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)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
3. Enforced disappearances
(b) Rivas Hernández (1986)
SUMMARY OF THE CASE
Francisco Arnulfo Ventura and José Humberto Mejía, law students at the University of El Salvador, were arrested by members of the National Guard in the parking lot of the United States Embassy on 22 January 1980 after a student demonstration. According to witnesses, members of the National Guard handed the students over to some men in civilian clothing who drove off with them in a private car. Despite the judicial investigations and remedies carried out since that date, the students’ whereabouts are still unknown.
The Commission made the following findings:
1. Members of the National Guard arrested Francisco Arnulfo Ventura and José Humberto Mejía, detained them in the parking lot of the United States Embassy and then handed them over to some men in civilian clothing who drove off with them in a private vehicle.
2. While in the custody of those men, the students disappeared and there is no evidence that they are still alive.
3. By denying that the students had been arrested and failing to act quickly to investigate the incident and identify precisely who was responsible, then Colonel Eugenio Vides Casanova, Commander of the National Guard, was guilty, at the least of complicity through negligence and of obstructing the resulting judicial investigation.
4. The State failed in its duty to investigate, bring to trial and punish the guilty parties, compensate the victims’ relatives and inform them of the whereabouts of the disappeared persons. The State must comply fully and promptly with these obligations.
DESCRIPTION OF THE FACTS 321/
On the morning of 22 January 1980, a student demonstration which had marched from the University of El Salvador to the centre of San Salvador was violently dispersed by security forces in front of the cathedral; a number of people were killed or injured. 322/
Two of the demonstrators, Francisco Arnulfo Ventura Reyes (age 24) and José Humberto Mejía (age 25), both law students, went through the main entrance of the United States Embassy after the demonstration, at about 2.30 in the afternoon.
According to a number of witnesses, members of the National Guard arrested them at the Embassy gate and took them into the parking lot, where they stayed for a few minutes in the custody of the National Guard. Shortly afterwards, a private car 323/ entered the Embassy parking lot and the National Guard handed the students over to some men in civilian clothing who put them in the car boot and drove off. That was the last that was seen of the students.
The same afternoon, a relative of Francisco Ventura went looking for him. Near the cathedral, a number of people told him that they had heard that Francisco Ventura and José Humberto Mejía had been arrested in front of the United States Embassy by guards. The next day, he received confirmation of this information when he went to the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios Salvadoreños (AGEUS).
At the request of AGEUS, Mr. Santiago Orellana Amador and Mr. Florentín Menéndez were appointed to file writs of habeas corpus for the two students. According to their judicial statements, they spoke to Mr. Vytantos A. Dambrava, Director of the International Communications Agency of the United States Embassy, and to the Embassy’s chief of security. Both Embassy officials said that they had known about the students’ arrest and that the United States Marines had not been involved. They also said that the members of the National Guard who had been guarding the Embassy had brought the students into the courtyard to search them, and had kept them there. They added that, shortly afterwards, the two young men had been taken out of the Embassy. Mr. Dambrava said that they had been taken away by members of the National Guard, 324/ while the chief of security said that men in olive drab trousers and ordinary shirts had driven off with them in a private vehicle.
Mr. Orellana and Mr. Meléndez later interviewed Colonel Eugenio Vides Casanova, then Commander of the National Guard, who denied the statements by the Embassy officials. The lawyers then requested the Supreme Court to rule on the conflicting information given by the Embassy and the National Guard Command. 325/
At the same time, the Chief State Counsel, Mario Zamora, filed a complaint with the Second Criminal Court. Testimony was heard from relatives of the disappeared students. The judge also requested information from the United States Embassy and the National Guard, but did not receive a reply.
On 22 February 1980, the Supreme Court authorized the judge of the Second Criminal Court to initiate an investigation into the whereabouts of the disappeared students. That same night, Mario Zamora was murdered. 326/ After that, no further investigations were carried out.
However, the lawyers pursued their investigation, visiting National Guard barracks, 327/ while the students’ relatives searched everywhere, even among the bodies that were turning up on the outskirts of San Salvador. Neither the young men nor their bodies were found.
Three months later, the death squad known as the "Ejército Secreto Anti-Comunista" published a list of names which included people who had already been murdered or disappeared, such as Monsignor Romero, Father Rutilio Grande and Chief State Counsel Mario Zamora. The names of Francisco Arnulfo Ventura and José Humberto Mejía were on the list. At the end of the list was an exhortation which read, "... help us get rid of all these traitors and criminal communists. The country will thank you for it." 328/
The Commission finds the following:
1. There is full evidence that members of the National Guard arrested Francisco Arnulfo Ventura and José Humberto Mejía, detained them in the parking lot of the United States Embassy and handed them over to men in civilian clothing who drove off with them in a private car.
2. While in the custody of these men who drove into the Embassy parking lot and to whom they were handed over by the guards who arrested them, Ventura and Mejía disappeared. There is no evidence that they are still alive.
3. There is substantial evidence that by failing to act quickly to investigate the incident and identify precisely who was responsible, then Colonel Eugenio Vides Casanova was guilty, at least of complicity through negligence and of obstructing the resulting judicial investigation.
The State failed in its duty to investigate, bring to trial and punish the guilty parties, compensate victims’ relatives and inform them of the whereabouts of the disappeared persons. The State must comply with its obligations.
321/ The Commission on the Truth interviewed eyewitnesses and a number of officials who had been working at the United States Embassy at the time. It also reviewed the dossier of the criminal proceedings and inspected the scene of the arrest and disappearance of the students. In order to protect confidential sources, such sources are not quoted in this report.
323/ All the testimony indicates that at least one car entered the Embassy courtyard. There are indications that more than one car entered.
324/ Judicial statements by Mr. Florentín Meléndez, dossier, f. 39, and Mr. Santiago Orellana Amador, ff. 41-42.
325/ Dossier, ff. 50, 52.
326/ See the report on the case in this chapter.
327/ On 31 January, the National Guard central barracks was searched, but the disappeared students were not found. F. 43. Cells at the central barracks of the Treasury Police, the Municipal Police and the National Police were searched without success. Ff. 39-40. Both the Chief of the National Police and the Director-General of the Treasury Police denied having detained the students. Ff. 52, 55.
328/ Declaration by the "Ejército Secreto Anti-Communista", 11 May 1980.