Crushing popular uprisings is no easy task. It requires an iron will and crack troops, coldblooded and callous, who aren’t afraid to get innocent blood on their hands. When the government of El Salvador, facing growing opposition to its oppressive rule, found itself in desperate need of such soldiers, it turned to its patrons in Washington.
What it got was the Atlcatl Battalion. Created in 1980 at the notorious US Army School of the Americas, also known as the School of Assassins and the School of Coups because it produced so many of both, and trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina by US Special Forces, the elite men of the Atlcatl Battalion were a brutal bunch. They were fond of killing animals and painting their faces with the blood, which they also sometimes drank, and as a rite of passage they would gather up all the roadkill carcasses they could find– “dogs, vultures, anything,” and boil them into a soup that they all guzzled down.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, a School of the Americas graduate and darling of the US military, the battalion was deployed back to El Salvador in 1981. It quickly gained a fearsome reputation for unmatched savagery. In late 1981 the Atlacatl Brigade launched “Operation Rescue,” ostensibly an anti-guerrilla mission. The reality, however, was that the Atlacatl Battalion usually killed anyone they came in contact with– men, women and children alike. Captain Walter Oswaldo Salazar, a company commander and School of the Americas graduate himself, summed up the prevailing mentality of Salvadoran officers when he gave permission for his soldiers to kill anyone they pleased since everyone in the northern part of the country was presumed to be a guerrilla.
On December 10, 1981 the Atlacatl Brigade arrived at the village of El Mozote. Supremely confident with their American training, their American helicopters and their American guns, the Atlacatl soldiers met no resistance as they entered the village. The entire hamlet was ordered out into the town square where the terrified peasants were forced to lie face down on the ground as soldiers beat, robbed and interrogated them. Then everyone was told to return to their homes and remain there or be shot. Happy to be alive, the people of El Mozote quickly obeyed.
Just before dawn the following day the villagers of El Mozote were marched back out into the village plaza where they were bound and blindfolded. The men were all forced into the church, the women and children into a house across the street. While the women were interrogated, machete-wielding soldiers began beheading the men. Anyone who attempted to escape was shot dead. Rufina Amaya, one of the only survivors of the massacre, cradled her young son as she watched her husband and another man gunned down by Atlcatl soldiers as they tried to escape. The soldiers then proceeded to finish the wounded men off by lopping their heads off with machetes. Other villagers were taken to an area by the schoolhouse where they were forced to lie face down before being executed.
Around noon, the young women and little girls were torn from their mothers’ arms and dragged up a nearby hill where they were savagely raped by the troops. Some laughed and joked as they raped and murdered. All the while, Atlcatl soldiers kept returning to the house to drag out more victims. Soon there were mostly just crying children left.
Then it was Rufina’s turn. “I was crying and struggling with the soldiers because I had my baby on my chest. “It took two soldiers to pull the baby from me,” she told investigative journalist Mark Danner, whose New Yorker article and book contain arguably the most authoritative English language account of what became known as the El Mozote massacre. Rufina was marched with a group down a blood-soaked street past the heaped bodies of her murdered friends and neighbors. When they realized what was about to happen to them, the women panicked. An Atlcatl soldier comforted them with these words: “Don’t cry, women. Here comes the Devil to take you.”
By some minor miracle, Rufina Amaya was able to escape death by hiding behind a tree while the other women in her group were slaughtered. She laid there in silence, not daring to move. Nearby soldiers discussed killing the children. Some of the men didn’t think that was such a great idea, but orders were orders. Captain Walter Oswaldo Salazar, a School of the Americas graduate, declared “If we don’t kill them now they’ll just grow up to be guerillas.” Still, one of the soldiers refused to murder children. An example had to be made. Major Natividad de Jesus Caceres Cabrera, a School of the Americas guest lecturer, furiously snatched up a baby boy, tossed him in the air and skewered the infant on his bayonet.
