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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)


(d) El Junquillo (1981)

(f) Las Hojas (1983)



On the afternoon of 17 March 1982, four Dutch journalists accompanied by five or six members of FMLN, some of them armed, were ambushed by a patrol of the Atonal Battalion of the Salvadorian armed forces while on their way to territory under FMLN control. The incident occurred not far from the San Salvador-Chalatenango road, near the turn-off to Santa Rita. The four journalists were killed in the ambush and only one member of FMLN survived. Having analysed the evidence available, the Commission on the Truth has reached the conclusion that the ambush was set up deliberately to surprise and kill the journalists and their escort; that the decision to ambush them was taken by Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, with the knowledge of other officers; that no major skirmish preceded or coincided with the shoot-out in which the journalists were killed; and, lastly, that the officer named above and other soldiers concealed the truth and obstructed the judicial investigation.


The days before the ambush

A large number of foreign journalists were in El Salvador to cover the 1982 elections to the Constituent Assembly. The political situation in the country had aroused the interest of world public opinion. 168/

At that time, violence in the country was widespread. A number of journalists had received threats, presumably from death squads, and there had been accusations that their reporting favoured the guerrillas.

In March 1982, Koos Jacobus Andries Koster, a Dutch journalist, was in El Salvador making a report on the political and military situation in the country for the Dutch television company IKON. 169/ Producer and editor Jan Cornelius Kuiper Joop, sound technician Hans Lodewijk ter Laag and cameraman Johannes Jan Willemsen, all of them Dutch nationals, had come from Holland especially to make the report.

The team was headed by Koster, who was familiar with the political situation in the country, spoke Spanish and had the necessary contacts, since he had been working in Latin America for years. 170/

In 1980, Koster had produced a report on the civil defence units and the death squads which had had a great impact abroad. The Government had considered the report to be favourable to FMLN.

This latest report was to cover the situation in San Salvador and in a number of areas under FMLN control. According to diplomatic sources, it was "public knowledge" that the Dutch journalists were producing a report favourable to the guerrillas, similar to that of 1980.

On 7 March, as part of their work, the journalists visited Mariona prison in San Salvador to interview and film prisoners accused of belonging to the guerrilla forces. During a cultural event at the prison, one of the leaders thanked the journalists for their support for political prisoners in El Salvador. The videos filmed by the journalists included shots of prisoners’ scars, which the prisoners said were the result of torture. 171/

In order to make preliminary contact with FMLN, Koster met with an FMLN member. Koster gave the man a piece of paper with his name, nationality and where he could be reached. After the meeting, the guerrilla member was followed by several men. While attempting to escape over a fence, he apparently dropped his papers, where he had put the piece of paper for safe keeping.

According to a statement made by Francisco Antonio Morán, Director-General of the Treasury Police, around that time Morán received a report from the Commander of the Military Detachment at Usulután 172/ that a piece of paper had been found in the clothing of a dead subversive 173/ which read: "Contact with Koos Koster at Hotel Alameda, room 418, tel. 239999, Dutch". As a result, Colonel Morán gave orders that Koster be brought to Treasury Police headquarters for questioning. 174/

At around 6 a.m. on 11 March 1982, members of the Treasury Police in civilian clothing brought Koster and the three other journalists to Colonel Morán’s office. 175/ Colonel Morán asked Koster about the piece of paper. Koster denied knowing any terrorists in the country and explained that the information about him might have been provided by another journalist. 176/ Before releasing the journalists, 177/ Colonel Morán warned Koster to be careful because subversive elements knew that he was in the country. 178/

The next day, 12 March, photographs of Koster and the three other journalists appeared in the newspaper, together with a press release from the Armed Forces Press Committee (COPREFA) containing a transcript of the interrogation. The article was headlined "Foreign journalist a contact for subversives" and the caption to Koster’s photograph said that he had been summoned to make a statement to the Treasury Police because some of his personal papers had been found on terrorist Jorge Luis Méndez, along with a piece of paper identifying him as a "contact". 179/

That same day, Dutch journalist Jan Pierre Lucien Schmeitz, who also worked for the company IKON, arrived in the country to cover the elections. Journalists of other nationalities told him that Koster had been arrested and taken to Treasury Police headquarters, accompanied by the three other Dutch journalists.

