The Court of El Salvador ordered this Friday (22) the arrest of former president Alfredo Cristiani, accused of having acted to cover up the El Mozote massacre, one of the darkest episodes of the civil war that for 12 years devastated the country of Central America, in 1981.
The decision came to light this Saturday (23) and was issued by a local court in the city of San Francisco Gotera. Former leader Cristiani, 76, is described alongside nine other people as responsible for promoting a general amnesty law that, approved in 1993, exempted those accused of war crimes from going to trial.
The document describes the El Mozote massacre as a crime against humanity that does not prescribe and orders the arrest of the former president and four other people who served as legislators.
Instead of being interpreted as an advance towards reparation and the defense of human rights, however, the decision was seen by human rights organizations and opponents as a move by President Nayib Bukele, who has led an authoritarian turn in the country, to suffocate the opposition just a few months before elections in the country.
This is because one of the four politicians with an arrest warrant issued is veteran Rubén Zamora, a historic opposition leader who has served as Salvadoran ambassador to the United States, the UN and India. He has been one of the most vocal voices against Bukele.
When the current leader announced that, despite what the Salvadoran Constitution says, he would run for reelection in early 2024, Zamora criticized him and stated that there is widespread fear among the country’s politicians. “No one wants to be a candidate, there is a lot of political fear at the moment,” he said during an interview with Canal 21.
Opposition members argue that Bukele has already managed to co-opt the Judiciary and that Zamora, at the time of the approval of the amnesty, opposed this law, as did his party, Convergência Democrática. Thus, they claim that the president promotes political persecution to stifle voices contrary to him and his government.
In the El Mozote massacre, which became the subject of several books of Latin American literature, around a thousand peasants were murdered during a military operation claimed to contain “counterinsurgency”. After killing more than a thousand people in the community, soldiers set fire to the bodies and houses.
Officially, the security forces, at the time supported by the United States, stated that the objective was to seek out leftist guerrillas from the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN).
When Cristiani was president, he signed peace agreements in 1992 in Mexico City, which ended the civil war that left approximately 75,000 dead in El Salvador.
The document issued by the local court states that the amnesty law, a year later, made it impossible for judicial authorities to “do justice for the victims through a sentence that condemns the guilty parties to legal compensation for the damage caused to the victims.”
At the time president, Alfredo Cristiani was responsible for sanctioning the law proposed by then deputies, some of whom are now also the target of arrest warrants. The approval of the so-called “General Amnesty and Peace Consolidation Law” prevented several torturers, murderers and those responsible for the disappearance of civilians during the 12 years of civil war from being tried.