Colonel Carlos Alfredo Rivas Najarro is one of the more progressive figures in El Salvador's military, although he never voiced his opinions very publicly. But after his son was mysteriously killed, he became convinced that the armed forces had played a role in planning and covering up the murder. This is the second in a two-part series.
"What is it, colonel, that makes you say this with such certainty, that makes you tell the president of the republic that people were sent to kill your son, and that the army has something to do with it?"
I asked this question for the first time after hearing about Colonel Carlos Alfredo Rivas Najarro's letters to President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who he has known since childhood.
Read the first article in this two-part series here.
Three hours had passed since we began our conversation in the Rivas Molina family's living room in the Los Planes de Renderos community. During that time, Colonel Rivas had recounted, one by one, the arguments that he put forth in his two letters to President Sanchez.
"The helplessness," he said, in response to my question. "The belief that nobody will do anything to find out who killed my son. And the death of Lieutenant Oscar William Gomez Gonzalez just 17 days after the murder of Carlos Rene [his son]," he added. All of this pushed him to write to the president.
Above all, it was the death of the lieutenant that prompted his letters.
Hired Assassins and their Accomplices
Carlos Alfredo, Rivas' eldest son, at first refused to accept his father's suspicion that the death of his brother was the product of a carefully elaborated plot. This is what the colonel has believed since the moment he left the crime scene -- his son's home, in Casa Verde Uno gated community of Santa Tecla on April 23.
"Despite everything, I refused to believe that people so bad actually exist," said the eldest Rivas Molina brother. But later, when his father told him that Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez had died, his opinion changed: "They killed Memo," -- as siblings and friends called Carlos Rene -- "they sent people to kill him." (Carlos Rene is pictured below. In the first image he is in the back row, second from the left; and in the second image he is center, second from the left.)
"I know from my 30 years of experience in military service that the perpetrators are using tricks to cover their crime."
Rivas' first letter to President Sanchez Ceren was 14 pages long. It was sent on June 13, 2014 and received at the presidential house that day at 3:50 p.m. by Agent Calderon R. In it, Rivas Najarro requested an appointment in order to explain his certainty that the murder of his son was planned and that the perpetrators had developed a complex plot to conceal it.
"I request your help as president of the republic and commander general of the Armed Forces. I know from my 30 years of experience in military service … that they [the perpetrators] are using tricks to cover their crime, to protect themselves, so that they won't be discovered," wrote the retired colonel.
He also revealed, in his first letter, that another of his sons had received a phone call on June 11, at the family residence in Los Planes, with a message for the colonel. The next day, at 9:30 a.m, Rivas Najarro returned the call to the number that had been saved in the phone. "Their message was that there was an order to kill me."
When he wrote that letter, a month had already gone by since the death of Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez. This mysterious military intelligence agent, according to Colonel Rivas, was sent from a battalion led by Colonel Simon Alberto Molina Montoya -- the right-hand man of the defense minister -- to make sure that the hired assassin sent to kill Carlos Rene had finished the job.
By that time, Colonel Rivas was certain that no Salvadoran authority was making much effort to clarify the irregular circumstances surrounding the death of his youngest son. The army had issued an order to classify the investigations into the death of Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez as secret; the police investigator on the case had changed four times; and, although the Attorney General's Office had moved the case records from the Santa Tecla homicide unit to the organized crime unit in central headquarters, the investigation had not advanced.
In his second letter to the president, less than a month later, Colonel Rivas set out all the anomalies he noticed at the crime scene and in the investigations that followed. These included the unclear circumstances surrounding the death of Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez, and the fact that the army and police agents present at the scene hypothesized that the murder was an act of personal vengeance, without evidence.
Rivas' letter included the following points:
- Police records never identified the private security guards in the Casa Verde Uno complex, who would have been able to determine what time the lieutenant arrived to the gated community and what time he entered the house to inspect the crime scene.
- Police that searched his son's car gave him the cell phone that Carlos Rene had left there, but they had erased the entire call history.
- Two days after the homicide, investigators called the mother of the hitman who killed Carlos Rene (Carlos Rene managed to shoot his assassin before he died) to tell her to come and pick up her son's body. They did this despite the fact that -- according to the crime scene inspection report -- the murderer was not carrying identification documents at the time of his death, and no family member had come to identify him at the morgue.
- According to Rivas' investigations, the weapon that the hired killer used to murder his son -- a 40 caliber CZ pistol of the series A855925 with registration number 205431 -- was registered in the name of a person who didn't exist, and had been reported stolen on March 19, 2014.
Rivas left no room for doubt in his second letter, when he directly accused Colonel Molina Montoya of having converted the so-called intelligence battalion of the Armed Forces into a paramilitary organization that "has been organized in the style of ORDEN [one of the most feared death squads in El Salvador in the 1970s]" and "has spoken of the execution of elements who oppose their political and economic objectives."
