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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)



B. Violence against opponents by agents of the State


The Commission on the Truth registered more than 22,000 complaints of serious acts of violence that occurred in El Salvador between January 1980 and July 1991. 126/ Over 7,000 were received directly at the Commission’s offices in various locations. The remainder were received through governmental and non-governmental institutions. 127/

Over 60 per cent of all complaints concerned extrajudicial executions, over 25 per cent concerned enforced disappearances, and over 20 per cent included complaints of torture.

Those giving testimony attributed almost 85 per cent of cases to agents of the State, paramilitary groups allied to them, and the death squads.

Armed forces personnel were accused in almost 60 per cent of complaints, members of the security forces in approximately 25 per cent, members of military escorts and civil defence units in approximately 20 per cent, and members of the death squads in more than 10 per cent of cases. The complaints registered accused FMLN in approximately 5 per cent of cases.

Despite their large number, these complaints do not cover every act of violence. The Commission was able to receive only a significant sample in its three months of gathering testimony.

This also does not mean that each act occurred as described in the testimony. The Commission investigated certain specific cases in particular circumstances, as well as overall patterns of violence. Some 30 of the cases dealt with in the report are illustrative of patterns of violence, in other words, involve systematic practices attested to by thousands of complainants.

Both the specific cases and the patterns of violence show that, during the 1980s, the country experienced an unusually high level of political violence. All Salvadorians without exception, albeit to differing degrees, suffered from this violence.

The introduction to the report and the section on methodology contain an explanation of this phenomenon.

Patterns of violence by agents of the State and their collaborators

All the complaints indicate that this violence originated in a political mind-set that viewed political opponents as subversives and enemies. Anyone who expressed views that differed from the Government line ran the risk of being eliminated as if they were armed enemies on the field of battle. This situation is epitomized by the extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and murders of political opponents described in this chapter.

Any organization in a position to promote opposing ideas that questioned official policy was automatically labelled as working for the guerrillas. To belong to such an organization meant being branded a subversive.

Counter-insurgency policy found its most extreme expression in a general practice of "cutting the guerrillas’ lifeline". The inhabitants of areas where the guerrillas were active were automatically suspected of belonging to the guerrilla movement or collaborating with it and thus ran the risk of being eliminated. El Mozote is a deplorable example of this practice, which persisted for some years.

In the early years of the decade, the violence in rural areas was indiscriminate in the extreme.

Roughly 50 per cent of all the complaints analysed concern incidents which took place during the first two years, 1980 and 1981; more than 20 per cent took place in the following two years, 1982 and 1983. In other words, over 75 per cent of the serious acts of violence reported to the Commission on the Truth took place during first four years of the decade.

The violence was less indiscriminate in urban areas, and also in rural areas after 1983 (95 per cent of complaints concerned incidents in rural areas and 5 per cent concerned incidents in more urban areas).

Patterns of FMLN violence

The Commission registered more than 800 complaints of serious acts of violence attributed to FMLN. This violence occurred mainly in conflict zones, over which FMLN at times maintained firm military control.

Nearly half the complaints against FMLN concern deaths, mostly extrajudicial executions. The rest concern enforced disappearances and forcible recruitment.

The patterns show that this violence began with the armed conflict. It was considered legitimate to physically eliminate people who were labelled military targets, traitors or "orejas" (informers), and even political opponents. The murders of mayors, right-wing intellectuals, public officials and judges are examples of this mentality.

Members of a given guerrilla organization would investigate the activities of the person who might be designated a military target, a spy or a traitor; they would then make an evaluation and take a collective decision to execute that person; special groups or commandoes would plan the action and the execution would then be carried out. After the extrajudicial execution, the corresponding organization would publicly claim responsibility for propaganda purposes. FMLN called such executions "ajusticiamientos".

These executions were carried out without due process. The case of Romero García, alias Miguel Castellanos, in 1989 is typical of extrajudicial executions ordered by FMLN because the victims were considered traitors. He was not given a trial. After a time, FMLN claimed responsibility for having ordered the killing. It never revealed which organization had carried out the execution.

The killings of mayors and the murder of United States military personnel in the Zona Rosa were carried out in response to orders or general directives issued by the FMLN Command to its organizations.

In the Zona Rosa case in 1985, the execution of Mr. Peccorini in 1989, and the execution of Mr. García Alvarado that same year, different member organizations of FMLN interpreted general policy directives restrictively and applied them sporadically, thereby triggering an upsurge in the violence.

In the case of executions of mayors, on the other hand, instructions from the FMLN General Command were interpreted broadly and applied extensively. During the period 1985-1989, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo repeatedly carried out extrajudicial executions of non-combatant civilians. There is no concept under international humanitarian law whereby such people could have been considered military targets.

The Commission was not able to verify the existence of general directives from the FMLN leadership to its constituent organizations authorizing enforced disappearances. It did receive complaints of some 300 cases of disappearance, which occurred mainly in areas where FMLN exercised greater military control. It was not possible to establish the existence of any pattern from an analysis of these complaints. Nevertheless, links were observed between disappearances, forcible recruitment by FMLN and cases of extrajudicial execution by FMLN members of individuals labelled spies or traitors.

The extrajudicial execution of the United States military personnel who survived the attack on their helicopter in San Miguel in 1991 cannot be viewed as the norm. FMLN admitted that some of its members had been responsible, and stated publicly that it had been a mistake. However, there is no record that those who carried out the execution were actually punished.

Lastly, although the number of complaints of the alleged use of land-mines by guerrilla forces was small, the Commission considered accusations made by various organizations against FMLN to that effect. Members of FMLN admitted to the Commission that they had laid mines with little or no supervision, so much so that civilians and their own members who were not sufficiently familiar with the location of minefields had been affected. The Commission did not find any other evidence on this subject.


126/ A detailed analysis of complaints and lists of victims are to be found in the annexes. More than 18,000 complaints from indirect sources were also registered, of which over 13,000 were analysed. The figures for direct and indirect sources have not been added together. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 complaints were duplicated in the two sources. In any event the Commission believes that the total number of complaints registered is at least 22,000.

127/ The Commission also received thousands of other complaints from institutions which, once registered, could not be analysed either because they did not meet the corresponding minimum requirements, even though institutions had been informed of these in good time, or because the incidents reported had occurred outside the period covered by the mandate.