U.S. arrests retired Salvadoran officer implicated in atrocities

U.S. agents arrested a retired Salvadoran military officer this week on charges of participating in a brutal massacre of civilians during El Salvador's grinding civil war in the 1980s, according to a statement on Thursday.

Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained Roberto Garay on Tuesday in the state of New Jersey, the agency said.

Garay served as section commander of a special military unit known as the Atlacatl Battalion from 1981 to 1985.

Retired Salvadoran general Juan Rafael Bustillo acknowledged in 2020 that Atlacatl was responsible for the notorious 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which more than 1,000 villagers, mostly women and children, were slaughtered.

The battalion carried out extrajudicial executions at El Mozote, as well as in three other massacres in which "hundreds of noncombatant civilians" were killed, ICE said.

Garay then "willfully" misrepresented his involvement in the massacre from an immigration application he had submitted, according to the statement.

Reuters was not immediately able to locate Garay's lawyer.

One of several bloody Central American conflicts linked to the Cold War, El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war pitted the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels against the army of the U.S.-backed right-wing government.

The war left some 75,000 dead and another 8,000 missing.

Touting the agency's investigation team that aims to hold accused war criminals accountable, ICE stressed that individuals like Garay must be investigated, prosecuted and expelled from the United States.

"Individuals who have committed atrocities overseas will not find safe haven in the United States," Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security John K. Tien said in the statement.