting or strengthening much needed progressive political-social-economic policies at a crucial time.”

Defense Minister David Munguía Payes expressed similar disapproval over the ruling, calling it “a political error” and warning that the judgement would “turn the country upside down,” the New York Times reported. “I hope this decision does not turn into a witch hunt.”

Both the Salvadoran army and rebel fighters from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which is now the ruling party, have been accused of atrocities. Legal experts say even President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who was part of the FMLN’s command structure during the war, could theoretically face prosecutions, according to the Washington Post.

Unsurprisingly, Ceren has also criticized the Supreme Court’s decision.

“These statements ignore, or do not measure the effects they may have on the fragile coexistence that exists within our society,” he said in a nationally televised speech last Friday. He called on Salvadorans committed to peace to approach the situation responsibly and with maturity.

Legal experts are predicting an onslaught of new allegations as people begin to openly seek justice for themselves and their family members. Despite the hesitancy over the ruling, many analysts still argue that annulling the amnesty law is a monumental step in tackling El Salvador’s systemic culture of impunity. Only then, they believe, will the country be able to stamp down on the rampant gang-related violence that plagues Salvadoran society.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com