ICE attends Human Rights Day memorial in El Salvador remembering victims of El Mozote massacre 40 years later

2 mins read

WASHINGTON – Representatives from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center (HRVWCC) traveled to El Salvador this week to remember the victims of the largest single massacre of civilians in modern Latin American history and commemorate the Dec. 10 United Nations Human Rights Day. The ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)-led HRVWCC brings together criminal investigators, attorneys, intelligence analysts, criminal research specialists and historians from various sectors of the federal government to investigate global atrocities and pursue the perpetrators of human rights violations and war crimes for prosecution.

Forty years ago, from Dec. 9 to 13, 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion, with support from other units of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, systematically killed more than 1,000 villagers in El Mozote and in surrounding communities, including Arambala, La Joya, Los Toriles, Ranchería, Jocote Amarillo, and Cerro Panda. More than half of the victims were children.

In January 2016, ICE secured the removal of the former Salvadoran Minister of Defense, General José Guillermo García Merino, from the United States to El Salvador, for his role in of human rights violations during the Civil War in El Salvador, which included the acts of torture and extrajudicial killing at El Mozote. The 1980-1992 Civil War in El Salvador resulted in the death of more than 70,000 civilians.

The case against García Merino determined that he knew or should have known about the acts of torture and extrajudicial killing committed by troops under his command, and that he fostered an institutional atmosphere in which defenseless civilians were victimized. The immigration judge who ordered him removed ruled, among other findings, that through García Merino’s acts and omissions, especially in failing to properly investigate and hold perpetrators accountable, he had “assisted or otherwise participated” in the mass killings in El Mozote and surrounding villages in December 1981. The case relied, in part, on the statements of an expert witness and a former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. 

The anniversary of the El Mozote massacre coincides the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948, now known as Human Rights Day. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates the proposition that freedom, justice and peace in the world are fundamental rights and that all individuals are entitled to equality. 


Over the years, HSI investigations supported by the HRVWCC have uncovered individuals living in the United States who have participated in war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture, extrajudicial killings and various other human rights violations in 95 countries around the world, to include Colombia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Liberia, Peru, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Nazi Germany. Currently, HSI has more than 180 active criminal investigations into suspected human rights violators and is pursuing more than 1,700 leads and removals cases involving suspected human rights violators from 95 different countries. 

The HRVWCC is committed to identifying, investigating, prosecuting and removing human rights abusers and war criminals who enter the United States, and to ensuring that the U.S. does not provide safe haven to anyone attempting to evade justice and hide in the U.S., regardless of the amount of time that has passed or the distance they have traveled. Since 2003, the HRVWCC has issued more than 78,000 lookouts for individuals from more than 110 countries and stopped over 350 human rights violators and war crimes suspects from entering the U.S. Read more about the work of the HRVWCC here

Since 2003, ICE has arrested more than 469 individuals for human rights-related violations of the law under various criminal and/or immigration statutes. During that same period, ICE obtained deportation orders against and physically removed 1,085 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States. Additionally, ICE has facilitated the departure of an additional 181 such individuals from the United States.

Members of the public who have information about foreign nationals suspected of engaging in human rights abuses or war crimes are urged to contact the HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2423 (1-866-347-2423) or its online tip form at ice.gov/tips. Callers may remain anonymous. To learn more about the assistance available to victims in these cases, the public should contact ICE’s confidential victim-witness toll-free number at 1-866-872-4973.

HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move.