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 first in a two-part series.
Colonel Rivas is a veteran of both war and peace. In the early 1980s, he took the US suggestion that El Salvador separate its security departments from the military to then-Defense Minister General Eugenio Vides Casanova; no one listened to him. In 1986, right-wing politician Roberto d'Aubuisson delivered Colonel Lopez Sibrian -- an army lieutenant accused of kidnapping and leading death squads -- to Rivas' home, so that Rivas could hand over the lieutenant to the police. In 1988, Rivas directed the military training center in the department of La Union (supervised by the US).
Rivas retired after 30 years of active service in 1991. Since then, he's been one of the strongest voices in the military to (almost always privately) condemn the massacre of six Jesuit priests and two of their employees at the hands of his comrades-in-arms.
He's lived through two assassination attempts, which he's denounced before two presidents and three attorney generals; up until now, no one has paid him any attention. On April 23, 2014, a hitman fired seven bullets into his youngest son, Carlos Rene Guillermo. Rivas is convinced that the military is involved in planning, financing, executing, and covering up the murder. In a letter sent July 10, 2014, the colonel asked President Salvador Sanchez Ceren to investigate what role the high-level command may have played in the death of his son; above all the role of Colonel Simon Alberto Molina Montoya, the head of the intelligence agency created by Defense Minister General David Munguia Payes.
"They killed my son, General."
The colonel was driving away from his home in a San Salvador neighborhood when he received the call. In the vehicle were his wife, Ana Molina de Rivas, and his oldest son, Carlos Alfredo. On the phone was General David Munguia Payes (pictured right), the defense minister.
The colonel and his family were headed to the armed forces funeral home to bury Carlos Rene Guillermo, the youngest of the four children, whom an assassin had killed just hours before in the nearby city of Santa Tecla.
Even though he couldn't suppress the grief from his voice, his chest, his thoughts -- and even though he already had a pretty good idea of what had happened in his son's house that day -- Colonel Rivas answered Munguia Payes, calling him "mi general." Officers usually used a possessive pronoun before a military ranking in greeting, although Rivas had long ago decided to only use this for equal or higher-ranked officers (Rivas had started military school in 1961, long before Munguia had). "I called him mi general to see how he would react..."
The minister gave Rivas his condolences by phone. He apologized that "commitments" prevented him from accompanying Rivas that night, but he offered to accompany him the next day, before the burial. "I know you loved your son very much," he said twice during the phone call.
The next morning, the minister's office called Colonel Rivas' cell phone. Rivas was still in the funeral home (he asserts that he never gave his private number to the minister, nor to anyone close to him).
The minister's aides asked Colonel Rivas for the name of his wife and his daughter-in-law -- Carlos Rene's widow. They also asked that the Rivas family get someone to move their cars to make space for the general's caravan (no easy task, since Munguia Payes usually traveled through the streets of San Salvador accompanied by dozens of vehicles, sometimes even a mini-tank). Irritated, Colonel Rivas cut off the aides: "You already know my wife's name..."
When he was told that General Munguia had arrived to the funeral home, Colonel Rivas went out to greet him. It was what military protocol demanded. It was what decency demanded.
Both men walked through the room. Colonel Rivas took Munguia to meet his family, for the respective condolences. He made sure not to bring Munguia near Carlos Rene's widow, who was "very affected." After the brief interaction, the general asked the colonel to go out in the garden to "talk" for a bit. That is how Colonel Rivas remembers the conversation, and that is how he referred to it in the letter he later sent to President Sanchez, regarding the circumstances surrounding Carlos Rene's murder (Agent Peña Hernandez, of the Presidential House, confirmed receiving the letter on July 10, 2014 at 3.10 p.m.).
"Mi coronel, this is due to your business problems," General Munguia told Colonel Rivas.
Less than half an hour after Carlos Rene's murder, investigators from the police and armed forces had already shared the following hypothesis with the journalists present at the crime scene: the murder was a revenge killing by an ex-employee, from the private security company that Carlos (pictured left) helped run alongside his father.
"No, it's not like that," Colonel Rivas told Munguia.
