Amnesty and Instability: Salvadoran Ruling Ends War Crimes Immunity, but Many Fear Fallout

By Hodge, James; Cooper, Linda | National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

Amnesty and Instability: Salvadoran Ruling Ends War Crimes Immunity, but Many Fear Fallout


Hodge, James, Cooper, Linda, National Catholic Reporter


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The recent Salvadoran Supreme Court decision striking down an amnesty law that has blocked prosecutions for war crimes for more than 20 years threatens to unsettle a fragile political stability in a country torn by drug-gang violence and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The July 13 ruling dissolves immunity for members of the military, paramilitaries and rebel forces who committed war crimes, as well as for those who gave the orders or had command responsibility.

It also clears the way for victims to seek reparations and for the government to prosecute atrocities committed during the country's 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992 under an agreement brokered by the United Nations. The violence killed some 75,000 civilians and disappeared another 8,000.

While the court ruling would logically be viewed as a victory for human rights activists, many--including some who have sought the repeal of the amnesty law--have greeted the news with caution. In the complex politics of postwar El Salvador, the ruling is seen as potentially destabilizing or, as one observer put it, as a "double-edged sword."

Some have questioned the timing of the conservative court's ruling, seeing it as a veiled coup attempt that could ensnare the country's president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former rebel commander who had opposed and campaigned against the amnesty law.

The right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party had pushed through the amnesty law in 1993 just days after a U.N. Truth Commission reported that the U.S.-armed and -trained Salvadoran military, along with its affiliated death squads and paramilitaries, had committed 85 percent of the atrocities during the war, while the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), now the governing party, was responsible for 5 percent.

Hector Perla Jr., a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, told NCR that the ruling is a major step toward breaking the country's culture of violence and impunity.

"But my fear," he said, is that the ruling "lays the foundation for a rightwing attempt to bring down the Sanchez Ceren administration through non-electoral and undemocratic means in a way that completely perverts the longstanding demands for justice from the victims."

The tactic is similar, he said, "to how the right-wing in Brazil used anti-corruption charges to perpetrate an attempted 'soft coup' against President Dilma Rousseff."

In a speech to the nation after the ruling was announced, Sanchez Ceren criticized it as a threat to El Salvador's "fragile coexistence."

The right has had a history of threatening to bring charges against former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front leaders if the amnesty law were voided.

Almost as soon as he beat the odds in 2014 to become the first former Marxist elected as El Salvador's president, Sanchez Ceren began backing away from his campaign pledge to seek the repeal of the amnesty

But he had taken office without his party controlling the Legislative Assembly, making it all but impossible for him to repeal the law legislatively.

A former public school teacher who became a commanding general of the FMLN, Sanchez Ceren won the election against the rightwing ARENA candidate Norman Quijano, a staunch amnesty supporter, by a mere 6,300 votes.

Quijano immediately cried election fraud and called on the military to prevent Sanchez Ceren from taking office. But Salvadoran Defense Minister Gen. David Munguia Payes quickly allayed fears by saying the military would abide by the decision of the Supreme Electoral Authority

Munguia Payes, whom Sanchez Ceren kept on in his administration, also criticized the Supreme Court's amnesty law ruling, suggesting it would turn into a "witch hunt," at a time when the country is under siege from drug gangs. …

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