By NELSON RAUDA
El Salvador in brief: On April 4, ICE agents arrested Roberto Garay Saravia, a second lieutenant in the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion that carried out the 1981 massacre in El Mozote. His deportation trial could shed new evidence on the events, as the massacre trial in El Salvador came to a halt 18 months ago.
Immigration Trial for a War Criminal
U.S. authorities charged retired army Colonel Roberto Garay Saravia with “assisting or participating” in four military operations against civilians during the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992) and lying about it in his application for U.S. legal residence in 2014. ICE arrested Garay on Tuesday in New Jersey after a two-year joint investigation by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.
Garay was a section commander in the Atlacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained elite unit responsible for the El Mozote massacre in December 1981. The investigation concluded that Garay, as an Atlacatl officer, took part in another three massacres: El Calabozo (October 1981), La Quesera (August 1982), and a non-specified one in the department of Cabañas.
To achieve his deportation, authorities will have to prove before an immigration judge Saravia’s role in the operations.
The immigration hearings could reveal new evidence on El Mozote, which was on the verge of going to trial after 40 years until the Nayib Bukele administration removed Judge Jorge Guzmán in September 2021. Since then, the trial has stalled under a new judge who hasn’t conducted any hearings in 18 months. The new judge has reverted to using the 1973 law for conducting the trial —instead of alternating with current rules, as Guzmán had done— and made other changes, under the victims’ attorneys’ protests.
“This is not a trial about (Garay Saravia’s) role in El Mozote, but his indictment in an open case in El Salvador carries weight for the judge’s decision,” according to a source close to the investigation. You can read our full story here.
While the U.S. hasn’t officially acknowledged its role in covering up the El Mozote massacre to protect its counterinsurgency policy under the Reagan administration, it has been making atonement in the last two decades.
Garay Saravia is not the first former Salvadoran army officer that faces a deportation case in recent years. Former Defense Minister Carlos Vides Casanova was deported in April 2015, while retired General José Guillermo García —the top defendant in El Mozote— was also deported in January 2016. Both had been found guilty of tortures in 2002 in a civil case in Florida. Former Deputy Minister of Security Inocente Montano was extradited to Spain in 2017 to face charges for the killing of Jesuits in 1989.
In a 2018 unclassified memo, Ambassador Jean Manes admitted the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador had “minimized” the El Mozote massacre in 1982. In 2021, Embassy officials hand-delivered unclassified documents at the San Francisco Gotera courthouse, in a move that both commemorated the 40th anniversary of the massacre and served as a public show of support for the continuation of the case, that had stalled for three months up until that point.