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El Salvador could start going after war criminals — and the government isn’t happy

The government is headed by former members of the FMLN guerrilla group that transformed into a political party at the end of the country’s bloody civil war and went on to win two presidential elections.

by Alan Hernandez
Jul 18 2016, 7:21pm

Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Imagen vía AP Photo.

El Salvador's government — which is headed by former left wing guerrillas from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the FMLN — is very unhappy with last week's supreme court ruling that the country's 1993 amnesty law is unconstitutional.

The amnesty had protected them from prosecution for crimes committed during the country's bloody 12-year civil war that ended with peace accords signed in 1992. It also protected the extreme right wing politicians and military officers who they fought, and who are accused of the bulk of the atrocities.

Now the former rebels say the repeal of the law could refuel old conflicts and destabilize the country more than two decades since the end of the war that killed an estimated 85,000 people.

"The ruling wants us to be in conflict with the army, they want to pull apart the army," Roberto Lorenzana, a former guerilla commander who is now a top presidential aide, told reporters on Monday. "The ruling wants to push us into a cycle of retaliation and revenge."

Lorenzana's tough words built on President Salvador Sánchez Cerén's own description of the ruling as blind to the situation in El Salvador at a time when the country is struggling to contain extreme gang violence.

"The ruling doesn't take into account, and does not measure, the impact on the country's already fragile social fabric," Cerén said in a statement broadcast to the nation on Friday.

The ruling could mean charges brought against Cerén, who was himself a member of the FMLN leadership during the war in which the guerrillas allegedly went beyond combating an authoritarian regime and also kidnapped, murdered, and forced people to work for them.

The FMLN organized a sparsely-attended march on the weekend in which participants denounced the ruling as "a coup."

The court's decision also puts pressure on the military that has never faced justice for massacres committed during the war, such as the one in which soldiers killed about 1,000 campesinos at El Mazote in 1981. There is also the case of the recently beatified archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, who was killed in 1980, and the murder of six jesuit priests in 1989.

The always controversial amnesty was supposed to help bring reconciliation to the tiny Central American country. Families of the victims, human rights activists, and civil society groups, however, loudly celebrated the news of its repeal.

"Today is a historic day for human rights in El Salvador," Erika Guevara-Rosas, head of the americas chapter of Amnesty International said in a statement. "The country is finally confronting its tragic past."

Related: El Salvador's top court repeals amnesty law in order to prosecute war criminals

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten