Morazán, El Salvador – In an escalation of political repression against the left, on December 22 a Salvadoran judge in President Nayib Bukele’s government put out an arrest warrant against longtime progressive leader Rubén Zamora.
This move was widely criticized as a flagrant case of political repression against a progressive critic of Bukele’s government. The nonsensical “reason” was in relation to the notorious 1981 El Mozote massacre carried out by the U.S.-backed right-wing military: Zamora was ordered to be arrested for supposedly having voted for and signed the 1993 Amnesty Bill that made it impossible to prosecute people for acts during the war like the El Mozote massacre. But in fact, Zamora very publicly opposed and refused to vote for or sign the 1993 Amnesty Bill.
It’s President Bukele himself who has provided cover and continued impunity to the military figures who carried out the El Mozote massacre; in September 2020 he blocked a judge from reviewing or allowing the public to see the military archives about the massacre.
1981 El Mozote Massacre by U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorship
In December 1981, the right-wing military dictatorship of El Salvador carried out their largest of many massacres during the Salvadoran Civil War in the town of El Mozote, Morazán. The military’s Atlacatl Battalion murdered everyone in the town, more than 811 civilians. This was in the mountainous eastern part of El Salvador where the revolutionary movement led by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was strong, though El Mozote was known to be neutral territory where the FMLN didn’t have a base. That didn’t matter to the right-wing military – they killed everyone anyway.
The U.S.-backed Salvadoran military acted with impunity in carrying out many massacres like this because they had a green light and endless funding flowing in from the Reagan administration in Washington to carry out a merciless ‘war on communism’ against the FMLN.
1992 Peace Accords and 1993 Amnesty Law
The Salvadoran Civil War ended in 1992 with the signing of Peace Accords and the conversion of the FMLN from a guerrilla movement into an electoral party. The FMLN made this move in the context of an extremely unfavorable international situation for revolutionary movements around the world, with the end of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Before the FMLN entered the electoral system, the Legislative Assembly, which was still controlled by the far-right ARENA party, passed the Amnesty Law in 1993 to prevent the prosecution of anyone for the many crimes committed by the right-wing military and death squads during the war.
The left in El Salvador, including the few progressives that were in the Legislative Assembly at the time, like Ruben Zamora, vigorously opposed the Amnesty Law precisely because it would make sure nobody was ever held accountable for terrible massacres like El Mozote. Zamora walked out in protest when the Assembly voted on the Amnesty Law, joining with the hundreds of grassroots activists who were there protesting. His opposition to the Amnesty Law was widely reported at the time, including in the New York Times.
Zamora had a long history of trying to work for social justice through the electoral system in El Salvador, going back to the 1970s and early 80s when many progressives were murdered for trying to run for office or participate in the government, including his brother. After his brother was murdered, Zamora formed the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) as a political front fighting for an end to the dictatorship. Zamora himself was tortured three times by the government during this period.
Zamora was among the first progressives who tried running for office again in the late 1980s while the Civil War was still going on, and he succeeded in getting elected to the Legislative Assembly.
Zamora an FMLN Leader in 1990s and 2000s, now a leading critic of President Nayib Bukele
When the FMLN ran in their first elections in 1994 after the Civil War ended, they chose Rubén Zamora as their presidential candidate, as one of the few people on the Salvadoran left who had electoral experience after decades of right-wing military dictatorship. He didn’t win, but the campaign began the FMLN’s electoral rise, until they finally won the presidency in 2009 and again in 2014. In those FMLN presidential administrations, Zamora served as ambassador to the U.S., to India and to the United Nations.
In 2019 the FMLN lost the presidency to Nayib Bukele. Bukele had been mayor of San Salvador for the FMLN, but he made a sharp turn to right-wing populism after the FMLN kicked him out of the party as it became clear he was mainly interested in amassing personal power.
Zamora’s willingness to take political risks at the cost of his personal safety has continued in the current period of Bukele’s right-wing government and its permanent militarized “state of exception.” Zamora has spoken out publicly in opposition to Bukele’s right-wing populism that is without political vision or program, Bukele’s illegal attempt to run for reelection in 2024, which is prohibited in six articles of the Salvadoran constitution, as well as other flagrantly illegal acts of his administration.
Zamora has gone further and publicly warned of the fact that the Salvadoran constitution authorizes the population to wage insurrection if a president tries to stay in office past one term. This was included in the Salvadoran constitution after repeated episodes in Salvadoran history of presidents consolidating power into a military dictatorship.
President Bukele has governed under a militarized “state of exception” for almost two years, has rocketed El Salvador to having the largest per capita prison population in the world, detaining tens of thousands of people without charges, and is now illegally running for reelection with political cover from judges his party put in place after illegally removing the country’s supreme court judges in 2021.
Since Bukele became president in 2019, he has waged a personal and political vendetta against the left and the leading figures of the FMLN. Both former presidents from the FMLN, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, have gone into exile in Nicaragua to avoid political persecution. Many leading FMLN members have been imprisoned on bogus charges, and flimsy investigations orchestrated for the media have been carried out against leading FMLN members for trumped up allegations of corruption, including historic leaders like Lorena Peña and Eugenio Chicas. Leaders of social movements with a long history of social justice struggle who have challenged Bukele’s economic agenda have also been prosecuted, like the Santa Marta 5, who were imprisoned because of their leadership in the environmental movement in opposition to reopening the country to exploitative and polluting foreign mining corporations.
The December 22 arrest warrant against Rubén Zamora is the latest escalation of political repression against the left in El Salvador.
Zamora was included in the arrest warrant issued for several former Salvadoran elected officials who were in the Legislative Assembly in 1992-93, when Peace Accords between the leftist insurgent FMLN and the right-wing government ended the Salvadoran Civil War. Their alleged role in passing the 1993 Amnesty Law is given as the reason. But as previously stated, Zamora opposed the Amnesty Law which was passed only with the votes of the right-wing parties, as it was overwhelmingly the right-wing government and military that were responsible for the massacres and human rights atrocities during the war.
A broad range of Salvadoran people and organizations including the Popular Rebellion and Resistance Block (BRP), a coalition of progressive organizations in El Salvador, have denounced the arrest warrant against Zamora as another example of growing political repression under the Bukele administration.