Commentary by Héctor Silva Avalos
He has been one of the most outspoken critics of the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. He has clearly and relentlessly pointed out the human rights violations attributed to officials of the Bukele administration during the state of exception in force in the country since March 2022. He has also denounced Bukele’s obligations to transitional justice in cases of crimes against humanity committed by government security forces during the years of armed conflict at the end of the last century.
David Morales, the lawyer who will receive WOLA’s Human Rights Award this year in Washington, D.C., has been denouncing abuses in El Salvador for decades. He denounced the violations committed during the civil war and those that came after, when, already at peace, successive Salvadoran governments of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA) began to give the civilian police created after the 1992 Peace Accords the same repressive features that Salvadoran security forces had had during the military dictatorships.
His history as an advocate, who has served as a public official in the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, PDDH) and as a civil society lawyer representing survivors and relatives of victims of massacres committed by the army in the 1980s, is also the history of his country’s fragile democracy – where transitional justice and the claims of victims have only made small inroads thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of people like him and despite the apathy shown by post-war authorities.
David Morales first worked in the Legal Protection Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador, one of the few institutions that fought to protect human rights at the end of the war. During his time there, from 1990 to 1995, he began to investigate what had happened in the massacres of Río Sumpul and El Mozote.
Decades later, Morales became a plaintiff in the El Mozote case, one of the most emblematic in El Salvador’s incipient transitional justice system, concerning the worst massacre perpetrated by the country’s military – and one of the worst in Latin American history. In December 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite military unit financed and trained by the United States, murdered nearly a thousand people it accused of collaborating with the guerrillas.
For years, the victims of El Mozote fought for access to the Salvadoran justice system, something which was denied to them by successive right-wing governments. Then, when the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN)) took office, there were promises and public acts by officials who were former guerrillas. However, none of this translated into progress on the cases, nor in reparations for the victims.
Through the efforts by the victims and advocates like Morales, a lower court judge was moving the case forward. However, obstacles returned with Nayib Bukele’s presidency. While he said his intention was to honor the victims, Bukele rejected a request from the judge to access army documents about the operation in El Mozote, which by law he was supposed to hand over. The voice of David Morales was one of the first to condemn this.
“There is a lot of propaganda. I consider that there is a manipulation, an instrumentalization of the victims… That is what the Bukele regime is doing with the cases of war crimes that occurred in El Salvador,” says Morales, who recalls that the president lied when he said, in a national television address, that he had declassified military information on El Mozote to send it to the judge, something he did not do. “The government may even have committed several crimes, the president and the defense minister, by having disobeyed a court order to inspect several military units,” explains the lawyer. Bukele subsequently promoted reforms that resulted in the dismissal of Jorge Guzmán, the judge who had been handling the El Mozote case for years.
After leaving the Legal Protection Office, Morales worked at the PDDH between 1995 and 2005, first as head of the research department and then as deputy prosecutor. The PDDH, created by the 1992 Peace Accords, was at the time the institution that exercised the most supervision over the first complaints of abuses that arose against the new National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) and the Attorney General’s Office.
From the PDDH, Morales led several investigations that ended up determining that members of the PNC and prosecutorial officials had tortured detainees to extract confessions and resolve court cases. Torture, according to a 2003 PDDH report, became a common practice. Some of the officers named at the time now hold positions of power in Nayib Bukele’s government.
After a hiatus, David Morales returned to the PDDH, this time as Ombudsman for the period running between 2013 and 2016. In those years, he took the lead in investigating extermination groups in the PNC: the problem that he and others pointed out in the first decade of the century had evolved into a structural issue within the Salvadoran police.
During his years at the PDDH, Morales also denounced “manodurismo,” which is how he and others label the state policy that has privileged the repression of popular sectors, especially youth, as a way to confront the phenomenon of the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs, which is one of the main generators of violence in El Salvador. The iron fist policy, launched in the early 2000s by then president Francisco Flores, was taken up again by all subsequent administrations with the same results: a massive criminalization of young people that did not stop the growth and expansion of gangs as criminal organizations.
“It is a failed strategy, a continental failure in terms of security in the countries where it has been applied. In the Northern Triangle of Central America, we saw the phenomenon of gangs and violence increase instead of decrease,” says Morales. The former prosecutor warns today that Bukele is implementing a more dangerous variant of this policy with the exception regime decreed last March.
In a country like El Salvador, where the government has been silencing anyone seen as critical, the voice of David Morales is one of those that remains unwavering. Regarding the exception regime, which Bukele and the Legislative Assembly dominated by his party have extended six times, Morales does not hesitate to say that it is opening the door for human rights violations similar to those documented during the worst years of the Salvadoran war.
“There is a deliberate policy, ordered and planned from the highest level, to violate human rights. There are very serious crimes committed by state agents that are occurring: serious human rights violations, thousands of arbitrary detentions, torture and even arbitrary deaths in prisons that have the characteristics of extra-legal executions,” he says.
Currently, El Salvador is experiencing a new democratic crisis, one of the effects of which are the human rights violations to which Morales refers. During the exception regime, for example, Bukele’s government has imprisoned 52,000 people, something that “has no equivalent in Latin America, not even in the worst days of military dictatorships”, according to Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, during a special hearing of the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights on the Salvadoran situation.
In Central America, where the escalation of authoritarian tendencies and regimes that, like Bukele’s, have deteriorated the rule of law and provoked more human rights violations, voices like those of David Morales continue to be indispensable.