US university sues CIA for information on El Salvador massacre

Alison McKellar/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Oct. 8, 2015

The Central Intelligence Agency has illegally withheld information about a U.S.-trained military commander who led an operation that led to an alleged massacre during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UW CHR) said, announcing that it has sued the CIA over the matter.

Government troops under Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez’s command allegedly killed dozens of civilians on as they fled government ground and air attacks in El Salvador’s Santa Cruz region in November 1981, during a major operation against rebels amid the country’s 12-year civil war that left at least 75,000 dead.

Ochoa Perez was trained in Washington, D.C., at the Inter-American Defense College, an international academy that boasts many graduates — including current Chilean President Michelle Bachelet — who went on to take high-ranking positions in their respective nations.

UW CHR said it filed the lawsuit on Oct. 2 after the CIA rejected the center’s 2013 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, citing national security exemptions. The center argued that the CIA had failed to meet its legal obligations under FOIA rules.

“We believe that the CIA is unlawfully withholding documents regarding a commander of the military operation that resulted in the Santa Cruz massacre,” UW CHR Director Angelina Snodgrass Godoy said this week in a news release.

The CIA is reviewing the lawsuit and “will coordinate with the Department of Justice to respond to the lawsuit in court,” Dean Boyd, director of the CIA Office of Public Affairs, told Al Jazeera in a statement emailed on Thursday.

The lawsuit is part of UW CHR’s “History and Justice” project, which “focuses on documenting atrocities by states and extrajudicial institutions against people within their borders, often during periods of conflict,” the center’s website says. “In helping document these atrocities and making certain that victims’ accounts are part of the historical record, UW CHR lends critical support and substantiating data to those who seek justice.”

Salvadoran survivors of the Santa Cruz incident have filed dozens of criminal complaints in the country’s courts, but few have achieved justice, UW CHR said in its news release.

“Despite favorable court rulings ordering investigations of these crimes, we have seen a lack of political will to deliver justice,” said Mirla Carbajal, a lawyer with the Human Rights Institute of the San Salvador-based Central American University, who traveled to Seattle for the Oct. 5 UW CHR news conference, along with some Santa Cruz survivors. Despite the investigations, few alleged perpetrators were held accountable for any crimes.

Early in the morning of Nov. 11, 1981, about 1,200 soldiers were mobilized in a unit commanded by Ochoa Perez in Cabanas Department, part of El Salvador’s Santa Cruz region. At the same time, other government forces were carrying out aerial bombings and firing machine guns from helicopters at areas where anti-government guerrilla forces were suspected to be.

Civilians fled their homes and sought shelter under trees, in caves and in improvised bomb shelters. Many of them — including women and children — encountered troops and were killed along the way, UW CHR said.

Philippe Bourgois was a Ph.D. anthropology student from the U.S. who had arrived in the Cabanas town of Pena Blanca on a research trip days before the Santa Cruz incident. He fled along with the other residents during the attacks, according to a report by UW CHR.

“In one of the blasts of gunfire, I threw myself under a bush or a tree, and suddenly I found myself next to a woman who had a baby in her arms. And unfortunately, because of my arrival, the baby begins to cry,” Bourgois said in the report.

“And the mother of the baby says to me, ‘Get out, get out of here!’ At the moment I didn’t understand. I thought, ‘How can it be that she’s kicking me out of here, since they’re firing out there, and there’s space enough in here for three or four people?’ But she knew that they were now going to fire on her and her baby. Then I realized, and in horror I ran out, and in precisely that moment, the bullets came and annihilated that mother and her baby girl,” Bourgois was quoted as saying.

U.S. State Department documents from January 1983 detailed Ochoa Perez’s appointment as foreign diplomatic officer and his professional biography to date, identifying him as having served as military commander of Cabanas Department from Aug. 31, 1981 to Jan. 6, 1983, the UW CHR report said.

U.S. military officials at the time lauded his unit’s tactics.

“One of the things we tried to do, we kind of jokingly say we’d like to do, is clone Ochoa because he was so effective,” the report quoted Col. John Waghlestein, the top U.S. military adviser in El Salvador during the civil war, as saying in a 1987 interview, adding that Ochoa’s unit spent time in the field rather than the barracks.

The report also said Ochoa Perez was praised for his willingness to adopt U.S. counterinsurgency tactics.

After the civil war ended, Ochoa Perez moved into Salvadoran politics. He announced last year that he would not seek reelection as deputy in the Legislative Assembly, the country’s parliament. Thus he no longer has immunity privileges granted to legislators, El Faro reported.

In April, when El Faro asked Ochoa Perez about his role in Santa Cruz, he was quoted as saying, “Why are you asking me all this? Why do you want to stir the past?”

“I don’t recall any massacre,” El Faro quoted him as saying. “I don’t recall it because it never happened. We attacked the guerrillas in Santa Marta and removed them from the department.”

For one woman who said she survived the Santa Cruz incident by hiding in the nearby hills, the memory was still fresh.

“The soldiers were killing the people, and the people were crying out, ‘Ayyyy’ they were crying, and they were burning them, finishing them off because they were alive and … where I was hiding, I could hear the lamentations, the desperate shrieks of the people, some children were yelling ‘Mama! Mama!’ Those agonizing cries,” the UW CHR report quoted a survivor, whom it did not identify by name.

The report concluded that war crimes may have been committed, and the center said further investigation was needed. UW CHR’s director, Godoy, emphasized that the center was not accusing the CIA of participating in alleged war crimes but of failing to disclose information about them.

“A court needs to hear this case,” Godoy told Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger. “We need to establish a much fuller record. That’s what we’re hoping to do with the lawsuit.”

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