It was 1982, the height of the civil war in El Salvador. Four Dutch TV journalists linked up with leftist rebels near the town of El Paraiso, which had an army base on its outskirts.
Planning to spend several days behind rebel lines, the newsmen hoisted rucksacks onto their backs and walked single-file down a trail.
They had only minutes to live. Lying in wait, Salvadoran soldiers armed with assault rifles and machine guns were ready to spring an ambush.
“They were sitting ducks. The military waited for them and basically executed them,” said Thomas Buergenthal, who was part of a three-member United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador set up as part of a U.N.-brokered peace agreement in 1992.
In 1993, the commission’s report on wartime human rights violations concluded the ambush was set up to kill the journalists, and was ordered by Col. Mario Reyes Mena, a brigade commander.
Calls are now mounting in the Netherlands for Reyes Mena and others to be brought to justice after a documentary shown on Dutch TV cast a spotlight on the never-prosecuted slayings. The investigative piece, “In Cold Blood,” revealed that Reyes Mena has been living in relative obscurity in the United States.
“It is very much in the interest of the Dutch government to bring those responsible for the deaths of the four journalists to justice,” the Dutch foreign and justice ministers told lawmakers after the documentary aired. “Not only because it concerns four Dutch citizens who were shot dead, but also because it concerns journalists, who have an indispensable task in a democratic constitutional state.”
Reyes Mena, now 79, lives in a Washington suburb. A legal resident of the United States since at least 1987, he is no longer shielded by a 1993 amnesty law, declared unconstitutional by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 2016.
Even before the Dutch documentary aired in September, the attorney general’s office in El Salvador had begun investigating possible criminal charges against Reyes Mena and Francisco Antonio Moran, the former head of the Salvadoran secret police who was also named in the U.N. report. The prosecutors were acting on a criminal complaint filed in March 2018 by lawyers for Gert Kuiper, a brother of one of the slain journalists, said Oscar Perez, a spokesman for Kuiper’s legal team.
“I need to find justice,” said Kuiper, whose older brother, Jan, was killed two days before his 40th birthday.
The Salvadoran attorney general’s office won’t comment on its confidential investigation.
The developments come amid a growing push for justice for victims of El Salvador’s civil war, during which an estimated 75,000 civilians were killed, mostly by U.S.-backed government security forces.
In November 2017, former Salvadoran army Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, accused in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador, was extradited from the United States to stand trial in Spain. He remains jailed with trial expected to begin later this year.
In January 2016, former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia Merin was deported from the United States to El Salvador. He is among those being prosecuted for the December 1981 massacre by a U.S.-trained Salvadoran army battalion of almost 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote.
Associated Press journalists went to the town house where Reyes Mena lives in Centreville, Virginia, last month after telephone calls seeking comment about the allegations were not returned. A middle-aged man opened the door then slammed it shut without a word.
Reyes Mena also refused to talk to the Dutch documentary team that went to his home, accusing them of being part of a communist conspiracy.
Days before their deaths, journalists Jan Kuiper, Koos Koster, Hans ter Laag and Joop Willemsen had come under the scrutiny of El Salvador’s secret police after Koster’s contact information was found on a guerrilla. Before dawn on March 11, 1982, the four were rousted in their San Salvador hotel and taken to secret police headquarters for interrogation by Moran.
Undeterred, the four linked up with four rebels near El Paraiso on March 17 and headed down a path. The truth commission report, citing testimony from the sole survivor, a rebel identified only as Martin, described what happened next.
“They had gone about 250 meters when they came under heavy fire from M16 rifles and M60 machine guns, coming from two hills about 100 meters away. Martin saw two of the journalists fall to the ground. They were hit by the first shots and never moved again,” the report said.
Soon after the ambush, Todd Greentree, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy at the time, dismissed as fiction the official Salvadoran account that the newsmen died in crossfire.
Still, Greentree says he’s “very ambivalent” about seeking justice for what he said was “obviously a war crime.”
Bringing individual officers to trial for what appeared to be a coordinated operation among different security force branches seems at best “an incomplete form of seeking justice,” he said by telephone from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
But Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists said it is “incredibly important” to bring them to justice because it sends a message to those considering killing journalists that they won’t get away with it.
Associated Press reporters Mike Corder in Amsterdam; Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Centreville, Va., contributed to this report.
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