‘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…

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