Today, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights publishes a collection of newly-declassified CIA documents released in response to the Center’s ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Agency. The documents relate to Salvadoran Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez (Ret.), who is a subject of pending criminal investigations in El Salvador regarding human rights abuses committed under his command during the country’s civil war, including the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre and the 1982 Calabozo massacre.
These CIA documents contain details about key moments in Ochoa Pérez’s military career and may provide evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The documents also offer broader insights into other topics which may be useful in future human rights investigations, including descriptions of the Salvadoran military chain of command and strategic evaluations of U.S. military assistance. They also leave crucial questions unanswered, with gaps that point to the need for further research and broader declassification efforts.
The document release marks an important victory in the UWCHR’s ongoing battle for access to US government documents on historic human rights violations in El Salvador. The UWCHR’s October 2015 lawsuit was provoked by the CIA’s response to a 2013 FOIA request for documents regarding Ochoa Pérez, in which the Agency stated that it could “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of records, citing national security exemptions. In fact, the CIA had already declassified more than a dozen documents mentioning Ochoa Pérez; the Agency’s refusal to, at minimum, produce these documents suggested a failure to meet its obligations under federal law.
In response to the UWCHR’s lawsuit, the CIA initiated a new search, resulting in the 85 documents published today. At least fourteen of the documents have been previously declassified and were re-reviewed for this release, including 11 documents cited by the UWCHR in its lawsuit. In total, the CIA found 100 responsive documents, fifteen of which it is continuing to withhold entirely, claiming national security exemptions.
The UWCHR welcomes the release of these documents. We will continue to use all legal tools available to advocate for access to the documents still withheld, and for broader access to information held in the records of the US and Salvadoran governments alike. Indeed, while this cache of 85 documents marks an important step forward, it also reveals deep limitations to the existing FOIA process. Too many families are still searching for answers to basic questions about the fate of their lost loved ones; a broader US declassification effort could contribute to healing in countless ways.
Highlights from newly released documents
The majority of the documents in the release are information cables and daily reports, delivering raw intelligence from the field to Washington, D.C., most of which the UWCHR believes have not been previously declassified. Some of these cables offer a high level of detail regarding military operations, including reports on actions by specific Salvadoran military units at specific dates and locations, accompanied with geocoordinates (C06504065). Other cables report on Salvadoran internal politics and military power struggles, including Ochoa Pérez’s disputes with superiors.
Particularly notable is a September 2, 1982 National Intelligence Daily Cable (C06508148) titled “El Salvador: Counterinsurgency Gains.” The cable offers a positive assessment of recent military operations: “Unprecedented success of the counterinsurgency operation completed last week in San Vicente due to new tactics and better leadership.” This is almost certainly in reference to a military operation titled “Teniente Coronel Mario Azenon Palma”, reportedly carried out in the department of San Vicente from August 17-30, 1982, and involving thousands of troops and multiple military units. The operation is notorious for the August 22 massacre at El Calabozo, in which more than two hundred fleeing civilians were massacred, and their bodies reportedly disposed of using acid. While Ochoa’s participation in this operation is well known, the newly-declassified cable is the first known US government source confirming his involvement as head of the multi-unit operation: “The operation’s success is largely the result of the planning and leadership of veteran commander Lieutenant Colonel Ochoa.”
Cable C06508148 also notes that “in contrast to past practice,” the armed forces took 25 prisoners into custody during the August 1982 operation in San Vicente. Two cases of the forced disappearance of children during this operation have reached sentencing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In one of these cases, multiple witnesses reported subsequently seeing children detained at a base then commanded by Ochoa. The cable’s confirmation of prisoners taken into custody underscores the need for further investigations into the subsequent fate of these detainees, as the Inter-American Court has ordered.
Another cable (C06504104) describes Ochoa Pérez’s obstruction of the International Red Cross during his time as Fourth Brigade commander in 1984: “Ochoa will not permit the International Red Cross (CICR) to operate in Chalatenango department. Ochoa maintains that the CICR is supporting the FMLN and should, therefore, not be permitted to function in his area of command. …President Duarte has ordered that the CICR have access to all areas of the country. The CICR, however, must obtain permission from the military commander of a department before entering the department. Colonel Ochoa always is busy when the CICR representative arrives at his office.” Obstruction of humanitarian assistance is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and may constitute a war crime.
