Seeking Justice for Survivors of a Massacre in El Salvador, the Center for Human Rights Is Suing the Agency Over Withholding Public Records
Dina Cabrera, a mother and small farmer, believes there is blood on the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency—her own blood and the blood of hundreds of her neighbors from the rural community of Santa Marta, El Salvador.
During the country's civil war between the military and leftist guerrillas in the 1980s, Cabrera was wounded by gunfire while she was five months pregnant when government troops attacked Santa Marta, sending the town's residents fleeing into the jungle. Cabrera says she stayed in the jungle for three weeks, bleeding, hiding in caves, and surviving on leaves and tortillas as the soldiers systematically hunted down civilians.
There has been no official reckoning of how many died in the attack, which was conducted by a military that, during the civil war, received $5 billion in funding from the United States. But according to the survivor testimonies gathered by the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights (UWCHR), up to 200 people were killed or went missing, including many children. An estimated 75,000 people died during the war, with atrocities committed on both sides.
"The United States financed the war for El Salvador," Cabrera said, speaking through a translator. "The bombs, the bullets, the supplies," she said. "The war would have been different without US financing. I think fewer would have died."
While she was hiding out, Cabrera overheard a group of soldiers come upon an elderly woman with two children. A land mine planted by the guerrillas, who were fighting to overthrow the government, had injured one of the government soldiers. She recounted to UWCHR researchers how the soldiers took revenge:
"These you-know-whats are going to pay for this. These guerrillas are going to die," they said. And there was a family above. "Where's your husband?" they asked the woman. "I don't have one," she said. And the children were crying. "We're going to make sausages of you right here."...And then we heard the screams, the sounds like when someone uses a machete against a log. You could hear the voices of the children and a woman's voice, we didn't know if there were more people because we didn't go see. All we heard was "Give it to them, chop them up," they were saying... I could hear that for days in my head, the screams of the children, the screams of the woman asking them not to kill the children. It's been hard to get that out of my head. "The children are all I have, don't kill them," she said. "They are my grandchildren."
Speaking to The Stranger over Skype on October 1—she had traveled from her rural hometown into the capital city in order to get her passport prepared for a visit to Seattle—Cabrera recalled: "At the time, what we said was only God was with us, because we had no way to defend ourselves."
Cabrera named Ochoa Perez, a former colonel in the Salvadoran military who went on to serve in the country's parliament, as responsible for ordering the killings. If Perez, who is now out of parliament and a private citizen, were to be jailed or held accountable in some way, Cabrera said, "it would be a huge relief for all the families who are still suffering."
Nearly 35 years later, Cabrera's fight for justice has entered the US federal courts. On October 5, the University of Washington filed a landmark lawsuit against the CIA, alleging the agency has been improperly withholding information it possesses about the massacre.
The center filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2013 seeking information about Perez, who trained at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, DC, and is reported to have commanded the military detachment involved in the attacks. Newspapers quoted him as saying he had launched a "cleansing" operation in the area. He told Reuters: "I truly believe that the population cannot be neutral. No one can be neutral."
The FOIA requests to the CIA went nowhere. The agency said it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any such records, for reasons relating to national security.
When the center appealed, and then refiled the request, the agency said it could not respond because it would require an "unreasonably burdensome search."
Angelina Godoy, a Law, Societies, and Justice professor who directs the UW CHR, doesn't buy the agency's changing rationale. "Those two vastly divergent responses show a lack of seriousness in carrying out their obligations under the FOIA," she said. Last year, after Godoy and her team traveled to El Salvador, the center released a report on the killings, citing testimony from Cabrera and other residents of Santa Marta.
The harrowing report concludes that war crimes may have been committed and calls for further investigation. "A court needs to hear this case," Godoy said. "We need to establish a much fuller record. That's what we're hoping to do with the lawsuit." She emphasizes that the university, for its part, isn't accusing the CIA of participating in potential war crimes (for which there is no statute of limitations)—only of failing to disclose information about them.
The UW is a public university, and the lawsuit against the CIA was approved at the highest levels, including by the attorney general of Washington. The lead attorney, Thomas Burke of high-powered law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, is representing the university pro bono, incurring no cost to taxpayers.
"Many Americans may not be aware that thousands of people in El Salvador are struggling to obtain the most basic information about what happened to their loved ones during the war," Godoy explained. "This is information that, in some cases, our government has. I think it's time for the US government to stand on the side of truth and justice, and it's time for us as Americans to demand that."
Days after we spoke over Skype, Cabrera came to Seattle to participate in the announcement of the lawsuit, in an event broadcast on October 5 from the UW Law School to a press room in El Salvador. Wearing a bright-red shirt with a gleaming cross around her neck, she placed her elbows on the table and said firmly, "I am a witness to the human-rights violations that occurred at that time, which were ordered by Mr. Ochoa Perez."
Seated at the opposite end of the table was a slight, bookish-looking American man—Philippe Bourgois, who watched her as she spoke. At the time of the massacre, he was an anthropology graduate student conducting research in Santa Marta.
"Dina didn't make it out [of the jungle] until six or seven days after the rest of us made it out," Bourgois said in an interview, folding his legs in his chair. He met her afterward in a refugee camp, where he took her photograph.
In the image, she's holding a barefoot infant, her face flecked with grime and turned partly to the side. Her eyes, determined, are looking straight into the lens, her brow slightly furrowed.
"She just happens to be charismatic and not scared of anything," said Bourgois. "You can see it any time she opens her mouth. She's always got a smile, even when she's crying."
During the war, she was a known supporter of leftist movements in the country—meaning she was precisely the kind of civilian leader the Salvadoran military sought out for repression, Bourgois said. "She's only alive because of extraordinary luck," he said. "In areas of devastation where people are often very beaten down by malnutrition, poverty, illiteracy, and so forth, you have all these miracle humans who emerge as natural leaders. She is one of the superheroes of this process."
Asked for its response to the lawsuit, the CIA sent The Stranger this statement and refused to elaborate: "We're reviewing the lawsuit filed on Friday (October 2) and will coordinate with the Department of Justice to respond in court." The agency has two months to respond, according to UW's legal counsel.