US shares in responsibility for the massacre at El Mozote
Third in 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, Cabañas, and Morazan.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.
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."
Beyond simply supporting the Atlacatl, did the US have foreknowledge of the massacre about to occur in Morazan? Throughout the civil war, the 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.In a 2007 comment on my blog Gregory Walker, who was in the US Special Forces in El Salvador during the war, 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 Monterrosa to spare the victims. When Monterrosa 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 Monterrosa were doing in El Mozote.
In hearings this year in the massacre case, Prof. Terry Karl of Stanford testified to the involvement of the US in backing the Salvadoran military as it committed atrocities. She described the presence of many mercenaries hired into the country with money she suggested came from the CIA. She presented covers of Soldiers of Fortune magazine which told tales of mercenaries in the field in El Salvador.
Karl testified that there was at least one CIA operative stationed in the village of Osicala not far from El Mozote who was there along with the intelligence unit of the Salvadoran 3rd infantry brigade. A report from the CIA on December 9, the day before the massacre was key in Karl’s testimony because it described the fact that the FMLN had already left the area and would need to be pursued in “Phase 2” of the operation, which never happened. For Karl this is important because it shows that the military knew they were not encountering the FMLN and that they (and the US) knew that subsequent stories about a firefight with guerillas was a lie.
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 TypesOne 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:
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.
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.
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.Today, US policy appears to support the pursuit of justice for the victims. 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).
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.
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.And so we return to the question posed at the head of this article: how much responsibility does the US have connected to the massacre at El Mozote? Even though the US chain of command did not give the order to massacre children, women and men by the hundreds at El Mozote, the US did provide the weapons, train the troops, advise the Atlcatl battalion, celebrate its commander, endorse the overarching anti-insurgent strategy, and intentionally covered up the truth of the massacre and impeded justice for years. That's a significant amount of responsibility for which the US has never apologized.