On the night of 12 March, the four journalists met with Schmeitz. Remembering what El Salvador had been like in 1977, Schmeitz advised them to be very careful of the possible consequences of the interrogation by Colonel Morán. In spite of everything, they decided to go on with their work. 180/ Koster’s FMLN contacts also urged him to leave the country for a while, but he consistently refused to postpone the journey he wanted to make for his report.

On Monday, 15 March, 181/ Schmeitz lent them his minibus but did not offer to drive it. On Tuesday, 16 March, Armin Friedrich Wertz, an independent journalist of German nationality, agreed to act as driver for a fee of $100. That same day, Koster held a further meeting with members of FMLN, at which it was agreed that they would leave the next day, 17 March. Also present at the meeting, in addition to Koster’s previous contacts, was "Commander Oscar", a member of the FDR/FMLN command in Chalatenango, who was to travel with them and could act as interpreter because he knew English.

On the night of 16 March, the journalists discovered that their rooms had been searched.

The journey to Chalatenango

On the morning of Wednesday, 17 March, they picked up Schmeitz’s minibus, which had the words "PRENSA-TV" painted in large letters on the sides, as was customary in El Salvador. In the afternoon, the four journalists met up with Wertz and went to a restaurant car park, where they met "Commander Oscar" of FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación) Forces. A boy named "Rubén", aged between 12

and 15, also arrived; he was the guide and the only one who knew where the meeting was to take place.

At around 3 p.m., they set out from San Salvador for Chalatenango, passing through the town of Aguilares. 182/

A few kilometres before the El Paraíso barracks, Wertz noticed in the rear-view mirror that a dark brown Cherokee Chief jeep with tinted windows appeared to be following them. He slowed down, but the vehicle did not overtake; he then speeded up, but the vehicle stayed in sight. They continued on the Chalatenango road to about kilometre 65, where they took the turn-off to Santa Rita. About 1 kilometre before the turn-off, the Cherokee Chief disappeared from sight. 183/

They had driven nearly 1 kilometre on the side road when they saw a group of people. Immediately "Rubén" got out of the minibus and signalled to them. 184/ It was the contacts, who were waiting for them.

According to Wertz, the four members of the escort party were waiting on a piece of ground below the level of the dirt road and behind a barbed wire fence. One of them was carrying an automatic rifle, probably an FAL, the second a pistol, and the third a rifle of some kind. The fourth man was unarmed. According to a statement given by "Martín", 185/ the man in charge of the escort who was armed with an M-1 rifle, he went to meet the journalists with two other men, "Carlos", who had an M-16, and "Tello", who was carrying a 9-mm pistol.

When they approached the vehicle, Wertz apparently agreed with "Martín" that he would return to pick up the group at 8 a.m. on Sunday, 21 March. 186/ The journalists unloaded their equipment and, at around 5.10 p.m., took a path leading into a hollow opposite a hill.

Wertz says he then returned to San Salvador with the radio on high volume and neither saw soldiers nor heard shots during the journey. 187/

The ambush

According to "Martín" he was given the order to go and meet the group on 14 March 1982. He knew "Commander Oscar" and "Rubén". He also knew that the others were foreign journalists. He took seven men and left base camp at 4 p.m. the next day, 15 March. 188/

At around 5 a.m. on 17 March, the escort party reached a refuge 2 kilometres from the meeting place. Two men went out to reconnoitre the area over a radius of 1 kilometre, but found nothing unusual.

In their statements, "Martín" said that he had never had any problems on that route in the past, 189/ but Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena said that the army had information that the route was being used to supply nearby guerrilla camps. During the trial, "Commander Miguel Castellanos", a former member of FMLN, said that the route was known to the army. 190/

When the escort arrived at the agreed place, the journalists put on their rucksacks, took the rest of their equipment and set off overland.

