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.

Most of the interested players, then, knew about Morazán, in outline if not in detail, well before January 6, when Bonner and Susan Meiselas, followed a few days later by Alma Guillermoprieto, first walked into El Mozote. Not until January 30, however, three days after the story had appeared on the front pages of the Times and the Post, did the embassy dispatch Todd Greentree and Major John McKay, who was then in the defense attaché’s office at the embassy and is now a colonel attached to NATO in Brussels, to Morazán. Greentree and McKay did not exactly get to El Mozote, although they did fly over it. Greentree’s impression from the air was that “El Mozote had been pretty much destroyed.”

Once on the ground in Morazán, Greentree and McKay, accompanied by a squad of the Atlacatl, interviewed those residents of the northern villages who had reached the refugee camp outside San Francisco Gotera. Although the Americans later recalled being able to “observe and feel this tremendous fear,” they did not elicit eyewitness accounts of a massacre, nor had they expected to. “You had a bunch of very intimidated, scared people, and now the Army presence further intimidated them,” McKay told Danner. “I mean, the Atlacatl had supposedly done something horrible, and now these gringos show up under this pretense of investigating it, but in the presence of these soldiers. It was probably the worst thing you could do. I mean, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what the Army people were there for.” Greentree and McKay then set out for El Mozote, and got to within an hour’s walk of what had been the village before the Atlacatl soldiers accompanying them refused to go further. “In the end, we went up there and we didn’t want to find that anything horrible had happened,” McKay told Danner. “And the fact that we didn’t get to the site turned out to be very detrimental to our reporting—the Salvadorans, you know, were never very good about cleaning up their shell casings.”

That evening, back at the embassy in San Salvador, Greentree wrote a report, the overriding aim of which appears to have been “credibility,” summarizing his and McKay’s findings. Here is the point at which El Mozote entered the thin air of policy. “The end of Bob White’s tour, and the transition period before Hinton arrived [Robert White had preceded Hinton as ambassador], and the first six months of Hinton’s tour—those were the absolute worst days, really out of control,” Greentree told Danner by way of explaining why the conviction that what was known or suspected in country would not be “credible” in Washington had by then increased exponentially. “And the fact that Bob White and everybody in the Embassy had been so thoroughly traumatized by the murders of the nuns, and the AFL-CIO guys [the two Americans who were killed with the head of the Salvadoran land-reform agency at the Sheraton in San Salvador], and just the general sort of out-of-control way the military was—it meant that everything we reported could be taken as suspect.”

The following day, after review and revisions, Greentree’s report went to the State Department over Hinton’s name. This was the cable containing the careful and soon to be repeated assertions that it was “not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote by government troops” and that “no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached number being cited in other reports circulating internationally.” The Greentree cable also contained, deep in its text, a curious warning from one of the interviewees, the mayor of Jocoaitique, who according to the cable “intimated that he knew of violent fighting in El Mozote” but was “unwilling to discuss deportment of government troops” and who then made a comment so coded that it could stand as a veiled but exact expression of the embassy position on what did or did not take place in Morazán. What the cable quoted the mayor of Jocoaitique as having said to Todd Greentree and Major McKay was this: “This is something one should talk about in another time, in another country.”

That part of the embassy cable did not make it into the statement made two days later to the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs by Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders. (Nor would it appear in the sanitized version of the cable released under the Freedom of Information Act to Raymond Bonner in 1983.)1 The Enders statement is arresting not only for what it says and does not say but for its tone, which suggests an extreme version of a kind of exaggerated hauteur commonly translated as entitlement in the northeastern United States. “Many of you have read,” he said, addressing what he called “special pleading” in the matter of death and disappearance statistics, “about something called the Legal Aid Office of the Archbishopric—Socorro Judico [sic] is its Spanish name; it is often cited in the international media. It strangely lists no victims of guerrilla and terrorist violence. Apparently they do not commit violence.”

