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Something Horrible’ in El Salvador

The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War

by Mark Danner
Vintage, 304 pp., $12.00 (paper)

In December of 1981 in El Salvador, twenty-one months after the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in San Salvador and twelve months after the murder of the four American Maryknoll women outside San Salvador and eleven months after the murder of the head of the Salvadoran land-reform agency and two of his American aides at the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador, which is to say at a time when the government of the United States had already demonstrated the ability to tolerate grave insults to its Central American policy, certain events occurred in certain remote villages north of the Torola river in Morazán province. In what has since become the most familiar of those villages, El Mozote, the events in question began late on a Thursday afternoon, December 10, a time when the village was crowded with refugees from areas believed less safe, and were concluded at dawn on Saturday.

Later that day, in Los Toriles, two kilometers to the southeast, similar events occurred, as similar events had already occurred or would within a few hours occur in Arambala and La Joya and Jocote Amarillo and Cerro Pando and Joateca and La Ranchería. These events were later and variously described to Mark Danner by the two American embassy officials assigned to investigate them, Todd Greentree and Major John McKay, as “something bad,” “something horrible,” a case in which “there had probably been a massacre, that they had lined people up and shot them,” a case in which “abuses against the civilian population probably took place”; a case that presented as its most urgent imperative the need to craft a report that would “have credibility among people who were far away and whose priorities were—you know, we’re talking about people like Tom Enders—whose priorities were definitely not necessarily about getting at exactly what happened.”

On December 10, 1992, eleven years to the day after the commencement of what has become known as the Mozote massacre (the largest number of those killed on that long December weekend were killed during the thirty-six hours spent by members of the Salvadoran army’s Atlacatl Battalion in El Mozote), four American forensic experts submitted to the United Nations Truth Commission the results of their analysis of skeletal remains and artifacts recovered by a team of Argentinian forensic anthropologists originally assembled to reconstruct evidence of their own country’s dirty war. Working exclusively with material exhumed from what had been the sacristy of the Mozote church, the Americans were able to identify the bones of 143 human beings, 136 of whom were children and adolescents. Of the remaining seven adults, six were women, one in the third trimester of pregnancy. The average age of the children was six.

The report prepared for the United Nations noted that there may have been a greater number of deaths in the sacristy, which was one of several sites mentioned by survivors as places where bodies would be found, since “many young infants may have been entirely cremated” (much of the village had been burned before the Atlacatl left El Mozote) and “other children may not have been counted because of extensive fragmentation of body parts.” Of the ten officers who, according to the report prepared for the United Nations, commanded the units participating in the Morazán operation, three are now dead, and four are still serving in the Salvadoran army. None has been officially charged on any count related to the massacre.

A year before, Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Archbishopric of San Salvador, had compiled what may be the final and most comprehensive list of all those known or believed to have died in El Mozote and the surrounding villages. The Tutela Legal list numbered 767 men, women, and children, the youngest the two-day-old grandson of a day laborer named Miguel Márquez (the grandfather was also killed, as were his son, his daughter-in-law, two of his daughters, and seven of his other grandchildren), the oldest a man named Leoncio Díaz, who was said to be 105 years old and to have had a 100-year-old companion named Leoncia Márquez, who was also killed. Of the 767 victims cited on the Tutela Legal list, 358 were infants and children under the age of thirteen.

This of course is not a new story, and the fact that it is not a new story is in many ways the point of Mark Danner’s dispassionate, meticulously documented, and for these reasons conclusive book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The essential facts of the Mozote massacre were published on January 27, 1982, on the front pages of both The New York Times and The Washington Post, accompanied by photographs taken by Susan Meiselas, who had walked into Morazán from Honduras with Raymond Bonner of the Times. Bonner reported seeing the charred skulls and bones of what appeared to him to be several dozen men, women, and children. Allowing that it was “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,” he reported that the surviving relatives and friends of the victims believed the dead to number 733 and the killing to have been done “by uniformed soldiers” during an Atlacatl sweep of the region.

Alma Guillermoprieto, who was then a stringer for The Washington Post and who entered Mozote a few days after Bonner and Meiselas had left, also reported seeing bodies and body parts and quoted the same survivors, as well as the Salvadoran ambassador to Washington, Ernesto Rivas Gallont, who dismissed the reports from Morazán as the “type of story that leads us to believe there is a plan,” the plan being either to derail the Salvadoran election scheduled for March 1982 or “to take credit away from the certification President Reagan must make to Congress.” This “certification,” during 1982 and 1983 a semiannual requirement for continued aid to El Salvador, involved asserting that its government was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights” and was “achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces, so as to bring to an end the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens by these forces.”

