Death in the Village: The cover-up on the dark side of the Moon

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Death in the Village: The cover-up on the dark side of the Moon

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 actual 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.

“El Mozote is a mystery unpeeled like an onion, layer after layer, and despite years of revelations, can still hide further secrets beneath,” Mark Danner, journalist and author of The Massacre at El Mozote, tells Global Magazine.

EL SALVADOR It’s mid-July 1969. War rages between El Salvador and Honduras. The triggering factor were two decisive qualifying matches for the upcoming football World Cup in Mexico in 1970. Two matches drenched in violence, border disputes, and provocations.

The one-hundred-hour-long war became known as the “Soccer War.” But the conflict’s main core was not rooted in the football pitch, but in the concentration of power of both countries’ oligarchs and their respective government’s systematic abuse of landless peasants.

In the summer of 1969, however, the global public’s eyes were not fixed on Central America and its ongoing war between El Salvador and Honduras—instead turned against the sky, where history was being made. 

Shot out into space, en route to Earth’s closest neighbor, was the Apollo Lunar Module, carrying three American astronauts. 

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were going to succeed with the Apollo 11 mission and place the first human footprints on the Lunar surface. A breathtaking feat that embedded the world they had left behind in feverish anticipation.

The Apollo 11 mission was neither the first nor the last time when American interests overshadowed dramatic events in Central America. Some 384,000 kilometers away from Neil Armstrong’s first lunar step, the “Football War” ended upon 6,000 deaths and 50,000 internally displaced people on both sides of the unchanged border.

The last meal

On 1 December 1980, Catholic missionaries Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel dined with Ambassador Robert White at the US Embassy in San Salvador. They worked and resided in the rural countryside, and everyone around the table—both diplomats and missionaries—feared the consequences of the President-elect Ronald Reagan’s plans for stronger ties to the Salvadoran military junta just as civil war had erupted.

Due to San Salvador’s nightly curfew, Kazel and Donovan stayed overnight. The next day, they went to the airport to pick up two colleagues—Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford—who had attended a conference in neighboring Nicaragua.

The plane arrived at nine o’clock in the evening and the missionaries then drove west in a white Toyota minivan, towards the coastal town of La Libertad. The road from San Salvador International Airport lay deserted. It was dark. They were being followed. They were forced to a halt. They “disappeared.”

“Anxiety and uncertainty”

Judith Noone is a Maryknoll sister and an anthropologist. She has resided and worked in Guatemala since 1985. In December 1980, when the first disturbing dispatches arrived from El Salvador, she was in New York City and had just returned from Bolivia, where she assisted migrant workers and led literacy program.

“I especially remember the anxiety and uncertainty,” Judith Noone tells Global Magazine. 

She was friends with Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, and Judith Noone was aware—like everyone else with insight into El Salvador at the time—that a “disappearance” in many cases equaled death.

“No one knew, there were no communication. There were a lot of confusion,” she says. 

Every night, the employees at the Maryknoll Sisters’ New York City headquarters gathered around the evening news in hopes of any updates on the missing American missionaries.

“Then, after a few days, it all just well into the background when John Lennon was killed,” Judith Noone recalls.

Death by the roadside

The bodies of the four women were hauled up from shallow graves near San Salvador International Airport on 4 December. One who witnessed it all—shoulder to shoulder with a horde of reporters, locals, and military personnel—was US Ambassador Robert White.

All four had been raped and tortured before being executed at point blank range.

In hindsight—as presented by journalist Raymond Bonner, in his book “Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s dirty war”—Ambassador White seemed to have decided there and then, along the roadside in the heat and surrounded by a dawning and brutal war. He would fling the door open and let the outside world understand what the Salvadoran army was capable of.

Mr. White collected witness accounts in nearby villages. There was no doubt, as far as he could tell, regarding the military’s involvement. Several witnesses said they had heard the churchwomen’s desperate cries. Others spoke of military presence, albeit terrified of retaliation if their identities weren’t protected.

White House shuffle

The assassination of four American citizens caused a political uproar in Washington, just as Ronald Reagan was about to replace the outgoing Democrat President Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office. During the presidential campaign Central America had enjoyed a spot in the media sun.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, foreign policy adviser and US ambassador to the United Nations between 1981 and 1985, was adamant that the murdered women “were not just nuns.”

