Nayib Bukele, the forty-year-old President of El Salvador, has been in office since 2019 and has a reputation for what is referred to as “millennial authoritarianism.” He often wears a baseball cap backward on his head, he once pronounced himself the “coolest President in the world,” and he recently made Bitcoin a legal national currency. He tends to find ways to get what he wants. In February of last year, he coerced support for a security-budget loan by surrounding the Salvadoran legislature with snipers and invading it with armed soldiers. This May, with several of his executive orders being challenged as unconstitutional, and a number of his ministries under financial investigation, he replaced the attorney general and all five judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, the nation’s highest, with political allies. The newly appointed judges then voided El Salvador’s ban on Presidential second terms.
But, on August 31st, Bukele made an announcement that many consider to be of a different order. Late that evening, the legislature, which his party dominates, passed a law forcing all judges over the age of sixty, or those with more than thirty years of service, to retire immediately—effectively allowing Bukele to replace a third of the country’s judges. Carlos Dada, the founding editor of El Faro, a prestigious Salvadoran online investigative-journalism outlet, told me that Bukele has “grabbed all power,” adding that “he has the military and the police in his pocket. The President takes care of them—they take care of the President. He now controls the courts. ARENA and the F.M.L.N.”—the two main opposition parties—“have been destroyed, and he has an absolute majority in congress. He no longer has any opposition except the N.G.O.s and journalists.”
Bukele’s latest move follows the playbook for the steady accretion of dictatorial power, but it may also be designed, in part, to address a problem presented by a legal proceeding taking place in a courtroom above a parking garage in the provincial city of San Francisco Gotera. The case has been presided over by a stubbornly independent judge named Jorge Guzmán Urquilla, who is sixty-one, and it involves an infamous massacre that occurred in December, 1981—at the height of the country’s twelve-year civil war—in the nearby town of El Mozote. The proceedings are in an evidentiary stage, during which, by Salvadoran law, Guzmán will decide whether criminal charges are warranted. By asking questions about the past, Guzmán has been shedding an uncomfortable light on El Salvador’s current dysfunctional government. By ordering the retirement of all judges over sixty, Bukele may be trying to shut the proceedings down.
The El Mozote massacre is widely regarded as the largest in modern Latin American history. A Salvadoran Army counter-insurgency unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, newly formed and trained by the United States, was engaged in a sweep through territory held by leftist guerrillas from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.). The battalion occupied El Mozote and surrounding settlements and, over three days, systematically killed about a thousand people—mostly women and children, including two hundred and forty-eight children under the age of six. As it happened, El Mozote was an evangelical Christian town not aligned with the guerrillas; its population had been enlarged by people fleeing the fighting, who thought that they would be safe there.
Guzmán’s proceedings pertain to a case originally filed by a few El Mozote survivors in 1990, while the civil war was still being fought. In 1993, not long after the war had been brought to an end and a United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission had published a report examining “grave wrongdoings” committed during the conflict, the congress passed an amnesty law prohibiting the prosecution of crimes committed by either side, effectively preëmpting the El Mozote case. But, in 2016, after El Salvador’s highest court declared the 1993 amnesty unconstitutional, the plaintiffs reopened the case, which now includes fifteen defendants from the 1981 Salvadoran chain of command. This is the case that Guzmán has presided over for the past five years.
Video images on El Faro’s Web site show gray-haired defendants descending the steep stairs from the courtroom and walking to their cars They include former high-ranking members of the Salvadoran military; among them, José Guillermo García, the former minister of defense, and Jesús Gabriel Contreras, the former head of operations for the Army’s general staff. According to the Truth Commission, this group was ultimately responsible, by the chain of command, for a reign of terror that resulted in eighty-five per cent of the deaths and disappearances in the civil war, which left seventy-five thousand victims—including those killed at El Mozote. Bukele has to be aware that if any of the men were to be convicted—or even subjected to a public trial—it could seriously destabilize his relationship with the military, which anchors his support on the right.
The case’s evidentiary phase was drawing to a close. Because El Salvador is party to legal conventions established after Nuremberg, Guzmán could recommend charges of crimes against humanity. And, despite delays resulting from the pandemic, the prosecution has assembled an impressive case, presenting testimony from the now aged survivors; members of an Argentine forensic team, which studied the site in 1992 as part of the Truth Commission investigation; a Peruvian expert on the structures of Latin American militaries; and Terry Karl, an emeritus professor of Latin American studies and political science at Stanford, who is an internationally acknowledged authority on the Salvadoran civil war.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan saw El Salvador as a place to draw a line against Communism. The massacre occurred seven weeks before his Administration was required to send the U.S. Congress a certification that the Salvadoran military was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights,” a condition for it to continue receiving U.S. military aid. The F.M.L.N. had a radio station, Venceremos, which could reach San Salvador, the capital, but the Atlacatl had knocked it out, and it wasn’t until Christmas Eve, when the radio had been restored, that the station broadcast its first account of the massacre. (The F.M.L.N. is now one of the country’s major political parties; Bukele represented it as mayor of San Salvador, but the Party kicked him out.) Shortly afterward, the F.M.L.N. contacted Raymond Bonner, who covered Central America for the Times, and invited him and the photographer Susan Meiselas to report from guerrilla-held territory, where they eventually documented the massacre at El Mozote. Before leaving for El Salvador, Bonner had tipped off Alma Guillermoprieto, then working for the Washington Post, to their trip, and she followed a few days later. On January 27, 1982, the day before Congress received the Reagan Administration’s certification, both the Times and the Post printed their stories, giving preliminary estimates of fatalities and describing remains of bodies poking out of the rubble and piles of charred bones.
The Reagan Administration had reason to believe that the massacre reports were substantially true, but the Salvadoran military prevented a group from the U.S. Embassy from investigating the site. Nonetheless, the Administration sought to protect the military-funding certification by conducting what Terry Karl referred to, in her testimony, as a “sophisticated coverup.” Deane Hinton, then the Ambassador to El Salvador, described Bonner as an “advocate journalist.” The conservative group Accuracy in Media went further, saying that Bonner was engaged in “a propaganda war favoring the Marxist guerrillas.” Congress approved the funding. Bonner and Guillermoprieto both eventually began writing for The New Yorker.
A decade later, their reporting was vindicated by the Argentine forensic team’s findings, which included the skeletal remains of at least a hundred and forty-three bodies in the town’s church sacristy. Evidence showed that some of the victims had been lying on the ground when they were shot. In December of 1993, The New Yorker devoted most of an issue of the magazine to a piece by Mark Danner, based on his own extensive reporting and a trip to the site, in which he described the massacre and its outcome as a “central parable of the Cold War.” Nelson Rauda, the principal El Faro reporter covering Guzmán’s hearings, told me that the story of the massacre has been better documented outside El Salvador than within it. He said that “the majority of people are concerned with finding shelter and enough food to eat,” and that “this is not a country where there is a deep sense of history,” even though “every person over forty has a war history, a war trauma.” This was a reason, he added, that the prosecution invited Karl to testify. She did so, in Spanish, for three days, and El Faro live-streamed all of it. “It caught the attention of the Salvadoran public,” Rauda said.