El Calabozo massacre: Remains of six returned 38 years later

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San Vicente, El Salvador – Six white caskets sat in a row before an altar set up on the patio of a house in the Salvadoran community of Amatitan Abajo.

They held the remains of six people who were killed alongside 200 others by Salvadoran soldiers in what has been labelled the August 1982 El Calabozo massacre.

“We have a lot of emotions today,” said Margarita Realegeno Bonilla, who waited nearly 38 years to finally lay to rest her six family members, including her parents and siblings, the youngest who was eight.

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Realegeno Bonilla joined a small congregation of mainly elderly men and women who gathered to hold a burial.

“Now that God gives us the opportunity, we feel better knowing that they are going to be buried safely,” Realegeno Bonilla told Al Jazeera.

Friday’s ceremony was one small step forward in a decades-long crusade for justice and reparations for victims of the El Calabozo massacre, which included women, children and the elderly. 

EL SALVADOR MASSACRE REMAINS

Fernando Bonilla Realegeno carries a small coffin holding the bones of his father Jose Bonilla, who was killed when Fernando was in his early 20s, as relatives receive the remains of six family members who were killed in a 1982 massacre [Salvador Melendez/AP Photo] 

An estimated 75,000 people were killed during El Salvador‘s civil war, a conflict between left-wing rebel groups and US-backed state forces that lasted from 1980 to 1992. Worried about the spread of communism during the Cold War, the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan poured billions of dollars into the Salvadoran government.

After the war, a UN truth commission documented various crimes against humanity, including forced disappearance, torture and massacres of unarmed peasants. About 85 percent of abuses were carried out by state forces. But to this day, no one has been held accountable for any of these crimes in a Salvadoran courtroom. Instead, justice and truth have evaded victims like Realegeno Bonilla, leaving the trauma of these crimes as an open wound unable to heal.

“All of this is so difficult for us,” said Margarita’s sister Maria Berta Realegeno Bonilla, 63, shortly before receiving the remains from the morgue in San Salvador on Thursday. “What I ask for is justice and reparations.”

‘They burned everything, everything’

In August 1982, the Salvadoran military launched an operation in San Vicente, a rural area that was a guerrilla stronghold at the time. The army sent about 6,000 troops to rid the area of rebel presence. Some were from the elite Atlacatl Battalion, which was trained at the controversial School of the Americas, now known to have taught torture and other illegal tactics.

Unarmed peasants, including many women, children and elderly, fled in fear. Troops surrounded the community on all sides until they eventually reached an area along the Amatitan river known as El Calabozo, according to survivors. They had nowhere else to go. They surrendered, but soldiers gunned them down, survivors said. Then, they burned the bodies with chemicals and threw them in the river, scattering the remains and making it more difficult to investigate, according to lawyers representing the victims.

EL SALVADOR MASSACRE REMAINS

Margarita Realegeno Bonilla stands just outside the burial site for her relatives killed in the El Calabozo massacre [Anna-Cat Brigida/Al Jazeera] 

“They did everything possible so that the evidence would not exist,” said David Morales, director of strategic litigation with San Salvador-based human rights organisation Cristosal and lawyer representing the El Calabozo victims.

“They burned everything, everything,” Maria Berta Realegeno said. 

Some from the community, including Margarita Realegeno Bonilla and Maria Berta Realegeno were able to flee before the operation.

Joaquin Portillo, 63, was shot while fleeing with his wife, one of the Realegeno Bonilla sisters. But he survived by playing dead until the soldiers left.

When it was safe, he buried his wife and her family as best he could. His testimony helped identify the bodies years later.

“It’s a reminder so that we don’t forget,” Portillo told Al Jazeera Friday at the service. “They were people who were unarmed, including kids, and they (the soldiers) didn’t have to do that.”

EL SALVADOR MASSACRE REMAINS

The coffins of the remains returned to the Realegeno Bonilla family lay as the community prepares to take part in a small ceremony before their burial [Anna-Cat Brigida/Al Jazeera] 

Two weeks after the massacre, the Salvadoran military told The Washington Post that it had investigated the case and found no evidence of a massacre. To this day, the Salvadoran military maintains this stance on the case. NGOs have called for the military to release important documents to aid human rights trials, but the military has failed to do so. The UN truth commission found no evidence of a military investigation.

Fight for justice

Lawyers for the victims first came forward to open a case against the perpetrators of the massacre in 1992, shortly after the signing of a peace accord agreement. But their hopes of justice were soon squashed.

The legislative assembly passed an amnesty law in 1993 that prevented the case from moving forward in a Salvadoran court.

In 2016, the country’s Supreme Court overturned the amnesty law on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Lawyers representing the victims of the El Calabozo massacre moved for the case to be reopened. Police and the attorney general’s office began to investigate. Members of the Realegeno Bonilla family provided testimony, which led to the identification of the remains of the six victims.

All of this is so difficult for us. What I ask for is justice and reparations.

Margarita Realegeno Bonilla

Now, lawyers are waiting for documents from the military in order for the case to continue to the trial phase. But the documents they have received so far are incomplete or damaged. The military says that some documents do not exist, according to Irene Gomez, a lawyer for the victims.

“This case has been open for 29 years, but there are still no results. [The lack of military documents] just makes it go slower,” said Gomez. “The slower the case advances, the more revictimisation for the families.”

In August 2019, the country’s ombudsman called on the president to use his power to open the military archives and on the attorney general to investigate the case. President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June 2019, has not commented on the massacre, but has promised justice for civil war-era abuses. Neither responded to a request for comment from Al Jazeera before publication.

The victims’ family calls on the government to provide reparations and pave the way for a trial.

“We ask for justice for the perpetrators of the massacre,” said Portillo. “Because it was very unjust.”

El Calabozo massacre: Remains of six returned 38 years later

San Vicente, El Salvador – Six white caskets sat in a row before an altar set up on the patio of a house in the Salvadoran community of Amatitan Abajo. They held the remains of six people who were killed alongside 200 others by Salvadoran soldiers in what has been labelled the August 1982 El Calabozo massacre.

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