“They were also political activists,” Mrs. Kirkpatrick added, affiliating them to the FMLN guerillas. Asked if the Salvadoran government had been involved, she told Tampa Tribune, “The answer is unequivocal. No, I do not think the government was responsible.” 

Judith Noone recalls the Reagan administration’s politically motivated—and sordid—picture of the American missionaries as guerilla sympathizers.

“Sure, they lived with the poor,” she says. “They were always right there, not just on the side with the poor, they lived with them. Their constancy, not just siding ideologically with the poor.” 

There is no evidence of any organized connections with the rebels. Although, in the early 1980s, as El Salvador was ruled by a staunch right-wing military junta, missionary work in poor areas was dubbed a revolutionary act for which many church-affiliated Salvadorans paid a hefty price—among them Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was assassinated by a sniper in March 1980, while saying mass. 

And just like the archbishop, the murdered American missionaries sympathized with the poor Salvadoran masses’ hopes for a climb out of a trench surrounded by utmost despair.

“They put themselves in danger, for sure,” Judith Noone says. “They ran a lot of risks when they transported refugees in Chalatenango.”

“Take care of them”

After the murders, Carl Gettinger, a junior diplomat at the US Embassy in San Salvador, started digging into the case. Through a high-ranking military source, he secured information that became embarrassing for the Salvadoran junta and following right-wing governments—as well as the White House.

Five men from the National Guard had been commissioned to set up roadblocks near the airport and then dress in civilian clothes and “take care of the women.”

The information—and the professions of the suspects—did not go down well in Washington, where Congress conditioned any prolonged economic and military aid to El Salvador to a progressive murder investigation. But despite the given—although not yet charged—suspects, the real questions still hung in the air: Who ordered and paid for the murders? And who participated in the cover-up?

“An illusioned” investigation

When Ambassador White traveled to Washington to attend Reagan’s presidential inauguration in January 1981, he met with the new Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. Haig wanted Mr. White to write a report confirming the Salvadoran military’s progress in the murder investigation of the four American churchwomen.

“Well, Mr. Secretary,” Mr. White told Haig, later quoted in Raymond Bonner’s book, “That would not be possible because the Salvadoran military killed those women, and the idea that they’re going to investigate in a serious way their own crimes is simply an illusion.”

Despite a second order for the report, White stood his ground and refused to participate in the cover-up and was soon thereafter discharged as ambassador to El Salvador and subsequently banned from future American foreign service. With Mr. White out of the way, Deane Hinton was installed as new ambassador, and after a campaign of political pressure upon the Salvadoran government, the five men from the National Guard were charged and sentenced to 30 years in prison in May 1984.

Still, it was clear that the Salvadoran military had been involved in the atrocity. It mattered little, though, as the American Congress swiftly expanded its military aid to El Salvador—the day after the verdicts.

Miami retirees

The 1993 UN Truth Commission on El Salvador stated that several government officials were involved in cover-ups in the most notorious atrocities during the civil war. Among those were the murders of the missionaries and the massacre in El Mozote in December 1981.

Some prominent Salvadorans—among them former Secretary of Defense, José Guillermo García, and former head of the National Guard, Carlos Vides Casanova—even turned out to be enjoying life as retirees in Florida.

It wasn’t until 2004—and the legal wake of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001—that the two prominent Salvadoran generals were deported from the United States.

“General Vides most certainly feels that he has been to a certain level betrayed by the US government, given all that he did for his country, which was aligned with the vital interests of the US,” Diego Handel, Vides Casanova’s legal representative, said in a 2014 Retro Reports documentary.

An attitude which former ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, to some extent, sympathized with:

“There is something a bit unjust about punishing the marionettes and letting the organ grinder go on his merry way,” Mr. White said in the same 2014 documentary.

“Operation cover-up”

In December 1981, almost to the day one year after the deaths of the American churchwomen, the massacre in El Mozote occurred. An atrocity which caught the world’s attention thanks to Raymond Bonner’s reporting on behalf of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto’s ditto for the Washington Post.

The exclusive eyewitness account given by Rufina Amaya, the massacre’s sole survivor, became shrapnel on the Reagan administration’s plans for deepened ties in Central America, while dampening the US Congress’ willingness to approve expanded aid to the Salvadoran military junta. Therefore, US embassy staff in San Salvador headed to the backwaters of Morazán Department for further investigation.