This was a level of seigneurial dismissal often emulated but never quite mastered by Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams and other regular defenders of administration policy in Central America. “There is another organization, the Central American University, that collects statistics too,” Enders continued, referring to UCA, the Jesuit José Simeón Cañas University of Central America. “Its bias may be apparent from the fact that it does include a category of persons killed by what I believe Congressman Bonker referred to as paramilitary organizations. And they are called in Spanish ajusticiados, referring to persons that have received justice at the hands of their executioners.” Only then did Enders turn his attention to what he described as “allegations” of massacres, including Mozote. “We sent two embassy officers down to investigate the reports,” Enders said, inadvertently illuminating the particular distance between Washington and Morazán, which in local usage is said to be not “down” but “up” from San Salvador. Enders continued:

It is clear from the report they gave that there has been a confrontation between the guerrillas occupying Mozote and attacking Government forces last December. There is no evidence to confirm that Government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone, or that the number of civilians remotely approached the 733 or 926 victims cited in the press. I note they asked people how many people there were in that canton and were told probably not more than 300 in December, and there are many survivors including refugees now.

Enders said this on February 2. On February 1, however, Deane Hinton, in response to what he apparently construed as careless use of his reply to the National Council of Churches, had sent a corrective cable to the State Department. This cable read in part:

I would be grateful if department would use extreme care in describing my views on alleged massacre. Case in point is description in para 3 of REFTEL referring to my letter…as “denying the incident.” My letter did not “deny” incident: it reported that at that time I had no confirmation and argued from available evidence from Radio Venceremos and from lack of other reports that I had no reason to believe Venceremos reports. I still don’t believe Venceremos version but additional evidence strongly suggests that something happened that should not have happened and that it is quite possible Salvadoran military did commit excesses. Allegations that it was unit from Atlacatl battalion in El Mozote remain to be confirmed or discredited.

Several days later, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliott Abrams echoed Enders in his statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The El Mozote case was, Abrams said, “a very interesting one in a sense.” (“Interesting” was at the time a word much in use, as were “strange” and “unusual.” Enders for example had noted that Socorro Jurídico “strangely lists no victims of guerrilla and terrorist violence.” I recall watching Jeane Kirkpatrick during this period whip an audience to a frenzy with little silken whips of innuendo as she described how “interested,” even “bemused,” she was by the “unusual standards,” the “extraordinarily, even uniquely demanding standards” imposed by the certification requirement.) The reason El Mozote was “interesting” to Abrams was this:

…because we found, for example, that the numbers, first of all, were not credible, because as Secretary Enders notes, our information was that there were only three hundred people in the canton.

Abrams went on to wonder why a massacre that had occurred in mid-December, if indeed a massacre had occurred at all, had not been “publicized” until late January.

Ten years later, in an interview, Abrams was asking the same question, to the same innuendo: “If it had really been a massacre and not a firefight, why didn’t we hear right off from the FMLN? I mean, we didn’t start hearing about it until a month later.” Abrams, in other words, was still trying to negotiate what became with the exhumation of the sacristy unnegotiable, still trying to return discussion to the familiar question of whether or not a massacre had actually occurred. Enders, when he talked to Danner, had transcended this now inoperative line of attack, ascending effortlessly to the big-picture argument against the existence of a massacre: “Coming on top of everything else, El Mozote, if true, might have destroyed the entire effort. Who knows? I certainly thought that when I first heard about it.” In other words it had been necessary to deny the massacre because had there been a massacre the “effort” would have become, again in Enders’s word, “unfundable.”

The effort did not become unfundable. The effort instead became the most expensive attempt to support a foreign government threatened by an insurgency since Vietnam.2 Progressively cruder interpretations of what had been the surgically precise statements made by the embassy came to dominate, during the spring and summer of 1982, discussion of this country’s role in Central America. By February 10 of that spring The Wall Street Journal was noting editorially that “extremists” in El Salvador had “learned long ago the trick of dressing in military uniforms to confuse their victims.” (This appears to have been the source for Ronald Reagan’s later assertion that “communist operatives” were dressing in “freedom fighter uniforms” to discredit the Nicaraguan contras.) Shrill excoriations of Raymond Bonner, who necessarily had to be cast as having what George Melloan of The Wall Street Journal called “a political orientation,” became commonplace.

