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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)





At 8 p.m. on Saturday, 11 November 1989, FMLN launched the biggest offensive of the war just a few days after the bombing of FENASTRAS headquarters. The impact of the offensive on the capital and other cities led the Government to decree a state of emergency. Beginning on 13 November, a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew went into effect. 103/ The fighting that raged up to 12 December cost the lives of over 2,000 from both sides and caused material damage amounting to approximately 6 billion colones. 104/

The 1989 offensive was one of the most violent episodes of the war. The guerrilla forces took cover in densely populated areas during the skirmishes and urban areas were the targets of indiscriminate aerial bombardment. The critical situation in the country bred such violations as the arrest, torture, murder and disappearance of hundreds of non-combatant civilians. It was against this backdrop that the Jesuit priests and two women were murdered.

The parties realized that a decisive military victory was not within their grasp and resumed in greater earnest the negotiating process which led to the signing of the peace agreements.

Security Council resolution 637 (27 July 1989) endorsed the use of the good offices of the United Nations Secretary-General. The United Nations became a direct participant, mediating between the parties, until the ultimate signing of the agreements. The United Nations Secretary-General and his representatives intervened at crucial moments to keep one or the other of the parties from leaving the negotiating table.

The Geneva Agreement (April 1990), witnessed by the Secretary-General, marked the beginning of an irreversible embracing process drawing up an agenda and timetable (Caracas Agenda, 21 May 1990); human rights (San José Agreement, 26 July 1990); reforms in the army and the judicial and electoral systems and the establishment of the Commission on the Truth (Mexico Agreements, 27 April 1991), and finally the Chapultepec Agreement, the starting-point for the cessation of hostilities, disarmament and the implementation of the agreed institutional reforms.


Two contradictory trends characterized Salvadorian society in 1989. On the one hand, acts of violence became more common, as did complaints of human rights violations, while on the other, talks between representatives of the Government of El Salvador and members of the FMLN leadership went forward with a view to achieving a negotiated and political settlement of the conflict.105/

In the presidential elections, Alfredo Cristiani, 106/ the ARENA candidate, was elected while FMLN called for a boycott of the elections and a transport stoppage during election week. A number of incidents occurred in university centres. 107/ Systematic intimidation and threats against pastoral workers of various churches and social workers of different church institutions continued. 108/

FMLN continued its policy of "ajusticiamientos" (summary executions) and threats against mayors, forcing them to leave office; one third of the territory of El Salvador was affected. 109/ In addition, the number of politically motivated murders increased, most of them attributed to the rebels. The cases which caused the most outrage were the murder of former guerrilla commander Miguel Castellanos (17 February) (see chap. IV); the execution of Mr. Francisco Peccorini Letona; the murder of the Attorney General of the Republic, Roberto García Alvarado; the murder of José Antonio Rodríguez Porth, who only days before had assumed the post of the President’s Chief of Staff, together with his chauffeur and another person with him. Mr. Rodríguez Porth, who was 74 years of age, was wounded by several gun shots in front of his house and died a few days later in the hospital. In addition there was the murder of conservative ideologue Edgard Chacón; the execution of Gabriel Eugenio Payes Interiano 110/ and the death of prominent politician Francisco José Guerrero, former President of the Supreme Court, on 24 November in an operation which the Government claimed was carried out by the urban commandos of FMLN (see chap. IV).

Progress was made in the dialogue between FMLN and the Salvadorian Government. 111/ The talks continued in Mexico City from 13 to 15 September, in San José, Costa Rica, beginning on 16 October and in Caracas a month later. Observers from the Catholic Church of El Salvador, the United Nations and the Organization of American States were present.

Following the bombing of the offices of the Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoeñes (FENASTRAS) 112/ (see chap. IV), FMLN suspended talks with the Government.

On 16 November 1989 army units murdered the Jesuit priests of the Central American University (UCA): Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Armando López, Juan Ramón Moreno and Joaquín López, together with housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter, Celina Ramos (see chap. IV).

Colonel René Emilio Ponce, Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff, reported that the body count was 446 soldiers dead and 1,228 wounded, and 1,902 guerrillas killed and 1,109 wounded. 113/

The Commission on the Truth received direct testimony concerning 292 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1989.


In 1990, negotiations proceeded and made real progress, while at the same time the war continued. Héctor Oquelí Colindres (see chap. IV.), leader of the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR) 114/ was abducted and killed in Guatemala. Former President José Napoleón Duarte died and FMLN marked the occasion by proclaiming a unilateral cease-fire on the 24th and 25th.

