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‘My Only Friend Is My Conscience’: Face to Face With El Salvador’s Cold Killer

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Soldiers searching bus passengers along the Northern Highway, El Salvador, 1980

Between errands and a family dinner one Sunday in October 2015, Professor Angelina Godoy hurried to her office at the University of Washington in Seattle to pick up a book for her teenage daughter. When she unlocked the door, it took her a moment to notice that her computer was gone. An external hard-drive had been taken, too. There was sensitive information on both of the stolen devices about a pending lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency, and a former, once-powerful Salvadoran colonel with ties to the US. In place of the computer on her desk was a hand-carved wooden cat about three inches long with its front paws extended and its back arched. The cat used to sit on the top of her computer monitor—a trinket brought back from a trip to Mexico—but whoever moved it had taken some care: it was angled to face Godoy’s chair as though to suggest watchful eyes. 

Godoy is the director of the university’s human rights center, a small, interdisciplinary body run by a few faculty members, two full-time staffers, and a team of students. For the past four years, the center has been filing public records requests with the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon, seeking declassified government cables about the civil war in El Salvador, which the country’s right-wing military fought, with the US’s help, against leftist guerrillas from 1980 to 1992. Some seventy-five thousand Salvadoran civilians died in the fighting, making it one of the US’s ugliest, and bloodiest, cold war interventions. The government cables Godoy’s center was analyzing told the moment-by-moment story of a failed American war effort, narrated by officials who were discovering the sordid truth about their Salvadoran allies.

The main figure of interest to Godoy and her team was a Salvadoran officer named Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, known as Ochoa. He commanded troops in the eastern region of the country just as the crackdown on the civilian population was intensifying, in the fall of 1981. The Americans loved him for his fierce reliability. “He has the best organized patrols in the country, loyal to a man and tougher than lizard lips,” the US Army’s senior adviser to the Salvadorans said at the time. In 1983, while still a provincial field commander, Ochoa received a temporary reassignment to Uruguay but refused to go. Instead, he openly called for the resignation of the Salvadoran defense minister, another American ally. The spat nearly toppled the Salvadoran military. It was a mark of Ochoa’s clout that, after mutinying, he walked away with a promotion: assistant defense attaché to the US in Washington, D.C. He took courses at the Inter-American Defense College before returning, a year later, to El Salvador, where he eventually became a full colonel.

After the war, local residents recounted at least two massacres committed by troops under Ochoa’s watch. In 2015, Godoy’s team published a report about one of them, the Santa Cruz Massacre of 1981, in which soldiers gunned down scores of civilians on the pretense of weeding out guerrillas. “Residents sought refuge from the invading army by hiding in the surrounding hillsides,” the report states. “On what Salvadorans call a guinda—a collective flight from military invasion—families spent days concealing themselves in caves or under trees.” Testimony from these hellish flights forms the central narrative of the report—accounts from surviving witnesses of women who were shot from helicopters, or wounded and left to die next to the corpses of their children.

Association of Military Veterans of El Salvador (via Facebook)
Lieutenant Colonels Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez and Domingo Monterrosa, San Vicente, El Salvador, 1983

In 1992, the United Nations sponsored a truth commission to catalogue the war’s worst atrocities, yet its final report devoted only two sentences to Santa Cruz, putting the death toll between fifty and a hundred people. What distinguished the University of Washington report wasn’t just that it exposed some of the lesser-known horrors of the military campaign, but that it laid out a case for command responsibility: drawing on the US government cables, it established that Ochoa had been in charge at the time of the killings.

A few months after the publication of the report, the center requested more information about Ochoa. The CIA wouldn’t confirm the existence of certain documents, even though the center had already acquired some of them after searching digitized national security archives and the agency’s own website. The University of Washington sued the CIA for stonewalling, and the center held a press conference, simultaneously broadcast in Seattle and San Salvador, to make an announcement about the lawsuit. Two weeks later, Godoy’s office was burgled.

