El Salvador President Mauricio Funes apologized Monday for the 1981 El Mozote massacre of 936 civilians in an army counterinsurgency operation. Funes also commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1992 peace accords that put an end to the country's 12-year civil war.
Funes said the El Mozote massacre, named for the town where it occurred between Dec. 11 to 13, 1981, was "the biggest massacre of civilians in the contemporary history of Latin America." He formally acknowledged the government's responsibility for the killings.
He also asked for forgiveness from the relatives of the estimated 12,000 people disappeared in the conflict, which left 75,000 dead.
"I ask forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of those who still today do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. I ask forgiveness from the people of El Salvador, who suffered an atrocious and unacceptable violence," Funes said in a speech in front of thousands of farmers at the massacre site.
Funes was elected on the ticket of the former leftist rebels, who were allowed to turn themselves into a political party after the 1992 peace accords. Funes himself never belonged to the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebel movement, nor did he serve in the army. He was a journalist at the time.
Soldiers from the now-disappeared Atlacatl battalion entered El Mozote looking for rebels and sympathizers. They apparently believed that any village in the area was backing the insurgents, and they killed anyone they could catch: men, women, children, infants. Many of the bodies were tossed into a church that was then set ablaze.
But Funes said the peace accords helped change the army.
"Twenty years after the peace accords we have a different armed forces, democratic and obedient to civilian power," Funes said. He urged the army to revise its military history and avoid honoring officers who ordered or carried out rights abuses.
Msgr. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the assistant bishop of San Salvador, said the peace accords were valuable "but there is still a lot to do" 20 years later.
"We have a lot of ground to make up in human rights," Chavez said, "as there is in the economic situation of the poor, the poorest part of the population continue to be the poorest."
Former rebel leader Eduardo Sancho, known during the war by the code name Ferman Cienfuegos, said the accords marked a watershed, "changing the life of a guerrilla for life as a citizen."
"It was the arrival of democracy, and that was something we had never had," Sancho said. "We had lived under a dictatorship."
Former president Alfredo Cristiani, who signed the peace pact as president from 1989 to 1994, said the accords were not an end in themselves.
"They were just a beginning, but they were good enough for us to leave behind war and have the democracy we have today," Cristiani said.