According to the Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1990-1991, 119 people, 53 of whom were executed by death squads and 42 by the army, died as a result of political murders attributable to military or paramilitary groups. FMLN executed 21 persons, 14 of those executions being considered political murders. 115/

There were fewer civilian deaths than in 1989. The numbers dropped sharply after the signing of the San José Agreement on Human Rights on 26 July 1990. The army’s military operations accounted for 852 victims, but it is not known how many were FMLN combatants and how many were civilians. 116/

In his report on the human rights situation for 1990, the Special Representative of the United Nations shared the concern of the Commission on Human Rights about the alarming frequency with which members of civil defence units had been involved in serious acts of murder, robbery, assault, rape and abuse of authority, keeping the population in a permanent state of fear and insecurity. 117/

The delegations of the Government and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional met in Geneva and agreed to resume talks. On 20 May 1990, the parties signed an agreement in Caracas which contained the agenda for the negotiations aimed at ending the conflict and established a definite timetable. 118/ The parties continued to meet on 19 June in Oaxtepec, Mexico, to discuss demilitarization and military impunity. The round of talks concluded without producing any agreement. As part of the process, what was regarded as the first substantive agreement, dealing with respect for human rights, was signed on 26 July, which has come to be known as the San José Agreement. Both parties undertook to respect the most fundamental rights of the human person and to institute a procedure for international verification by a United Nations mission.

In August, there was another round of talks to discuss the armed forces that ended once again without agreement. The deadlock in the talks led the United Nations Secretary-General to announce on 31 October that henceforth the negotiations would be held in secret.

Towards the middle of November, FMLN stepped up its military operations in various areas as a means of exerting military pressure to get the stalled negotiating process moving again. The international community responded with appeals to FMLN to desist from those operations. 119/

The Commission on the Truth received direct testimony concerning 107 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1990.


The negotiating process between the Government of El Salvador and FMLN went forward during 1991. At the same time, the parties were faulted for serious acts of violence. On 2 January, in San Miguel, FMLN forces shot down a helicopter manned by three American advisers and executed the two survivors (see chap. IV). On 21 January, persons in uniform in El Zapote executed 15 members of a family. 120/ On 28 February, Mr. Guillermo Manuel Ungo died after a long illness. The same day, FMLN announced that it would not, as it had in the past, boycott the March elections. On 10 March, 53 per cent of registered voters took part in the general legislative and municipal elections held in El Salvador. 121/

The process of dialogue advanced with two rounds of negotiations: one in Mexico from 3 to 6 January and the other in San José from 19 to 21 February, yielding no concrete results. Meanwhile, the level of violence of the war intensified throughout the country. 122/

On 4 April, Mexico City played host to the representatives of the Government and FMLN for the eighth round of negotiations, which went on until 27 April. Significant agreements were reached involving constitutional reforms affecting such aspects as the armed forces and the judicial and electoral systems, which were adopted by the Legislative Assembly on 29 April. It was in these Agreements that the parties decided to establish the Commission on the Truth. 123/

On 26 July, with the prior and full support of the United Nations Security Council resolution 693 (1991) and of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) was launched and its Human Rights Division immediately became operational. The United Nations Secretary-General invited the parties to meet with him in New York. On 25 September they concluded the agreement known as the New York Act, which established the National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ). A process of purification and reduction of the armed forces was set in motion, the parties undertook to redefine the doctrine for the armed forces and confirmed the applicability of the Mexico Agreements of 27 April 1991. Furthermore, several economic and social agreements were concluded and an agenda was drawn up for negotiations on all outstanding issues.

The signing of the El Salvador Peace Agreement at Chapultepec, Mexico, on 16 January 1992, marked the culmination of the negotiating process and the beginning of the implementation phase of the agreements. It was also specifically agreed at Chapultepec to link the work of the Commission on the Truth with the clarification and ending of impunity. 124/

For the first six months of 1991, the Commission on the Truth received testimony concerning 28 victims of serious acts of violence.

The signing of the Peace Agreement in Chapultepec put an end to 12 years of armed conflict in El Salvador and the events mentioned in this brief chronology are only part of the tragic events of El Salvador’s recent history. The Chapultepec Peace Agreement should also be the beginning of a new period that augurs a promising future for this Central American nation through national reconciliation.


103/ Americas Watch pointed out that "... both the Government and FMLN appear to have violated the rules of war during the first week of the offensive. Op. cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative ..." 1990, p. 4.

104/ Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, 1989, p. 111.

105/ Op. cit., OAS-ICHR, Annual Report, 1989-1990, p. 140.

106/ Alfredo Cristiani received 53.83 per cent of the 939,078 valid votes counted, higher than the 36.03 per cent received by the Christian Democratic candidate, Fidel Chávez Mena.

107/ On 28 August, army units opened fire on 15 university students, killing one and wounding six others. On 16 December, Imelda González, a lecturer at the National University in Santa Ana, was killed.

108/ Op. cit., OAS-ICHR, Report on the human rights situation in El Salvador, 1989-1990, p. 145.

109/ Op. cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1989, p. 14.

110/ Edgard Antonio Chacón was President of the Institute of International Relations and a columnist known to have extreme anti-communist opinions. On 30 June, while driving with his wife, he was attacked and died of gunshot wounds.

Both COPREFA and the widow of the deceased blamed FMLN urban commandos for the killing, but the charge was denied by FMLN.

Gabriel Eugenio Payes Interiano was a computer engineer affiliated with ARENA. He was shot in the street on 19 July and died on 21 August after a stay in hospital.

111/ The fourth Summit, Esquipulas IV, was held at Tela, Honduras, from 5 to 7 August 1989 with the five Central American Presidents in attendance. In chapter III of the annex, the Governments of the Central American countries urged FMLN to hold a constructive dialogue with a view to achieving a just and lasting peace. At the same time, the Central American Governments urged the Government of El Salvador to arrange, with full guarantees, the integration of the members of FMLN in peaceful life.

Op. cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative to the Commission on Human Rights, 1990, p. 4.

112/ On 31 October 1989, the bombing of FENASTRAS headquarters left 10 trade unionists dead and about 30 injured. Among the dead was the leader of Febe Velázquez. That same day, a bomb injured four people at the headquarters of the Comité de Madres de Presos Políticos, Desaparecidos y Asesinados de El Salvador (COMADRES).

Op. cit., Americas Watch, El Salvador’s Decade of Terror, p. 156.

113/ Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, San Salvador, p. 109.

114/ The Special Representative, in theory, conceded that the perpetrators might have ties to members of the armed forces and security forces or be tolerated and protected by them.

United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1990, p. 10.

115/ Noteworthy among those acts was the murder of the Chief of the Legal Department of the Armed Forces Joint Staff, Major Carlos Figueroa Morales, for which the FMLN "Modesto Ramírez" commando unit claimed responsibility.

Op. cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1990, p. 13.

116/ OAS-ICHR, Report on the situation of human rights in El Salvador, 1990-1991, p. 472.

117/ Op. cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1990, p. 11.

118/ According to the timetable, the process would comprise two phases. The first phase would be aimed at reaching a set of political agreements leading to a cease-fire and would cover the topics of the armed forces, human rights, the judicial and electoral systems, constitutional reforms, economic and issues and United Nations verifications reached of the agreements. The second phase would be devoted to establishing the necessary conditions and guarantees for reintegration of the members of FMLN into the institutional, civil and political life of the country.

Op. cit. United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1991, p. 4.

119/ On 19 November, the United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, called on FMLN not to jeopardize the negotiating process. Mexico, Canada and the Central American Governments also appealed to FMLN to suspend its new offensive. Finally, on 17 December, the Presidents of the region, at a summit meeting held at Puntarenas, Costa Rica, demanded that FMLN declare a cease-fire.

120/ In his Sunday sermon on 3 February, Monsignor Rivera y Damas accused members of the First Infantry Brigade of this mass murder. Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, p. 115. Op. cit., Americas Watch, El Salvador’s Decade of Terror, p. 160.

121/ The new Legislative Assembly, enlarged from 60 to 84 representatives in 1991, comprised 39 deputies from ARENA, 26 from the Christian Democratic Party, 9 from the Partido de Reconciliación Nacional, 8 from Convergencia Democratica and 1 each from the Unión Democrática Nacionalista and the Movimiento Auténtico Cristiano.

122/ On 9 February, the offices and typewriters of Diario Latino were destroyed by arson. Five days of truce at the beginning of March were followed by an escalation of clashes, attacks on military installations and army personnel, etc. resulting in more than 100 people killed in action.

123/ Among its most important provisions are the creation of a National Civil Police under the direction of civilian authorities independent of the armed forces, the establishment of the Office of the National Counsel for the Defence of Human Rights, an allocation to the judiciary from the State budget amounting to no less than 6 per cent of current income, the creation of a Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the redefinition of military jurisdiction as an exceptional procedure limited to dealing with purely military offences and misdemeanours. In this Mexico round it was also agreed to establish a Commission on the Truth to investigate serious acts of violence that had occurred since 1980 and whose impact on society demanded that the public should know the truth.

124/ El Salvador Peace Agreement, Chapultepec, 16 January 1992, 5, End to Impunity: "The parties recognize the need to clarify and put an end to any indication of impunity on the part of officers of the armed forces, particularly in cases where respect for human rights is jeopardized. To that end, the Parties refer this issue to the Commission on the Truth for consideration and resolution".