US coming around on El Mozote

Recently disclosed documents from the US State Department show that the US Embassy in El Salvador is closely following the case of the massacre of children and others at El Mozote as well as other human rights cases from the civil war period.   The documents in question were released in response to open records requests from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR).

One of the most interesting documents is a  June 29, 2017 cable from US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes.  The document describes the embassy's assessment of the proceedings surrounding the El Mozote massacre case.  The UWCHR explains the significance of the cable:
[The] cable drafted by Ambassador Manes, dated June 29, 2017, “El Mozote Massacre Trial: Test Case for Civil War Accountability”, is significant for its recognition that a massacre took place at the hands of the Atlacatl Battalion during “Operation Rescate”. The confirmation from the U.S. embassy that it was in fact a massacre of civilian non-combatants, and not an armed confrontation, is critical because it counters the narrative that has historically been employed by the Salvadoran government and armed forces (and communicated in some prior U.S. diplomatic and intelligence documents) to protect the perpetrators of the crime and discredit the accounts of survivors. The claim of armed confrontation’ serves as the defendants’ central argument in the trial of El Mozote, in which they are charged with “a range of crimes, including murder, aggravated rape, aggravated abduction, breaking and entering, robbery, aggravated abduction, acts of terrorism, and conspiracy”.
 The Ambassador’s cable foregrounds positive assessments of the El Mozote trial, including one source’s view that “sufficient evidence exists to demonstrate the culpability of crimes against humanity and war crimes at El Mozote”. Ambassador Manes does not communicate complete confidence regarding prospects for justice: her comments highlight concerns about legal and forensic capacity, political will, and popular support for justice for crimes of the past. Despite this, however, these concerns are not used to further arguments against justice—indeed, the document’s title, “El Mozote Massacre Trial: Test Case for Civil War Accountability”, highlights the importance of the case despite these obstacles.
The tone of this cable from 2017 is much different from the reports of the US Embassy during the civil war years.  As is now widely known and accepted today by the US, 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 majormilitary operations in the departments of Chalatenango, CabaÒas, and Morazan.
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 at the time portrayed 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.

But given the role of the US in funding the forces who committed many of the civil war atrocities, much more is owed by the US government than simply an acknowledgment of well-established facts.   The government could start by searching for and declassifying all of its records related to El Mozote and other massacres and sharing them with appropriate authorities and human rights groups in El Salvador.

The cable from Ambassador Manes also notes:
The[government of El Salvador] and legislators are exploring a replacement of the Amnesty Law which could impact the ability to prosecute the El Mozote case and others.
El Faro uses that sentence to headline an article about the Manes cable.  Nelson Rauda at El Faro explains more about the significance of that sentence.   The National Assembly in 2017 created an ad hoc commission to look at the development of a new law of national reconciliation.   Human rights and other groups called foul when the commission was made up of members who have been alleged to have involvement in various human rights violations:

  • Antonio Almendáriz (PCN) was identified in the UN Truth Commission Report as being in the command structure of units which committed atrocities and was the last commander of the Atlacatl Battalion; 
  • Rodolfo Parker (PDC) while a lawyer for the armed forces was  alleged by the UN to have covered up evidence related to the Jesuit massacre; 
  • Nidia Díaz (FMLN) has been accused in El Salvador of command involvement with the Zona Rosa massacre of US Marines; and 
  • Mauricio Vargas (Arena) has also been accused by US authorities of involvement in human rights abuses. 

Pretty clearly this group of commission members has a conflict of interest in determining whether El Salvador should be seeking justice for crimes against humanity from the civil war.  Human rights groups and others who care about the impunity to date for those involved in war crimes will be watching closely, and hopefully so will the US Embassy.

Dip. Nidia Diaz -- Amb. Jean Manes


Greg said…
We might agree the most important act of "coming around" occurred in 2016 when the Salvadoran Court threw out the shameful "amnesty law" that protected suspected war criminals in the FMLN, the GOES, and the ESAF.

That said, the U.S. embassy worked quite hard to uphold its credibility throughout the war years. Succeeding ambassadors were reluctant to in any way mask GOES/ESAF misconduct. In the case of El Mozote, it was the U.S. State Department that announced "our embassy reports no evidence that there was a massacre." In response, then AMB Dean Hinton sent a narrow-channel cable to Washington DC clarifying, in short, "We never reported any such thing. We said something happened there, but we were never able to get close enough to examine things for ourselves."

