“Come on, let’s go to El Mozote,” exclaimed groups of peasants in the towns surrounding El Mozote in the mountainous Morazan region of eastern El Salvador bordering Honduras as they fled in search of safety from the Salvadoran Army. It would be in and near El Mozote that from circa December 7th to the 17th, 1981 the government of El Salvador commenced Operacion Rescate to purge the leftist guerrilla rebels from the region. Those that still visit the area say it remains espantoso – spooky – as no one has returned to the once village of El Mozote since.
Cold War Strategy and the Salvadoran Civil War
By 1981 the American government had realized the only way to prevent another Nicaraguan tragedy without direct United States military intervention, was to reform the Salvadoran Army. By this time, however, the Army Officer Corps had developed a distinctly Salvadoran flavor, compelling those seeking advancement and reward to show “unstinting loyalty to…one’s military-academy class – one’s tanda, as it was called” (Danner). The group of teen-age boys that entered the Gerardo Barrios Military Academy and emerged as hardened men would be promoted together, gain power together, and get rich together. Even as some showed themselves to be murderers and thieves, they would be “defended ferociously” and usually shielded from any kind of prosecution (Danner). Of that group, a select few would come to be known as presidenciables – “destined to become leaders of the country” (Danner).
Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, at the time of the civil war, was the most celebrated commander in the Salvadoran Army. As commander of the ‘elite’ Atlatacl Battalion, – elite referring to their training by the U.S. military, as contrasted with the rest of the Army who mostly had no training at all – Monterrosa “taught at the academy, took courses from the Americans in Panama, traveled to Taiwan to study anti-Communist counter-insurgency tactics, and served in the paratroops as part of El Salvador’s first free-fall team” (Danner). The Atlatacl Battalion would be the main force of Operacion Rescate. According to Mark Danner of the New Yorker in his article “The Truth of El Mozote,” it was not Atalatcl’s American made weapons that made them, “it was their aggressiveness…a willingness the rest of the badly led and badly trained Army generally lacked…In part, perhaps, this aggressiveness was instilled by American trainers…mostly, though, it came from Monterrosa” (Danner).
Changes to the Salvadoran Army came only after “enormous effort” as a result of the tanda system which “appeared nearly impervious to outside pressure” (Danner). The U.S. was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the country at the time, but the only leverage the U.S. had – cutting funding – threatened to hurt themselves just as much. Fear of communist expansion and control in El Salvador was a risk the U.S. would not accept.
In October of 1979, the juventud military or Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno staged a successful coup, overthrowing General Carlos Humberto Romero. As had happened in the past, however, the rightist Army quickly gained the upper hand “and now, under the cover of a more internationally acceptable “reformist” government, they felt free to combat the “Communist agitation” in their own particular way” (Danner). The coup ignited violence in the country and led to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on 27th March, 1980 during mass in response to asking the U.S. military to stop military aid to El Salvador just a month earlier. Archbishop Romero’s assassination usually marks the beginning of the 12-year Salvadoran Civil war.
Following in the footsteps of the 1932 matanza which resulted in the murder of well over ten thousand people, the rightist Army and death squads with military support strew the streets of El Salvador’s cities with mutilated corpses. An excerpt from Danner’s article lays out well how the killings were orchestrated, or not orchestrated:
Against the urban infrastructure of the left – the network of political organizers, labor leaders, human-rights workers, teachers, and activists of all progressive stripes which had put together the enormous demonstrations of the late seventies – this technique proved devastating. “These people weren’t organized militarily, which is what made them so easy to kill,” William Stanley, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, told me in an interview in San Salvador. As the repression went on, month after month, it became less and less discriminating. “By the end, the killing basically outran the intelligence capability of the Army and the security services, and they began killing according to very crude profiles,” Stanley said. “I remember, for example, hearing that a big pile of corpses was discovered one morning, and almost all of them turned out to be young women wearing jeans and tennis shoes. Apparently, one of the intelligence people had decided that this ‘profile’ – you know, young women who dressed in that way – made it easy to separate out ‘leftists,’ and so that became one of the profiles that they used to round up so-called subversives.” (Danner)
The same tactic on a larger scale is used in ‘la limpieza’ of the Morozan region. William Stanley refers to the tactic as “killing by zone” (Danner). Civilians and guerrillas were largely seen as indistinguishable and, thus, civilians in distinguished zones were just targets. “Those parts of El Salvador “infected” by Communism were being ruthlessly scrubbed; the cancer would be cut out, even if healthy flesh had to be lost, too” (Danner). The Salvadoran Army managed in most cases to do what it set out to do: “killing Salvadorans who were sympathetic to the insurgents” (Danner). El Mozote ,however, was different. El Mozote and many of the surrounding villages were neither militant nor particularly sympathetic to the guerrilla cause.
Antes de la Matanza
In the first days of December 1981,near the hamlet of La Guacamaya, the guerrillas at their encampment prepared for incoming Army forces. They had sources in the military and were well informed of their new plan called ‘Hammer and Anvil’. Monterrosa had long had his heart set on the destruction of Radio Venceremos, a small, mobile guerrilla broadcasting group hidden in the hills of Morozan. Radio Venceremos “specialized in ideological propaganda, acerbic commentary, and pointed ridicule of the government, infuriated most officers, for its every broadcast reminded the world of the Army’s impotence in much of Morazán” (Danner). The quaint mobile radio station soon began broadcasting news of the Army’s plan.
