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EL SALVADOR: Military Commission to Investigate Army Abuses

SAN SALVADOR, Feb 23 2012 (IPS) - “It’s awful to see people who are criminals treated as heroes,” said Dorila Márquez, one of the survivors of the El Mozote massacre committed by Salvadoran army troops in December 1981.

Márquez told IPS that she lost many members of her family in the three-day massacre of some 1,000 men, women and children from El Mozote and surrounding villages in the eastern province of Morazán, committed during the 12-year armed conflict between government forces and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas.

President Mauricio Funes, elected in 2009 as the candidate of the left-wing FMLN – which became a political party after a peace agreement put an end to the war in 1992 – recently announced the creation of a military commission to review the history of the army for the first time ever.

The new commission will verify whether the armed forces have fulfilled the recommendations of the peace agreement, and will identify the names of officers and troops implicated in human rights abuses during the civil war.

The officers who fought the FMLN enjoy the status of heroes in the eyes of the army and the conservative elites.

The creation of the new commission was announced by Funes on Jan. 16, the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace deal, when he apologised in the name of the state for the El Mozote massacre and other crimes against humanity committed by the military.

“For the victims of the abuses and for organisations like ours, it was gratifying to hear the president’s announcement,” Miguel Montenegro, an activist with the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES), told IPS.

For years, he added, there have been attempts to cover up and silence the human rights violations committed by the military against the civilian population of this impoverished Central American country.

Analysts and academics are sceptical, however, that the president’s initiative will bring results, at least in the short term.

“The military will continue to be seen as heroes, and no one can prevent that,” Jorge Juárez, director of the Institute of Historical, Anthropological and Archaeological Studies at the University of El Salvador, told IPS. “That reinterpretation cannot be made by decree.”

One of the “heroes” is the late lieutenant colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of the Atlacatl battalion.

It was Monterrosa who led the counterinsurgency operation that ended in the El Mozote massacre, according to the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission created by the peace agreement to investigate the targeted political killings and other human rights violations committed during the war, which left 70,000 people dead and 8,000 missing.

Monterrosa and several of his officers were killed in October 1984, when the FMLN, in one of its boldest moves, blew up the lieutenant colonel’s helicopter.

The lieutenant-colonel believed that under his seat he was carrying a trophy: the transmitter of the guerrilla group’s radio station, Radio Venceremos, whose nightly broadcasts from territory that the army claimed to control in the province of Morazán were a humiliation to the military, which claimed the pirate station was in Nicaragua.

The FMLN had a spare radio transmitter, which they pretended they were forced to abandon during a supposed firefight with army troops. But they had actually stuffed dynamite in the transmitter, and the bomb was detonated by remote control when Monterrosa’s helicopter was on its way to a press conference to celebrate the “victory” over Radio Venceremos.

After Monterrosa’s death, Congress named him the “Hero of Joateca” (the place where he died), and the 3rd Infantry Brigade, which was based in San Miguel, in the east of the country, carried his name. The military have also written songs for him and have created a web site called “Monterrosa Vive” (Monterrosa Lives).

“I don’t understand how someone who caused so many deaths can be considered a hero,” Márquez said.

The army today mythologises the role that the military played in the civil war, saying they saved the country from communism, Juárez said.

But the academic questioned the fact that a military commission will be evaluating the history of the army, and warned about the risk of a lack of objectivity.

For his part, Carlos Cañas, a member of the Academy of Military History of El Salvador, said the president’s announcement was impertinent, and that Funes was taking for granted that the military participated in human rights abuses, even though they have not been found guilty in court.

Funes’s announcement “contributes nothing in a society where the presumption of innocence does not operate and people are condemned ahead of time,” Cañas said in an interview with IPS.

“The armed forces were on a campaign against international communism, and their field actions and tactics were seen as operations of legitimate defence of the national territory,” he maintained.

Both historians agreed, though, that greater citizen participation in the military commission announced by the president is needed.

They stressed, however, that although there is greater openness to the participation of historians and other academics, the effort will not have a great effect unless there is an official decision for the army to open up its files on operations during the war.

The archives must be opened in order to provide access to reliable documents that back up the work of the commission, Cañas said.

For his part, Miguel Montenegro of CDHES said civil society should closely monitor the work of the military commission, and that mechanisms should be established to ensure that it is carried out as objectively as possible, with the participation of civilians.

In El Mozote, far removed from the debate among academics and politicians, local residents have not forgotten the bloody events of 1981. But at least some say they are willing to forgive those who committed the killings.

“If I could talk to the people who killed my family, I would forgive them, but it would be good if they would first admit they had participated,” Márquez said.

“I hope the commission will bring results, because we always questioned that they kept saying that the people who killed our families were heroes,” she said.

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