Advocacy

Salvadoran Human Rights Organization, Pro-Busqueda Attacked

At 4:45 am yesterday morning, three unknown assailants raided the offices of Pro-Busqueda, a human rights organization in El Salvador that for more than 19 years has worked to reunite families separated during the country’s 12-year civil war.

The assailants held a driver and night watchman at gunpoint while they destroyed files and computers, doused offices with gasoline, and set them on fire. A statement sent around by Pro-Busqueda yesterday afternoon said that the attackers targeted the offices most vital to their work, destroying archives and files related to cases that they have pending in the judicial system. When the attackers left, the night watchman and driver were able to free themselves and put out the fires with hoses

Ester Alvarenga, a Former Director of Pro-Busqueda and a member of the technical team said that the assailants had done the most damage in the administrative and advocacy departments. She also made it clear that they have all of their information backed up so it was a not a total loss.

Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales, who visited the scene shortly after the attack said it was well planned and was reminiscent of attacks on human rights organizations during the 1980s. He also said there hasn’t been an attack like this on a human rights organizations since the end of the war.

The specific reasons for the attack remains unclear, but it is likely related to cases pending in international and domestic courts related to the forced disappearances of children during the war. This past Monday, the Constitutional Court suspended evidentiary hearings against former members of the armed forces who did not attend their habeas corpus hearing, during which Pro-Busqueda was scheduled to present evidence they have collected against the defendents.

Just last month the Catholic Church closed Tutela Legal, one of the leading human rights organizations in El Salvador. The organization housed an extensive collection of evidence and documents related to human rights abuses committed during the civil war. The closing of Tutela Legal and the attack on Pro-busqueda come as the Constitutional Court considers constitutionality of the Amnesty Law, which has protected war criminals from being prosecuted for atrocities committed during the 1980s.

Tutela Legal and Pro-Busqueda are not the only organizations and people with evidence and records that could be used to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war. The Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) and others have been collecting evidence and documents since before the war ended, and could also be a threat to those who risk prosecution.

In March Voices staff had a conversation with Benjamin Cuellar, the director of the IDHUCA, about the Amnesty Law and the lack of transitional justice after the war. Instead of treating the Peace Accords as the beginning of the peace process, the Salvadoran government and many international stakeholders were too quick to declare peace and put the war in the past, ignoring issues of justice. But it is difficult if not impossible to achieve peace until there is also justice.

Advertisements
News Highlights

U.S. Federal Judge Considers Testimony of War Crimes in Immigration Case Against Col. Montano

Col. Montano
Col. Montano

This week, El Faro posted an article about Col. Orlando Montano who is being sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court in Massachusetts on immigration fraud and perjury. The court could sentence Montano to more than 40 years in prison and a million dollars in fines. He could also be deported back to El Salvador and possibly extradited to Spain, where a court indicted him and 19 others, for their role in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.

Before the sentencing phase got underway, the federal judge hearing the case agreed to consider Montano’s alleged war crimes before sentencing him on the immigration fraud charges. The Daily journal quoted the judge, “my view is that, if proved, the allegations concerning Mr. Montano’s acts with the military are matters that would cause me to consider upward departure or variance,” meaning that he would consider an even greater sentence.

In January, prosecutors submitted a report from Stanford Professor Terry Karl that provides details about Montano’s military career, including his involvement in over 1,000 human rights abuses. Professor Karl is an expert witness in the case against the 20 defendants in the Spanish Court and has documented many of the war crimes that took place during the war.

Montano’s attorneys argue that by asking the judge to consider a more severe sentence, prosecutors violated the terms of the plea agreement the defendant signed in September 2012. Montano is due back in court sometime in March 2013.

Photo credit: AP
Photo credit: AP

Montano has been living in the United States since 2001 and worked as a human resource administrator for a candy factory in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which filed the case against Montano and 19 others in the Spanish court, reports that Montano lied about his past military service and weapons training on his Temporary Protective Status (TPS) immigration form. He also lied about his date of entry into the U.S. in order to qualify for the TPS program. He was arrested on August 23, 2011 and indicted in February 2012. He plead guilty to six counts of federal criminal immigration fraud and perjury on September 11, 2012.

The Spanish Court names Montano, who was Vice Minister of Defense of Public Security, as one of the four top commanders of the Salvadoran Military in November 1989, when soldiers massacred the Jesuit priests. Following their in-absentia indictment in 2011, the court issued formal extradition requests for Montano and the 19 others.

In her report submitted to the Federal Court, Professor Karl testified that Montano had a 30-year military career, contrary to the information he gave on his TPS forms, and that he was involved in numerous human rights abuses. The Daily Journal article quotes Montano’s attorney as admitting that Professor Karl’s report paints him “as a war criminal of epic proportions.”

El Faro quotes a summary of the allegations detailed in Professor Karl’s report. She wrote, “during his 30-year military career, Coronel Montano ordered, incited, and assisted or commanded troops that participated in a strategy of terror by the State against civilians. This included: extra-judicial executions, torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions, rural massacres of non-combatant civilians, forced disappearance of children, and the permitting of death squads led by the military and that operated within units under his command.”

The report also linked Montano to 65 summary executions, 51 forced disappearances, 520 cases of torture, and 533 arbitrary detentions. Professor Karl’s testimony includes the names of the victims, the dates of the human rights abuse, the place and battalion or unit involved.

More than 20 years after the Peace Accords were signed, Salvadorans continue the process of healing from twelve years of civil war and decades of oppression and human rights abuses. The country’s Amnesty Law has stymied this process by forcing victims and human rights activists to seek justice outside of their own legal system. While leaders within the right-wing ARENA party, which was in power in 1989 when the Jesuit priests were killed, has condemned the Spanish indictments for dredging up painful memories, it is important for that criminals be brought to justice, even if it’s in a courtroom in Boston or Madrid.

News Highlights, Politics

Victims of Abuses during Civil War Speak Out at International Tribunal

The International Tribunal for Restorative Justices opened a public forum for people who had suffered human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war. The three-day event was hosted at the Central American University as part of its Truth Festival, a week-long program in commemoration of the anniversary of Monseñor Romero’s assassination.

The testimonies heard by the Tribunal were powerful and disturbing. They narrated stories of incredible human suffering -death threats, tortures, disappearances, assassinations, scorched earth campaigns, massacres- all committed directly by or with the complicity of the Salvadoran Armed Forces.

Julio Rivera offered his testimony and told of how on March 11, 1980, at the age of 7, he witnessed the killing of his mother and three remaining siblings, because his mother had advocated for political prisoners. Only days later -in hiding with his father- he witnessed the massacre at the Sumpul River committed by Salvadoran military in collaboration with local paramilitary groups and the Honduran military. Thirteen members of his extended family were killed in the massacre.

There has been very little political will on the part of the Salvadoran government to address these atrocities. For many years, the Salvadoran government flatly denied their existence, or blamed them on the guerillas. In 1993, El Salvador passed an amnesty law, creating a significant barrier to even gathering information on the atrocities committed. Successive presidents, including president-elect Funes, have refused to repeal the amnesty law, saying it would re-open old wounds.

Rivera replies that that wounds have never closed. He declared that the wounds will heal only when the truth has been heard and acknowledged, and there is a true process of justice and reconciliation.