Death in the Village: Witnesses of El Mozote

AP Photo/Victor Ruiz


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Death in the Village: Witnesses of El Mozote

In December 1981, death plowed through a tiny village in El Salvador. The sword of death was raised by a US-trained battalion and fell over a thousand civilians, among them hundreds of children. El Mozote is now known as the worst massacre in Latin America in modern times, long shrouded in political fog and tainted by conscious cover-ups.

The real role played by the United States in El Mozote has been the topic of constant debate—but now, new light is shed over the Reagan administration’s involvement in the atrocity in northern El Salvador.

“There needs to be an American truth commission about El Mozote,” Raymond Bonner, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who broke the news about the massacre for the New York Times, tells Global Magazine.

EL SALVADOR One day in December 1981, a few Salvadoran peasants stumble upon Rufina Amaya along a riverbank. She’s dehydrated and exhausted. In shock. She speaks of cruelties. Of things she has witnessed. Experienced. And survived.

“I could hardly speak,” Rufina Amaya told Mark Danner, reporter at the New Yorker, in 1993. “I talked and cried, talked and cried—couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, just babbled and cried and talked to God.”

Rumors were already flying in Morazán, a department in El Salvador’s northern highlands, close to the Honduran border. Something bad had happened. But it was difficult to verify, let alone to know for sure. Roads were closed and the guerilla movement Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, the FMLN, had pulled back due to the Salvadoran army’s large-scale military sweep—called “Operación Rescate” (“Operation Rescue”).

A military offensive today mostly associated with the events in El Mozote. There, Rufina Amya resided with her family amidst El Salvador’s raging civil war. In mid-December 1981, however, nothing was left of the hamlet. Nothing but smoke, silence, and a thousand civilian corpses.

“Front burner of American foreign policy”

JosĂ© NapoleĂłn Duarte, then-President of the Government Junta, rejected the rumors regarding government-initiated human rights violations against civilians in MorazĂĄn and dubbed the FMLN’s radio announced atrocities in El Mozote a “guerilla trick”, meant to sabotage El Salvador’s hopes of securing increased military aid from the United States.

In late 1981, 38-year-old Raymond Bonner had only worked as a journalist for a short period of time, contributing to the New York Times.

“You have to remember,” he tells Global Magazine, “When the civil war erupted in El Salvador, it was the front burner of American foreign policy—this was where the United States drew the line in the sand to Communism.”

During the 1980s, few asked any questions in El Salvador. Not out loud. The local population let themselves be draped by forests, knolls, and caves. To know certain things was a potential death sentence.

Central American shakedown

In 1979, the earth trembled in Central America. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista movement, the FSLN, overthrew the US-backed Somoza dictatorship, and in El Salvador, right-wing President Carlos Humberto Romero tried to dampen the revolutionary fever by initiating talks with the armed left-wing movements, who had gained much support in its push for social reforms in a country hampered by widespread poverty.

Through the White House’s geopolitical telescope, popular revolutions seemed to have become a lingering political fashion in Central America.

Then-American President Jimmy Carter thus supported the Salvadoran army’s ousting of President Humberto Romero on 15 October 1979. Carter was under severe pressure; except a Sandinista revolution and an ongoing hostage drama in Iran, the United States furthermore stood on the threshold to a presidential election—one which his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, was tipped to win. 

Mr. Reagan’s primary political ace was his assurance to confront “Communism” south of Rio Grande.

“Thus having fortified himself as a sensible moderate, he proceeded to scare the bejesus out of his audience about Soviet intentions—then laid out the sensible course thereupon. The Soviets were ‘pursuing a program to achieve clear-cut military superiority over the West,’” historian and right-wing expert Rick Perlstein, writes in “Reaganland.”

Status quo and death squads

The most disturbing events in Central America in the eyes of President Reagan’s newly installed Neo-Conservative administration wasn’t the Salvadoran army’s sharpshooting of peaceful civilians in the capital San Salvador, in January 1980—a rain of bullets that left over fifty unarmed civilians dead, and many more wounded.

