On This Date in Latin America – December 11, 1981: The El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador
Thirty years ago today, Salvadoran troops trained by U.S. forces, massacred over 800 people in the village of El Mozote.
The infamous Atlacatl battalion (taking its name from the legendary figure who resisted Spanish invaders to what is now El Salvador in the 1520s) was El Salvador’s first counter-insurgency force to mobilize in the civil war that plagued El Salvador between 1980 and 1992. The Atlacatl battalion had received training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and employed scorched earth tactics to combat “subversives.” The battalion returned from its training in 1981, and on December 10 of that year, after engaging in a skirmish with guerrillas in the area, it moved towards the village of El Mozote in the northeastern part of El Salvador. Though the village was small, poor farmers from around the area had also gathered in the village in an attempt to escape the violence between guerrilla forces and the military in the surrounding countryside.
On December 11, the soldiers in the Atlacatl battalion removed everybody from the homes, separating the men into one group and women into another. Accusing the villagers of aiding the guerrillas, the soldiers then tortured and executed the men before raping and murdering the women. Some of the rape victims were as young as ten. The soldiers then shot all of the remaining children locked inside of a church, and set fire to the buildings in the village. At the end of the day, the bodies of over 800 people covered the village, including more than 140 children 12 years or younger. While numbers often seem simultaneously impressive yet hollow, a list of the identified victims only hammers home just how brutal and awful the massacre was. Only 38-year-old Rufina Amaya managed to survive by hiding in a tree, and she would become one of the major reasons the world came to know about the unspeakable atrocities at El Mozote.
In spite of local reports of the violence and horror of the massacre, the story did not reach international headlines until January of 1982, when Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post ran stories reporting on the massacre. Although the articles prompted outrage in some quarters, the U.S. downplayed the reports; because of the close U.S. ties to the Atlacatl battalion, the Reagan administration initially suggested no such massacre had taken place even while it continued to fund the Salvadoran military, including the US-trained Atlacatl battalion. The El Mozote Massacre would not be the final instance of infamy for the battalion, which was also directly tied to the assassination of six Jesuit priests in 1989, a crime which remains unpunished, although Spain recently requested the extradition of fifteen Salvadoran military officials for trial in the murder of the priests.
As the Salvadoran civil war wound down, the Atlacatl battalion was disbanded. However, those guilty for the crimes at El Mozote (and for the murders of tens of thousands of other Salvadorans) have gone unpunished, thanks to an amnesty law that pardoned the military for its blatant violations of human rights. The Salvadoran government has officially apologized for the massacre, and while an important gesture, it does little in terms of providing justice for the victims and their families. Nonetheless, El Mozote has become an important site in remembering the horrifying acts of the Salvadoran military and in providing a beacon of hope that the memory and lessons of El Mozote can prevent similar atrocities from happening in Central America in the future.
For an in-depth discussion of El Mozote, Tim’s El Salvador Blog has done an amazing series in the week leading up to today. It is truly must-read material not only to understand the horrors, complexities, and aftermath of El Mozote, but to appreciate the ongoing struggle for human rights in both El Salvador specifically and the world more generally.
Part I: The El Mozote Massacre – 30 Years Later
Part II: Rufina Amaya – The Survivor
Part III: El Mozote – The Reporters
Part IV: El Mozote – The U.S. Role
Part V: El Mozote – Seeking Justice in Spite of the Amnesty Law
Part VI: El Mozote – Funes Meets with Victims’ Families
Part VII: El Mozote – The Rebirth of Hope