03/19/2014 10:52 am ET Updated May 19, 2014

Justice in El Salvador

As one of many Americans who fought the Reagan Administration's effort to turn El Salvador into another Vietnam, I'm both inspired by current events in that country and angered at the lack of interest shown by the U.S. media. Like Vietnam, it may be too embarrassing for some to look back at our complicity in the killing.

In 1980, after Archbishop Oscar Romero appealed to "the men of the army... the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military," to stop "killing your own brother peasants," he said, "(n)o soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law," and ended his plea with the words, "I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression." For that, he was assassinated as he celebrated mass.

Three days later President Reagan, led by his cadre of anti-communist zealots, with the complicity of a Congress fearful of being labeled "soft," engineered a grant of $13 million to a Salvadoran government controlled by its military and followed it days later with an overt $5.7 million in military aid to combat what they fantasized as a "Cuban-inspired Communist plot" in our hemisphere. And the U.S.-supported slaughter ensued.

Led by General Jose Guillermo Garcia, known for saying "every peasant is a potential subversive," the U.S.-trained Salvadoran forces, rich with our dollars and "U.S. military advisors," did their dirty work for years despite growing opposition within the U.S. that finally prevailed over Reagan's wrecking crew.

In 1992 a peace treaty between the rebels and the Salvadoran government was finally approved, ending the war. A U.N. Truth Commission report a year later laid the vast majority of the war's human rights atrocities at the feet of the Salvadoran military, and some of its former leaders were tried and convicted in U.S. courts.

Despite this finding, however, the battles continued in the political arena, with the right wing assuming power in the country and engineering the passage of an amnesty law protecting human rights violators, some of whom succeeded to office, from prosecution.

Today, though, despite a lack of acknowledgement from U.S. leadership or media, the people are speaking and there are signs of change.

On March 26th of this year, a Restorative Justice Tribunal will take place in Santa Marta, Cabañas, El Salvador. The Tribunal creates a safe opportunity for victims of crimes against humanity committed during the war to publicly share their experiences, typically for the first time, before a panel of distinguished international jurists. Santa Marta experienced horrific atrocities in the early 1980s, including the Santa Cruz massacre of November 1981, when hundreds of civilians, including many women and children were slaughtered by troops under the command of Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez.

Col. Ochoa is now a member of the Salvadoran legislature, and he's not the only human rights violator who enjoys power in El Salvador today. No one has been held accountable for ordering crimes against humanity committed in the Salvadoran conflict, though last year saw some progress in this regard. Last March, an unprecedented 43 victims of crimes against humanity filed criminal complaints before the Salvadoran authorities on the twentieth anniversary of the country's amnesty law. That law, passed just 5 days after the UN Truth Commission released its report documenting an estimated 75,000 civilian deaths during the twelve-year war, has continued to thwart prosecution for these crimes despite court rulings holding it should not be invoked as an impediment to justice.

Today, things are starting to change. Some of the cases presented in March 2013 by the Institute for Human Rights at the Universidad Centroamericana and its partners at the University of Washington Center for Human Rights are slowly moving through the system for the first time in the country's history. In an unprecedented move last fall, the Attorney General's office announced it was opening investigations into the massacre at El Mozote and as many as 32 other wartime abuses; just weeks later, the Supreme Court declared it would rule on the Constitutionality of the amnesty law. That ruling is expected any day now. Just weeks ago, in another historic verdict, the same court ordered the Attorney General to investigate a notorious 1981 massacre, saying the failure to do so denied the victims their right to justice.

In the wake of this historic movement, a sense of possibility emboldens many victims to come forward. Last November, a courageous survivor of the Santa Cruz massacre presented a criminal complaint against Col. Ochoa. A favorite of American advisors throughout the war, Col. Ochoa spearheaded a scorched earth campaign in 1981 and advocated the use of "free fire zones" in 1984. This month's Tribunal in Santa Marta will focus attention on the civilian toll of such policies. Because it will also feature testimony from an American witness to the atrocities, it's expected to bring attention to the role played by the U.S. during the conflict.

Because these efforts have prompted reprisals against human rights defenders in the country, this is a critical time for Americans to support justice in El Salvador. The sudden closure of Tutela Legal, a human rights organization originally founded by Msgr. Romero, augurs trouble for truth and justice, as does a devastating attack on Pro-Búsqueda, an organization investigating the forced disappearance of children during the war.

Once again, Salvadorans need the support of the international community. We cannot fail them this time.

One way to stay abreast of developments and support justice is by following the University of Washington Center for Human Rights' Unfinished Sentences project for justice in El Salvador on Facebook or Twitter, or by visiting them on the web at

Contrary to President Obama's assertion that we should "look forward, not back," it's time to look back and take responsibility for the crimes in which we were complicit so that we never commit the same mistakes again.