At 5:30 pm on Thursday, January 27, Salvadoran soldiers shot and killed two Salvadorans on the Honduran side of the Border. Despite newspaper reports, the men were unarmed and the shooting occurred on the Honduran side of the border near the community of Nahuaterique.
According to witnesses in involved in the incident, on Thursday a group of four men crossed the border into Honduras and collected a load of lumber that they planned to sneak back to Rancho Quemado, Morazán through a punto ciego (unmonitored boarder crossing, often used for smuggling). As the group approached the border, three men walked ahead of the truck to keep an eye out for border patrols. The forth man, Aristides Pineda drove the truck. Soldiers from the Sumpul group were expecting the smugglers and had prepared an ambush, but on the Honduran side of the border. When the soldiers confronted the three men on foot, they ran into the woods. The soldiers chased them, firing their weapons, but the three men escaped.
The pursuit took the soldiers farther into Honduras until they came upon Aristides in the truck with the lumber. The soldiers pulled Aristides from the truck, threw him to the ground, and beat him with the butts of their rifles. With their prisoner’s hands tied, the soldiers attempted to drive the truck down the road and back into El Salvador where they would have the authority to officially arrest Aristides and detain the truck and lumber. They were unable to get the truck very far due to their inexperience driving on such rough terrain, and gave up while trying to cross the Rio Negro.
Residents of Rancho Quemado heard that the soldiers had arrested Aristides and confiscated the truck. They quickly informed his father who hiked 20 minutes down to the riverbed where he saw soldiers beating his son, who was lying on the ground with his hands tied. He ran back to the community for help. Someone also notified Aristides wife, and the gathering crowd waited for her to arrive with others from Segundo Montes. In all a crowd of 100 to 120 people gathered at the scene.
When they arrived, Aristides wife and daughter approached the soldiers who told her they were holding him because he had tried to escape. The women then asked the crowd to help free Aristides, and when they approached, the soldiers let him go. At that point the crowd began congregating around the truck, and Aristides’ brother, who was one of the four smugglers, got in to drive it back up the road farther into Honduras to prevent the soldiers from confiscating it. Realizing what they were doing, the lieutenant in charge opened the door of the truck to stop him. The crowd began picking up rocks and sticks to defend Aristides brother, who tried to close the door and continue driving. At that point Aristides and his father grabbed the lieutenant to get him away from the truck and the lieutenant ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd. The soldiers began discharging their M-16 rifles at the ground sending the crowd running. Many people sustained injuries from shrapnel and shattered rocks. A group of them hid behind rocks in the riverbed and watched as the soldiers began shooting in their direction.
Remberto Molina, known to his friends as Gilberto, took out his cell phone and took photos of the soldiers attacking the crowd. One of the soldiers saw him and shot him in the leg. They then fired multiple rounds into his chest and another into his head, killing him instantly. Those nearby began yelling that the soldiers had killed someone, at which point the troops stopped shooting and began returning to their vehicle.
As the crowd emerged from their hiding places, they found Gilberto dead and Pelayo García Martínez, a catechist from Rancho Quemado, shot in the leg and bleeding profusely. While some of the soldiers left, a few stayed behind and confirmed that Gilberto was dead. They eventually fled by foot into the woods.
Due to the remote location of the shooting, it took 30 minutes to find a car to transport Pelayo to the clinic in Perquín, Morazán on the Salvadoran side of the border. Once at the clinic, they rushed him to the closest hospital in Gotera, Morazán, which is another 45 minutes away. He died from his injuries about 5 minutes before reaching the hospital.
Gilberto and Pelayo both left behind grieving families and communities that are demanding justice.
La Prensa Grafica reported on the shooting on Saturday, but their story differs from the testimonies taken from Aristides and others at the scene. The newspaper account says that the shooting occurred on the Salvadoran side of the border in an area called Carrizal. The 100 plus people at the scene all testify that everything happened on the Honduran side of the border. In an interview with the newspaper the military spokesperson said that one of the soldiers was wounded by someone in the crowd, and was recovering in a military hospital. Again, witnesses testify that none of the soldiers was injured and that no one in the crowd was armed.
The article also reports that the soldiers involved in the shooting will be charged with aggravated homicide. The military was trying to negotiate with the local prosecutors office so that the soldiers could be held at the military base, but the prosecutor said that the law did not permit them to leave his custody and that he needed them for questioning. We were unable to confirm whether or not any of the soldiers involved in the shooting are in custody or whether any of them will be charged.
The day after the shooting, community members report that three military trucks and a transport helicopter brought more soldiers to Rancho Quemado, and that the police and military presence has increased significantly. Puntos ciegos are a problem all along the Salvadoran border, and are used for trafficking drugs, guns, people, and all sorts of contraband in and out of El Salvador to Honduras and Guatemala. In June, President Funes deployed the Salvadoran military to close these illegal border crossings.
Community members contacted the police and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office immediately after the shooting. The police would not investigate the scene because they do not have jurisdiction in Honduras. The Ombudsman’s office however, documented the crime scene, collected evidence such as bullet casings, and took photographs of Gilberto’s body. So far, the Salvadoran military has not acknowledged that their soldiers had crossed over into Honduras, but the Honduran government is also investigating the scene to determine whether the Salvadoran military crossed the border.
El Salvador and Honduras have a long history of border disputes, and the area that is now Nahuaterique used to be part of El Salvador. In fact, many people in the region have dual-citizenship and can pass freely between the two countries. The 1992 Convention of National and Acquired Rights recognizes that people from this region ought to have special economic and social rights to accommodate living in the once-disputed area. One of the issues that has been discussed in the past is the need to allow them to transport lumber from Honduras to El Salvador.
The families of the victims are communicating with the Salvadoran government in hopes of being compensated for their injuries and losses, and to ensure that those responsible for the shooting are held responsible.
We will report updates as we receive them.
Thanks to Maria and Jessie for interviewing witnesses and putting together this article.