El Mozote -- the US role

Fourth of a series

How much responsibility does the United States have connected to the massacre at El Mozote?

The massacre at El Mozote was carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran armed forces.   It was an elite unit, and the US was proud of having played a role in creating it.  An Americas Watch report wrote in 1992:
The history of U.S. human rights policy in El Salvador is not only one of downplaying or denying the war crimes of the Salvadoran military. U.S. officials often went one step further, asserting that the behavior of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion, in particular, was "commendable" and "professional" in its relations with the civilian population. The Atlacatl Battalion, which carried out the massacre at El Mozote, was created in early 1981 and trained by U.S. advisers drawn primarily from the Special Forces in a first effort to reorganize the Salvadoran military to wage a full-scale counterinsurgency war. By mid-1981, 1200 soldiers had begun operating as a "rapid reaction" battalion in conflictive zones, spearheading major
military operations in the departments of Chalatenango, CabaÒas, and Moraz·n.

U.S. officials have long been extremely proud of the Atlacatl Battalion's performance and have praised it throughout the history of the war. In the February 8, 1982, Senate hearings on the presidential certification on El Salvador, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams lavished praise on the Atlacatl Battalion, saying that "the battalion to which you refer [regarding the massacre at El Mozote] has been complimented at various times in the past over its professionalism and over the command structure and the close control in which the troops are held when they go into battle."

In congressional testimony a few months later, a senior U.S. Defense Department official went one step further, saying that the Atlacatl had "achieved a commendable combat record not only for its tactical capability in fighting the guerrillas but also for its humane treatment of the people."
Such statements portray an intentional blindness to the activities of the Atlacatl forces at best, and at worst a conscious attempt to mislead the American public.   The Atlacatl troops would later murder the Jesuits in 1989.

Beyond simply supporting the Atlacatl, did the US have foreknowledge of the massacre about to occur in Morazan?  Throughout the civil war, US had military advisers in El Salvador.   In his 1993 New Yorker article, Mark Danner raised the possibility that US advisers might have been on the Atlacatl's excursion into Morazan:
How had the Milgroup [ the Military Advisory Group at the US Embassy] officers heard so quickly that “something had happened” in Morazán? Although the adviser believes it was the guerrillas who got word to the Embassy, a number of highly placed Salvadorans, including one prominent politician of the time who had many friends among senior officers, claim that two American advisers were actually observing the operation from the base camp at Osicala. On its face, the charge is not entirely implausible — American advisers had been known to violate the prohibition against accompanying their charges into the field — but it is impossible to confirm. Colonel Moody Hayes, who was then the Milgroup commander, refused to discuss El Mozote with me, explaining that he didn’t know “what might still be classified,” while officers from the defense attaché’s office and from Milgroup who were willing to talk generally dismissed the charge as unfounded. State Department officials, however, were clearly worried about the possibility.
There might have been some additional confirmation of US advisers' participation with the Atlacatl mission in a 2007 comment on my blog purportedly by Gregory Walker, who was in the US Special Forces in El Salvador.  The comment asserted that a US Special Forces advisor was actually at El Mozote that day:
For example, there was a senior Special Forces advisor at El Mozote the day/night of the massacre (and only one). He attempted multiple times to dissuade Colonel Domingo Monterosa to spare the victims. When Monterosa ignored him, the advisor departed by foot and made his way, alone, back to San Salvador. There he made a full report to embassy officials of what the unit and Monterosa were doing in El Mozote.

The Atlacatl Battalion was commanded by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa.   Many references to Monterrosa refer him as trained by the US School of the Americas (SOA).   Monterrosa did attend a course in 1966 in parachute rigging at the School of the Americas when that institution was located in Panama, but that appears to be his only attendance at SOA courses.  Showing that the massacre at El Mozote did not diminish Monterrosa's standing in the eyes of the US, Ambassador Thomas Pickering attended the funeral of Monterrosa after the colonel was killed by FMLN guerrillas in 1984.

US military aid poured into El Salvador throughout the civil war.  It cannot be disputed that the weapons used by the killers of the children of El Mozote came from the US.  From the forensic investigation after the Peace Accords:
Weapon Types

The size and depth of the firing pin imprint, evidence of extractor mark and location, as well as other distinguishing characteristics such as bolt face marks were the criteria used in determining weapon type. With one exception the cases were all fired in a 5.56 mm NATO-caliber firearm. The cases appear to have been fired in United States M-16 military rifles. The single exception is a 7.62 mm NATO case possibly fired in a united States M-14 rifle. A single cartridge case, such as this, and without direct association with human remains, cannot be assigned any significance. It may be associated with the event under consideration, or it may pre- or post-date the event. For purposes of this analysis the 7.62 mm NATO case is noted but not further considered in total number of firearms employed at El Mozote.

Cartridge Headstamps

Headstamps on cartridge cases often identify the government or commercial manufacturer, as well as date the case to a specific year of production. Of the 245 cases 184 had discernable headstamps. This is a 75.1 % sample of all cases. The remainder all exhibited partial headstamps, but were too oxidized or corroded to ascertain specific details. All cartridge cases, including the 7.62 mm NATO case, were head-stamped "L C", which indicates they were manufactured for the United States Government at Lake City Ordnance Plant located near Independence, Missouri (Hogg 1982: 110). All 184 cases also contained dated headstamps. The earliest date is 1973 with six cases having this imprint. Next is the single 7.62 mm NATO case with a 1974 date, followed by two cases with a 1975 date. The majority (172) of the cases carried a 1978 date. The most recent date was 1981 with three cases found with this date.
One thing about US policy seems to be clear.   The Salvadoran armed forces could see that gross violations of human rights would not interrupt the flow of US military aid.   Whatever leverage the US had as the war's primary funder was not used to prevent massacres at El Mozote and elsewhere.  As Mark Danner wrote in his 1993 article in the New Yorker:
In the United States, however, Rufina’s account of what had happened at El Mozote appeared on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, at the very moment when members of Congress were bitterly debating whether they should cut off aid to a Salvadoran regime so desperate that it had apparently resorted to the most savage methods of war. El Mozote seemed to epitomize those methods, and in Washington the story heralded what became perhaps the classic debate of the late Cold War: between those who argued that, given the geopolitical stakes in Central America, the United States had no choice but to go on supporting a “friendly” regime, however disreputable it might seem, because the alternative — the possibility of another Communist victory in the region — was clearly worse, and those who insisted that the country must be willing to wash its hands of what had become a morally corrupting struggle. Rufina’s story came to Washington just when the country’s paramount Cold War national-security concerns were clashing — as loudly and unambiguously as they ever would during four decades — with its professed high-minded respect for human rights.

In the United States, the free press was not to be denied: El Mozote was reported; Rufina’s story was told; the angry debate in Congress intensified. But then the Republican Administration, burdened as it was with the heavy duties of national security, denied that any credible evidence existed that a massacre had taken place; and the Democratic Congress, after denouncing, yet again, the murderous abuses of the Salvadoran regime, in the end accepted the Administration’s “certification” that its ally was nonetheless making a “significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” The flow of aid went on, and soon increased.


Colin said…
Yes, you are correct to say that Monterrosa only attended training very briefly at the College of the Americas. He did however spend 2 months in Taiwan at the Political Warfare Academy at Peitou in 1978 and he credits this time as being some of the most influential of his military career.

Taiwan, as head of the World Anti-Communist League, played an important yet largely unknown role in the period of armed conflict, and continues to play an important role in El Salvadoran society today.