News Analysis

A new amnesty could protect St Oscar Romero’s killers


It is almost 30 years since El Salvador’s civil war ended, but the aftermath of the conflict continues to divide opinion. Witness the recent proposal from parliamentarians to grant an amnesty to those involved. If the legislation passes, all ordinary criminal charges relating to the 1979-1992 war would be dropped; and war criminals would be spared prison.

Given the brutality of the war, in which more than 75,000 were killed, the proposal is controversial. Relatives of some of the victims have protested, as has the bishops’ conference, which called it an “absurd” idea.

There is certainly a widespread sense that the crimes have not been fully investigated. For instance, in the infamous El Mozote massacre, militants from the ARENA party killed nearly 1,000 men, women and children. In some cases, civilians were trapped inside their homes and killed. But some of those accused of participating now have high-ranking careers in the upper echelons of El Salvador’s army.

This is not the first amnesty: one was declared in 1993, but overturned in 2016 by the Supreme Court, which declared it unconstitutional. Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador says this new proposal is even worse.

ARENA itself is still very much part of national life. This year its candidate for president, Carlos Calleja, received 31 per cent of the vote. When I visited San Salvador, ARENA’s flag was draped over the privately owned major banks. Yet it’s worth saying that both sides were probably guilty of crimes against humanity.

What about the war’s most famous victim? St Oscar Romero was canonised in October 2018, and any amnesty for his killers is bound to attract criticism across the globe and at home.

The wounds inflicted in El Salvador’s civil war are still open, as families use DNA tests and forensics to find the resting places of their kin, or unite in grieving for those whose burial sites are unknown.