According to "Martín", the group was walking in a single file, at a distance of 4 metres apart. "Commander Oscar" led the way, followed by "Rubén", Martín was among the journalists, and "Carlos" brought up the rear with his M-16. 191/ They had gone about 250 metres when they came under heavy fire from M-16 rifles and M-60 machine-guns, coming from two hills about 100 metres away. Martín saw two of the journalists fall to the ground. They were hit by the first shots and never moved again. 192/ He headed towards the road, dodging the soldiers’ fire, climbed over the barbed wire fence and escaped. 193/

Most of "Martín"’s account was confirmed by the statement made by Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza, who was in command of the military patrol that staged the ambush. 194/ The sergeant also said that he noticed that some members of the group were carrying equipment and were taller than the average Salvadorian; at the time, however, it did not occur to him that they might be foreigners and he assumed that they were armed. He added that, towards the end of the shoot-out, he noticed that two of the tall men were attempting to escape towards the river-bed. He came down the hill in pursuit of them and shot and killed them with his M-16 from a distance of about 25 metres. In his statements, he said he did not know for certain whether the men had been armed. 195/

The statements by the sergeant and the soldiers differ in some respects from those made by "Martín", as well as among themselves. They claim that the first shots were fired from a hill by FMLN guerrillas and that the shoot-out with the group of journalists and their escorts was part of a larger skirmish involving a second group of FMLN combatants. As indicated below, these statements do not appear to be true.

Origin of the patrol

According to the statements by Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza, the patrol he was commanding consisted of 25 soldiers and had been sent to inspect the area because information had been received that it was being used as a supply route for the guerrillas. According to the sergeant, his men had set the ambush because, just before the encounter, they had seen a small group of armed guerrillas heading towards the Santa Rita road and had decided to surprise them on their return. He denies having any prior knowledge that a particular group would be using that route or that it would include foreign journalists. 196/

This version of events is essentially the same as the one which subsequently appeared in the press release issued by the Armed Forces Press Committee (COPREFA).

However, according to statements made to the Commission on the Truth by officers stationed at the El Paraíso barracks at the time, a meeting was held in which officers of the General Staff of the Fourth Brigade, including its Commander, Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, and officers of the Atonal Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI) took part. According to those interviewed, the ambush was planned at that meeting, on the basis of precise intelligence data indicating that the journalists would try to enter the zone controlled by FMLN via that route the next day. 197/ The mission was entrusted to a patrol from the Atonal Battalion, which left the El Paraíso barracks at 5 a.m. on 17 March in order to avoid detection and remained in the hills all day awaiting the group’s arrival.

Subsequent events

Sergeant Canizales says that, when the ambush was over, he informed barracks by radio of the outcome. 198/ Colonel Reyes Mena 199/ then dispatched a vehicle patrol which, when it arrived at the scene, found the eight bodies. 200/ The lieutenant in command sent some of his men for the Santa Rita justice of the peace, who arrived half an hour later.

According to one officer of the detachment, the lieutenant’s decision to notify the justice of the peace and take the bodies to the El Paraíso barracks surprised and greatly annoyed Colonel Reyes Mena. In the end, however, Colonel Reyes Mena decided to inform the General Staff.

The next morning, 18 March, the judicial inquiry continued at the El Paraíso barracks. 201/ Because of his physical features, "Commander Oscar" was taken for a foreigner and his body was sent with those of the Dutch journalists to San Salvador.

According to Schmeitz, at around 9 a.m. he received a telephone call from Howard Lane, press attaché at the United States Embassy in El Salvador, confirming that his four colleagues were dead. 202/ He later went to COPREFA, where an official handed out a statement explaining briefly that the journalists had been killed in cross-fire during a clash between guerrillas and the army. 203/

When Schmeitz was back in his hotel room, he received a threatening phone call telling him to "stop his inquiries and leave the country, because there was a fifth coffin ready for him". He received three more such calls in the course of that night. On 20 March, Schmeitz left El Salvador.

In the days that followed, the Dutch Ambassador met with a member of the Revolutionary Government Junta to transmit his country’s request to the Salvadorian authorities that it be allowed to conduct a full investigation into the incident. One key element would be to interview the sergeant and soldiers who staged the ambush, but the Salvadorian Government would not give authorization for this. In its second report, the Dutch Commission of inquiry noted that "at the request of the Government of the Netherlands, the United States Government endorsed this request to the Salvadorian authorities". 204/

"Martín", the guerrilla who survived the ambush, was taken to Holland, where he testified on 4 and 5 May 1982. Subsequently, on 19 May, the Dutch commission interviewed the sergeant at length in private. 205/

The judicial proceedings on the case came to a halt in 1988, when the judge, Dora del Carmen Gómez de Claros, sought and obtained asylum abroad. In a letter, she said that she had received anonymous threats.

