A judge in El Salvador demanded Wednesday that the U.S. Government provide documents that could be crucial in revealing the role Washington played in the deadliest massacre in Latin America of the 20th Century.
The El Mozote Massacre, as it is known, was carried out in 1981 in the small Salvadoran town of the same name by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military. The massacre, which claimed the lives of nearly 1000 people including children as young as six months, occurred during a brutal 12-year civil war between leftist guerrillas and a right-wing military dictatorship backed by the U.S. The war took place from 1980 to 1992 and claimed the lives of approximately 75,000 people.
The perpetrators of the massacre have gone largely unpunished for decades due to a 1993 law granting amnesty to those accused of committing atrocities during the civil war. That law was ruled unconstitutional in 2016, and since then at least 18 former members of the military have been in Salvadoran courts on charges including rape, torture and terrorism.
Salvadoran Judge Jorge Guzmán Urquilla is now requesting documents from the U.S. State Department that he believes could provide important evidence on the details of the massacre. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Guzmán wrote, “This information could be very valuable to us…It could clarify what happened.” Guzmán went on to say that the “information could strengthen the case against the accused…It would make it clear not only that a massacre occurred, but who was behind it, who planned it.”
The State Department responded by saying, “We do not comment on the Secretary’s correspondence.”
The case is just one of a number of cases in Latin American countries that have raised questions about the extent of U.S. involvement in military dictatorships in the region during the Cold War. In 2016, President Donald Trump personally handed over declassified documents to then-Argentine President Mauricio Macri revealing U.S. knowledge of, and support for, the infamous Operation Condor.
Led by the most notorious military dictatorships of the region and era, predominantly Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Operation Condor was a systematic plan to exterminate leftist groups as well as government dissidents and activists that included torture, rape and assassinations.
During the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1980-1988) Central America was also a hotspot in the Cold War. Reagan was one of the most firm backers of right-wing military dictatorships of any U.S. president and provided large amounts of aid to the dictatorship in El Salvador during the civil war. Indeed, the group within the military accused of the El Mozote massacre was trained by U.S. forces in El Salvador.
Along with other atrocities committed by the military dictatorship during the civil war, the Reagan Administration largely tried to cover up the massacre at El Mozote. Thomas Enders, Assistant Secretary of State for inter-American affairs at the time of the massacre, told Congress in the aftermath of reporting on it, “There is no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians.”
The trial now appears to be reaching its end after going through legal battles for years.