Bonner was a graduate of Stanford Law School, had been a prosecutor in the San Francisco district attorney’s office, and had served as a Marine officer in Vietnam. The Marine major who went up to Morazán with Todd Greentree, John McKay, had been with Bonner in Vietnam, where McKay lost an eye. “We could not have said, ‘My God, there’s been a massacre,”‘ McKay told Danner about the cable the embassy sent to Washington as a report of his and Greentree’s trip to Morazán. “But, truth be known, the ambiguity of the cable that went out—in my own conscience I began to question it. And then when I saw the New York Times piece, and the picture, that really got me thinking. Bonner and I had gone to Quantico together, went to Vietnam together.” In the late summer of 1980, at a time when Bonner had spent time in Bolivia and Guatemala but made only a few short visits to El Salvador, he was asked his opinion of US policy in El Salvador. “Ask me about Bolivia, or Guatemala, or any country, I’ll probably have an opinion,” Bonner recalled having said. “But El Salvador, boy, I just don’t know. I guess we’re doing the right thing.”3

Bonner, then, might have seemed an unlikely target for the campaign then being mounted against him in Washington and New York. For those waging this campaign (notably The Wall Street Journal), however, the question of “political orientation” was answered once and for all in August 1982, when the Times abruptly withdrew Bonner from Central America. According to A.M. Rosenthal, then the executive editor of the Times, Bonner was withdrawn because he “didn’t know the techniques of weaving a story together…. I brought him back because it seemed terribly unfair to leave him there without training.” Actually Bonner had spent a good part of 1981 on the Metro desk at the Times, but Rosenthal suggested that those who believed Bonner to have been withdrawn for reasons other than “training” did so because they resented him, Rosenthal. “I was an agent of change in the Times,” he said, “and a lot of people didn’t like my politics.”

In many ways this tends to beg the point, burying the issue as it does in the self-referential. Whatever reason or reasons Rosenthal may have had for withdrawing Bonner, it was the sheer fact of that withdrawal, the fact of that apparent failure to back up a reporter who had put the paper on the line with a story denied by the government, that spoke so eloquently to those who wanted to discredit the reporting on El Mozote. That the Times withdrew Bonner was seen, immediately and by wider numbers of people than were actually knowledgeable about El Salvador or administration policy, as “proof” that he had been wrong about El Mozote: as recently as a few years ago it was possible to hear it casually said about Bonner that the Times “had to pull him out,” that he had “bought into a massacre.”

“For more than a year now we’ve been following the campaign that we victimized former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner,” The Wall Street Journal noted editorially in 1993. “The excavation of children’s bones in Mozote is supposed to vindicate Mr. Bonner and discredit what we said…we did not fire Mr. Bonner in the first place. The New York Times did. Or, more precisely, after then-Managing Editor A.M. Rosenthal undertook his own reporting visit to Salvador, it pulled Mr. Bonner off the beat and back to New York, where he left the paper.” In defense of its own reasonableness, the Journal noted that in its original 1982 attack on Bonner it had “offered not one word of criticism of Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post.”

Danner includes, among the documents reproduced at the end of The Massacre at El Mozote, the full text of both Bonner’s and Alma Guillermoprieto’s stories. There is no substantive difference between the two in either the reporting or the qualifying of the story, but there were certain marginal distinctions on which critics of Bonner could seize. Guillermoprieto referred to herself as “this correspondent” and said that she had been taken into Morazán by “the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front”; Bonner referred to himself as “a visitor who traveled through the area with those who are fighting against the junta that now rules El Salvador,” i.e., the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front. Guillermoprieto began: “Several hundred civilians, including women and children, were taken from their homes in and around this village and killed by Salvadoran Army troops during a December offensive against leftist guerrillas, according to three survivors who say they witnessed the alleged massacres.” She then proceeded to describe the bodies she herself had seen. Bonner began: “From interviews with people who live in this small mountain village and surrounding hamlets, it is clear that a massacre of major proportions occurred here last month.” He then proceeded to describe the bodies he himself had seen. Bonner’s statement is the less varnished of the two, but to call it different is to resort to a point of journalistic convention so narrowly defined as to be merely legalistic.