The theft seemed too amateurish for the CIA—and also pointless, so many years after the war. If a group of Salvadorans was behind the theft, from two thousand miles away, they had gone to a spectacular amount of trouble. The Salvadoran congress had passed an amnesty law, in 1993, to prevent the criminal prosecution of atrocities committed during the war. It was the most sweeping post-war amnesty Latin America had ever seen. In 2013, a group of human rights lawyers in the capital, San Salvador, brought a case before the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the law, but by the time of the theft in Seattle, two years later, the justices still hadn’t ruled on it.

The center’s work had definitely been noticed in El Salvador, however. Ochoa, who was in his mid-seventies and had just retired from a long career as a congressmen, told the Salvadoran news site El Faro that the center’s claims were “inventions, novels.” A week after El Faro published a detailed investigation of its own, he wrote the editors an open letter threatening to launch a defamation suit against both El Faro and the University of Washington. He concluded it with a call to arms: “Brothers in uniform, I call on you—from soldiers to senior generals. Don’t let anyone’s insinuations discredit the value of giving everything to the fatherland, while these supposed investigators arrogate to themselves the role of being judges in some imperial court.” 

Whoever the robbers were back in the States, they had stumped local law enforcement; no one knew how to interpret the theft. There were no witnesses, and the culprits had scrubbed their fingerprints from the scene. When I visited Godoy on campus in February, her office was the only one in the building that didn’t have a nameplate by the door. She’d taken it down at the urging of the university police as a precaution. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked myself: Did I leave my office unlocked?” Godoy told me. She is in her forties, trim, and has short blond hair and hooded eyes. “There’s this constant second-guessing. But at the same time, I kind of wondered: what took them so long.” She couldn’t say whom she meant exactly—no one could. Yet there was every reason to suspect a plot. In 2013, four gunmen broke into the offices of a group in San Salvador called Pro Búsqueda, which reunites families separated during the civil war. They set the place on fire and made off with the group’s computers. The local police later attributed the act to common criminals, but the subtext was lost on nobody.

There had also been unsolved thefts on American soil. In 2003, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a human rights group based in San Francisco, filed a civil suit in US federal court against a soldier responsible for one of the most infamous political assassinations in Latin American history, the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980. The soldier’s name was Alvaro Saravia, and he’d been working at a used-car dealership in Modesto, California. By the time the trial began, the next year, he had gone into hiding. CJA lawyers staying in a hotel in Fresno, where the trial was taking place with Saravia in absentia, came back to their workroom after breakfast the day before opening arguments to find that a laptop belonging to one of their expert witnesses had disappeared. A volunteer who had been deputized to pick up Salvadoran witnesses at the airport noticed that she was being followed by a large SUV with tinted windows. “A member of our team also noticed suspicious people in the hotel who seem to be watching us,” Matt Eisenbrandt, a former CJA lawyer, recounts in his book, Assassination of a Saint. “In just one night, the fear that has permeated Central America for decades has seeped into the case in Fresno.” Two years later, at a separate trial of a former vice-minister of defense, in Memphis, another CJA lawyer had materials stolen from her hotel room.

After the theft at Godoy’s office, I called Eisenbrandt to ask what he made of the incident. He didn’t know all the details, but he was struck by the fact pattern. “It could be a former soldier, a captain, anyone, really, from the rank and file who might have felt loyalty to Ochoa or the military,” he said. Ochoa himself may not have had the wherewithal to coordinate an operation from his retirement in El Salvador, but he didn’t need to—anyone could have pulled it off, with Ochoa’s tacit assent.

The trail may have been cold, but the timing was dramatic. The US government was finally starting to deport Salvadoran war criminals living in the country. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, tens of thousands of Salvadorans came to the US and settled among the large immigrant populations of cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago. Mixed among them were soldiers and former death-squad leaders. Some had snuck into the US illegally at Mexican border crossings, while other, high-ranking officers had obtained visas, presumably from their handlers in the State Department and the CIA.

