SAN SALVADOR — This country’s brutal civil war ended nearly thirty years ago, but in many ways, it still feels like a battleground here. Soldiers in combat gear patrol the streets alongside heavily armed police; razor wire runs atop many buildings. Those who can afford to live in gated communities with private security, while guards watch the entrance of many businesses. These days, however, they spend much of their time taking customers’ temperatures and directing them to hand sanitizer.
In February, soldiers occupied parliament at the direction of President Nayib Bukele in an attempt to pressure lawmakers into approving an increase in military funding. Weeks later, Bukele ordered one of the world’s longest and most restrictive pandemic lockdowns. Military checkpoints were set up around the country, and people deemed to be violating quarantine were arrested. When the legislature and courts attempted to block the moves, Bukele accused them of “being on the side of the disease,” refusing to follow court orders.
Human rights defenders who challenged the military’s actions were threatened, as were journalists who published investigative reports critical of the president and his cabinet.
Bukele was elected in June 2019, but the tensions are decades old. Scholars generally agree about the basic facts of El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted from 1980 until 1992: A small but powerful economic elite, supported by the military, resisted demands for reform and became increasingly repressive, prompting the left-wing opposition to organize and take up arms. As part of its Cold War “containment” policy, the United States provided funding and military support to El Salvador’s right-wing government.
Although both sides committed war crimes, the United Nations later found that US-backed Salvadoran government troops and their allies were behind most of them. Perhaps the worst atrocity—the massacre of around 1,000 innocent villagers in the hamlet of El Mozote on December 11, 1981—still looms large over society in El Salvador today, pushing the country toward a constitutional crisis and raising crucial questions about justice, memory and the country’s fragile institutions.
On that day, the elite Atlacatl Battalion invaded the settlement, killing virtually every inhabitant, raping women and desecrating bodies. Although American journalists publicized the event several weeks later, and a 1993 UN truth commission criticized the government for failing to investigate it, the perpetrators seemed destined to get away with it. Shortly after the release of the commission’s report, El Salvador’s legislative assembly passed a sweeping amnesty law aimed at absolving military commanders of any wrongdoing.
It took two decades for the Salvadoran government to apologize—although there was still no meaningful attempt to investigate the massacre. Then, in 2016, the Supreme Court found the amnesty law unconstitutional, leading to a historic moment that same year, when a local judge, Jorge Guzmán, reopened the case against more than a dozen former top military officers. The prosecutor general called witnesses to testify, but the military archives remained closed. Requests for the United States to release its own records related to the massacre have gone unanswered.
In 2019, Guzmán ordered the military to open its archives to allow court-appointed inspectors to search for evidence that could shed light on who was responsible for the massacre at El Mozote. Then came Bukele: Having run on a platform of being the first “post-war” president, he promised his administration would open the archives “from A to Z,” claiming “the only way to heal the wounds of the past is for the truth to be known.” However, he suddenly reversed course last June, citing concerns about national security—the same argument made by every previous administration.
Guzmán rejected that claim and scheduled inspections at eight locations throughout the country between September 21 and November 13. But when he and his team arrived at the first stop, a military base in San Salvador, they were blocked by soldiers before a top Defense Ministry official in fatigues confronted them. Days earlier, soldiers police, along with health officials, had been deployed to several towns. A number of others—including San Francisco Gotera, where the case was being heard—were blockaded for “sanitary reasons.” Movement was restricted for the administration of coronavirus tests. In a September 23 address to the nation, Bukele railed against his enemies, including the courts, the human rights ombudsman and US lawmakers who had signed a letter expressing concern.
He also accused Guzmán of being motivated by allegiance to leftist guerrillas and a desire to tarnish the image of the government and military.
The Health Ministry denied the military deployments were politically motivated, claiming the soldiers’ orders were simply to protect health workers. But even the government’s own pandemic statistics did not suggest infections in those towns were higher than in other parts of the country, experts pointed out. Instead of ensuring public health, the deployment of troops to one-time guerrilla strongholds—including the very town whose court Bukele is defying—disturbed many Salvadorans.
They have watched with familiar unease as the clash between Guzmán and the military has unfolded. Security protocols have been stepped up at human rights organizations, especially those associated with the case, as many still recall the disappearances and murders of lawyers and activists who dared stand up to the military and elites. These days, the most visible attacks take place on Twitter; Bukele’s enthusiastic followers denounce anyone they consider to be his enemies.
Salvadorans continue to disagree about what happened during the war, as well as who was to blame. Some see the guerrillas as freedom fighters while others consider them terrorists who provoked the military to violence. Either way, many believe the military is central to the country’s fragile stability: Soldiers take an active role in law enforcement, which includes reining in the street gangs blamed for much of the country’s ongoing violence.
There’s just one problem, as a Salvadoran human rights lawyer, Marina Ortiz, recently told me: “Militarization is not necessary in a democracy.”
Bukele is ‘the same as the rest. If the president were actually committed to justice, he would act differently.’
People I’ve spoken to here have floated several theories about Bukele’s apparent change of heart, but most boil down to a single one: “He’s the same as the rest.” The country’s wealthy and the military, many believe, are still on the same side, ruling the country. Either way, Ortiz says, “If the president were actually committed to justice, he would act differently.” Still, she adds, Guzmán’s initiative represents a huge step forward from the past, when the judicial branch would have likely colluded with a cover-up.
In the weeks following the standoff, the military presence on the streets seemed to increase. On a recent Sunday night, my partner and I drove past the Paseo del Carmen, a popular suburban strip of bars and restaurants, to see how it looked following the coronavirus lockdown. We noticed three soldiers in fatigues on a sidewalk—a quotidian sight—but something felt different. Instead of simply strolling along, they were walking with purpose, gripping the automatic weapons that usually hang from their shoulders. Turning a corner, we saw a group of young men dispersing. We quickly drove away with a feeling of unease.
The next morning, as I walked the dog a few blocks from home in my non-gated neighborhood, two tactical police officers in fatigues approached me. “What’s your dog’s name?” one asked in a friendly voice. “Do you walk him every day?” I told him the dog’s name but answered vaguely, feeling instinctively (although possibly irrationally) unwilling to divulge information about my routine. A few hundred yards on, I passed another pair on patrol, this time a soldier and a police officer in complementary green and blue fatigues. As I walked away, I thought about something Ortiz had said. “If the El Mozote case is successfully brought to trial, it is a message to the next generation that we are healing,” she told me. “If not, we are sending the message that the military can do whatever it wants.”
A crucial test of El Salvador’s democratic institutions, and of the state’s capacity and willingness to ensure such atrocities are never repeated, the case has come to represent the struggle to hold the military to account and transform the country’s culture of impunity. As the 39th anniversary of the massacre approaches this month, it remains to be seen whether the effort will succeed.
There’s much at stake, including beyond El Salvador’s orders: Salvadorans are the second leading nationality granted asylum in the United States, after the civil war prompted mass migration that sent hundreds of thousands northward. Today, those seeking protection in the US believe their government is unwilling or unable to protect them from violence. The military still faces accusations of human rights abuses in the fight against crime, while the criminal justice system is rife with impunity.
Those who placed their hopes in Bukele to usher in a new era are quickly becoming disillusioned.
A version of this dispatch also appeared in Slate: Read here
Top photo: The Monument to Memory and Truth at Cuscatlan Park in downtown San Salvador, which lists the names of victims of the Civil War