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ZEMBLA finds brains behind murder of IKON journalists

"This man is a war criminal - there's no doubt about that"

Leestijd: 4 minuten

ZEMBLA has discovered the whereabouts of the Salvadorian colonel who plotted the murder of four Dutch IKON journalists in 1982. Two years after the murder, Colonel Mario Reyes Mena left El Salvador. He was never prosecuted. ZEMBLA discovers that the colonel has been living in the United States since 1984 and confronts him in his hometown.

In 1982, IKON journalists Koos Koster, Jan Kuiper, Joop Willemsen and Hans ter Laag were in El Salvador to cover the violent civil war. They wanted to do portraits of a family in the city and a family in the guerrilla region. On 17 March 1982, they left for the rebels. On arrival, they walked into an ambush of the Salvadorian army. All four were shot and killed.

ZEMBLA now asks 79-year-old Colonel Reyes Mena why he had the four journalists killed. "The case has been investigated, I have never been charged. You are all part of a communist plan to get revenge," replies Reyes Mena.

War criminal
In the years following the murders, the United Nations Truth Commission investigated the case. In 1993, the Commission concluded that Colonel Reyes Mena was "responsible for plotting the ambush and the murders".

ZEMBLA interviews Geoff Thale, Vice-President of the human rights organization Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Thale is very familiar with the case. He says about Reyes Mena: "If you order the murder of civilians, you violate international humanitarian law. This man is a war criminal - there's no doubt about that."

Until two years ago, El Salvador had an Amnesty Act in place. That Act provided that suspects of war crimes during the civil war go free. Two years ago, the Act was abandoned. Prosecution is now possible in El Salvador. Early this year, Gert Kuiper, brother of Jan Kuiper, one of the murdered IKON journalists, filed charges against Colonel Reyes Mena in El Salvador. The Dutch Embassy for El Salvador supports the charges. But, so far, the colonel has not been arrested.

In the Netherlands, Reyes Mena's prosecution has always been a possibility. ZEMBLA asks the Public Prosecution Service about this. The Public Prosecution Service responds that "as is customary, they will not answer the question as to whether a criminal investigation has been conducted".

US soldier knew
ZEMBLA has managed to get hold of secret documents from the UN Truth Commission. The documents show that, at the time, US soldier Bruce Hazelwood had close contacts with Colonel Mario Reyes Mena.

In March 1982, Hazelwood worked as a military trainer on the El Paraiso basis. That was also the basis where the soldiers who killed the IKON journalists were stationed. In the secret UN report, an anonymous source states: "Before the patrol left, Reyes Mena told Bruce Hazelwood about the plan to kill the journalists."

Email correspondence
This is confirmed by email correspondence that ZEMBLA has managed to get its hands on. In that email correspondence, Hazelwood discussed the matter with a fellow veteran who also served in El Salvador.

About the day of the murder, Hazelwood wrote: "That night, my talks with Mena were very frank, and he followed my recommendations - a complete 180 from his earlier conduct".

ZEMBLA traces Hazelwood and confronts him in his hometown. The former soldier denies having been there: "I don't know what you're talking about. I was somewhere else that day."

US Congress
Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, tells ZEMBLA that he will call on the US Congress to investigate the matter. "If a US soldier has knowledge of a planned war crime, it is his responsibility to report it to his superiors." Thale also thinks that the Dutch government should take action.

Watch 'In Cold Blood':