In El Salvador, Journalists Do Not Give Up on the Past


The civil war in El Salvador officially ended 20 years ago with the signing of a peace accord on January 16, 1992. Yet accountability and justice for political violence, summary killings, enforced disappearances, imprisonment, and torture remain acutely absent.

A truth commission established by the accord registered over 20,000 reports of human rights violations—primarily carried out by the country’s security forces—setting the groundwork for prosecutions that never happened. An amnesty law was passed in 1993, shielding all perpetrators of violence committed between 1980 and 1992 from being brought to trial, and effectively halting any investigation into the crimes.

“But the amnesty law does not prevent us from fulfilling our obligation to help establish a historical truth,” says Carlos Dada, journalist and editor of the digital Salvadoran newspaper El Faro. “Fighting against impunity is the job of anyone who claims to contribute to a better society... we are obliged to restore the dignity of victims by helping them find out what happened, and putting those who committed barbaric acts in their proper place in history.”

Thanks to the prevailing climate of impunity, it is the work of journalists like Mr. Dada and El Faro that has led the search for the truth about atrocities committed by the army decades ago. Through its investigations, El Faro has revealed details and the full names of those involved in planning the murder of one of the most beloved figures in El Salvador, Monsignor Romero. More recently, the publication released a lengthy report on the massacres at El Mozote in 1981, where up to 1,000 civilians, half of whom were children, were killed by the military.

To launch a Spanish language podcast series examining transitional justice progress in Latin America, ICTJ spoke with Mr. Dada about the critical role the media has played in uncovering the truth about past atrocities in El Salvador.

(Listen to the podcast in Spanish.)

"Fighting against impunity is the job of anyone who claims to contribute to a better society."

Why have you decided to invest so much effort in investigating stories that took place thirty years ago? How are these projects important for El Salvador?

This country is still suffering from extensive impunity. There are no exact figures, but it is widely assumed that over 90 percent of murders have not been brought to trial.

Fighting against impunity, in my view, is the job of anyone who claims to contribute to a better society. That is why we’ve set ourselves the task of investigating these cases. El Salvador’s amnesty laws protect perpetrators of crimes from being brought to trial, which prevents the establishment of the judicial truth—from having the facts established in a court of law.

But the amnesty laws do not prevent us from fulfilling our obligation to help establish a historical truth, to restore the dignity of victims by helping them find out what happened and putting those who committed barbaric acts in their proper place in the history of this country.

What are the main difficulties you have encountered during your investigations?

The first and most immediate difficulty is that in this country it is politically unpopular to investigate or talk about these things. The official narrative has been that doing so will simply re-open wounds, and that it is counter to the peace and reconciliation process we began in 1992. The recent change of government has helped, and the state has apologized to the victims of past atrocities, but the climate still isn’t favorable for these sorts of investigations.

Second, there is a lack of documentation. In El Salvador the records are all either destroyed or hidden, so in many cases we’re obliged to resort to examining declassified documents, particularly in the United States, and in some cases in Europe.

And third, most perpetrators of course refuse to give their version of events. It has been difficult, but we have managed to get some of those who participated in these crimes to give us their testimony. Some of the victims, or victims’ relatives and witnesses to the massacres also still feel threatened, so they’re afraid to come forward with their testimony.

What can journalists contribute to the search for truth about a past of atrocities and how is that truth different from that found by a truth commission or a trial?

These are three different types of truths. The truth commission here was given very little time to investigate crimes and its conclusions are not definitive; in some cases it said simply: “The evidence available to us points to such and such.” What it did was establish the bases for future trials. The problem is those future trials never happened.

A trial is understood to establish the facts beyond any reasonable doubt. That’s not what we seek to do as journalists; it would be very arrogant of me to claim we do. What we do is use the tools of journalism to make a contribution, provide information to either be taken up or not by those whose job is to bring justice, or by those who write history. We’re neither historians nor judges; we’re journalists.

What is the role of the media in a country where serious human rights violations have taken place?

The media does play an extremely important social role: it seeks to represent the citizens’ interests and calls for accountability. In the case of countries like El Salvador, where there have been mass human rights violations, part of the obligation of the media is to contribute to clarifying the facts; to report on and to demand that these things not happen again.    
"In this country a gun has always been a more effective way to get justice than a court."

It is very important for the media to investigate, especially in countries where no one else is investigating due to an amnesty, or because trials can’t be held or there is no public prosecutor.

The media should also try to understand the dynamics behind the violence. In El Salvador this includes institutional weakness, corruption, lack of transparency, and lack of resources. But these didn’t spring up overnight; they must be understood as a legacy of the past.

Through this understanding we observe there are links between the current violence—which is social and criminal—and the political violence of the 80s. The fact that the nature of the violence is different doesn’t mean that they’re not connected, and that one is a legacy of the other.

But they can also both been seen as part of a culture of violence that has reigned in many Latin American countries since the colonial period. What I mean by “culture of violence” is that in these countries institutionality hasn’t worked, impunity is the rule, and the best way to get what we want has always been a gun. In this country a gun has always been a more effective way to get justice than a court.

So what measures should El Salvador take to ensure accountability for violations of the past?

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [IACHR] has been very clear about how to achieve accountability. It has said that there is no possible amnesty for crimes against humanity. The Supreme Court of El Salvador has also said: “For crimes like the massacre of the Jesuit priests in 1989, amnesty is unconstitutional.” The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered the Salvadoran government to investigate and try the crimes reported to the IACHR, and to apologize to the victims in the name of the state. But so far only President Mauricio Funes has apologized and he’s the first president to have taken any action.

Some hail El Salvador as a successful example of reconciliation, noting the progress that has been made since the war ended. Do you agree with this point of view?

"A reconciliation process cannot be successful if the victims’ dignity is denied."
    There is a lot of confusion about this. There is no doubt that the peace agreement was very successful, but we asked it to be more than it could be. The agreement had two objectives. The first was to end the armed conflict immediately, which it managed very successfully. The second was to ensure the reincorporation of guerrillas into the state system and to end army interference in politics. This was also a success.

The agreement was never going to achieve social peace and true reconciliation, but it wasn’t supposed to. That required a second set of agreements, which were never carried out. The peace agreement was successful; the peace process has not been because the rest of the process is missing.

A reconciliation process cannot be successful if the victims’ dignity is denied. Here there are mothers still searching for their children. There are mass graves scattered all around the country. For thirty years following the El Mozote massacre there was only one survivor, Rufina Amaya, who told her story. This year we showed in a short documentary the voices and faces of another eight survivors who hadn’t come forward because they were afraid.

It seems the focus of attention of the transitional justice field has shifted lately to other parts of the world, especially to the Middle East or North America. Is Latin America still a key region for transitional justice or could we say its moment has passed?

The recent statements in El Salvador by President Funes asking the army to revise its interpretation of history and stop praising war criminals, as it has been, have unleashed a series of reactions in the country that make it very clear that the wounds hadn’t healed. Twenty years after the peace agreements were signed in El Salvador, transitional justice seems more necessary than ever. We need to leave that chapter in our history behind, but it can’t be done by trying to sweep it under the carpet. The truth has to be told.

Transcript adapted from interview conducted in Spanish.

Photo: Miriam Nunez shows a portrait of her mother- and sisters-in-law, who were killed in El Mozote massacre of 1981. Bernat Camps for El Faro.