General Guillermo García, who was Minister of Defense and a strong man in the Salvadoran Army in the early 1980s, has been arrested for his alleged responsibility in the murders of four Dutch journalists, committed forty years ago. This was confirmed to this newspaper by Salvadoran judicial sources related to the case and two relatives of the victims. Colonel Francisco Antonio Morán, former director of the dissolved Treasury Police, a fearsome security body linked to massacres, forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial activities attributed to death squads, was also reportedly captured for the same crime.
The arrests were ordered by the Judge of First Instance María Mercedes Argüello, of Dulce Nombre de María, Chalatenango, on October 13, after finding sufficient elements for the accused soldiers to face criminal proceedings for the murder of Jacobus Andries Koster, Jan Cornelius Kuiper, Hans Ter Laag, and Johannes Jan Willemsen. The four Dutch journalists were ambushed and executed by the Salvadoran Army on March 17, 1982 in a rural area of Chalatenango.
General García and Colonel Morán were reportedly detained in the early hours of the night of last Friday, October 14, at their respective residences located in San Salvador. They will be presented in court this Monday, October 17.
In addition to García and Morán, the court requires Colonel Mario Adalberto Reyes Mena, then commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade of El Paraíso; Colonel Rafael Flores Lima, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sergeant Mario Canizales Espinoza, of the Atonal Battalion. “Issuance of the corresponding arrest warrants against the aforementioned defendants, and once the same is made effective, they are notified of the fact attributed to them,” reads the judicial record in the possession of El Faro.
The document details that the Attorney General of the Republic requested the arrest of the military for the crime of murder regulated in the Criminal Code of 1973/74, repealed but applicable to this case, as in the trial for the El Mozote massacre, reopened in 2016 in the San Francisco Gotera court. The preliminary investigation into the murder of the Dutch journalists revealed that Colonels Reyes Mena and Morán, as well as Sergeant Canizales Espinoza, are the immediate perpetrators of the crime. General García and Colonel Flores Lima are accused of commission by omission.
General García was Minister of Defense of El Salvador between 1979 and 1983. He has been linked to other crimes that occurred during the Salvadoran civil war, such as that of the Maryknoll nuns, assassinated by security forces in December 1980; and the El Mozote massacre, in which about a thousand people, half of them minors, were killed by army troops in December 1981. During those years, General García had all the troops under his command and responsibility. of the army and security forces.
General García, a close ally in the counterinsurgency fight of the US administration of President Ronald Reagan, had lived in the United States since 1990, when he was granted asylum in that country. But he was deported in 2016 after a Florida judge determined Garcia had “directly participated in or assisted” in at least 11 recorded crimes during his years as a strongman, including the aforementioned cases. This is the first time that General García has been detained for war crimes in El Salvador, since in the case of El Mozote he has alternative measures to detention while the trial is taking place.
Judge Argüello has also requested a report from the General Directorate of Immigration and Aliens on the migratory movements of the other defendants “in order to establish the residence of the current country to request the respective extradition if necessary,” says the document.
In 2018, Dutch journalists from the Zembla investigative program located Reyes Mena living in the United States. The investigation team revealed secret documents from the United Nations Organization, in which it appears that Reyes Mena shared information about the operation with other military commanders and with an adviser to the United States Army, Bruce Hazelwood. The journalists looked for the then colonel in his home in the United States to interview him and his response was: ‘The case was investigated by President (Salvadoran, Napoleon) Duarte (1984-1989). The Dutch ambassador spoke with Brigade personnel. The United States government investigated and found nothing against me.’
Relatives of the Dutch journalists, however, hope that the United States will extradite Colonel Reyes Mena. “I was very surprised, especially the news yesterday (Saturday) that I was already informed of the arrest of García and Morán. Are good news. Now it’s up to the United States to collaborate in the capture and extradition of Reyes Mena. The idea is that they send him to El Salvador,” Gert Kuiper, brother of Jan Cornelius Kuiper, one of the murdered journalists, told El Faro by telephone from the Netherlands. “(The accused soldiers) will be able to maneuver justice even to avoid being convicted; but this step is also a signal to Salvadoran society in the sense that, although it was a matter from forty years ago, it is still possible to bring those responsible to justice. This is important not only for us relatives but also for Salvadoran society: the truth always comes.”
Four years in the Prosecutor’s Office
The Comunicandonos Foundation and the Salvadoran Association for Human Rights (Asdehu), on behalf of relatives of the victims, filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office in March 2018, after the repeal of the so-called Amnesty Law. Pedro Cruz, one of the private prosecutors in the case, said that after not seeing an active position of the FGR, they carried out different investigative steps to build their own hypothesis of the case with which they concluded that Colonel Reyes Mena is one of those responsible for the four murders. “Four years ago we filed the investigation complaint and there was no active participation by the Prosecutor’s Office. So we started to do our own fairly limited diligence because we don’t have access to everything like the Prosecutor’s Office,” Cruz told El Faro.
On September 22, 2022, the lawyers asked the court to order the arrest of Colonel Reyes Mena, but received no response. Two weeks later, the Prosecutor’s Office made the same request, including the other four defendants. Lawyer Pedro Cruz said that they do not know the reasons why the Prosecutor’s Office requested the arrest “when they did not show interest in the case for four years. I don’t know if they did it so as not to be left behind when we presented the request for the arrest warrant, but the FGR had played a fairly passive role, “said the lawyer.
Six days before the Dutch journalists were murdered by members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, they had attended an interrogation at the General Directorate of the Treasury Police. The four worked for the Dutch television agency IKON, for a video report on the areas of influence of the guerrillas in San Salvador and other parts of the territory. The summons was directed only at Jacobus Andries Koster, the chief reporter, because the armed forces suspected him of having links with the guerrillas. His name and contact number had been found in the pocket of Jorge Luis Méndez, a guerrilla assassinated in Usulutan.
Jan Cornelius Kuiper, Hans Ter Laag and Johannes Jan Willemsen accompanied Koster to the interrogation. Colonel Francisco Antonio Morán, general director of the PH and main interrogator, questioned Koster about his links with “terrorists.” According to the story of the Comunicandonos Foundation, “Morán would have warned the journalists that he was ‘against informants who sympathize with subversion'”.
According to sources cited by the Truth Commission and representatives of the Dutch embassy, the journalists received warnings, after the interrogation, to leave the country for a period, as they were in imminent danger. The journalists followed their coverage plan and were killed on March 17, 1982 in Santa Marta, a small town in Chalatenango, two kilometers from the El Paraíso infantry barracks.
One day before they were killed in what the lawsuit has called an “ambush” in Chalatenango, a death squad calling itself Maximiliano Hernández Martínez had published a list with the names of 35 journalists who were being threatened with death. None of them were on that list. At least 40 journalists died during the 12-year civil war.
“This happened forty years ago, but the pain has not passed for the family. I still miss my brother,” says Sonja Ter Laag, sister of Hans Ter Laag, by phone, also from the Netherlands.
Last March, for the fortieth anniversary of the assassination, she traveled to El Salvador for the first time. “I declared as an offended party before Judge Argüello. I told him that when I saw the photo of my dead brother I was forever impressed. The judge was also impressed when I showed it to her. She immediately asked me for the photos I had and I sent them to her. I am very happy, but very surprised by these arrests. I didn’t think this was going to happen.”
Sonja Ter Laag says that during her visit she asked to be taken to the place where her brother was killed along with the other four journalists. “Many soldiers and police came with us. I asked what they were doing there and was told that the embassy asked for them for our protection. I wondered how we were going to be protected by the same people who killed my brother.”