The biggest threat against the continent’s stability were the political movements calling for agrarian reforms, labeled by the American administration as sister products of “The Evil Soviet Empire.” The armed resistance of the Salvadoran FMLN guerillas was depicted as a “textbook case of indirect armed aggression by Communist powers.”

Death squads in El Salvador was not a new phenomenon during the civil war—but rather a politically sanctioned tool, first produced during the 1960s. These paramilitary militias’ primary task was to defend El Salvador’s long-living socioeconomic status quo, to influence or sabotaging elections. But, above all, its raison d’ĂȘtre laid in terrorizing small-scale farmers.

“The US policy went on as before and only the end of the Cold War allowed the negotiation of a peace in El Salvador that was based on something less than total victory,” Mark Danner, journalist and author of “The Massacre at El Mozote”, tells Global Magazine.

Death visits the hamlet

In El Salvador’s northern highlands, the notion was that there was only a matter of time until FMLN and Salvadoran military would clash in large-scale battles. In late 1981, El Mozote was a sleepy hamlet consisting of twenty-odd houses, with no documented ties to the left-wing gerillas. 

“Operación Rescate,” on the other hand, had forced civilians in Morazán on the run, many seeking refuge in El Mozote. In the afternoon of 10 December, the hamlet started to be filled up with soldiers from the Atlacatl battalion—a special army unit founded at the US military academy at Fort Benning, Georgia, commanded by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa.

There was little reason to worry, let alone to run for the hills. The citizens of El Mozote trusted the Salvadoran army, which had patrolled in the region since the start of the civil war a year prior, and who had never abused the local population in any way. The other way around, the local population had fed the soldiers and welcomed them into their homes.

In the evening on 10 December, however, the atmosphere was tense, and army helicopters arrived with troop reinforcements. At dawn on 11 December, Domingo Monterrosa ordered all local citizens round up on El Mozote’s sole square. The army demanded all weapon stored in the hamlet to be hauled out and displayed, but when the local population couldn’t present any arms, the Salvadoran military aimed their own rifles at the civilians. 

The men were separated from the others and forced into the church where they were executed, many by decapitation by machetes. 

Before long, El Mozote’s women and children—who had just witnessed and heard the murder of their fathers, children, and husbands—were raped and had their throats cut and later hung by ropes from tree branches. The youngest victim was two years old.

When all citizens were executed, the bodies and all houses in El Mozote were set on fire. It was clear, at this point, that Domingo Monterrosa and the Salvadoran army would blame the massacre on the guerillas. A feat they might have accomplished, had it not been for Rufina Amaya’s miraculous escape from a certain death.

Prior to her flight, she had witnessed the murder by decapitation of her blind husband Domingo Claro, and she had heard the death cries from all four children, spanning between nine years and eight months old (a fifth child was not present in El Mozote at the time of the massacre, and thus survived.)

A shifting narrative of conflict

Raymond Bonner still remembers the night when he and the photographer Susan Meiselas got ready to cross the river. It was in the no-man’s-land between 1981 and 1982 and a full moon stared down at the desolated borderland between Honduras and El Salvador.

Bonner and Meiselas stood on the threshold to become the first foreign reporters to document the Salvadoran civil war from this perspective—through the eyes of the guerillas.

Much was at stake. In the United States, the military aid package to El Salvador hung on a frail thread, and President Reagan had a hard time to convince the Congress—and his constituents—about the necessity to expand the generous American military support to the Salvadoran dictatorship.

The Reagan Administration had long ducked criticism for its support to the “anti-Communist” struggle in El Salvador. A lot was rooted in the outlining of the civil war as conflict interpreted in alliance with the Salvadoran junta’s official press releases and a censored and slanted press coverage, partly tabled as an “East–West”-affair.

In rural El Salvador, rhetoric and political games shone in absentia, in the shade of widespread poverty. Poverty and political repression, suggested by Mao Zedong, “are the waters in which guerillas swim.” 

In the air above the water along the Honduran–Salvadoran border, army units patrolled.

“I remember thinking, ‘Boy, some sniper on a hill could easily take us out,’” Raymond Bonner recalls. 

