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Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador

UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, Report, 15 March 1993, in UN Secretary General, Letter to the President of the Security Council (S/25500), Annex. (PDF link)


C. The Mandate

E. A Convulsion of Violence


From the outset of their work, which began on 13 July 1992 when they were entrusted with their task by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Commissioners could perceive the skill of those who had negotiated the agreements in the breadth of the mandate and authority given to the Commission. They realized that the Secretary-General, upon learning from competent Salvadorian judges of the numerous acts of violence and atrocities of 12 years of war, had not been wrong in seeking to preserve the Commission’s credibility by looking beyond considerations of sovereignty and entrusting this task to three scholars from other countries, in contrast to what had been done in Argentina and Chile after the military dictatorships there had ended. The Commissioners also saw a glimmer of hope dawn in the hearts of the Salvadorian people when it became clear that the truth would soon be revealed, not through bias or pressure but in its entirety and with complete impartiality, a fact which helped to restore the faith of people at all levels that justice would be effective and fitting. Accordingly, in their first meeting with the media upon arriving in El Salvador, the Commissioners stated that they would not let themselves be pressured or impressed: they were after the objective truth and the hard facts.

The Commissioners and the group of professionals who collaborated with them in the investigations succeeded in overcoming obstacles and limitations that made it difficult to establish what had really happened, starting with the brief period of time - six months - afforded them under the Chapultepec Agreement. Given the magnitude of their task, this time-frame, which seemed to stretch into Kafkaesque infinity when they embarked upon their task, ultimately seemed meagre and barely sufficient to allow them to complete their work satisfactorily.

Throughout its mandate and while drafting its report, the Commission consistently sought to distance itself from events that had not been verified before it reached any conclusions. The whole of Salvadorian society, institutions and individuals familiar with acts of violence were invited to make them known to the Commission, under the guarantee of confidentiality and discretion provided for in the agreements. Paid announcements were placed in the press and on the radio and television to this end, and written and oral invitations were extended to the Parties to testify without restriction. Offices of the Commission were opened in various departmental capitals, including Chalatenango, Santa Ana and San Miguel. Written statements were taken, witnesses were heard, information from the sites of various incidents (e.g. El Calabozo, El Mozote, Sumpul river and Guancorita) was obtained. The Commission itself went to various departments with members of the professional team, occasionally travelling overland but more often in helicopters provided promptly and efficiently by ONUSAL. As the investigation moved forward, it continued to yield new pieces of evidence: anyone who might have been involved was summonsed to testify without restriction as to time or place, usually in the Commission’s offices or in secret locations, often outside El Salvador in order to afford witnesses greater protection.

The Commission maintained an "open-door" policy for hearing testimony and a "closed-door" policy for preserving confidentiality. Its findings illustrate the horrors of a war in which madness prevailed, and confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that the incidents denounced, recorded and substantiated in this report actually took place. Whenever the Commission decided that its investigation of a specific case had yielded sufficient evidence, the matter was recorded in detail, with mention of the guilty parties. When it was determined that no further progress could be made for the time being, the corresponding documentation that was not subject to secrecy was delivered to the courts or else kept confidential until new information enabled it to be reactivated.

One fact must be squarely denounced: owing to the destruction or concealment of documents, or the failure to divulge the locations where numerous persons were imprisoned or bodies were buried, the burden of proof occasionally reverted to the Commission, the judiciary and citizens, who found themselves forced to reconstruct events. It will be up to those who administer the new system of justice to pursue these investigations and take whatever final decisions they consider appropriate at this moment in history.

Inevitably, the list of victims is incomplete: it was compiled on the basis of the complaints and testimony received and confirmed by the Commission.