As a collection, the documents allow a glimpse into oversights or inconsistencies in US strategic assessments of key leaders, like Ochoa Pérez. While some documents in this collection posit his possible involvement in crimes as grievous as the murder of Archbishop Romero (C06542606), others tout him as a “[model] of how the war should be fought” (C05356748). A four-month string of documents in late 1984 include characterizations of Ochoa ranging from an officer “tainted by ultrarightist past” and failure to obey orders from superior officers (C06508161), to an unusually effective and charismatic officer “understanding where he fits in democracy” (C06504082); to a possible coup plotter (C06504110). This suggests that information about the human rights records of Salvadoran officials was either ignored or considered irrelevant by US decisionmakers who continued to channel assistance to the Salvadoran counterinsurgency effort.
Known documents, new information, new questions
In addition to cables containing raw intelligence, the collection also includes a number of analytical assessments prepared for the Directorate of Intelligence. At least three of these reports have been released previously: “El Salvador: Controlling Rightwing Terrorism”, previously released in 1994; “Near-Term Military Prospects for El Salvador”, partially released in 2003; and “The Salvadoran Military: A Mixed Performance”, release undated. However, the new documents are of a higher resolution than earlier releases, and have undergone a new declassification review, revealing formerly redacted details about report sources, and significant new information about U.S. training and intelligence-sharing with the Salvadoran military.
For example, a newly-revealed portion of a June 1984 report entitled “The Salvadoran Military: A Mixed Performance” (C05356748) notes, “Far more technical intelligence has been collected by the United States than the Salvadoran armed forces can react to”, highlighting the primacy of US records as a source of information on wartime activities. As a result, the report explains, “US personnel have on occasion felt compelled to deliver data directly to field commanders when staff bottlenecks have prevented operational intelligence from getting to the field.” The active participation of US personnel in intelligence gathering and dissemination underscores the importance of further access to US archives for human rights investigations.
Indeed, US archives likely contain crucial information on the chain of command of the Salvadoran military, as evidenced in a 1983 Special National Intelligence Estimate titled “Near-Term Military Prospects for El Salvador” (C00678186), which describes both the official institutional structure and how it functioned in practice. The report notes, “The colonels who command the country’s 14 geographic departments have been senior players within this system. …Echelons of command at brigade or zone levels have existed on paper, but traditionally have had little importance. The departmental commanders usually have bypassed them and dealt directly with the minister of defense on all matters.” Further information on the military chain of command, if contained in other as yet classified documents, should be released for justice and accountability purposes.
In other cases, the newly-released documents now render visible words like “which”, “although,” and “reports” which were needlessly withheld from the public under previous declassification reviews due to the Agency’s overly broad interpretations of FOIA exemptions. Even if all present redactions were reasonable, litigating for access to information that should be in the public domain is too costly, for plaintiffs and government alike.
Read the documents
UWCHRvCIA-FOIA-2016 – 10.9 MB PDF containing 85 declassified CIA documents mentioning Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, released to UWCHR under FOIA in March and April, 2016. File is OCR enabled; we recommend searching by document number to locate specific documents. An index of documents follows.