"That's what all the papers say... I think you need to look into your business, your business has problems," the general insisted.
Colonel Rivas grew angry. And so, less than 48 hours after the murder, he was convinced that officers in the armed forces had ordered his son's murder. He could tell from the various anomalies in the early investigations by police and military intelligence, conducted in the house where Carlos Rene's body had been found. He could tell from the phone calls he'd had with investigators. He could tell from his screaming military officer's instinct, which had learned all about the macabre art of covering up innocent deaths during the war, a practice which some of his comrades-in-arms had perfected all too well.
"They ordered him dead... they ordered my son to be killed," was how Rivas Najarro ended his conversation with Munguia Payes.
In his home in Planes de Renderos, a cool September morning, the colonel repeats the phrase he said to the defense minister that day. In the funeral home, he remembers, he grew angry at what he perceived were the general's attempts to hide the truth. Now, at home, there is only sadness when Rivas recalls the conversation with the minister. It has only been two hours since he started talking about what happened the day of the murder, April 23, and the dark days that followed. And since he began to speak, there have been faint but stubborn tears at the corners of his eyes behind his glasses. They stay there throughout the entire conversation.
In his letter to President Sanchez -- whom Rivas met when both were primary school students in a town near San Salvador -- the colonel describes various hypotheses about the death of his son.
In the letters, Rivas reminds the president that Rivas was already victim to two assassination attempts in 1997 and 1998, both of which he denounced to then-President Armando Calderon Sol, and which he blamed on "police agents." These assassination attempts were never investigated.
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The retired colonel thinks that his son's murder -- just like the attempts to kill Rivas, and the death threat which another one of his children received by phone following Carlos Rene's death -- could be linked to Rivas' role in investigating military human rights violations. The second possibility is that it's linked to Rivas' opposition to the Amnesty Law (the 1993 law which shielded participants on both sides of El Salvador's civil conflict from criminal prosecutions).
"When among civilian friends, as well as among active and retired members of the military, I've talked about how I'm in favor of finding the Amnesty Law unconstitutional, and that the Inter-American Court's sentence on the El Mozote vs. El Salvador case [involving the military's massacre of more than 800 civilians during the civil war] should be carried out, something which the current minister of defense knows about..."
In the early 1990s, just before his retirement from active military service, Rivas Najarro worked closely with the US legislative commission headed by Massachusetts Representative Joseph Moakley. The commission authored a report that revealed El Salvador's high military command had ordered the murders of six Jesuit priests and two of their employees on November 16, 1989, on the Central American University (UCA) campus.
"An enormous act of bravery"
Carlos Rene Guillermo Rivas Molina left home just before 6.20 a.m. It was the usual time that he accompanied his wife to the family's second vehicle, which was parked a block and a half from their home, in the gated community of Casa Verde in the city of Santa Tecla.
The previous afternoon, at least two men had broken into the home next to Carlos Rene's house, between Topacio and San Jorge Street. One of Carlos' brothers was certain that the robbery was faked -- according to witnesses, the intruders took nothing valuable from the house -- and that it was actually a reconnaissance mission by those who would kill Carlos Rene the next day.
After accompanying his wife to the car, Carlos took his daughter to kindergarten. Then he returned home and called his father, whom he worked with in the security business that the colonel founded in 1996. Carlos told his father that he wouldn't drop by the office that morning, and instead he'd go take care of some business matters elsewhere. He also said he would take a recently purchased shotgun with him, along with the revolver that he always carried. The incident at the house next door made him want to take extra precautions.
Carlos Rene then left home again, but returned shortly, according to the gated community's private security guard. Today, his father speculates, "He must have gone back to look for something he'd forgotten..."
Carlos Rene entered the house via the white pedestrian gate that led towards the garage. He left it open. What happened next was supposed to have been a summary execution, but turned out to be a full-blown shootout that left both the colonel's son and his assassin dead. The assassin was later identified as Felix Vladimir Giron Morales, a killer-for-hire who belong to a gang, according to a police source (Giron's mother confirmed that her son was a gang member).