The Reagan administration made its certification to these points on January 28, 1982, the day after Bonner’s and Alma Guillermoprieto’s extensive reports from Morazán appeared in the Times and the Post. Mark Danner’s true subject in The Massacre at El Mozote, then, is not the massacre itself but the way in which the story of the massacre, which was carried out by troops trained by the US Special Forces and equipped with US manufactured M-16s and with ammunition manufactured for the US government at Lake City, Missouri, came to be known and discounted in the United States, the way in which the story of El Mozote “was exposed to the light and then allowed to fall back into the dark.”

Reports that something bad had happened in Morazán began to circulate almost immediately. The Reverend William L. Wipfler at the New York office of the National Council of Churches first heard the story from a contact at Socorro Jurídico, which was then the legal aid office of the Archbishopric of San Salvador. Wipfler left a message for Raymond Bonner at the Mexico City bureau of the Times, and also sent a cable, dated December 15, 1981, asking Ambassador Deane Hinton in San Salvador for “confirmation or otherwise” of “reliable reports received here [indicating] that between December 10 and 13 a government joint military and security forces operation took place in Morazán Department which resulted in over 900 civilian deaths.”

Hinton did not reply until January 8, by which time the guerrillas’ Radio Venceremos was back in operation (to at least temporarily knock out the Venceremos transmitter had been one goal, perhaps the single successfully realized goal, of the Atlacatl’s Morazán operation) and broadcasting a detailed account of the massacre from a survivor named Rufina Amaya. Rufina Amaya had witnessed the killing of her husband and four of her children, ages nine, five, three, and eight months, but in the confusion and terror of the event had been inadvertently overlooked as the soldiers corralled groups of struggling and screaming women, many of them torn from their infants and children, to be killed and then burned.

I do not know what your sources are but the only sources that I have seen alleging something like this are clandestine Radio Venceremos reports,” Hinton’s January 8 cable to the National Council of Churches read in part. “Frankly, I do not consider Radio Venceremos to be a reliable source.” Since Radio Venceremos did not restore its ability to broadcast until well after the National Council of Churches query was sent, that Hinton would devote an extraordinary ten of this cable’s twelve paragraphs to illustrations of Radio Venceremos unreliability seems in retrospect to suggest a certain crisis of confidence, if not a panic, at the embassy.

In fact, definitely before January 8 and probably closer to mid-December, Todd Greentree, then a junior reporting officer at the embassy in San Salvador and now the desk officer for Nicaragua at the State Department, had relayed to Hinton not only a report from his own sources on the left about a massacre in Morazán but also an offer from the FMLN to guide Greentree there. “I knew the guerrillas would never have masqueraded something like this, would never have fabricated it, if they were offering safe-conduct,” Greentree told Danner. “I was convinced that something had gone on, and that it was bad. I mean, it was pretty clear, if they were going to do this, that something must have happened.”

Hinton’s decision was that Greentree could not go in under guerrilla protection. “I should emphasize that Inever got the feeling that they just wanted this to go away,” Greentree told Danner about the meeting in which this decision was taken. “But there were political and military restraints that we were operating under.” What discussion there may have been of an independent investigation (at least ten of the fifty-five American military advisers Congress then allowed in El Salvador were assigned to the Atlacatl) is unknown, although Danner was told by one of the advisers assigned to the Atlacatl that someone from the embassy Milgroup (Military Advisory Group) had called the Atlacatl base at La Libertad a few days after the massacre “and talked to the Special Forces people and told them they wanted Monterrosa [Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, the Atlacatl commander] to come in—they wanted to talk to him about something that had happened during the operation.”

Monterrosa had declined to come in, a suggestive illustration of the level of control the United States then had over the military forces it was funding. Whether or not the embassy decision to refuse the FMLN offer to guide Greentree to the site of the massacre was discussed with Washington also remains shrouded in the subjunctive. “However much we might have wanted more information, no one in State was going to make that call,” Danner was told by Peter Romero, at the time of Mozote an El Salvador specialist at the State Department.

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