It is not the first time that Colonel Molina has been accused of organizing a hit from within the army, or of covering up or falsifying investigations.
In February 2012, after being named security minister by then-President Mauricio Funes, General David Munguia Payes named Molina Montoya assistant director of the State Intelligence Agency (OIE). Shortly thereafter, Molina Montoya became interim director. From his post, the colonel forced all of the OIE personnel to undergo polygraph tests, in an attempt to determine if anyone had filtered information to journalists from the Internet publication El Faro on the Texis Cartel, one of El Salvador's main drug trafficking organizations.
SEE ALSO: Texis Cartel Profile
Shortly before, a high-level official from the National Civil Police (PNC) confirmed that, since the beginning of 2012, Molina Montoya had been in charge of advancing talks with leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs in order to prepare the ground for a truce, which later became the principal security policy of his boss, General Munguia.
And in 2010, according to a report produced that same year by the Police Intelligence Center and endorsed by PNC and army investigators, Molina Montoya gave the order to assassinate an undercover ex-army agent who had infiltrated the Perrones, another of El Salvador's top drug trafficking groups.
(At one point, while I was performing research for my book "The Infiltrators," on corruption in the Salvadoran police and state, I requested an interview with Colonel Molina Montoya regarding these accusations, but the request was never answered. For the present article, I sent the army a request to interview both the colonel and General Munguia Payes. Again, there was no response.)
Past Encounters with Death
"That's where they go to dump the bodies of people they kill," said the man who opened the door for him in the community of Cuscatancingo, on the outskirts of San Salvador. It was two days before Christmas Eve in 1998.
Minutes earlier, Colonel Rivas Najarro had managed to pick himself up from the edge of the street, where he had been thrown by a group of men who had kidnapped him as he was leaving his office.
When he managed to compose himself, the colonel saw that the car carrying the kidnappers had turned around and was returning at great speed to the place where they had left him. Seconds later came the shots. But Rivas managed to hide himself in the embankment. He let time pass until he thought the car had disappeared, then he decided to seek refuge in a nearby house. A man opened the door for him; accustomed to hearing of cadavers that anonymous assassins threw over the nearby cliffs, he understood that the man who stood before him had very narrowly escaped death.
It was not the first attempt on his life that year. On September 23, 1998, another death squad -- or perhaps the same one -- had tried to kill him. When he left his office in his vehicle with license plate number P-374-728, another car, a red Honda, cut him off. Two men dressed in black got out and sprayed his car with bullets. The colonel managed to save himself: when he saw the assassins approaching him, he quickly reversed and managed to move far enough away so that the shots wouldn't hit him.
According to the colonel, those who kidnapped him on December 22 told him that it was because he was "dando parte" -- military slang for "reporting" -- human rights violations in the army.
Just as he would 16 years later, when his son was killed, in September 1998 Rivas Najarro wrote a letter to a commander general of the armed forces. On the 24th of that month, the day after the first attack, the retired colonel told then-President Armando Calderon Sol all of the details of the event, as well as the irregularities in the subsequent investigations, which were aimed at covering up the identity and motives of the perpetrators. And, just as in 2014, Rivas named the intellectual authors of the attack and those covering up for them; in that case, "agents of the National Civilian Police."
In his letters -- two to President Sanchez Ceren and one to President Calderon Sol -- Rivas Najaro identified his role in the investigation into the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and two of their employees as a possible motive for the attempt on his life and the murder of his son. In his later letters, the retired colonel also mentioned that at one point, some army officials were mentioning him as a possible replacement for Defense Minister Munguia Payes.
His July 10, 2014 letter to Sanchez Ceren sums up the internal culture of the military that, he believes, caused him to face death on two occasions, and to lose his son:
The history of the armed forces has been distorted by its political detractors, both conservative and liberal, who practice the tactic of misinformation, but there are also elements in the institution itself who are involved in unprofessional activity…
On the morning of November 16, 1989, Rivas' wife, Ana, spoke to him while he was stationed at the La Union barracks, to tell him that they were showing images of the murdered Jesuits on TV. That same day, Colonel Rivas Najarro began to advocate for a serious investigation within army ranks. And later he assisted those who eventually uncovered the truth: that the Atlacatl Battalion had killed them.
On September 23, 1998, they tried to kill Rivas. He accused the Salvadoran state. On December 1998, they tried to kill him again. He accused the Salvadoran state. On April 23, 2014, they killed his son. He accused the Salvadoran state.
As he wrote:
"If impunity persists to this day, we are doomed to be considered a failed state in terms of security."
The murder of Carlos Rene, said the colonel, showed "some similar characteristics to the murder of the Jesuit priests and their two employees."
This is the second in a two-part series of articles. Read first article here.
*Hector Silva is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.