Originally published at Common Dreams
As Salvadorans this weekend mark 40 years since nearly 1,000 rural villagers were murdered in El Mozote and nearby hamlets by troops from an elite U.S.-trained army unit, the pursuit of justice by survivors and victims’ families is being threatened by El Salvador’s right-wing president—who critics say is trying to derail the prosecution of the massacres’ perpetrators in a bid to protect the armed forces and solidify his power.
Even as somber ceremonies were held to commemorate those slain in the deadliest mass killing in modern Latin American history, President Nayib Bukele was accused of demagoguery and disrespect after he showed up in El Mozote Friday without consulting local residents, accompanied by soldiers from the same army that committed the massacre.
The 40-year-old populist president, who is often seen wearing a leather jacket and backward baseball cap, has called himself “the world’s coolest dictator.” He’s widely known outside his country for making Bitcoin legal tender; however, inside El Salvador he has stoked fears of a return to authoritarianism with a series of policies and actions that have alarmed human rights defenders at home and abroad.
Earlier this year, Bukele’s allies in the Legislative Assembly summarily fired the attorney general and all the judges in the Supreme Court of Justice’s constitutional chamber. Their replacements then lifted a ban on consecutive presidential terms. These and other moves—including his support for the military’s refusal to grant the former presiding judge in the El Mozote case access to key records—have been internationally condemned.
That judge, Jorge Guzmán Urquilla, was on the verge of trying 15 former El Salvador Armed Forces (FAES) officers who stand accused of crimes including murder, torture, aggravated rape, terrorism, and forced disappearance in connection with the El Mozote massacres.
However, in what critics called a bid to obstruct justice, the Legislative Assembly in August passed a law forcing judges over the age of 60 to retire. Guzmán is 61.
“The people who have been on the side of the victims will continue to be relentless in the pursuit of justice,” Oscar A. Chacón, the Salvadoran-American co-founder and executive director of the migrant advocacy group Alianza Americas, told Common Dreams.
“But I have to say very honestly that given how closely the Bukele administration has become entangled with the Salvadoran military, I do not believe we will see any advancement toward justice,” he added.
By late 1981 El Salvador’s civil war had been raging for two years. Despite setbacks including a failed “final offensive” earlier that year, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—the leftist guerrilla coalition waging revolutionary warfare against the oligarch- and U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorship—was growing in numbers and strength, thanks to military aid from socialist nations including Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and several Warsaw Pact members.
To President Ronald Reagan and his hard-line Cold Warriors, an obsessive preoccupation with stopping the spread of communism led to U.S. support of not only El Salvador’s autocracy but also the genocidal military dictatorship in Guatemala, the narco-trafficking Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, and the death squad regime in Honduras, to name but the most proximate examples.
The Salvadoran regime ruthlessly targeted anyone it suspected of being a communist or even sympathizing with the rebellion. Indigenous peasants, students and academics, labor unionists, clergy, artists, and others were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in alarming numbers: more than 10,000 killed in 1981; over twice as many the following year, according to peer-reviewed research.
Although both sides committed civil war atrocities, the vast majority of them were determined to be perpetrated by the government, allied militias, and death squads. The most infamous of these are well known: the assassination of Archbishop—and now Saint—Óscar Romero; the abduction, rape, and execution of four U.S. churchwomen; and the El Mozote massacres.
Backed by U.S.-made helicopters, troops from the elite Atlacatl Battalion entered El Mozote in northern Morazán Department on December 10, 1981, the fourth day of a 10-day “hammer and anvil” offensive against the FMLN called Operation Rescue. The campaign was ordered by Defense Minister José Guillermo García.
The Atlacatl Battalion was created the previous year at the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), then located in Panama, and trained by Army Green Berets at Fort Bragg in North Carolina as part of the Reagan administration’s aggressive counterinsurgency strategy against the FMLN. It was led by Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, who in turn answered directly to the FAES high command.
Although there had been a series of horrific massacres perpetrated by army troops in the months and weeks preceding El Mozote, the village’s residents believed they were safe because they did not support the guerrillas. They were fatally mistaken.
According to the postwar United Nations Truth Commission report:
Units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place. The following day… after spending the night locked in their homes, they were deliberately and systematically executed in groups. First, the men were tortured and executed, then the women were executed and, lastly, the children, in the place where they had been locked up.
At least 978 people—including 553 children—in nine different area villages were murdered, according to Salvadoran government figures. Many of the victims were beheaded with machetes. Women and girls were raped, then executed. When one young soldier balked at an order to murder children, Maj. Natividad de Jesús Caceres Cabrera “reportedly killed the first baby by throwing it into the air and catching it on his bayonet,” according to Americas Watch.
Amadeo Sanchez, who was eight years old at the time, hid with his father outside their village during the massacres. When they returned to their home, Sanchez found 24 of his relatives, including his mother and three younger siblings, were dead. On the wall, written in blood, was a message: “One dead child is one less guerrilla.”
Before leaving El Mozote, the Atlacatl troops burned the village to the ground, a fate that also befell some of the other hamlets after their inhabitants were exterminated. Victims were also burned alive in their homes.
Later, stunned survivors straggled back into the charred ruins of villages whose plazas were thick with vultures. By the time FMLN fighters escorted New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner, photojournalist Susan Meiselas and, a short while later, Washington Post correspondent Alma Guillermoprieto to El Mozote the following month, the victims had decomposed to bones that poked ominously from the burned-out rubble.