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
El Salvador, 1981

In April 2015, the Department of Homeland Security deported General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, a former defense minister, for his involvement in human rights abuses during the war. Even though he was protected from prosecution in El Salvador by the amnesty law, Vides Casanova had been uprooted from his American life, and publicly shamed, at the age seventy-seven. About two months after the theft in Seattle, another former defense minister, General José Guillermo Garcia, was deported as well. Both men had once enjoyed staunch American support. Salvadoran veterans in the US took heed and laid low. Homeland Security agents were making house calls. The wife of one former soldier living in Washington, D.C., who’d been in touch with Godoy for months and had even invited her to visit their house so they could discuss the center’s research, abruptly told Godoy to stop calling. A US government agent had already visited them, she told Godoy.

Just as I was returning to New York from Seattle in February, a federal judge ordered the extradition to Spain of another former officer, Colonel Inocente Montano, who’d been living outside Boston, for his part in the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her sixteen-year-old daughter in 1989. The decision immediately raised the question of what would happen to the other wanted officers in El Salvador; sixteen of them, from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion—a group well known for its brutality—were allegedly involved in the 1989 operation.

I was due to fly to El Salvador the next night, because I wanted to confront Ochoa about the theft. While I was packing my bags in New York, the Salvadoran police began rounding up the culprits. Within hours, four were in custody, and several others had gone into hiding. The names of the officers appeared on television sets across El Salvador, listed by rank on the local news. These were aged and haggard men, geriatric fugitives. Two of them had been arrested before, in 1991, but were released from prison after the passage of the amnesty law.

Around the time that the Jesuit priests were killed, Ochoa had retired from military service and was working as the head of the state electric company, a privileged civilian post, and his name was circulating among officials at the State Department and CIA as a possible presidential candidate. He wasn’t personally implicated in the Jesuit killings, but he was friendly with another colonel who’d been found guilty of orchestrating the murders. Several months after the assassinations, Ochoa appeared on 60 Minutes saying that his friend was acting on someone else’s orders. This was farther than even the friend was willing to go—he had known enough to stay quiet. But Ochoa, who felt unencumbered by institutional allegiances, declared that “it was all planned beforehand,” implying that a group of military and political leaders had organized the crime. This flummoxed the Salvadoran government, which had no choice but to issue a string of denials.

Soon, there was talk in political circles of sacking Ochoa and forcing him to “wallow in the assembly, where he could talk to his heart’s content,” as one US Embassy cable summarized. (It is a mark of the times that a spot in congress was considered a demotion, a posting far from the action.) Ultimately, American officials cautioned their Salvadoran counterparts against making a martyr out of Ochoa. It was a lesson that would never be fully learned. In 2012, the left-wing president of El Salvador, reacting to another of Ochoa’s typically incendiary public comments, tried to remove him from contention for congress by reactivating his military status and conscripting him back into service. Ochoa coasted to reelection.

*

On a Monday morning, I attended a press conference at the Hilton Hotel, in an upscale neighborhood of San Salvador called the Zona Rosa. The event was organized by the families of accused military officers in hiding, and I’d learned about it from an ultra-conservative congressman who suggested I go to hear the perspectives of the “actual victims.” I arrived early and ordered a coffee at a small café in the back part of the lobby. As I sat with my drink, I noticed a man in a gray blazer and dark blue jeans alone at the table next to mine. He was staring intently at a smartphone from behind a pair of rimless reading glasses. His face was immediately familiar to me: squinty, deep-set eyes, a broad nose, a dark criollo complexion. He looked to be in in his late sixties, gray and wispy-haired, but spry. It was Ochoa.

Stunned, I went over to introduce myself just as he was standing up. He shook my hand but eyed me warily. “I have to be with the families,” he told me. “We can talk afterwards.” I followed him upstairs to a small banquet space called the British Room. Chairs were set up along the walls, and a group of elderly women, permed and bejeweled, sat in rows at the back, fanning themselves and hugging giant purses. A few dozen people filed in—nephews and nieces, kids, and grandchildren—and a media scrum formed before a long rectangular table draped in a blue and white banner that read “Proudly the Wife, Child, and Family Member of a Salvadoran Soldier.” Ochoa and I took seats at opposite ends of the room.