Just before the inquisition by the Salvadoran Army, the richest man of El Mozote addressed the people of the village in the town square, informing them that he had heard from an Army officer friend of the military’s plan for the region. His friend had promised their safety if they simply stayed where they were – that they should not risk leaving and getting caught in the midst of the operation. Marcos Diaz had put his “prestige on the line” in defense of the truth of his friend’s words and while some did decide to leave, most stayed, and urged by Diaz, some went to the surrounding areas encouraging the residents to come to El Mozote.
“…unlike many other hamlets of Morazán, El Mozote was a place where the guerrillas had learned not to look for recruits; instead, a delicate coexistence had been forged – an unstated agreement by both parties to look the other way” (Danner). The basis for El Mozote’s differentiation was their ideology – their religion. By 1980, more than half of the villagers considered themselves born-again Christians, Protestant Evangelicals, and were known for their anti-Communism. The leftist Communist guerrilla’s support, however, had largely arisen as a result of Catholic Liberation theology.
The main force of the guerrillas began heading west, Radio Venceremos in the rear, in attempt to spearhead the Army before they were to arrive at a specific section of el calle negro of the region. The radio equipment, however, drastically slowed the column down and they arrived just too late at the intersection at sunrise, Thursday morning, December 10th, 1981. Monterrosa would have his prize.
The following afternoon, the Atlacatl Battalion humped into El Mozote, where the streets were deserted, and everyone had locked themselves in their houses as the mortar and gunfire came closer. The entire village was forced from their houses into the main square where they were told “boca abajo!” They were then abused and randomly interrogated about the guerrillas. To the villagers’ surprise, they were told to get up and go back into their houses and not so much as crack the door open.
Meanwhile, at Osicala, the base camp of the operation, the officers were discussing the situation. According to Danner, an interviewed officer reported to him a discussion between the young officer himself and a high ranking figure in military intelligence. The high ranking officer explained the situation at El Mozote and when asked about the existence of any guerrillas replied, “No, they’re gone. But we might need you. We have people to interrogate. We have maybe six hundred people altogether” (Danner). The impression was that at least the next day was to be spent interrogating the people, however, the young officer did not receive a call the next day.
During the night, the people of El Mozote were forced from their homes again and made stand outside for several hours until the sun rose on them the next morning. As a helicopter approached the village, the men were herded into the church and the women and children into a nearby house. Brutally, they were interrogated, however, “The officers devoted scarcely an hour to questioning the hundreds of supposed collaborators, which makes it difficult to believe that they really expected to acquire useful intelligence from the people of El Mozote” (Danner).
The death of the men of the village came first, may decapitated with machetes. The young girls were next, taken to a nearby hill and raped, then murdered. Then the older women were led out of the house in groups, taken to another house in the village and killed there. A woman in one of the last groups who would become one of two known survivors of El Mozote, managed to sneak behind a crab-apple tree and later escape. Rufina Amaya Mirquez’s testimony would eventually be heard worldwide. The youngest girls of the village were taken to the church sacristy to be killed while the boys remaining were led to the nearby playing field, some hanged, some impaled.
That evening, according to the first legal report (the Tutela Legal report), the soldiers had one girl on their mind in particular. This extraordinary girl, while the other women were screaming and crying at the hands of their rapists, sung hymns:
…strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing – a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear – until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped. (Danner)
Despues de El Mozote and International Response
Socorro Juridico (the human rights organization of the Archbishopric of San Salvador) began receiving reports of the massacre as soon as survivors began returning to the hamlets around El Mozote. The U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador was soon asked to confirm “reliable reports received here [that] indicate that between December 10 and 13 joint military and security forces operation took place in Morazán Department which resulted in over 900 civilian deaths” (Danner). This cable was thought to be received about 4 days after the massacre.
On December 24th, Santiago, the director of the E.R.P.’s Radio Venceremos, was able to take to the airwaves and tell the world that Radio Venceremos had been reborn – and to announce that during its two weeks of silence a great killing had taken place in northern Morazán” (Danner). Thus the propaganda campaign to spread the word of the massacre began, however, the very fact that it was propaganda would later be used by the U.S. to undermine its truth.
Santiago broadcast directly via his mobile unit from El Mozote later in December describing the horrendousness of the site including “macabre scenes, hunks of human hair, and fingers amid the rubble” (Danner). Within six weeks the massacre had made it into the New York Times and various other news sources, but the scope of the devastation was quickly dismissed by Washington. They purported errors in the numbers killed, arguing that the numbers stated by many reports and by Radio Venceremos were more than lived in the village of El Mozote, knowing full well that the numbers included those of the surrounding villages.
On January 27, 1982, the day after the report of the massacre made it on the front page of the United State’s two largest papers, “Ronald Reagan sent to Congress the Administration’s certification that the government of El Salvador was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights”” (Danner).
By the end of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, an estimated 75,000 were dead, mostly peasants. The partial exhumation of El Mozote took place in November of 1992 and finally concluded definitively what Santiago had exclaimed in December ten years earlier. All of the remains in El Mozote were proven to have been deposited during the same temporal event. Of the 245 cartridge cases that were recovered from the church sacristy, all but one of which were from American M16 rifles, “184 had discernible headstamps, identifying the ammunition as having been manufactured for the United States Government at Lake City, Missouri” (From Madness to Hope).
On October 22, 1984, Moterrosa’s helicopter, leaving the village of Joateca on the way to the capital to show off another war prize, was sabotaged and burst into flames mid-flight. When the exiles of Morazan returned, they planted themselves in a little village they named Segundo Montes. Anyone there will tell you the most cherished monument in Morazan is a twisted skeleton of steel, marking the remains of a helicopter that victoriously fell from the sky in a ball of fire on October 22, 1984.
Danner, Mark. “The Truth of El Mozote.” The New Yorker (1993).
From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador. Annex: UN Security Council. 13 Oct 2008 .