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Salvadoran national arrested for war crimes, immigration violation

Authorities have tied the retired Salvadoran Armed Forces officer to a 1981 massacre in which more than 1,000 civilian adults and children were killed.

(CN) — Over 30 years after the conclusion of the Salvadoran Civil War, U.S. authorities on Thursday announced the arrest of former military officer from the country believed to have participated in an attack where more than 1,000 civilians, half of them children, were killed.

Having failed to disclose his participation in extrajudicial killings when he applied for entry into the United States nearly a decade ago, Roberto Antonio Garay Saravia is charged now with war crimes and immigration violations. He was arrested Tuesday in New Jersey by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security officers.

Garay Saravia was a second lieutenant in the battalion responsible for the 1981 El Mozote massacre, which left more than 1,000 civilians dead, according to ICE. The Salvadoran Civil War had been underway for about two years at the time following a U.S.-supported military coup.

In 1979, after the socialist Sandinistas overthrew the government in nearby Nicaragua, the Salvadoran military ousted President Carlos Humberto Romero out of fear that a similar revolution would occur. The coup sparked a 12-year civil war between the military and opposition groups.

The new government was quickly recognized by the United States, which provided more than $1 billion in military aid over the next decade. The Carter and Reagan administrations saw the government as an ally in its Cold War foreign policy goal of preventing communism from taking hold in countries throughout the world.

Garay Sarvia was part of the Atlacatl Battalion, which was formed in 1981 as a rapid-response unit to fight guerillas and was trained by the U.S. military to specialize in counterinsurgency, according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Dec. 10, 1981, the battalion marched into the remote village of El Mozote seeking guerillas. It systematically raped and tortured inhabitants before killing them and setting fire to buildings, The Washington Post reported. More than 1,000 people , including more than 500 children, are estimated to have been killed.

The United States government is still hesitant to admit any role in the massacre, which it distanced itself from at the time. The website of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador mentions that a civil war occurred and briefly notes that, “during the 1980s, the United States supported the Salvadoran Government against Socialist forces.”

After the civil war concluded with a 1992 peace accord, the Salvadoran government established an amnesty law to shield the military from prosecution for any wartime atrocities. The law was overturned in 2016.

“Individuals who have committed atrocities overseas will not find safe haven in the United States,” Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security John K. Tien said in a press release. “ICE works tirelessly to identify human rights violators and bring them to justice.”U.S. Customs and Border Protection admitted Garay Saravia into the country in March 2014, Scripps News reported.

In addition to the El Mozote massacre, ICE contends that Garay Saravia was deployed in three other unspecified operations that “resulted in the massacres of hundreds of noncombatant civilians.”

Garay Saravia was among 18 officers charged in El Salvador related to the massacre and, in 2019, he was also charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Geneva accord, Scripps News reported. Despite the charges, proceedings against the perpetrators have been rare. 

A press release announcing Garay Saravia's arrest did not say where in New Jersey or how he was apprehended. Garay Saravia will reportedly be prosecuted by Newark and Philadelphia immigration courts.

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