UWCHR releases newly-declassified CIA documents regarding Ochoa Pérez; FOIA lawsuit ongoing

FOIA lawsuit against CIA results in 85 newly-declassified documents regarding Salvadoran military officer accused of command role in civil war massacres.

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.”

C06508148

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.

Comparison of current and previous declassifications of “The Salvadoran Military: A Mixed Performance” highlighting a newly-revealed section on US-Salvadoran intelligence collaboration.
Comparison of current and previous declassifications of “The Salvadoran Military: A Mixed Performance” highlighting a newly-revealed section on US-Salvadoran intelligence collaboration.

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

Doc No. Date Subject
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)
C05594352 2/3/1986 N/A
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
C06504084 10/10/1984 [REDACTED]
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
C06504073 8/2/1984 [REDACTED]
C05194512 1/10/1983 Status of Confrontation Betwen Minister of Defense and the Cabanas Departmental Commander
C06504070 4/26/1985 [REDACTED]
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
C06542606 10/9/1980 [REDACTED]
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