In three days, from December 11-13, 1981, U.S.-trained troops in Central America’s smallest, most densely populated republic, El Salvador, rounded up and killed over a thousand unarmed civilians in the hamlet of El Mozote, in Morazán province, near the Honduran border. This massacre, I believe, still has the dubious distinction of being the largest mass killing of civilians by state forces in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century.
Most people who know anything about the Central American civil wars in the last decades of the Cold War know that they were U.S. proxy wars, the Reagan Administration’s “line in the palms” against Soviet expansion. In Weakness and Deceit, then New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner carefully exposed the bloody fingerprints of the administration on that massacre and the years-long cover-up that followed, and was exiled from the paper for his pains.
El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war ended in a negotiated settlement, after displacing a fifth of the country’s population of five million and killing over 75,000. And after billions of U.S. tax dollars were poured in to prop up its army and political class by Carter, Reagan and Bush – El Salvador was at one time the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. The war was followed by fifteen years of right-wing dominated plutocratic governments that institutionalized denial, and pushed through a craven amnesty for all military and political figures implicated in war crimes, while they continued (a little more discreetly than before) looting the country. A few triggermen were prosecuted for death squad activities but by and large, the major perps walked free, some of them settling comfortably in the U.S. A lot of other Salvadorans ended up in the U.S. as well, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service worked diligently to ensure that none of those who had fled government repression were given political asylum.
El Salvador’s guerrilla army, the FMLN, had taken swifter, if limited, justice: in 1984, they lured the massacre’s engineer and top commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa into a booby-trapped helicopter by letting him think he had captured the transmitter for the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos. They blew him up in mid-air. A pretty good film, Trap for a Cat, made by a Venezuelan filmmaker sympathetic to the struggle tells this as a story of poetic justice, with some dramatic license.
In 1991, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, I stood with a tiny group of people in the tall dry grass of the empty place that had once been the busy market town of El Mozote. A majority of its residents had been conservative evangelical Christians who had refused to support the FMLN – and so the initial story manufactured for the cover-up was that the massacre was a reprisal by the guerrillas. That story eventually sank under the weight of the facts – in no small part because there had been at least one surviving witness to the attack.
That was Rufina Amaya, widow of a smallholder who was killed in the massacre, and she was standing with our group in the susurrus grass of that depression in the barren hills where there was absolutely no structure, whole or partial, remaining to indicate the former town. She began to speak about what she had seen and heard on that day in 1981, when she hid in the bushes as the army marched in and began rounding up the townspeople.