El Salvador struggles to come to terms with violent past

Written by Linda Cooper & James Hodge
For National Catholic Reporter
Monday, March 24 2014

The election of a former Marxist guerrilla as El Salvador’s next president is not likely to spell the end of the country’s controversial amnesty law that has shielded war criminals from prosecution in the killings of thousands of Salvadorans, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero 34 years ago Monday.

President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a top commander of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) before it became a political party, has been backing away from his 2013 pledge to seek the repeal of the 1993 amnesty law as a way of bringing about justice and closing the wounds of the 12-year armed conflict that left more than 75,000 dead.
But his thin margin of victory — a mere 6,300 votes — and the fact that his party does not control the Legislative Assembly would make it difficult for him to repeal a law that so deeply divides the country. At least not without international pressure and rulings from the Salvadoran Supreme Court.

Sánchez Cerén, the incumbent vice president, was declared the winner of a runoff election by the Supreme Electoral Authority on March 16, defeating Norman Quijano, a right-wing candidate staunchly opposed to the law’s repeal.

Quijano was the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), founded by the late Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a graduate of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas — now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — and a death squad leader known as “Blowtorch Bob” for using blowtorches during interrogations. The U.N.’s Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded he gave the orders to assassinate Romero.
The ARENA party was in power when the Salvadoran military assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989, and the U.N. Truth Commission announced in 1993 that 85 percent of the wartime killings were committed by the Salvadoran military and its death squads, and only 5 percent by the FMLN.

The Truth Commission had been given the task of “putting an end to any indication of impunity on the part of officers of the armed forces,” but five days after the commission’s report was released in 1993, the ARENA party pushed the Legislative Assembly to pass the amnesty law granting blanket impunity.

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