"The plan, as we understand it now, was to kill him and leave the body there so that later they -- the conspirators -- could invent the theory that he'd been killed by a disgruntled employee. But it didn't turn out that way. It didn't turn out that way because he killed his assassin and from then on everything became complicated for them..." So says Carlos Alfredo Rivas Molina, the colonel's older son, while accompanying me back from Los Planes to another neighborhood in San Salvador. That's the conclusion the Rivas family came to after the events of April 23, 2014.
A police report recreated the moments between the time that Carlos Rene went through the house gate until the moment -- 10 minutes after the last shot was fired, according to the time of death established in the autopsy report -- when a lieutenant from the armed forces arrived at the crime scene. The report was filled out 8.30 a.m. the same day as the crime, and was later signed by 14 people, including police, district attorneys, forensic scientists, witnesses, family members, and that same army lieutenant, Oscar William Gomez Gonzalez. The following details of what happened are also based on the investigation that Colonel Rivas Najarro has carried out himself since his son's death, as well as interviews with state agents linked to the skimpy official investigation.
The assassin fired seven bullets into Carlos Rene's body, hitting him in the chest, abdomen, and knee. He left two bullets in the gun chamber, perhaps to deliver the coup de grace, according to the police report.
While the assassin walked the approximately 20 meters that lay between his shooting position and where his victim had collapsed to the ground, Carlos Rene managed to turn over. He had his revolver in hand.
Before the assassin could finish the job, Carlos Rene shot him six times. Two bullets hit him in the head, and killed him instantly.
Then came what his brother calls "the enormous act of courage" that has complicated the lives of those who hired the assassin. It was an act of courage which has pushed Colonel Rivas to write two letters to the president, and has convinced him that the state -- specifically the intelligence agency that employs Lieutenant Oscar Gomez Gonzalez, and is directed by Colonel Simon Molina Montoya -- is responsible for covering up his son's murder.
Before the assassin could finish the job, Carlos Rene shot him six times. Two bullets hit him in the head, and killed him instantly.
For now, it's impossible to know for certain how much time passed between the moment that the shooting stopped, and the moment that Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez arrived on the scene. But a few things are clear: he arrived very shortly after the shooting stopped, ahead of any police investigator, district attorney, or forensic scientist. He arrived in a red car -- a model and color similar to a vehicle that, according to the assassin's mother, had visited her house a week before Carlos Rene's murder to pick up her son. And most significantly, Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez was later reprimanded by a superior at the state intelligence agency for signing his name on the crime scene report. According to Carlos Rene's family, that superior was none other than Colonel Molina Montoya.
Colonel Rivas arrived on the scene shortly before 8 a.m., as he narrates in the letter he sent President Sanchez on July 10. Others who were there that day -- in the gated community of Casa Verde, early on the morning of April 23 -- confirmed this to police.
Dr. Romeo Piche carried out the autopsy, with assistance from Mr. Herberth Ramirez, at 2 p.m. that same day. They confirmed that Carlos Rene Guillermo had been dead between seven to nine hours; that is to say, he died between 5 and 7 a.m.
The Casa Verde security guard asserted that he saw Carlos Rene enter his home for the last time after 6 a.m. According to this witness, the shooting ended before 7 a.m. The first 911 patrol arrived at the crime scene before 7 a.m. And, according to one of these police agents, Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez arrived just after they did.
By the time that Colonel Rivas arrived, the lieutenant was already waiting for him. He was the first to approach Rivas, just as the colonel got out of his car. Rivas recalled that the lieutenant approached him accompanied by "civilians and others with military equipment and in uniform," and told Rivas he was there to help with the investigation. He had been sent by "the military Chief of Staff" and the State Intelligence Agency (Organismo de Inteligencia del Estado – OIE) to investigate Rivas' son's death.
"How did he know my ranking and my name and that my son had died, if no one had yet officially examined the scene?"
Around that time -- shortly after 8 a.m. -- the only ones outside the house were the 911 agents, who'd already moved Carlos Rene's body to a pick-up, and the lieutenant, along with his companions. Neither the forensic science institute Medicina Legal nor the police forensic science laboratory had entered the house. Nor had anyone officially identified the two bodies -- the colonel's son and the assassin. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez had already known who had died.