FMLN “not known to wear uniforms or use helicopters”

On the other side of the shore, a two-week-expedition to the heart of El Salvador’s raging civil war awaited. Raymond Bonner and Susan Meiselas crossed Central American countryside. Swindling countryside, isolated hamlets, arced celestial vaults. Armed resistance.

The reporters were told about human rights violations. Lists of names of hundreds of victims were followed up by excursions to villages where dead bodies—among them children—decayed in the shade of banana trees. When they sat down with Rufina Amaya, the image cleared about the extent of the events in El Mozote.

But exactly how many people had been killed remained unclear, and many war “hotspots” in Morazán still stood under Salvadoran army control. 

“It is not possible for an observer who was not present at the time of the massacre to determine independently how many people died or who killed them,” Raymond Bonner wrote in his primary piece for the New York Times, after his visit to El Salvador. 

In the interviews, Salvadoran peasants spoke of uniformed soldiers, some swooping in by helicopters, being responsible for the shooting. 

“The rebels in this zone are not known to wear uniforms or use helicopters,” Raymond Bonner reported. 

“Politically motivated reporting”

Raymond Bonner’s first piece of reporting on the massacre in El Mozote hit the newsstands on 27 January 1982. The very same day the American government sent its certification document to Congress, assuring the Salvadoran junta’s “concerted and significant efforts” to respect human rights. 

The certification document of improved respect and efforts regarding human rights was a condition for the expanding military aid package of 200 million dollars, in today’s value, where 70 million dollars were earmarked to military aid in accordance with the “Foreign Assistance Act.”

A human rights assurance the Congress on the other hand didn’t have the possibility to challenge the accuracy and validity of the findings in President Reagan’s certification. The breaking news about a massacre in the northern Salvadoran hills, published in the United States’—and the world’s—most prestigious media outlet the same day the Congress received the certification document didn’t seem to bother the Reagan administration. At least not officially.

“Stories detailing such deaths frequently have a politically motivated overtone,” Alan Romberg, then a State Department spokesperson, told the New York Times.

Contrary to the State Department’s relaxed attitude in print, a smear-campaign aimed at the reporter of the breaking news, Raymond Bonner, was at hand—primarily launched by Deane Hinton, then the US Ambassador in El Salvador, who depicted Mr. Bonner as an “advocate journalist.”

“The New York Times was a powerful newspaper,” Raymond Bonners says. “If something was reported in the morning, it’d make the headlines on the evening TV news.”

Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto—a stringer attached to the Washington Post, who also broke the news on the El Mozote massacre and the Salvadoran civil war seen from the guerillas’ perspective—had their names drawn through the mud in a Wall Street Journal editorial, their journalism dubbed as “propaganda.”

The American press coverage in El Salvador, per the financial newspaper’s editorial board, followed a Vietnam War-style of reporting “in which Communist sources were given greater credence than either the US government or the government it was reporting.”

The smear-campaign against the reporting on El Mozote in January 1982 was soon followed by the Salvadoran army’s executions of four journalists attached to Dutch public media IKON in February. Per the Committee to Protect Journalists twenty-four reporters were murdered during the Salvadoran civil war.

“I will hear my children crying”

With the Salvadoran narrative back to square, in line with the official wishes of both the Salvadoran junta and the Reagan administration, the developments in the Central American nation were once again presented as an “East–West”-conflict. Not a struggle sprung out of historical injustices, between a political oligarchy with strong bonds to Western capital and its counterpart consisting of a dirt-poor peasant population. 

Any abuses in El Mozote had never occurred. “Totally false,” Colonel Alfonso Cotto, spokesman for the Salvadoran armed forces, called the reports about “hundreds of civilians” slayed by Government soldiers. An official stance echoed by the Reagan administration—and not merely regarding El Mozote, but also the civil war in El Salvador as a whole.

When Rufina Amya sat down with Raymond Bonner at an unknown venue, mere weeks after the massacre in El Mozote, the shock, trauma and grief was still embodied. She hadn’t returned to the hamlet since escaping the Atlacatl battalion’s automatic rifles, machetes, nooses, and sexual abuses. 

“If I return, I will hear my children crying,” Rufina Amaya said.

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Make sure not to miss The Cover-Up, Part Two in Death in the village: El Mozote.

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