Salvadoran massacre victims still hunting 'truth and justice' 38 years later

By Nelson Renteria
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Salvadoran massacre victims still hunting 'truth and justice' 38 years later

A detail of the memorial monument of El Mozote Massacre is seen in the village of El Mozote

By Nelson Renteria

CACAOPERA, El Salvador (Reuters) - Fidel Perez has abandoned his farm for the day to look on as investigators work in a remote cemetery in this Central American country, seeking answers to one of many tragedies in the Salvadoran civil war - and the remains of his mother and sister.

For Perez, now 43, the investigation marks a return to a dark day when he was seven years old, huddled in a cave with his family and neighbors. Then soldiers threw in a grenade.

It was December 1981, during a military operation in Morazan, at the dawn of the long and bloody civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Perez fainted in the explosion. When he regained consciousness, he saw that his mother and sister had been killed in the attack, along with 10 others.

Fearful of the soldiers' return, the eight survivors fled after burying their loved ones on the spot. This week, the remains are being exhumed from a nearby cemetery on the orders of Salvadoran Judge Jorge Guzmán, who is looking for new evidence about the so-called El Mozote massacre.

According to a U.N. report, soldiers tortured and executed more than a thousand residents of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in the Morazán department, 180 km (110 miles) northeast of San Salvador, as they searched for guerrillas in December 1981.

"Our struggle is to know the truth, for justice to be done," said Pérez, who escaped the cave with his father and brother, as he watched the forensic experts work at the graves. "The hardest part is the imprint in the mind, in one's heart, of leaving a relative behind."

Sixteen retired military personnel, including former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, are accused of planning and ordering the massacre. Garcia did not immediately respond to a request for comment through his lawyer.


'MOCKERY'

However, none of the accused would go to jail if Congress passes a new law giving amnesty to those responsible for crimes during the war.

The initiative is part of the so-called "Reconciliation Law," which seeks to secure reparations for the victims and to put an end to the aftermath of the civil war, which left some 75,000 dead and 8,000 missing.

Human rights specialists say the law, expected to be passed in the next few days, would not prevent those responsible from being convicted, but they would face sentences such as community service or house arrest.

"It is a mockery for the thousands of crimes and specifically, in the case of El Mozote, a mockery after having killed more than a thousand peasants, mostly children," Wilfredo Medrano, a lawyer representing 60 families of the victims, told reporters as the bodies were exhumed.

In 1994, relatives returned for the remains and buried them in Cacaopera, a predominantly indigenous community where they settled after the war.

"Hopefully justice will be done," said Maria Nunez de Marquez, a 61-year-old housewife whose parents in-law and five of her husband's brothers were killed in El Mozote.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June, met with relatives of the victims this summer and reiterated his commitment not to support an amnesty law, according to his office.

(This story has been refiled to fix dateline.)


(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Daniel Wallis)