Declassified CIA Documents Allege Grave Abuses by Ochoa Pérez & Associates

On Friday, October 2, 2015, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency, arguing that the CIA has not complied with its legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The lawsuit stems from FOIA requests submitted by the UW CHR to various U.S. federal agencies on December 15, 2013, seeking documents regarding Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, a retired Salvadoran military officer and former legislator. Ochoa Pérez is the subject of open criminal investigations in El Salvador for his alleged role as commanding officer of military operations which resulted in grave human rights violations, including the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre.

On December 30, 2013, the CIA responded to the UW CHR’s request, stating that it could “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of such records, citing national security exemptions. However, the CIA has previously declassified a number of documents regarding Ochoa, twenty of which the Unfinished Sentences project is posting today. A number of these documents were released by order of the Clinton Administration in 1993, just years after the close of El Salvador’s civil war.[1]

Several of the documents contain intelligence analysis of Ochoa’s role within the Salvadoran military at various points of his military and political career, offering evidence of his posts and whereabouts at specific times. The documents also leave no doubt that from the earliest days of his career, his involvement with death squads—including those engaged in murders of US citizens—was known to US officials at the highest level. Of particular interest is a March 2, 1984 memo “requested by Vice-President Bush” outlining CIA intelligence documents naming Ochoa as a major player in a hardline right-wing military faction surrounding Roberto D’Aubuisson, the Salvadoran military intelligence officer and founder of the political party ARENA, known for his extensive ties to death squads (see Document 3). Other documents implicate Ochoa in major political crimes including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which is believed to have been carried out by order of D’Aubuisson (see Documents 1,2).

The documents also contain updates regarding political situations in which Ochoa was a protagonist, including a series of reports on his mutiny against the Salvadoran government in opposition to a prisoner exchange following the kidnapping of President Duarte’s daughter Ines by the guerrilla in 1985 (see Documents 6-11). The cables’ high degree of detail reveals a pattern of close U.S. monitoring of internal dynamics within the Salvadoran government and military throughout the war. Other documents which still remain secret are likely to contain similar information, which could be useful in establishing accountability for human rights violations. It is highly unlikely that the acknowledgement or release of further documents regarding Ochoa constitutes a threat to U.S. national security today.

Selected documents are summarized below. The full set of documents can be downloaded here:4 MB ZIP

Document 1
Date: October 9, 1980
Agency: CIA
Source: CIA Electronic Reading Room
Title: [Ochoa & Romero Assassination]

This CIA cable reports information that Lt. Col. “Sigfredo (sic)” Ochoa is one of the military officers responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero earlier that year, however states that the view is “little more than an attempt to further blacken the image of the rightist officers in El Salvador.” The cable identifies Lt. Col. Julio Agustin Trujillo as one of those pointing to Ochoa’s involvement in the murder, and that “Trujillo found this information completely credible.” The cable goes on to report that Ochoa is believed to be out of the country, and provides biographical information, with comments on the character of a “Major Sigrido (sic) Ochoa”: “He is staunchly anti-communist and admires the U.S. but faults U.S. human rights policy as [a] leftist subversive shield. He is an ardent horse lover and enjoys shooting as a hobby.”

Document 2
Date: March 14, 1983
Agency: CIA
Source: Library of Congress Volume 2 [Clinton declassification order]
Title: [Excised] LTC Sigifredo Ochoa Perez

This cable discusses aspects of Ochoa Pérez’s activities from 1972-1983, with particular focus on his multiple tenures in Costa Rica (points 1-2 of the document). While assigned to the Salvadoran embassy during 1972-1974, the document states that, “Ochoa was delivering messages from Guatemala coup plotters.” While serving as military attaché in Costa Rica in 1980, redacted sources describe Ochoa as linked to military intelligence: “Ochoa was attached to M-5 Estado Mayor del Ejército.” The cable goes on to explain that , “Ochoa was allegedly engaged in activities to silence the Salvadoran left and Father Benito ((Tovar)) in Costa Rica”. Point 3 of the document suggests that Ochoa Pérez “may be identifiable with one LTC Sigifredo ((Ochoa)) Trujillo,” a suspect in the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero. This is clearly identifying Ochoa, and the addition of the name Trujillo seems to be a mis-reading of prior intelligence, see paragraph two of CIA cable from October 9, 1980 [Document 1].

Document 3
Date: March 2, 1984
Agency: CIA
Source: Library of Congress Volume 2
Title: El Salvador: D’Aubuisson’s Terrorist Activities

This CIA memo “requested by Vice-President Bush” relating terrorist activities associated with Roberto D’Aubuisson and the ARENA political party. Lists a military officer named “Ochoa” as a “notorious past associate” of D’Aubuisson, among a group of officers who were “mentors of a new generation of junior officers [redacted] to have been involved in death squad and other illegal activities”. This document is notable as evidence of high-level U.S. government awareness of D’Aubuisson, ARENA, and military involvement in illegal activities, including killings of U.S. citizens and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. A final note in the document notes the CIA’s internal “variance in interpreting the death squad issue”.

Document 6
Date: October 12, 1985
Agency: CIA
Source: Library of Congress Volume 3 [Clinton declassification order]
Title: EMCFA Officer’s Comments on Disaffection in the Fourth Brigade and Manageability of Military Restiveness

This CIA cable relates comments by Salvadoran Armed Forces Chief of Operations Lt. Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce regarding Ochoa Pérez’s dissent on the kidnapping of President Duarte’s daughter. Ochoa is ordered “to stop his open complaining and inciting his officers against the president.” Ponce reports that Ochoa specifically disagrees with “orders forbidding military operations in the eastern part of Chalatenango department.” The document states that despite conflicts, “Ochoa’s followers are almost exclusively limited to the officers of his own brigade.”

Document 13
Date: February 1989
Agency: CIA
Source: Library of Congress Volume 1 [Clinton declassification order]
Title: El Salvador: Government and Insurgent Prospects

This CIA report includes an analysis of political trends in El Salvador, stating that an ARENA government dominated by D’Aubuisson and Ochoa “might, in the name of nationalism, move to curtail or minimize US influence. It also could seek quick, dramatic gain against the insurgency by resurrecting death squads, prompting international condemnation of the government, and generating sympathy—possibly even tangible support—for the guerrillas” (p. 30).

Download more previously declassified CIA documents regarding Ochoa Pérez: 4 MB ZIP

[1] In 1993, President Bill Clinton ordered the search, review, and declassification of records within the holdings of the Departments of State, Defense, and the CIA regarding the 32 cases studied by the El Salvador Truth Commission. In response, agencies made available to the public over 12,000 declassified documents. In 1994, President Clinton ordered an additional search, review, and release of information relating to human rights cases in El Salvador. Many of these records are currently available at the National Archives and Library of Congress.