Index of documents
|C06508165||1/1/1985||Central American Monthly Report #17|
|C06508166||1/1/1985||Central American Monthly Report #18|
|C05508262||2/1/1985||El Salvador: Controlling Rightwing Terrorism (An Intelligence Assessment)|
|C06509067||6/1/1986||El Salvador: Military Developments|
|C05434109||3/1/1985||El Salvador: The Outlook for the Duarte Government (National Intelligence Estimate)|
|C06508160||4/1/1983||Indications of Political Instability in Key Countries|
|C06508148||9/2/1982||El Salvador: Counterinsurgency Gains|
|C06508159||3/25/1983||El Salvador: Increased Tension in the Military|
|C06508162||9/7/1984||El Salvador: Military Situation|
|C06508150||1/10/1983||El Salvador: Increasing Pressure on Garcia|
|C06508153||1/24/1983||El Salvador: Politics in the Military|
|C06508156||2/7/1983||El Salvador: Political Tensions Ease|
|C06508147||9/18/1982||El Salvador: Moderates in Government Threatened|
|C06508161||8/25/1984||El Salvador: Preparations for the Guerrilla Offensive|
|C06508155||2/5/1983||El Salvador: New Power Struggle|
|C06508149||1/8/1983||El Salvador: Military Commander Revolts|
|C06508152||1/13/1983||El Salvador: Political and Military Developments|
|C06508157||2/15/1983||El Salvador: High-Level Maneuvering|
|C06508151||1/12/1983||El Salvador: Status of Military Dispute|
|C06508158||2/16/1983||El Salvador: The Military Balance|
|C06508163||1/16/1985||El Salvador: Military Intensifying Operations|
|C00678186||12/14/1983||Near-Term Military Prospects for El Salvador (Special National Intelligence Estimate)|
|C05194511||1/7/1983||SPOT COMMENTARY: Military Dissension in El Salvador|
|C05356748||6/1/1984||The Salvadoran Military: A Mixed Performance|
|C06504068||5/9/1983||Plans to Keep Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa in Washington, D.C.|
|C06503899||3/11/1985||Agreement for Coordinating Military Operations on Salvadoran/Honduran Border Areas|
|C06504109||12/29/1984||ARENA Party Attempts to Provoke a Military Coup|
|C06504086||10/16/1984||Briefing on [sic] of Officers in the Fourth Brigade on Meeting of the Salvadoran General Staff Concerning the Salvadoran President’s Proposal to Hold a Dialogue with Insurgent Leaders|
|C06503881||1/15/1985||Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez’ Intention to Request Relief of Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ramos for “Political Misconduct”|
|C06503879||1/15/1985||Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez’ Views of Rumors of a Coup D’etat Related to Issue of Colonel Reynaldo Lopez Nuila’s Possible Promotion [REDACTED]|
|C06504102||10/22/1985||The Salvadoran High Command to reassign fourth military zone Commander Ochoa|
|C06504069||4/4/1986||Comments of Salvadoran Vice Minister of Defense Flores on Conservative Activity in Connection with the Military|
|C06503878||1/13/1983||Comments of Senior Salvadoran Armed Forces Officers to President of El Salvador Concering Resolution of Ochoa Affair|
|C06504089||11/22/1984||Continued Negative Reaction of Air Force Officers to Proposal for Cessation of Hostilities|
|C06504065||3/21/1985||Cooperation Between the Armed Forces of El Salvador and Honduras Along the Frontier Area of Chalatenango Department|
|C06504095||10/12/1985||Criticism of Salvadoran Military Leadership by Fourth Military Zone Commander Ochoa|
|C06504093||10/12/1985||Delivery of a Pronouncement to the Vice Minister of Defense by Fourth Military Zone Commander Ochoa|
|C06504090||11/24/1984||Desire of Popular Liberation Forces to Move Out of Chalatenango Department Because of Heavy Losses Inflicted on them by Fourth Brigade|
|C06504091||10/10/1985||Disaffection of Fourth Brigade Commander Ochoa|
|C06504072||4/30/1985||Expectation that There Will Be No Upcoming High Level Changes in the Ministry of Defense|
|C06504075||8/24/1984||Factors Contributing to Decline in Agressiveness of Salvadoran Army Operations|
|C06504082||9/28/1984||Fourth Brigade Commander Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez’ Views of Prospects for an Insurgent General Offensive|
|C06504085||10/15/1984||Fourth Brigade to Remain Garrisoned During Meeting Between Salvadoran President and Insurgent Leaders at La Palma|
|C06504092||11/30/1984||Initial Reaction of Officers of Fourth Brigade to Idea of Cease Fire with the Insurgents|
|C06503896||3/8/1985||Insurgent Strategy to Counter Salvadoran Armed Forces Military Plans/Operations|
