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Salvador court orders arrests in Dutch journalist killings

A Salvadoran judge has ordered the provisional arrest of several retired high-ranking members of the armed forces accused of having participated in the killings of four Dutch journalists in 1982 while they were covering the Central American nation’s civil war.

Among those facing arrest orders are former defense minister Gen. José Guillermo García and Col. Francisco Antonio Morán, former director of the now-defunct treasury police, according to the judge’s ruling, a copy of which was seen on Sunday by The Associated Press. 

Neither the National Civil Police, which is charged with carrying out the court order, nor the Public Ministry have confirmed the arrest warrants or whether they have been carried out. Neither agency immediately responded to requests for comment. 

The ruling by Judge María Mercedes Arguello in Chalatenango province also mentions Col. Mario Adalberto Reyes Mena, former commander of El Salvador’s Fourth Infantry Brigade, who currently resides in the United States. The judge ordered that authorities begin an extradition process against him.

Also included in the ruling are Gen. Rafael Flores Lima, former chief of staff of the armed forces, who died on June 29, 2020, and Sgt. Mario Canizales, who has also died. Canizales allegedly led the patrol that carried out the massacre of the journalists.

Morán and Reyes Mena, as well as Canizales, are identified as the perpetrators of the massacre, while generals García and Flores Lima were accused of crimes of omission.

In March, relatives of the victims, and representatives of the Dutch government and the European Union demanded that El Salvador bring to justice those responsible for the murders of Dutch television journalists Jan Kuiper, Koos Koster, Hans ter Laag and Joop Willemsen. 

Oscar Pérez of the Comunicandonos Foundation, which represents victims’ families, said that in March 2018 the foundation filed a criminal complaint with the El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office to investigate the murders of the Dutch journalists. 

In response, the Prosecutor’s Office prosecuted the case and sent the file to a court in the municipality of Dulce Nombre de María in Chalatenango province, where in the case was opened in 1982.

The killings took place during the height of El Salvador’s civil war between the government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, guerrillas. 

The Dutch TV journalists had linked up with leftist rebels and planned to spend several days behind rebel lines reporting. But Salvadoran soldiers armed with assault rifles and machine guns ambushed them and the guerrillas. 

The United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, which was set up as part of a U.N.-brokered peace agreement in 1992, said in a report on wartime human rights violations that the ambush was set up to kill the journalists, and was ordered by Col. Mario Reyes Mena.

An estimated 75,000 civilians were killed during El Salvador’s civil war, mostly by U.S.-backed government security forces.