(Washington, DC) – A judge in El Salvador is using an investigation into a 1981 massacre during the country’s armed conflict to abusively investigate a leading human rights activist who sought accountability for the killings, Human Rights Watch said today.
On December 22, 2023, Judge Mirtala Portillo issued arrest warrants against former government officials and lawmakers, including Rubén Zamora, a former official and vocal critic of President Nayib Bukele. Zamora has for decades promoted accountability for the massacre in El Mozote, one of the largest mass killings in modern Latin American history. Salvadoran authorities should immediately drop bogus charges against Zamora and ensure justice for the massacre.
“The decision is a mockery of justice and an affront to victims,” said Juanita Goebertus Estrada, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of prosecuting members of the military who killed hundreds of people in El Mozote, the Salvadoran authorities are using trumped-up charges against a prominent human rights advocate who has been tirelessly seeking justice for the victims.”
The judge accused Zamora of “obstruction of justice,” which carries prison sentences ranging from six months to six years, falsely alleging that he helped pass the broad 1993 Amnesty Law precluding investigations into abuses committed during the country’s armed conflict (1980–1992), including the El Mozote massacre. El Salvador’s Atlacatl Battalion, a US-trained military force, killed around 1,000 people, half of them children, in and around the town of El Mozote in 1981.
The ruling orders the pretrial detention of nine former lawmakers as well as former president Alfredo Cristiani. They are accused of obstructing the prosecution of those responsible for the massacre by passing the amnesty law.
Zamora was the vice president of the Legislative Assembly at the time. While the judge said that Zamora voted in favor of the amnesty law, congressional records, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, showed that he opposed the amnesty. Zamora had instead supported a 1992 reconciliation law that established amnesties for “political crimes” but excluded atrocities.
The Salvadoran Constitution provides that lawmakers “shall not bear criminal liability for their opinions or votes exercised” in office.
Justice has long been delayed for the El Mozote victims. A judge opened an investigation into the case in 1990, but the 1993 Amnesty Law halted the proceedings.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that El Salvador’s broad amnesty run counter to the country’s human rights obligations. In 2016, El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that the amnesty law was unconstitutional, after which then-judge Jorge Guzmán resumed the investigation.
Judge Guzmán charged 18 former army commanders and a former defense minister for murder, rape, enforced disappearances, torture, and other crimes committed during the massacre. Yet his investigations were delayed when the army, with the backing of President Bukele, refused to comply with a court order demanding access to files.
Judge Guzmán resigned in September 2021 after supporters of President Bukele in the Legislative Assembly packed the Supreme Court and granted it broad powers to transfer judges and dismiss those over age 60. Following Guzman’s resignation, the Supreme Court appointed judge Portillo to oversee the investigation. The investigations against military officials have since made little to no progress.