The effort to see embassy staffers Todd Greentree and Major McKay reach El Mozote was short-changed when the Salvadoran Army escort - oddly enough provided by the Atlacatl Battalion - refused to continue their escort of the two Americans. This only (roughly) two miles from the village. Greentree and McKay diverted to the quartel at San Francisco Gotera and from there reported their situation to the embassy. This meant they were unable to safely reach, visit, and inspect the other cantons ravaged by the Atlacatl during the massacre in El Mozote.

In its 1993 report, the UN Truth Commission interviewed a former American military adviser who was assigned to the U.S. MilGrp as staff when the massacre occurred. That adviser offered, in part, that he was at the Atlacatl quartel / El Playon training area actively training replacement troops for the battalion on the day of the massacre. It is noteworthy to point out there were NO U.S. Special Forces advisers with Atlacatl at that point. The American in question was a MilGrp staff member, much the same as Greentree or McKay.

In his interview he states that Monterrosa was at the quartel that day but left to go to El Mozote once he learned the massacre had begun and "things were still going on". He assigns responsibility for the initiation of the killings to Caceres Cabrera, or "El Huevon", on site commander of the operation. "I won't say that Monterosa didn't order it [the massacre]," the MilGrp staffer told the UN when asked if Monterrosa knew what was taking place.

This same individual has claimed, in the past, to have gone with Montrerossa to El Mozote, saw what was occurring there, attempted to convince Montrerossa to stop the slaughter, and when the colonel would not do so the American left and upon his immediate return to San Salvador reported what was occurring to the U.S. embassy.

Which, if true, begs the question of what AMB Hinton indeed suspected or knew within 24-hours of Operation Rescante, and then what U.S. State knew well before Greentree and McKay were tasked to try and visit the cantons.

Perhaps this will come out during the trial?

The objective of the operation was "to deny the guerrillas the ability to survive north of the Rio Torola river. Few guerrillas were killed during the operation as they evacuated the area rather than try to go toe to toe with the battalion and its supporting elements. Part of Monterossa's strategy to reclaim the area, according to the UN interview with the American MilGrp member, was the poisoning of water sources to deny this critical resource to the guerrilla bases in the area.

Greg said…
Likewise it is now possible for a full accounting to be undertaken regarding the murder of the four unarmed U.S. Marine embassy guards in the Zona Rosa.

Indeed, former FPL/PRTC member and leader, Commander Nida Diaz. Diaz, who in her autobiography makes very clear the depth of her commitment to Marxist revolution in El Salvador, was very likely intimately involved in the planning as well as command and control of the urban guerrilla hit team which killed the Marines.

Diaz, an accomplished urban guerrilla in San Salvador with the FPL, later "went rural" with the PRTC once she was fully identified by ESAF security forces in the city. She would be followed by Salvadoran-American Gilberto Osorio, who would become her Chief of Operations with the PRTC until her capture in April 1985.

Pedro Andrade, identified as the mastermind of the Zona Rosa killings, would later be captured and then "flipped" by the CIA. He became an important informer on the FMLN, rewarded with a visa to the United States for he and his family, until unmasked and deported back to El Salvador in the late 1990s. Andrade, whose fate was likely decided upon his return to his home country and once fellow guerrillas, very likely revealed to the CIA the Whole of the Zona Rosa operation to include its command & control structure via the PRTC.

Further, the Zona Rosa massacre (more than the four Marines were killed during the operation) was carried out by the Clara Elizabeth Rameriz Front (CERF), a splinter cell of the FPL (the latter which claimed responsibility for the hit), which specialized in urban assassinations throughout the war. What connections Nidia Diaz may have had with the CERF would also come out during both a formal investigation and trial.

For the PRTC, leading up to and after her capture, the murder of the Marines resulted in what former Commander Gilberto Osorio described as a "war" on the PRTC, an American directed offensive that eventually broke its back as an effective fighting force within the FMLN.

Should Diaz be indicted and tried as a war criminal then the reality of no one being above the law regarding human rights and war crimes will be again reinforced.