At the top of the pyramid of those standing trial is a retired general, José Guillermo García Merino, 84, who served as the defense minister from 1979 to 1983.
Granted asylum by the United States in 1990, he was sent back to El Salvador in 2015. In the immigration court ruling ordering his deportation, Judge Michael C. Horn rejected Mr. García’s argument that the abuses occurred without his knowledge or against his orders. Instead, the judge wrote, the atrocities were part of Mr. García’s “deliberate military policy.”
For decades the Salvadoran military denied anything had occurred in El Mozote. Six weeks after the massacre, The New York Times and the The Washington Post published witness accounts, but General García told the United States ambassador the reports were nothing but Marxist propaganda, according to State Department documents published by the journalist Mark Danner in his 1994 book about the massacre.
Lizandro Quintanilla, a prominent defense lawyer representing one of the accused, retired Gen. Walter Salazar, said there are still questions about what occurred in El Mozote and that it was impossible to link the exhumed remains to the commanders facing trial.
“It isn’t a history from which we can infer any responsibility,” Mr. Quintanilla said, “to my client or the accused.”
The military men have appeared in court once to hear the charges. Survivors watched in silence.
“I wasn’t scared, but I felt angry, enraged,” said Ms. López, one of the witnesses in attendance. “I wanted to say something to them, but in front of the judge, it’s not permitted.”
The trial could run well into 2019, according to the judge, Jorge Guzmán Urquilla, who said in an interview he was committed to a fair trial, and uncovering the truth for survivors.