“The primary policy objective at the time was to get the certification through. From the Embassy’s point of view, the guerrillas were trying to make us look as bad as possible. They wanted to shut the whole thing down,” Todd Greentree, a junior reporting officer in the US Embassy at the time, tells journalist Mark Danner, in his book The Massacre at El Mozote.

The Salvadoran military did not applaud the embassy staff’s arrival to the war zone—at a moment when the Atlacatl Battalion and other military units were in full swing with “Operación Rescate” (“Operation Rescue”), an effort to cleanse the region from guerrilla sympathizers.

Mr. Greentree and his colleagues, though, weren’t given permission to enter El Mozote. Instead, they based their report on testimonies from people in temporary refugee camps. Men and women interviewed at the ever-presence of Salvadoran military personnel. The atmosphere was haunting, both among locals and soldiers, and reminiscent of the Vietnam War.

“I mean, you talk to a soldier who thinks he’s taken part in some heroic operation—and a Latin soldier, I mean—you can’t get him to shut up. But these soldiers would say nothing. There was something there,” Todd Greentree said.

Balancing act for Salvadorans—and the White House

For Salvadorans—and especially peasants residing in war zones such as Morazán and Chalatenango—life hung on to thin thread during the civil war. It was essential to stay on good terms with both guerrillas and military. To keep your house, your land lots and to stay alive, it was never a question of denying either side a cup of coffee or a plate of chicken and some corn on the side.

To the Reagan administration, on the other hand, it was essential to deny any knowledge of El Mozote massacre while exaggerating the long-term perils of leftist movements to secure continued congressional support. The White House’s main argument against a military-initiated massacre in December 1981 was based in the hamlet’s own population data—how could up to a thousand people get killed in a place where only three hundred lived?

“The lies were successful, the aid continued to flow, and the Salvadoran rebels were denied victory,” Mark Danner, author of “The Massacre at El Mozote,” tells Global Magazine.

Republican Elliot Abrams, who led the US Senate Committee Investigation into the American involvement in El Salvador, and in El Mozote, maintained that the guerrillas had “published” the information on the alleged massacre only to disrupt the military junta’s relationship with Washington during a delicate hour.

This was the time of cover-ups and deliberate lying. But the seed of the cover-up surrounding El Mozote was merely a result of the cultivation of politically motivated lies completed many years prior. Far away from El Salvador. In another continent. In another war.

From My Lai to “overcoats”

On 12 November 1969, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that American soldiers had brutally murdered between 300 and 500 civilian Vietnamese in what is known as the “My Lai Massacre”—an atrocity that turned the world opinion around, and against US presence in Vietnam.

The reporting from the Vietnam War had been far too naked and near. Too true. After the war, the Pentagon and the Defense Department stated that the key to future “positive reporting” in wartime was found in the restriction of reporters’ access to battlefields.

“Handouts about what had happened would be prepared by public affairs staff, and officers, called ’minders,’ would go along with correspondents to supervise their movements and the information they got,” documentary filmmaker Andrew Pearson, who covered the Vietnam War in 1963, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times in 2018.

Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto never reported on the Salvadoran civil war from hotel roof tops in San Salvador—their reporting was naked, intimate and, it was later confirmed, truthful about the massacre in El Mozote. That’s why the Reagan administration and loyal media, especially the Wall Street Journal, who dubbed their reporting as “following a Vietnam War-style of reporting”—in which “Communist sources were given greater credence than either the US government or the government it was supporting.”

But despite hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in military aid to dictatorships and paramilitary militias, the US presence in Central America never came close to the tsunami of criticism that swallowed the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations during the Vietnam War.

“Our moral equals”

The United States arrived in Vietnam, as was promised, to secure democracy and to defend human rights against despots. In the Nicaraguan Anti-Communist paramilitary militia, Contras, President Reagan saw the “moral equals of our founders.”

“When the Democratic-controlled Congress learned the CIA was putting explosive mines in Nicaraguan harbors in early 1984, it voted to outlaw military aid to the Contras,” journalist Johnathan M. Katz reported for Mother Jones.

