El Salvador: Facing the Truth

March 17, 1993

Sad to say, the agony of El Salvador will not be over until those responsible for its long, tragic civil war face truth and justice. There is nothing really surprising in the findings of a United Nations commission that has traced the origins of infamous atrocities right to the top of the military command and, to a lesser extent, to the leadership of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). In a small country of 5 million people (less the 75,000 killed in the 12-year war) these things are widely whispered.

Now that some of the names of key culprits are out on the record, El Salvador faces the same questions that have tortured other Latin American countries: how to reconcile forgiveness with retribution; how to purge the government of its bad actors and yet begin the process of healing.

President Alfredo Cristiani's response has been classic for those in power during the initial postwar phase. He favors amnesty, wants the past forgotten, is anxious to get on with the business of rehabilitation. The FMLN opposes amnesty and promotes ......TC ban from government service, even for those implicated in its own hierarchy.

The proper course is to follow all the recommendations of the aptly named U.N. Truth Commission: A cleanup of the corrupt, intimidated Salvadoran judicial system so that jurists are in place who can try those accused of war crimes; credible prosecution for those charged with criminal acts; immediate purging from officer ranks of 40 militarists linked to killings, and a 10-year ban from government service for those on both sides named in the commission report.

All this is easier to prescribe than to implement. Jesuits and the Catholic Church want proper justice meted out to those who killed an archbishop and four nuns early in the war and six priests during its later phases. The Dutch government demands punishment for those implicated in the killing of four Dutch journalists. Death squads still operating on the fringes of the military need to be investigated and crushed.

And what about the United States? During the civil war, Washington pumped $6 billion into El Salvador as part of the Reagan crusade to stamp out Marxism in Central America. Salvadoran officers and a battalion accused of the worst offenses were trained by the U.S. military. U.S. diplomats consistently brushed off reports of atrocities that now have been confirmed. While the end goal of putting down a Marxist rebellion might have been justified in the context of the Cold War rivalry that existed a dozen years ago, some of the means used clearly require this nation -- as well as El Salvador -- to face the truth.

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