by Carolyn Patty Bloom, Opinion Contributor - Chair of the Board of the Guernica Centre
Originally published in The Hill on 9 April 2021 and can be accessed here.
Fifteen years ago, I was trying a case in a courtroom in Tennessee. At the table for the was Nicolas Carranza, the former El Salvador vice minister of defense and director of the Treasury Police. We were listening to the key testimony of my client Daniel. Abducted from a soccer field back in 1983, Daniel had been tortured by the Treasury Police. A United States military adviser had been assassinated. The United States turned up the heat to find his killer. Somehow Daniel was chosen to take the fall.
Decades later, his torture could be the subject of a federal lawsuit against a commander who facilitated his suffering. Daniel asked where the military enablers, like President Reagan, his Central Intelligence Agency director, and others in the United States government were since after all, Carranza testified he was an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency. A 1992 peace deal ended the conflict, and the United Nations Truth Commission was tasked with investigating its scope. The final report was an indictment of the El Salvador military and its death squads. Beyond its mandate, the report did not address the role of the United States military.
Today, Vice President Kamala Harris has been tapped to find solutions to the significant problem of migration from El Salvador and its neighbors to the United States border. She is tasked with determining the root causes and addressing them. To have any success, she must demonstrate to our partners in the Northern Triangle that the United States fully understands that their history is inextricably bound with our own history.
The first task on her agenda should be to create a truth commission with academic experts, faith leaders, human rights investigators, and members of the communities of people from Central America to sit as members. Its purpose is to come to terms with our role in the human rights tragedies of El Salvador and its neighbors in the Northern Triangle, and to create a full record of effects from our military action and foreign policy.
We know the contours of the story. The conflict in El Salvador was where President Reagan drew his Cold War line in the sand. His administration ignored the decades of brutal military rule in El Salvador, the oppression of campesinos, and the assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the political leaders of the democratic opposition, labor leader, and church women from the United States working with the displaced.
At the time, El Salvador was the third largest recipient of United States military aid. Military supplies poured into that country, along with United States military advisers. The federal government spent billions of dollars on these efforts. A direct result was the flight of more than a fifth of the population with many seeking asylum in the United States. They got no refuge, however, as almost all of them were denied asylum.
The truth commission should hold public hearings to listen to migrants about the true root causes that forced them from their homes, such as state terrorism, poverty, genocide, and corruption. Expert interlocutors should demonstrate how our foreign and military policy choices fueled the outflows then and still do now. Full declassification of thousands of heavily redacted government documents would start to tell us the story about the real role of the United States in Central America.
In that courtroom in Tennessee, the eyes of the jury were opened to the truth of that time and place. They heard the testimony of our clients who watched the killings of their own parents simply for being teachers. They heard from the widow of a murdered opposition leader about the horror of seeing the dead body of her husband. They heard from Robert White, the United States ambassador to El Salvador, who watched as the bodies of the church women were exhumed from a shallow grave.
Finally, they heard Daniel recount his days of excruciating torture. He told the jury how he met with United States officials who then verified through a lie detector that he falsely confessed under torture. Yet Daniel spent two more years in prison in El Salvador. Sweden, not the United States, offered him asylum. He can tell his story to the truth commission.
If Harris wants to address root causes of migration from Central America, she should start by looking in our backyard. Only when we look honestly at our history and the links between policy and refugee migration can we have a real dialogue with partners in the Northern Triangle. Her mission, and our moral integrity as a country, need this reckoning.
Carolyn Patty Blum litigated cases against four military commanders of El Salvador. She is a clinical professor emerita and senior research fellow at the Human Rights Center at University of California Berkeley Law School.