Villager Rufina Amaya, who watched soldiers behead her husband and then heard her four young children crying as they were killed, related the horrors of El Mozote to Bonner and Guillermoprieto, who in turn told it to the world.
Watch Amaya told the story of how she became one of only a handful of survivors from El Mozote:
Coverup and Consequences
By then, the campaign to cover up the killings was also well underway, as both Salvadoran and U.S. officials denied that any such slaughter had happened.
The Regan administration, which was required by Congress to prove that the Salvadoran regime was improving human rights, called the massacres a communist fabrication even after Bonner and Guillermoprieto published bombshell front-page reports in their respective newspapers on January 27, 1982.
The following day, Reagan certified that “the government of El Salvador is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” U.S. military aid to the murderous regime, which totaled more than $1 billion over the course of the civil war period, increased.
The Atlacatl Battalion subsequently committed a string of massacres with staggering death tolls: 200 at El Calabozo in August 1982, 142 at Copapayo the following year, 68 at Los Llanitos the year after that. Members of the battalion also assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter in 1989.
By the time the government and FMLN agreed to end the war in January 1992, more than 70,000 Salvadorans were dead. The U.N. Truth Commission attributed 85% of the violence to government forces and allied paramilitary militias and death squads. More than half a million Salvadorans were internally displaced and an even greater number fled the country, many of them to the United States.
Chacón—who was the first in his immediate family to flee El Salvador during the early years of the civil war—sees a direct link between U.S. support for Central American dictatorships and the current migrant crisis, as well as a continuous “obsession of the United States government with stopping migratory flows.”
“The U.S. violates the rights of people who have done nothing they shouldn’t,” he said. “They are trying to apply for humanitarian protection in the United States exactly the way it’s always been done but suddenly we have criminalized it and we have inflicted pain on people in ways that will affect them forever, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors, whose young minds psychologists agree we’ve basically damaged for the rest of their lives.”
Stanford University human rights expert Terry Karl told The New Yorker earlier this year that “if you want to know why there’s a crisis in Central America, you have to start here. Before El Mozote, out-migration from El Salvador was minor. After El Mozote, it became huge. During the civil war, more than 20% of the population left.”
While the U.S. was denying asylum to Central American refugees, it was welcoming some of the war criminals who forced them to flee. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the National Guard commander responsible for the fate of the four U.S. churchwomen, and García, the former defense minister, were among the many who found refuge in the United States, sometimes for decades, before they were deported.
Many of these criminals attended the School of the Americas. García, Vides Casanova, Monterrosa, and Caceres Cabrera were all alumni. At least nine officers implicated in the El Mozote massacres were graduates.
“Way before we saw horrible pictures of torture coming out of Iraq following the U.S. invasion, those images were already commonplace in many countries in Latin America, and interestingly, they’re all… tied to the School of the Americas,” said Chacon.
The events of December 1981 were thoroughly investigated following the civil war. Argentina’s Forensic Anthropology Team exhumed the skeletal remains of more than 100 children, drawing intense global media coverage and silencing many deniers. For only the second time in its history, The New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to one article, Mark Danner’s “The Truth of El Mozote.”
Faced with incontrovertible evidence of its crimes, the Salvadoran government passed a 1993 amnesty law shielding war criminals with impunity.
In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Salvadoran government culpable for the El Mozote massacres and ordered it to pay reparations to survivors and victims’ relatives. Although Bukele promised reparations early in his presidency, he now says they will take the form of tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements.
A criminal case filed by El Mozote survivor Pedro Chicas Rivera in 1990 was reopened in 2016 after the Supreme Court of Justice reversed El Salvador’s controversial amnesty law. Although the proceedings were delayed more than a year by the Covid-19 pandemic, they resumed earlier this year with new hope for justice—and new revelations.
Stanford University human rights expert Terry Karl testified during an April 2021 pretrial hearing that U.S. Delta Force commando Sgt. Maj. Allen Bruce Hazelwood was in El Mozote when Monterrosa gave the order to exterminate its inhabitants. Hazelwood denies this. However, Karl said that death squad apologist and future Iran-Contra criminal Elliott Abrams—who was the Reagan administration’s unlikely assistant secretary of state for human rights—told her there was a U.S. advisor in El Mozote.
The Biden administration has expressed support for the El Mozote hearings. However, a skeptical Chacón says “the jury’s still out” on whether President Joe Biden’s assertion that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy” is credible, as critics note that it was during the tenure of another “human rights president”—Jimmy Carter—that U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran dictatorship began.
The U.S. has never been held accountable—or even apologized—for its role in the civil war.
There are growing fears that El Salvador could return to dictatorship.
“A great danger in this country is that authoritarianism prevails and is allowed to govern our nation,” Guzmán, the ousted judge, said in an interview with PBS “Frontline” last month.
Taking aim at Bukele, Leonor Arteaga, El Salvador’s commissioner for the search of disappeared persons, implored the president to “not use the 40th anniversary of the massacre to confront your political enemies.”
“Respect the communities and victims,” she said. “Support the reinstatement of Judge Guzmán and carry out the reparations as ordered by the IACHR. It is your turn to do things differently in relation to this crime against humanity.”
Sanchez, the survivor, asked, “How many people have died seeking justice that never comes?”
“We as victims are going to keep demanding justice so that this historical memory is never forgotten,” he told PBS. “Because of this massacre that happened in El Mozote, we’re going to keep fighting forever, forging forward, because if we backtrack, we’ve lost.”