There seemed at the time at least two clear reasons that Bonner, not Guillermoprieto, became the target of choice. One reason was that Bonner, unlike Guillermoprieto, continued to report on a daily basis from El Salvador and so, all through the spring and into the summer of 1982, remained a stubborn mote in Deane Hinton’s ability to project the situation as the State Department wanted it projected. “I’m just afraid he’s going to get himself killed,” I recall an embassy official saying about Bonner during a lunch with Hinton in June of 1982; the tone here was the macho swagger never entirely absent from American embassies on hardship status. “That would be a tragedy.” The other clear reason was that Benjamin C. Bradlee and The Washington Post backed up their reporter; A.M. Rosenthal and The New York Times did not.

The Mozote massacre occurred only six years after most of us watched the helicopters lift off the roof of the Saigon embassy and get pushed off the flight decks of the US fleet into the South China Sea. There are now more than twice as many years between us and Mozote than there were between Mozote and those helicopters. This is not an insignificant time line, and suggests, in retrospect, a third reason that Raymond Bonner’s report from Morazán elicited an acrimony that Alma Guillermoprieto’s did not. Bonner was an American. Alma Guillermoprieto was born in and was then living in Mexico, a fact that was in some way understood to render her ineligible for casting as a member of what was sometimes called “the adversary culture,” the culture that was construed as hostile to the interests of American business and the American government, the culture that was even then drawing parallels between El Salvador and Vietnam.

Certain parallels were inescapable, since El Salvador was seen, by both the American military and the American policy community, as an opportunity to “apply the lesson” of Vietnam. The counterinsurgency doctrine that rationalized such operations as the 1981 sweep of Morazán was intended as a “revision” of the failed counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam (the revision for El Salvador placed a central emphasis on correcting “root causes,” or winning popular support by “democratizing” Salvadoran society), yet it had come to sound dispiritingly the same. The word “pacification” was in use, as was the phrase “third force,” usually in reference to José Napoleón Duarte.

“The only territory you want to hold is the six inches between the ears of the campesino,” Colonel John C. Waghelstein, who became commander of the Milgroup not long after Mozote, said when he spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in 1985 on “LIC [Low-Intensity Conflict] in the Post Vietnam Period.”4 As late as 1986, in The Wall Street Journal, an American military adviser was quoted describing a community event sponsored by a Salvadoran army unit as “winning hearts and minds.” The event involved clowns, mariachis, and speeches from army officers calling on peasants to reject the guerrillas. “This is low-intensity-conflict doctrine in action,” the adviser said.5

Again as in Vietnam, the doctrine was met with resistance on the part of those charged with carrying it out. “Attempts to address root causes during [this] period enjoyed less success than did efforts to stabilize the military situation,” four American military officers observed in their 1988 American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador, the so-called “colonels’ report” prepared for the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

American officers recognized… [that] the government had to transform itself into an institution perceived as effective, impartial, and committed to bringing about genuine reform. Meaningful implementation of this concept has eluded the Salvadorans and their American advisers.

In a 1991 Rand Institute report prepared for the Department of Defense,6 Benjamin C. Schwarz noted that “the greed and apparent tactical incompetence of Salvadoran officers has so exhausted American experts posted to El Salvador that all the individuals interviewed for this report who have served there in the past two years believe that the Salvadoran military does not wish to win the war because in so doing it would lose the American aid that has enriched it for the past decade.”

In San Salvador as in Saigon, this had long been accepted as one of many taxing givens that made the posting so difficult to share with those who were planning the effort in Washington. Deane Hinton, who would not talk to Danner, emerges in The Massacre at El Mozote as the ultimate example of the career foreign service officer trying to execute an extremely doubtful policy in an even more doubtful situation. (In his role as the good soldier of American foreign policy, Deane Hinton left El Salvador in 1983 for Pakistan, a more remote but equally doubtful situation, and then returned to Central America to mop up the debris left by the contra and then the Panama efforts. Alma Guillermoprieto, whose work since El Mozote has been especially acute on the immediacy with which Washington dreams become Central and South American responsibilities, notes in her essential The Heart That Bleeds that, as late as 1992 in Hinton’s Panama embassy, the preferred way to refer to the 1989 invasion was as “la liberación.”7 )

“This is a suicide mission,” an unidentified embassy official in San Salvador said when Warren Hoge of The New York Times asked, not long after Mozote, if assignment to El Salvador could advance a foreign service career. “Someone’s got to be nuts to be here. How many people do you think profited from having worked in Vietnam?”8 What made the San Salvador embassy a suicide mission was, of course, the certain knowledge that the facts of the situation would be less than welcome at the other end of the cable traffic. “There was no secret about who was doing the killing,” Danner was told by Howard Lane, the public affairs officer at the embassy at the time of El Mozote. “I mean, you formed that view within forty-eight hours after arriving in the country, and there was no secret at all about it—except, maybe, in the White House.”

