The El Mozote Massacre -- 40 years later
First in a seriesForty years ago, on December 11, 1981, one of the worst atrocities of the Salvadoran civil war, the El Mozote massacre, took place. All but one of the civilians taking refuge in the small village of El Mozote and in surrounding settlements, close to 1000 children, women, and men, were brutally killed by the Salvadoran army. More than 400 of those murdered were age 12 or under. It is a tragedy the world must never forget.
Over the next week leading up to the 40th anniversary, I will have a series of posts about the massacre. Today I start with the basic facts of the massacre.
On the afternoon of December 10, 1981, soldiers of the Salvadoran army's elite Atlacatl battalion arrived at El Mozote in northeastern El Salvador. The Atlacatl was a "Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion" specially trained for counter-insurgency warfare. It was the first unit of its kind in the Salvadoran armed forces and was trained by United States military advisors. Its mission, Operación Rescate ("Operation Rescue"), was to use a scorched earth approach to eliminate the rebel presence in a small region of northern Morazán where the FMLN had a camp and operated its clandestine radio broadcasts.
El Mozote consisted of about twenty houses situated on open ground around a square. Facing onto the square was a church and, behind it, a small building known as "the convent", used by the priest to change into his vestments when he came to the village to celebrate mass. Near the village was a small schoolhouse.
Upon arrival, the soldiers found not only the residents of the village but also campesinos who had sought refuge from the surrounding area. The soldiers ordered everyone out of their houses and into the square. They made them lie face down, searched them, and questioned them about the guerrillas. They then ordered the villagers to lock themselves in their houses until the next day, warning that anyone coming out would be shot. The soldiers remained in the village during the night.
Early the next morning, the soldiers reassembled the entire village in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked them in separate groups in the church, the convent, and various houses.
During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture, and execute the men in several locations. Around noon, they began taking the women and older girls in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them after raping them. Girls as young as 10 were raped, under the pretext that they were guerilla supporters. Finally, they killed the children. A group of children that had been locked in the church and its convent were shot through the windows.
After killing the entire population but one, the soldiers set fire to the buildings. More than 800 people lay dead throughout the town, including hundreds of children and babies. In the ensuing hours, more were hunted down and killed in the area immediately surrounding El Mozote.
The sole survivor of the massacre from within El Mozote was Rufina Amaya. She had managed to escape and hide herself below a bush as the killing continued, forced to hear the murders of her own children. In the years that followed, she would become a tireless voice, not letting the world forget what had happened in El Mozote. Others who escaped the killing in the surrounding area have also emerged to bear witness.
Throughout the Salvadoran civil war, both El Salvador’s government and its supporters in the Reagan administration in Washington denied that any massacre had taken place. They blamed news stories of the massacre on guerrilla propaganda. It was only after the war ended, and forensic anthropologists began to excavate the site, that the truth of what had happened at El Mozote became widely accepted. Still, no one has ever been held accountable for this horrific atrocity. The relatives of those killed have continued a determined struggle for justice over the course of decades. Yet, as of today, the worst single massacre of civilians in Latin America remains a war crime cloaked with impunity for the high military command which ordered it.
In future posts, among other topics I'll write about the reporters who broke the story in the US, the quest for justice, the victims, and the roadblocks to justice created by the current government in El Salvador.