|C06504088||11/17/1984||Lack of High Command Support for the Fourth Infantry Brigade|
|C06504098||10/16/1985||Meeting of ESAF Commanders and the High Command Over Current Critical Issues|
|C06503897||3/9/1985||Military Cooperation Between El Salvador and Honduras in the Area of “El Bolson La Pilas” [sic]|
|C06504099||10/16/1985||Military Zone Four Commander Ochoa’s Assessment of the [REDACTED] Meeting Between the Salvadoran High Command and Salvadoran Military Commanders|
|C06503895||2/5/1985||Negative Reaction By Right Wing Military Officers to the Recent Assignments of Colonel Julio Agustin Trujillo and Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Ramos|
|C06504106||12/29/1984||Plan by the Commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade to Establish An Advisory Committee for Civil Action Projects in Chalatenango Department DOI: Early December 1984|
|C06503900||3/6/1986||Plans by Salvadoran Coffee Growers Association to Disrupt a March in Support of the Government and Agrarian Reform|
|C06504083||10/5/1984||Plans by the Commander of the Fourth Brigade to Regain Government Control of Chalatenango Department|
|C06503894||1/30/1985||Plans for Salvadoran Military, Financial and Political Support for the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS) Front (FRS) [sic]|
|C06504108||12/29/1984||Plans of High Level Military Officers to Move Against President Duarte|
|C06504077||9/22/1984||Political Right Wing Slander Campaign Against Key Military Supporters of President Jose Napoleon Duarte|
|C06504104||12/27/1984||Position of Lieutenant Colonel Ochoa, Commander of the Fourth Brigade, on a Cease Fire and the Activites of the International Red Cross in his Area of Command. DOI: Early December 1984|
|C06504114||12/22/1985||President Duarte’s Desire to Hold Impending Senior Officer Changes to a Minimum|
|C06504074||8/17/1984||Probable Reassignment of Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa to the Position of Fourth Brigade Commander|
|C06504071||5/19/1984||Proposed Key Personnel Changes Within the Salvadoran Military Commands|
|C06503898||3/11/1985||Prospects for Joint Salvadoran/Honduran Military Operations Along the Frontier Area of Chalatenango Department|
|C06504067||4/19/1985||Return of Displaced Persons to Chaletenango [sic] Department|
|C06504110||12/29/1984||[REDACTED] Speculation that General Vides Casanova Will End the Coup Plotting|
|C06504105||12/29/1984||Salvadoran Military Dissatisfaction with President Duarte|
|C06503877||1/5/1985||Salvadoran Military Maneuvering to Prevent the Promotion of Lopez Nuila to General|
|C05194512||1/10/1983||Status of Confrontation Betwen Minister of Defense and the Cabanas Departmental Commander|
|C06504113||10/8/1986||Topics Discussed by the Salvadoran Armed Forces Joint General Staff and Visiting South African Military Officers|
|C06503882||1/19/1985||Views of Chief of Joint General Staff, General Adolfo Onecifero Blandon, in Retrospect on Rumors of a Coup D’etat over the Holiday Period|
|C05216895||4/18/1983||Eugenio VIDES CASANOVA|
|C06508154||2/1/1983||José Guillermo GARCIA Merino|
|C06542602||3/14/1983||[REDACTED] Ltc. Sigifredo ((Ochoa)) Perez|
|C06542596||10/15/1985||Comments of Diplomatic Observers to Exchange of Ines ((Duarte)) Duran and Wounded Insurgents|
|C06542597||10/11/1985||Content of the Fourth Brigade’s Document Expressing Opposition to the Manner in Which the Government is Handling the Kidnapping of President Duarte’s Daughter|
|C06542598||10/2/1985||Discussion Among Salvadoran Brigade and Other Departmental Commanders Concerning Demands Made By the Kidnappers of President Duarte’s Daughterc (sic)|
|C06542599||3/2/1984||El Salvador: D’Aubuisson’s Terrorist Activities|
|C06542600||10/12/1985||EMCFA Officer’s Comments on Disaffection in the Fourth Brigade and Manageability of Military Restiveness|
|C06542601||10/13/1985||Friction Within the Salvadoran Military High Command Over Dissatisfaction with the Government’s Handling of Ines Duarte’s Kidnapping|
|C06542603||10/22/1985||Negative Reaction of Salvadoran Brigade Commanders to Part of the New Demand by the Kidnappers of President Duarte’s Daughter|
|C06542604||11/21/1985||Political Costs of the Duarte Kidnapping|
|C06542605||9/27/1985||Salvadoran Military Reaction to Exchanging Prisoners for President Duarte’s Kidnapped Daughter and Related Planning|