As the speeches began, he sat impassively, occasionally nodding. When one of the speakers said that the killing of the Jesuits did not constitute crimes against humanity, Ochoa rocked his body in affirmation. This was an important point for everyone in attendance: the killers were protected by the amnesty law as long as their act wasn’t classified as a war crime; if it was, however, there would be no statute of limitations for potential prosecution, and not even the sweepingly broad amnesty law, in theory, could protect them from an insistent judge. “They’re breaking the law!” another one of the participants shouted about the police for making the arrests.“It’s political persecution!” “They’re hunting our family members!” The crowd applauded and howled in solidarity.

When the event ended and reporters descended on the crowd for interviews, Ochoa surged to life. A journalist came at him with a microphone, and he dilated with obvious satisfaction before the camera. He didn’t look like an ex-colonel with a checkered past, or even like a politician spewing talking points; he had the alacrity of a retiree happy to have something to do. As we descended the stairs together afterwards, he bragged to me about his health (“I don’t drink coffee and don’t smoke—that’s the key”), and when we reached the lobby he took the seat facing the staircase so he could wave goodbye to old acquaintances as they exited. I proceeded gingerly at first, trying to flatter him by explaining my interest in his perspective on the Jesuit case, but it was immediately clear that he needed no coaxing. Ochoa told me that the killings were a “tremendous error.”

“It did a lot of damage to the country, to the armed forces, and to the government at the time,” he said. “What worries me is the ignorance of the Spanish judge. Sometimes the Spaniards come to Latin America as if they were the new conquistadores. They want to intervene in everything. And this happens with the US as well.” The extradition order, he went on, “broke the country’s internal harmony”; “the last thing I want is to go back to civil war.” I told him it must have been a consolation to the families for him to be there, not just as a political figure but as someone who himself had come under fire from international advocates. He took this simply as an expression of praise. “My moral obligation is to stand with them in times of need,” he said. “We all live with Damocles’s sword over our heads.” The metaphor was not meant to conjure guilt so much as a sense of unstinting responsibility. To him, Damocles’s sword was a call to arms. Nothing he did from the war years weighed on him, he told me. “I sleep from nine to five, and I don’t have any nightmares.”

A crucial source of pride for him was that he had never been a pawn—not to his superior officers in the Salvadoran military, not to his fellow Salvadoran politicians, and especially not to the American advisers who arrived during the war. “The US doesn’t have friends; they abandon their allies. They’re not sincere friends—when you turn your back they stick you,” he said. General Vides Casanova and Garcia were cases in point: two hard-nosed military men who, in Ochoa’s view, made the mistake of trusting the American government, or at least not expecting the very worst from it. Ochoa recalled his years in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s, and called the capital a “modern Rome,” a once-great empire destined to crumble. “I don’t like the States,” he said. “You’re always a stranger.” Even so, he has relatives in California, and he regularly communicates with other veterans scattered across the country. “I’m in constant contact with them on Facebook, with former soldiers,” he said. “There are veterans’ groups in Virginia, Dallas, and California.”

Naturally, this only renewed my suspicions that he knew something about the theft at the University of Washington. But when I asked him about the center’s allegations, he declared: “There was never a massacre, there were anti-guerrilla campaigns.” To claim otherwise, he said, was to perpetuate the lies of both the local communists and the global left. “Why didn’t they raise this at the time if they had a problem?” The claim was too absurd to try to refute. The peasants who weren’t killed on the spot had scampered across the border to refugee camps in Honduras. There they nervously shared their stories with aid workers and journalists, but to little effect. Behind the military that had killed their families was the unconditional support of the most powerful country in the world. Eventually, they would have to return to their homeland, where they knew the military still lurked. Rather than press the point, I asked Ochoa what he made of the theft in Seattle, but he cut me off: “If there was a theft.” He didn’t elaborate. In his view, the robbery was a hoax.

Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images
Ochoa Pérez, center, protesting against El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes at the Revolution Monument in San Salvador, El Salvador, January 26, 2012

I called Ochoa back a few days later to request another meeting. He directed me to a McDonald’s just off a heavily trafficked roundabout called Salvador del Mundo, in view of a string of high-rise buildings downtown. The first thing he did as he sat down was empty his pockets, and from one of them he produced a small switch-blade knife, which he slapped down on the table. “My weapon,” he said, with a laugh. Children darted past, and families at the tables next to us chatted away. Ochoa had just come from a meeting of veterans who had gathered to discuss strategies for responding to the extradition orders. There wasn’t much for them to do except complain that their friends were locked up. Godoy’s team had profiled Ochoa while he was at the height of his power during the early war years. The person I was meeting seemed torpid and sour, bloated on distant memories.

As before, talking about the civil war was futile with Ochoa. He understood, as the Americans didn’t, the importance of earning the respect of the local population, he said. This led to a rambling discussion of Vietnam and ancient Rome, and Putin, Napoleon, and General MacArthur (three of his idols). It was peppered with bald, personal pronouncements. “My only true friends are my balls,” he told me. Then, more chastely: “My only friend is my conscience.”

When I brought up the theft again, he leaned back and looked at me for the first time with an expression of hostility. He was silent for a few seconds, while a knot of suspicion crept across his face. But then the tension lifted, and his response was as casual and untroubled as anything else he had told me. “I only read about the theft. The truth is, it’s something that didn’t even get my attention because I have nothing at all to do with it. It could have been the CIA. It could have been Salvadoran elements living over there. But it had to have been a professional job. It had to be someone who truly knows this issue.” It all reminded him of a movie: I Don’t Want to Talk About It, starring a nearly seventy-year-old Marcello Mastroianni. Ochoa recounted in great detail the film’s tortuous plot, in which Mastroianni falls in love with a teenage dwarf. It would have all been a ludicrous non sequitur if not for the film’s title, which he delivered, perhaps, to indicate that he’d had enough of my questions. Two minutes later, he shook my hand and disappeared. 

*

Five months later, in July 2016, the Salvadoran Supreme Court declared the country’s amnesty law unconstitutional, which was a shock to everyone, not least the lawyers who had first brought the challenge three years earlier.  Matters seemed to be getting worse for Ochoa. Several weeks before the court ruled, the University of Washington published a batch of eighty-five documents recently turned over by the CIA as a result of its lawsuit. One of them stated plainly that Ochoa had overseen an operation in August 1982 in which some two hundred civilians were murdered. “I don’t accept the word ‘massacre,’” he told El Faro when asked for comment. “They were fighters! We were at war!” A court might finally arbitrate that. With the amnesty law lifted, a judge had recently agreed to hear a human rights case against Ochoa, and the colonel was said to be retaining counsel.

In the courts, justice moves slowly, and the case against Ochoa languished. Godoy and her team are undeterred by the delay, in part because they have plenty to do in the meantime. Some of the best information about crimes committed during the civil war comes from the American government, precisely because, as Ochoa had feared, it carefully kept tabs on the machinations of its allies. The center has been receiving requests from Salvadoran human rights workers looking to corroborate victims’ accounts of civil war-era atrocities; it has amassed troves of government cables that highlight not just the part played by Ochoa in the war, but also those played by other ex-members of the Salvadoran military.

Over the summer, eleven survivors of the El Mozote massacre of December 1981—in which the Salvadoran army murdered about a thousand civilians, while the US government attempted to cover it up—began giving testimony in a Salvadoran court. The human rights center at the University of Washington has been pushing the US government to release more cables about those killings, too. “Every week we’re filing public records requests,” Godoy told me recently. “Our mission has always been to respond to Salvadoran victims and advocates, and to help fill in the record based on what they need.” At present, there are at least three separate events the center is investigating. Details from the documents they turn up are beginning to appear in legal filings in El Salvador—human rights advocates are no longer hampered by the amnesty law. “I hope that the Salvadoran justice system will now do its job,” she said.

As for the theft, Godoy accepted early on that she would never learn what had happened at her office. It was ironic given the nature of her work, which is predicated on fighting to find answers. Godoy was jumpy for a while after the break-in, and she thought twice about going into the office alone over the weekend. But her nerves soon subsided, and the incident faded to a distant memory. “I don’t think about it much anymore,” she said. There was too much work to do.


Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.