The “Boland Amendment” prevented further financial and military assistance to Contras, whose primary funding was illegal drug trafficking. A fact that made the counter-revolutionary Nicaraguan movement an enemy to US declared “War on Drugs.” A political program that annually cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.

Despite costly drug wars, political double-standards and legal bans, President Reagan’s security adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane set out to find alternate ways to sponsor the Contras. McFarlane found his very own illegal Silk Road, which led to Iran—all the while Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North traveled south and visited with the Contras in their base camp along the Honduran Mosquito Coast. Mr. North personally assured the Anti-Communists continued US support in their quest to overthrow the Sandinista government.

“The Iran-Contra affair”

The Gordian Knot of the Reagan administration was cut in the Middle East. Seven Americans were held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon. “Bud” McFarlane secured their release with arms shipments to the dictatorship in Tehran, which at then was at war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

A deal in violation of both US law and the President’s own pledge never to “negotiate with terrorists.”

The arms-for-hostages deal was equivalent to 70 million US dollars (in today’s currency) and was disclosed in 1986 by the Lebanese daily Al-Shiraa. A scoop immediately detracted by Reagan, but which resulted in a federal investigation. An investigation that soon showed how more than half of the 70 million made from the arms sale had been illegally transferred to the Contras.

“By mid-decade, it had become abundantly clear that US policy was drowning Nicaragua in blood,” stated Johnathan M. Katz.

The turn of the tide

George H.W. Bush—Reagan’s Vice-President and later President between 1989 and 1993—pardoned everyone involved in the illegal Iran–Contra affair.

By then, the tide had turned in Central America. In Nicaragua, the US funding of Contras and CIA initiated bombings of Nicaraguan harbors eventually had paid off—the Sandinista revolution ended after years of wars, bankruptcy and increased poverty. In El Salvador, the FMLN guerrillas and the government traveled north, to Mexico, for peace talks.

Judith Noone—the Maryknoll sister, and friends with two of the murdered American churchwomen—witnessed the gradual unfolding of the truth of El Salvador—and the truth of the United States’ murky operations in Central America as a whole.

“The murders of the churchwomen were something of a lightning bolt of a moment. That something like that could happen,” she tells Global Magazine.

In 1981, Judith Noone published The Same Fate as the Poor; a lament to the murdered churchwomen’s lives and social efforts in Latin America. A writing process that brought her even closer to the churchwomen, and an experience that made her realize the vast risks they took in their social work, an ideological stand on the side of the poor that eventually would cause them their lives.

Like hundreds of thousands of others in El Salvador and Central America, they were mere pawns, sacrificed if deemed to stand in the way of more powerful players along the geopolitical board.

“The feeling is that there is still some fogginess behind it all today,” Judith Noone says.

“Mystery with many layers”

Rufina Amaya, who miraculously survived the El Mozote massacre in December 1981, returned to El Salvador in 1990. In the desolated hamlet, the smoke from burned houses and charred bodies had subsided. Hundreds upon hundreds of executed children, women, men, and elderly were still buried in mass graves. Only the wind traveled free.

“For her, the saddest thing was to remember the death of her children, that she had lost her children and could not do anything,” Marta Maritza Amaya—Rufina Amaya’s sole surviving daughter—said in an interview with Latino Rebels in 2018.

Marta Maritza Amaya was not present in El Mozote at the time of the massacre and was granted asylum in the United States in 2018, due to threats against the life of her, her family and the living memory and the work of making sure the truth of the massacre in El Mozote survives.

“I had seen people following me and take pictures of me at work. But one day, when I was pregnant with my daughter in early 2017, a man got on the bus with me, sat by my side and threatened me directly,” Marta Maritza Amaya said.

If the work with the massacre memorial site and museum in El Mozote didn’t stop—the armed messenger explained—she would die. Forty years after the massacre, the knights of the cover-up remain in full swing to fence their swords against the horrible truth.

“What surprised me the most in reporting on El Mozote was the way a mystery can unpeel like onion, layer after layer, and despite years of revelations, can still hide further secrets beneath,” Mark Danner, journalist and author of The Massacre at El Mozote, tells Global Magazine.

Make sure not to miss “Resurrection,” Part Three in “The Death in the village: El Mozote.” Already published, Part One: “The Witnesses.”

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