What Danner details in The Massacre at El Mozote is the process by which actual eyewitness accounts (Bonner, Guillermoprieto) and photographs (Meiselas) came to be discounted by large numbers of Americans for no other reason than that the government, presenting no conflicting evidence, referred to the accounts (the photographs seemed rather eerily not to exist in anyone’s argument) as describing an event that was intrinsically unconfirmable, rendering the accounts by definition untrue. “Accurate information,” Enders said as he began his February 2, 1982, statement on Capitol Hill. “I think we have all found out that is very hard to establish.” He continued, first questioning the possibility of ever determining who, if indeed there had been “deaths,” had been responsible for them, then raising the ultimate question, the coup de grâce question, the one that had to do with the true interests of those who reported such deaths:

The responsibility for the overwhelming number of deaths is never legally determined nor usually accounted for by clear or coherent evidence. Seventy percent of the political murders known to our embassy were committed by unknown assailants. And there is much special pleading going on also in this.

What is especially striking about Enders, as he presents himself in The Massacre at El Mozote, is his apparent inability to recognize any contradiction between what he said in 1982 to the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs and what he said a decade later to Danner. Danner at one point asked Enders about a rumor, believed by a number of prominent Salvadorans, that two American advisers had observed the Mozote operation from a base camp below the Torola river. This was the answer Enders gave: “Certainly, one of the issues I remember raising between us and the Embassy was: Were there any American advisers on this sortie? The Embassy made a great effort to talk to advisers who were with the Atlacatl to try to find out the truth.” Any admission of knowledge, Enders conceded, “would have ruined those guys’ careers—they would have been cashiered. So no one’s going to volunteer, ‘Hey, I was up there.”‘ The effect of such a disclosure on administration efforts to continue funding the war, Enders said, “would have been devastating. American advisers with a unit that committed an atrocity? Devastating. Can you imagine anything more corrosive of the entire military effort?”

Enders had recognized at the time, then, the existence of a “sortie,” even the possibility of an “atrocity” (the atrocity if not the sortie was in the subjunctive), and had raised the question of whether there had been “American advisers” present. Yet what Enders had said in 1982 was this: “…frankly, we do not have people who go out with the units as advisers, you know. These are military trainers. They stay behind.” The idea that there was a difference between “advisers” and “trainers,” another of the many legalistic distinctions at that time employed to rhetorical advantage, seems not to have been consistently held even by Enders.

Danner describes what happened to the story of El Mozote during the days and months after its initial disclosure as “a parable of the cold war.” It was that, and as such a parable Mozote is irresistibly legible, but it was also something else. “There have also been many fewer allegations of massacres during this reporting period than last,” Thomas Enders was able to say in July 1982, when the question of certification once again came before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “This may be in part,” he said, still the loyalist but still careful, fewer allegations of massacres, may be, in part, “because many earlier reports proved to be fabricated or exaggerated.”9

At the same hearing, Nestor Sanchez, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for Inter-American affairs, was able to single out “the first quick-reaction battalion trained by US instructors in El Salvador” not only for “its tactical capability in fighting the guerrillas” but also for “its humane treatment of the people.”10 That was the Atlacatl. Just six years after Vietnam and in the face of what was beginning to seem a markedly similar American engagement, Mozote, by which we have come to mean not exactly the massacre itself but this systematic obfuscation and prevarication that followed the disclosure of the massacre, was the first evidence that we had emerged a people again so yearning to accept the government version as to buy into a revision of history in which those Americans who differed, those Americans who for reasons of their “political orientation” would “fabricate” reports of a massacre carried out by a unit noted for its “humane treatment of the people,” were once again our true, and only truly sinister, enemy.

This Issue

July 14, 1994