U.N. Report Condemns Prominent Salvadorans : Central America: Truth panel holds top military, government figures responsible for civil war's atrocities.


An international Commission on Truth, in a scathing report on the pattern of Salvadoran violence, identified prominent military and Establishment figures Sunday as perpetrators of assassination, massacres and other atrocities in the long civil war that has finally come to an end in El Salvador under a U.N.-mediated peace agreement.

In some of the most prominent case studies, the U.N.-appointed commission:

* Named the late Roberto D'Aubuisson, once a presidential candidate, as the man who ordered his "death squad" to assassinate Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in March, 1980.

* Singled out Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, who has just resigned as minister of defense under the shadow of the report, as the officer who ordered the murder of six Jesuit priests and two others at the Central American University in November, 1989.

* Denounced the Atlacatl Battalion, long touted by the U.S. government as an elite, model military force, for "the deliberate and systematic" massacre of 200 men, women and children in the hamlet of El Mozote in December, 1981.

The Commission on Truth, a key element of the peace agreement, was made up of three prominent outsiders: former Colombian President Belisario Betancur, former Venezuelan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart, and American jurist and law professor Thomas Buergenthal.

In many ways, their report supports the many critics who opposed the unstinting American support of the Salvadoran government during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations.

The commission, however, did not hold back criticism of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels but attributed most of their acts to their strong military hand in combat areas under their occupation.

But the commission said that the acts of violence by agents of the state and their collaborators "originated in a political idea that regarded opposition as synonymous to subversion and enemy action."

"The people who postulated ideas contrary to those of the official ran the risk of being eliminated as if they were armed enemies on the battlefield," the report said.

The commission, which scoured the countryside of El Salvador for information, received 22,000 complaints of violence occurring between January, 1980 and July, 1991. More than 60% of the complaints concerned extralegal executions, more than 25% forced disappearances and 20% cases of torture.

The state apparatus and Establishment bore the brunt of the complaints. The commission said that 85% of the complaints were directed at agents of the military and security forces, allied paramilitary groups, and "death squadrons."

The FMLN was named in only 5% of the complaints. But the commission accused the general command of the FMLN of adopting a policy of executing mayors accused of opposing the rebels. The commission explored the cases of 11 such executions but said it believed that more had been killed.

The commission held a number of prominent FMLN commanders responsible for having been part of the command structure that ordered the executions in an established pattern. Joaquin Villalobos, also known as Comandante Atilio, who is expected to be a candidate in the next presidential elections, was singled out for special responsibility for this policy in the areas controlled by his forces.

The commission, noting that El Salvador has had a complex history of violence and a longstanding failure to guarantee human rights, noted that "none of the three branches of government--judicial, legislative or executive--were capable of controlling the ever-growing military domination of the society."

In response to the report, Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani late Sunday urged "mutual forgiveness" and called for an immediate blanket amnesty.

The 630-page document will be officially presented today in a ceremony at the United Nations.

Among the most infamous cases, the report says there is "substantial proof" that five high-ranking army officers, including Gen. Ponce and his deputy, Gen. Juan Orlando Zepeda, ordered the murder of Father Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the Central American University, and five other priests during an intensive guerrilla offensive in November, 1989.

Ponce, anticipating the report, resigned on Friday, citing "national and international pressures." An army colonel was convicted in the murders, but, until now, the involvement of top-level military officers had not been established.

The military regarded the priests as the intellectual mentors of the rebel movement.

The report also names D'Aubuisson, founder of Cristiani's Arena party, for ordering the assassination of Archbishop Romero 13 years ago this month. The murder, long suspected to have been the work of D'Aubuisson, shocked the world.

D'Aubuisson died of cancer last year.

The report criticizes the rebel policy of assassinating mayors in government-controlled zones in the mid-1980s. It specifically holds commander Villalobos responsible.

The commission, formed as part of peace accords that formally ended the war last year, launched its investigation seven months ago, taking thousands of emotional, often chilling testimonials from witnesses, survivors and victims of abuses that range from kidnaping and torture to murder.

"The hour to ask for mutual forgiveness, for whatever damage caused, has arrived," Cristiani said in a nationally televised speech designed in part to calm tensions that have soared as the deadline for the commission's report neared.

"We will turn a painful page in our history," he said, adding that a general amnesty will allow the report to produce "the fruits of reunification for which it was conceived."

"An immediate, general and absolute amnesty . . . closes all the temptations of revenge and reprisal," he said.

The report will test El Salvador's ability to recover from the horrors of the past while attempting to build a future.

It has the potential of ruining the political fortunes of many in office or who aspire to office. And it may pose the final blow to army commanders who seemingly acted with impunity.

For many, it gives voice and validation to victims of crimes committed in the name of war but steadfastly denied by officialdom.

"The way Salvadoran society and the political class react will shape the way democracy is going to be established in El Salvador," said FMLN representative Salvador Sanabria.

In his Sunday night speech, Cristiani's tone was conciliatory, in contrast to a campaign by the far right to discredit the commission's members and their work.

The right has taken out full-page newspaper advertisements to call into question a commission member, former Colombian President Betancur, and articles in conservative newspapers has similarly sought to raise doubts about the commission.

"This report, with the limitations that it may have, is part of our history," Cristiani said. "More importantly, it must be forward-looking. It should contain recommendations so that the tragedy of fratricidal rupture is not repeated."

In the weeks leading up to the release of the report, tensions escalated in El Salvador, unleashing a furious debate over whether the accused parties should be named and tried or granted amnesty.

Cristiani sought unsuccessfully to remove the names from the report, arguing that "extremists" from either side would use the information to carry out vengeful retaliations.

Meisler reported from the United Nations and Wilkinson reported from El Salvador.

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