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Hoping for justice, El Salvador unearths bones from its deadliest massacre

November 7, 2019

A forensic team unearthed Wednesday the bones of 11 victims of the more than 800 killed during El Mozote massacre, which was committed by the Salvadoran Army during the civil war (1980-1992) in northeastern El Salvador.

The exhumations took place in a remote municipal cemetery of the rural Yancolo community, in the municipality of Cacaopera, 172 km northeast of San Salvador.

The Prosecutor’s Office is “investigating crimes committed within the framework of the armed conflict,” said the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) via its Twitter account.

The FGR said the operation will extract the bones of 11 victims, including those of five children — one of them three days old — who were killed by a fragmentary grenade on December 11, 1981.

“There were 20 people in the cave; twelve people died in the explosion and eight survived,” the lawyer Wilfredo Medrano of the NGO Tutela Legal told AFP.

According to a prosecutor present at the site of the excavation, survivors of the massacre returned to the site on February 26, 1994 to collect the bones and buried them in a mass grave.

While the skeletal remains of the victims were “mixed” in the mass grave, what is sought in the laboratory is “the cause and manner of death,” Silvana Turner of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team told reporters in the process.

According to Medrano, “the body of the crime has been established in the El Mozote massacre, and the criminal participation of the Atlacatl battalion has been evidenced.”

The finding of the new bones will be incorporated into an ongoing judicial process against a group of soldiers who are being tried for war crimes.

Painful memories of El Mozote

Standing in front of the burial pit, Santos Pérez, a 75-year-old farmer, said that he lost his younger brothers Máximo and Crecencia, but that he had managed to escape because he was “fleeing through the hills.”

“It’s an ugly place,” he said.

Santos Merenciano Ortiz, 71, who lost a brother in that cave, remembers very well the thunderous sound of the grenade explosion that killed his family member and says that “it was sad” but he hopes there is justice.

Between December 10 and 13, 1981, soldiers of the now banned Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army executed 986 people, including 558 children, in El Mozote and adjacent communities on suspicion of collaborating with the then leftist guerrilla. Another 712 people survived the attack and were forced to leave the area.

In 1993, a commission created by the UN to investigate war crimes blamed the massacre on a group of military personnel, including the commander of the Atlacatl battalion, Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, and its chief operating officer, Armando Azmitia. Both died in 1984 when their helicopter was shot down by the guerrillas.

In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, condemned the Salvadoran State for the massacre, the most serious of the Salvadoran civil war, and ordered reparation measures.

In July 2016, the Supreme Court of Justice declared as unconstitutional an Amnesty Law that had prevented the investigation of serious crimes in the civil war.

After that decision, a court in San Francisco Gotera began a trial against 18 soldiers involved in the case.

The civil war ended on January 16, 1992 and left more than 75,000 dead and missing.

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