SAN SALVADOR — El Salvador’s Supreme Court has struck down a 1993 amnesty law enacted after the country’s devastating civil war, clearing the way for possible prosecutions of war crimes at the risk of reopening old wounds.
The amnesty has contributed to more than two decades of impunity for crimes committed during the 1980-1992 civil war, which claimed 75,000 lives. It helped end the conflict between the government and leftist guerillas, but it has blocked access to justice and reparations for victims.
The court’s constitutional chamber ruled 4 to 1 Wednesday that the amnesty violates international law and El Salvador’s constitution. The ruling said the government has an obligation to “investigate, identify and sanction the material and intellectual authors of human rights crimes and grave war crimes” and to provide reparations to victims.
Human rights advocates celebrated the decision Thursday at a ceremony in San Salvador’s Cuscatlan Park in honor of David Morales, El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman since August 2013.
“If prosecutors and judges are willing to comply with the ruling, it will generate for the first time in El Salvador the first glimmers of reconciliation,” Morales said. He added that many Latin American countries have already abolished their amnesty laws and begun to prosecute crimes dating to the civil wars and military dictatorships of the late 20th century.
Behind Morales stood a 275-foot granite wall etched with the names of 30,000 civilians killed in the war and the locations of nearly 200 massacres committed between 1970 and 1991. The worst massacre occurred in the village of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in December 1981, when the U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion machine-gunned more than 800 villagers, about half of them children.
Rosario Sánchez, whose mother and 12 other relatives were killed in El Mozote, said she was relieved to hear that the amnesty law had been declared unconstitutional.
“For years we’ve been hearing that because of the amnesty, the soldiers who killed our relatives can’t be tried, and we can’t receive any kind of reparations for our loss,” she said.In April 2015, government forensics investigators dug up the bones of Sánchez’s family and two dozen other victims of the massacre, but the investigation has since stalled because of a 1993 decision to archive the case in light of the amnesty law.
“With this ruling, we can return to the judge and say that the decision to close the case was illegal,” said Ovidio González, a lawyer with the human rights organization Tutela Legal, which has been representing the massacre victims for more than two decades.
The court suggested that prosecutors begin with about 30 cases highlighted by a U.N. Truth Commission in March 1993. The cases include massacres, assassinations and kidnappings by combatants from both the armed forces and the guerrilla army called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.
Some Salvadorans fear that the decision could lead to a political witch hunt.
“It’s not just a few cases; there are dozens or even hundreds of cases,” said Salvador Samayoa, a political analyst who represented the guerrillas in the peace process. “Today’s political parties stem from the two sides in the war. Every time a case is brought against someone from one side, the other side will respond with a case of its own.”
Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, a retired general who represented the armed forces in the peace negotiations, said Wednesday’s ruling could intensify political polarization in a country with no shortage of problems: a gang-violence epidemic, a migration crisis, crop failures and economic stagnation.
“The country doesn’t have the economic and social conditions to add one more destabilizing ingredient to the mix,” he said.
Justice for war-era crimes now depends on El Salvador’s prosecutors and judges, who have historically been reluctant to take on these controversial cases.
“It will take resources, expertise and political will,” said Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a law professor who has held workshops for Salvadoran government prosecutors and judges. “It will take a degree of maturity and discretion on the part of the prosecutor’s office. But if it’s achieved, it could crack the culture of impunity in El Salvador in a way that will allow it to confront today’s problems.”
Twenty-five years after the war’s end, El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and 95 percent of homicides go unsolved.