SEATTLE (CN) -The Central Intelligence Agency refuses to provide documents about a Salvadoran colonel who allegedly massacred civilians, a student-fellow at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington claims in court.
The Freedom of Information Act suit says the agency illegally withheld records about the activities of retired Salvadoran Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, who was trained in the United States and is suspected of numerous massacres of civilians during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s.
The University of Washington, the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington (UWCHR) and third-year law student and fellow at the center Mina Manuchehri filed the federal complaint this past Friday.
Ochoa is under criminal investigation in El Salvador for human rights abuses during the military-led government's war against leftist guerillas, according to the complaint.
The United States supported the Salvadoran government in the conflict that reportedly killed over 75,000 civilians,
"There is ample evidence that Salvadoran troops under Col. Ochoa's command carried out numerous massacres against civilians. These massacres include the massacre of El Calabozo on Aug. 22, 1982, and the Santa Cruz Massacre of Nov. 14, 1981, in which troops slaughtered dozens of civilians," the complaint says.
Ochoa "adhered closely to the United States' suggested wartime strategy," during the 1981 military operations, according to the complaint.
The colonel later received training in the United States before returning to battle.
"Following further training at the Inter-American Defense College in
Washington, D.C., Col. Ochoa served as the commander in Chalatenango, El Salvador, between August 1984 and February 1986. Col. Ochoa and the Salvadoran military executed a United States-advised 'low-intensity conflict' counterinsurgency strategy. This strategy included creating incentives for civilians to either flee guerrilla-controlled zones entirely or, if remaining, collaborate with the military. Col. Ochoa and military officials deemed guerrilla-pervasive areas as 'free fire zones' over which the military could conduct surveillance and bombing, even if individuals residing in these areas were not guerrillas. He also allegedly blocked humanitarian assistance from the Red Cross and Catholic relief agencies from reaching the region," the complaint says.
The Salvadoran Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights have ordered the state to investigate Ochoa's involvement in the atrocities, the complaint says.
In 2013, Manuchehri and the center requested CIA documents from 1976 until the present regarding Ochoa's military service, including pertinent time periods when the alleged massacres took place.
They also requested documents about American citizen Philippe Bourgois, who was a student doing research in El Salvador when he witnessed one of the alleged massacres.
"In the 1980s, as a doctoral student at Stanford, Mr. Bourgois traveled to Honduras to do field research in a refugee camp. In November of 1981, Mr. Bourgois crossed the border and traveled to the department of Cabanas, El Salvador, to continue his field research. While there, he was caught in a Salvadoran military operation in which he and 1,000 villagers were surrounded by Salvadoran military troops and subjected to heavy machine gun firing and bombing. In this context, he survived the Nov. 14, 1981, massacre of Santa Cruz," according to the complaint.
The CIA responded in 2014 it could "neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records" - termed a "Glomar response" under FOIA.
Manuchehri and the center say at least some of the records they are requesting are already available publicly, including one document on the CIA's own website connecting Ochoa to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
"The CIA has wrongfully withheld the records sought by the UWCHR. There is a substantial strong public interest in the disclosure of the documents requested. The CIA's refusal to release these documents that are believed to be within its custody and control constitutes an abuse of the CIA's discretion and a violation of FOIA," the complaint says.
The complaint was filed by Tom Wyrwich with Davis Wright Tremaine.
"Because of heavy United States involvement in the Salvadoran conflict, these files contain information that may help lead to justice for wartime atrocities," the center said in a statement.
"We know they have records, because through our own research we've obtained about fifteen CIA documents that include the information precisely that we were seeking," director Angelina Snodgrass Godoy said in a video posted on the center's website.
"The fact that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of any documents suggests that they are not in compliance with the law."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.