The Commission requested a copy of the dossier from Margarita de los Angeles Fuente Sanabria, the current judge of the Court of First Instance at El Dulce Nombre de María, Chalatenango. Although initially prepared to hand over the dossier, she later said that she had received instructions that the Commission should apply to the President of the Supreme Court of Justice for a copy. The Commission repeatedly telephoned and wrote to Mr. Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro, President of the Supreme Court of El Salvador, requesting a copy, but received no answer. It was the Chief State Counsel of the Republic who transmitted a copy of his dossier to the Commission.


1. The Commission on the Truth considers that there is full evidence that Dutch journalists Koos Jacobus Andries Koster, Jan Cornelius Kuiper Joop, Hans Lodewijk ter Laag and Johannes Jan Willemsen were killed on 17 March 1982 in an ambush which was planned in advance by the Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, Colonel Mario A. Reyes Mena, with the knowledge of other officers at the El Paraíso barracks, on the basis of intelligence data alerting them to the journalists’ presence, and was carried out by a patrol of soldiers from the Atonal BIRI, under the command of Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza.

2. These same officers, the sergeant and others subsequently covered up the truth and obstructed the investigations carried out by the judiciary and other competent authorities.

3. These murders violated international human rights law and international humanitarian law, which stipulates that civilians shall not be the object of attack.

4. The State failed in its obligation to investigate, bring to trial and punish the guilty parties, as required under international law.

5. The President of the Supreme Court, Mr. Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro, failed to cooperate with the Commission on the Truth.


168/ During March 1982, there were some 700 journalists, photographers and television technicians in the country. Bonner, Raymond. Weakness and Deceit, Times Books, New York, 1984, p. 295.

169/ F. 252 of the dossier.

170/ Report I, p. 2.

171/ The Commission checked the video tapes and cassettes recorded by the journalists at the prison.

172/ According to official information transmitted to the Commission by the armed forces, there was no military detachment at Usulután at the time, only the Sixth Infantry Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Elmer González Araujo.

173/ Record of the interrogation at Treasury Police headquarters. Annex II of report I.

174/ Ff. 73 et seq. of the dossier.

175/ F. 254 of the dossier.

176/ Interrogation record, annex II, report I.

177/ Report I, p. 3.

178/ Folio Ff. 73 et seq. of the dossier.

179/ A copy of the newspaper article can be found in annex III to report I. After studying the text of the press release, Colonel González denied that it was the work of COPREFA, saying that it has been written by the Treasury Police and passed on to COPREFA for publication, together with the photographs.

180/ F. 254 of the dossier.

181/ Report I, and f. 254 of the dossier.

182/ Ff. 246 et seq. of the dossier.

183/ F. 246 of the dossier.

184/ F. 246 of the dossier.

185/ Supplementary report of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the events which led to the death of four Dutch journalists on 17 March 1982 in El Salvador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, The Hague, 28 May 1982 (hereinafter referred to as report II).

186/ Report II, p. 7.

187/ Ff. 246 and 254 of the dossier. A Norwegian journalist staying in the same house as Wertz spoke to him as he was coming out of the shower, at 6.30 p.m.

188/ Report II, p. 1.

189/ Report II, p. 2.

190/ Ff. 117 et seq. of the dossier. Pseudonym of Napoleón Romero García.

191/ "Martín" said that, about 50 metres from the meeting point, he saw a blue pick-up truck with two people in it on the road to Santa Rita (report II, p. 4). Wertz, who was driving the minibus along the same road at the time, made no mention of this vehicle in any of his statements.

192/ Report II, p. 4. The sergeant also said that a number of men were hit by the first shots fired. Report II, p. 14.

193/ Report II, p. 6.

194/ Report II.

195/ Statement by the sergeant, report II, pp. 12 ff.

196/ Sergeant Canizales, report II, p. 13.

197/ According to information received by the Commission on the Truth from a number of sources, the intelligence data came from the Treasury Police, which had had the journalists under surveillance. Bonner, Raymond. Weakness and Deceit, p. 295.

198/ Report II, p. 15.

199/ F. 76 of the dossier.

200/ Report I, p. 11.

201/ Report II, p. 15. Dossier of the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic, ff. 1, et seq.

202/ F. 254 of the dossier.

203/ F. 254 of the dossier.

204/ Report II, p. 9.

205/ Report II, pp. 12 ff.