Sitting in his living room, Colonel Rivas repeats the question. "He came to me with a name and surname. How did he know my ranking and my name and that my son had died, if no one had yet officially examined the scene?"
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Oscar Armando Alfaro Mendoza -- the police agent who conducted the crime scene investigation and signed the official report -- confirmed that Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez re-entered the house at 9.40 a.m. In the words of the police report, this time the military officer entered "in order to physically see the body that lay on the floor of the house" -- that of the assassin.
In one of his letters to the president, Colonel Rivas Najarro writes the following: "That Lieutenant Gomez... when he showed up at the scene of the crime it was to make sure the act was carried out and at the same time... cover up the truth."
Shortly after 8 a.m., none of the forensic scientists or surveyors had yet examined the site of the murder, and it would be three hours before witnesses and police agents would sign the crime scene report. And yet by this time, police agents had already told journalists that their investigations pointed to a disgruntled ex-employee who had carried out a revenge killing, the same story that General Munguia would repeat to Colonel Rivas the next day in the funeral home. A print and a broadcast journalist who covered the homicide that day both confirmed this.
Just to reassure himself, Colonel Rivas (pictured left) called his business from the crime scene, just to ask how many people had been fired in the past year. The answer: none.
Before leaving Casa Verde, Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez left the colonel his phone number -- 791 00288 -- to keep him up to date on the investigations.
For nearly two weeks, the lieutenant answered the colonel's calls. Rivas called twice a day to ask for the updates that the intelligence officer had offered. Without exception, the lieutenant always answered evasively. "I don't have anything to report, mi coronel," is what Rivas Najarro recalls as a typical answer.
Desperate and increasingly doubtful, the colonel decided to confront Gomez Gonzalez. "What do mean there's no updates? We're going to meet up and you're going to explain this to me," Rivas Najarro demanded. The lieutenant agreed to a personal interview. They spoke on a Friday, and decided to meet up the following Monday afternoon, May 12.
That day, Rivas Najarro dialed the cell phone number to confirm the appointment. No one answer. Hours passed like that, until another officer answered -- a sergeant from special forces, who said his name was Romel Neftaly Moreira.
"Yes, mi coronel. [Gomez Gonzalez] hasn't shown up for work. We'll ask him to get in touch with you..."
Tuesday the 13th:
"Colonel, we've got problems, mi teniente has disappeared, if you have any information, please let us know."
And Friday May 16th:
"They buried him yesterday... he's dead..."
Sergeant Moreira said that Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez had been buried the previous day, May 15, but his body had been found five days earlier in a housing complex, La Rabida, in San Salvador. The official cause of death was alcohol poisoning, the sergeant said, although the autopsy pointed to pulmonary edema and hemorrhage.
In his letter addressed to President Sanchez on July 10, Colonel Rivas Najarro inserted the word "doubtful" when describing the lieutenant's cause of death. He did so 11 separate times in the letter, whenever he referenced the official explanation from the military, police, or the defense minister in regards to his son's death.
After hanging up on the sergeant, bewildered, Colonel Rivas spoke to his eldest son. "They killed the lieutenant," he said. "It was those sons of bitches. They killed Memo."
In one of the conclusions in his letter to President Sanchez, the father of the victim leaves no doubts over who he thinks ordered, planned, executed and covered up his son's assassination. "My son's murder was planned at least 30 days ahead of time..." Rivas Najarro wrote. He also wrote, "Military elements were involved in the planning, in coordination with MS [mara gang] assassins, within a structure managed by the minister and his advisor Colonel Simon Molina Montoya."
InSight Crime sent a questionnaire to the armed forces' communications department over the role of Lieutenant Gomez Gonzalez and Colonel Molina Montoya in investigating Carlos Rene's murder, as well as requests for an interview with Molina and Defense Minister General David Munguia Payes. There was no reply.
This is the first in a two-part series of articles.
*Hector Silva is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.