In a historic step toward justice for the victims of El Salvador’s bloody U.S.-backed civil war in the 1980s, the Central American country’s Supreme Court Wednesday declared unconstitutional a controversial amnesty law that has long protected the perpetrators of decades-old abuses.
The End of Impunity in El Salvador?
The General Amnesty Law was signed in 1993, one year after the peace accords brought to an end 12 years of civil war between the Salvadoran military government and the guerilla rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, now the ruling party. The law banned investigations of crimes against humanity committed in the conflict that resulted in the deaths and disappearance of more than 80,000 people, mostly at the hands of U.S.-backed state forces.
After more than two decades of amnesty, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the law violates the right to justice enshrined in the Salvadoran Constitution and defies several international conventions on human, civic, and political rights. The decision also confirmed that the amnesty law was not part of the peace agreements, contrary to what right-wing groups have claimed over the years.
A Historic Victory for Truth and Justice
Laura Embree-Lowry, program director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, told teleSUR on Thursday from San Salvador that the decision marks a "huge historical moment for the country" and a "victory for the movement for truth and justice" that has long fought for the law to be overturned in order for both the material and intellectual authors of war-era rights abuses to be brought to justice.
Terry Karl, professor of political science at Stanford University and an expert witness in a number of cases on human rights atrocities in El Salvador, told teleSUR Thursday that the Supreme Court decision is “very courageous” and “enormously important for the healing and capacity for lowering the levels of violence” in post-conflict El Salvador.
She added that the decision helps break apart a “false narrative” and will help the nation to finally, at long last, heal. “To the extent that more truth is uncovered, the chances of reconciliation based on truth are greater,” she said.
El Salvador’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, based on over 22,0000 witness statements, found that the state committed 85 percent of abuses during the civil war, mostly in rural areas. Paramilitaries were found responsible for 10 percent of all acts of violence and the FMLN for 5 percent. The report also identified individuals it accused of serious violations of human rights, including torture.
Caution in Face of Potential Right-Wing Backlash
Hector Perla, assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, agreed that the decision is a major landmark in working toward transitional justice and tackling the country’s deep institutionalized culture of impunity. But he also cautioned that the decision could be a “double-edged sword.”
Perla argued that El Salvador’s right-wing ARENA party—which drafted the amnesty law while the country´s ruling party from shortly before the war ended to the the 2009 election of the FMLN—could exploit the decision to launch a destabilization campaign against the government by disproportionately scrutinizing former rebel leaders, including President Salvador Sanchez, the last of the top-ranking rebel commanders.
"I would never underestimate the Salvadoran right-wing's willingness to use political scorched earth tactics," he said, explaining that the country's conservative factions have long vowed to bring charges against former rebel leaders if amnesty were lifted. Perla argued that such cases, "even if spurious," could drain or even divide the FMLN and "distract the government from enacting or strengthening much needed progressive political-social-economic policies at a crucial time."
An FMLN lawmaker told teleSUR that she was unable to comment on the decision before the party finalized its official response. The FMLN has not yet released a statement.
Embree-Lowry confirmed that there is caution on the ground around ensuring that the decision is not manipulated politically or through the media to obscure the truth about which side of the conflict was responsible for the majority of crimes. She said that many are raising questions over the decision in light of the Supreme Court's longstanding tendency to side with the country's elite and historical oligarchy.
Indeed, the same chamber that overturned the amnesty law simultaneously blocked the government's access to long-term financing needed to fund violence prevention proposals and security initiatives aimed at tackling the country's chronic gang problem and soaring rates of violence.
US Complicity in Human Rights Atrocities
In light of the historic decision, Karl argued that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration should "act very quickly to support the rule of law" and "order the declassification of all documents" related to the Salvadoran civil war, which could include State Department and CIA archives and other diplomatic documents. "This is one very important mechanism in investigations … that should be available to the families of victims seeking accountability and justice," she said.
Embree-Lowry expressed hope that the new era of investigations will "shine a light on U.S. complicity for their funding and training" of right-abusing military forces in El Salvador. She argued that the U.S. should "provide openness and support" for justice to move forward while ensuring respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Salvadoran people.
In the face of the amnesty impasse in El Salvador, a number of cases have been heard in the U.S. and other countries. One iconic example is the case of the murder of six Jesuit scholar-priests, one Salvadoran and five Spanish, along with their domestic worker and her daughter on a university campus in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. The case is currently underway in Spain.
While these cases have been very important symbolically, they have not led to criminal convictions in El Salvador and deeper ongoing investigations in the country.
Breaking a Lasting Legacy of Violence
Many analysts have argued that El Salvador's chronic and rampant violence, attributed to warring gangs, will not be resolved without tackling the systemic culture of impunity that has long overshadowed attempts to rein in violent crime. The end of the amnesty law is the first step in that direction.
El Salvador’s War on Terror
What's more, human rights advocates cite evidence to suggest that remnants of the old death squad networks are still present in El Salvador's criminal underworld, operating today as organized crime syndicates.
As investigations begin to unravel the atrocities of the civil war, the process may also begin to shine a light on some of the same "shadowy figures," as Embree-Lowry dubbed them, working within the highest ranks of organized crime.
Importantly, Perla expressed hope that overturning the amnesty law could provide an opportunity for El Salvador to build the kind of transitional justice that it has never had, which is an important step in confronting the enduring challenges plaguing the country.