There would be no mercy for the children of El Mozote. Rufina Amaya had to lie in hiding in total silence, not even able to weep as her own children screamed for her help as they faced their final moments. The Atlcatl soldiers hacked, smashed, shot, hung and stabbed their way through the children of El Mozote. Expecting mothers were shot dead by soldiers who then dropped large rocks on their pregnant bellies to kill their unborn babies.
Up on the hill soldiers were having a grand time raping little girls and young women until they grew tired of them and killed them. One particular girl left quite an impression on the men. Mark Danner writes:
“[There was] a girl… who they had raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and through it all, while the other women of El Mozote had screamed and cried… this girl had 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… with 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.”
Eventually the raping and the killing were done. The village was burned to the ground and the soldiers of the Atlcatl Battalion left El Mozote to the dogs, the flies and the buzzards. Everywhere the buzzards. The whole village “seemed covered by a moving black carpet” of the scavenging birds. There was plenty for the carrion-eaters to feast upon that day; all told, more than 900 men, women, children and babies were slaughtered by the US-armed and trained men of the Atlcatl Battalion.
Thanks to the intrepid reporting of Raymond Bonner (New York Times) and Alma Guillermoprieto (Washington Post), both of whom trekked through the dense Salvadoran jungle with photographer Susan Meisalas and saw firsthand the grisly aftermath of the massacre, El Mozote was front page news in the United States on January 26, 1982.
The very next day, President Ronald Reagan ignored El Mozote and certified that El Salvador “is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights” and “is 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.” Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliott Abrams (a future Iran-Contra criminal and subsequent George W. Bush National Security Council director) praised the “professionalism” of the Atlacatl Brigade and Nestor Sanchez, a top Defense Department official, declared that the murderous brigade had “achieved a commendable combat record not only for its tactical capability in fighting the guerillas but also for its humane treatment of the people.”
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration tried to deny or discredit the incontrovertible evidence that a horrific massacre had taken place at El Mozote. Abrams attacked the casualty figures. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders flat out stated that there had been no massacre at El Mozote. He refuted the reports of Bonner and Guillermoprieto, even though the two journalists from the two most respected newspapers in the United States had actually been to El Mozote while he had not. Todd Greentree, a junior US embassy officer, and Major John McKay, a US Marine, finally went to the area of the massacre and came away absolutely convinced that the Salvadoran army had committed horrible atrocities at El Mozote.
The massacres continued in 1982. In response, Reagan and Congress doubled military aid to El Salvador. Salvadoran officers continued to get top-notch American training at the School of the Americas even though 10 of the 12 officers implicated in the El Mozote massacre had graduated from the School. The Reagan administration and much of the American mainstream media misled the public to believe that we were backing the good guys in the good fight against evil communists. But a United Nations report found that fully 85 percent of the more than 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the civil war in El Salvador were committed by government forces.
Nevertheless, Elliot Abrams proclaimed that “the Administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.” For dealing so adroitly with El Salvador, Abrams would be rewarded with a top human rights job in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. The United States never properly investigated El Mozote or any other massacres it was indirectly involved in; the State Department’s annual human rights reports of the period mention nothing about them. So successful was the Reagan administration at disappearing the crimes of the Salvadoran regime and military that in 1991 there were human rights officials at the American Embassy in San Salvador who had never even heard of El Mozote.
But El Mozote would not be forgotten. After El Salvador’s long, brutal civil war ended there were exhumations and investigations and on December 6, 1993 Mark Danner published “The Truth of El Mozote” in The New Yorker. It was only the second time in its history that the venerable magazine devoted an entire issue to a single article. Still, the story of what was one of the worst massacres in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere is relatively unknown in the United States, as is the role America played in the atrocity.
We revisit El Mozote on the anniversary of the senseless slaughter in hopes of fostering a greater awareness among the American people of the crimes committed or supported by their government in their name and in the name of “freedom.” For there are, even today, horrendous human rights abuses carried out by brutal regimes around the world that act with cocksure impunity born of being America’s sweetheart. How many more El Mozotes will we allow in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Indonesia and elsewhere before we demand that our leaders close the yawning chasm between what America says it believes in and what it actually supports in service of its interests?