On Friday, November 1, two former soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion decided to cooperate with Salvadoran prosecutors, testifying as protected witnesses against those who, at the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war, were their former superiors and members of the military’s high command.
The ex-commandos admitted to participating in the El Mozote massacre, the military operation in December 1981 that ended the lives of 989 people—most of them children. It was the bloodiest massacre of the entire Salvadoran civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992.
Their testimonies about the timeline, transportation and involved military units, as well as the battalion’s method of organizing the people in the village before killing them, coincide with the testimonies of dozens of victims who have already appeared in the examining court in San Francisco Gotera, a town in the Morazán department of eastern El Salvador. They also reinforce historical accounts of the United States military’s advisement of the battalion and the use of M16 rifles described in ballistic reports from El Mozote.
The soldiers named various defendants in the case: Colonel Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera, second in command of Atlacatl at the time of the massacre; General Mauricio Isaac Duke Lozano; Colonel Ernesto Méndez Rodríguez; and Colonel José Mario Godínez Castillo. They also mentioned other military figures who have since died, such as Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, commander of the battalion; Colonel Luis Ángel Pérez Reyes; and Captain Salvador Mauricio Alvarado Guevara. Although these last three are not standing trial, they had been identified before, through the El Mozote case or the court, as participants in the operation.
The direct naming of the suspects is an inflexion point in the case, which was reopened in 2016 and has been in the discovery phase for three years already. During this phase, the court will receive evidence and determine whether it is sufficient to take the case to trial.
The witnesses under the pseudonyms Juan and Sol are “direct witnesses of the military operation carried out in El Mozote and neighboring places,” the Attorney General’s office said in a brief presented to the court on September 13 of this year. The witness testimonies “establish the existence of the massacre and the participation of the responsible parties.”
That second part is key. To this point, all testimonies have confirmed the events and the commission of different crimes for which the officials stand accused, but witnesses had not directly pointed to any officials except the now-dead Colonel Monterrosa. Given that conviction is impossible without verifying individuals’ roles in the plan, the testimony of soldiers who participated in the massacre changes the outlook of the case.
The judge overseeing the case, Jorge Guzmán, is relying both on laws applicable in the present and in 1981 to create a unique, extended discovery process designed to reach two historic milestones.
One is the testimony of the ex-commandos, whom the court and the Attorney General identified after a complicated process. The other is the unearthing of military files documenting the order to carry out an operation ending in extermination. For years, it was said in El Salvador that the files did not exist and that the anonymous soldiers who participated in the massacre seemed to have vanished. But both of these lies were debunked on Friday, November 1. The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, added his testimony to that of the two soldiers, announcing that he will open an even broader inquiry into the military files than the court has ordered.
It seems to be the beginning of the end of the discovery phase of the El Mozote trial. The responses from witnesses Juan and Sol are unprecedented accounts, not just for the reconstruction of the crime scene, but also in the history of El Salvador.
“You’re going to ask me about the massacre at El Mozote, Morazán, in December 1981,” said Juan, hidden behind a wooden divider and speaking through a device distorting the pitch of his voice to a deathly gargle. Only the prosecutors and judge know the true identities of the two ex-commandos. In their judicial examinations, the witnesses must give short answers to concrete questions. This account uses only Juan’s responses to recreate the story Juan told to the court.
“It was the beginning of December. A few days before, I was at the Atlacatl Battalion headquarters in Opico, La Libertad. I joined on March 1, 1981. I was there because I earned a little more than where I was before, in the Second Infantry Brigade.
I was in the second of six companies, each with 160 men. The commander of the Atlacatl Battalion was Colonel Monterrosa and the second in command was Natividad de Jesús Cáceres.
Captain Mauricio Isaac Duke Lozano gathered us. He was a skinny, tall, white, and curly-haired man. They told us to load up into the trucks. I put on my rucksack and climbed into one of the eight trucks. We came here, to San Francisco Gotera. The company got out to go to the store and eat something. The leaders entered the barracks. Among those who entered, I remember Pérez Reyes and Alvarado Guevara. They were there for around 45 minutes. When they came out, they ordered me back into the truck. I put on my pack and we traveled to Perquín, where we slept in the hillside.
At nine the next morning, they lined us up. Sergeant Julio César Vásquez Martínez and Sergeant Martínez Martínez were there. We began marching. We didn’t know where we were going or why. We were traveling on foot down paths that led toward El Mozote. We arrived between 11 in the morning and 12.
The soldiers started forming groups while I stayed behind with the rucksacks. Aside from the groups, the rest of the unit was assigned to the perimeter, watching the terrain, which was both flat and hilly.
Lieutenant Alvarado Guevara ordered them to form groups because they were going to kill the people. He received orders from Monterrosa, who received orders from the General Staff. A soldier, corporal, or officer can’t make such a decision alone. Alvarado Guevara ordered them to pull the people out of the hallways and patios of the houses. They ordered other groups to start killing them. I saw Corporal Martínez Callejas, Corporal Remberto Reyes López, and Saúl Moreno Granada shooting.
I was about fifty yards away looking after the equipment. We were carrying ammunition, clothes, and food for three days in our rucksacks, but careless eaters would finish it all in one day. We carried an M16. The uniform was olive green, with an Atlacatl patch and one other heavenly detail—it came with a helmet of fiber and steel.
I saw the people. Children from the age of two to six, women and men dressed humbly. The soldiers of Atlacatl shot them dead. After killing them, they left them there and we regrouped. They began to burn the houses down.
I didn’t report this before because if I did, they would kill me. I also didn’t have the opportunity, as I’m poor and work constantly. I told them what they were doing to the children was an injustice, but I couldn’t stop it because I wasn’t their boss.
I was in El Mozote for two days and two nights. After, we traveled for about three hours along the path to San Fernando Gotera. That’s where the trucks arrived.”
The journey to this morning of confessions has been winding and uphill. For a long time, the Atlacatl perpetrators at El Mozote had existed anywhere except in court. Victims of the massacre recall anonymous men on buses or those they met after the massacre, far from Morazán, telling them what they had done. But when asked their names or whereabouts, the answers were vague: I don’t know what happened.
Sofía Romero, witness to the court of the massacre, remembers an Atlacatl soldier told her what happened shortly after, at the end of December 1981 or at the beginning of the following January. That is how she found out that her father, once the church’s groundskeeper, was tortured and killed for accusations that he had lent the key of the church to the guerillas to hold mass. The soldiers forced her mother to cook them tortillas before killing her. And as was common with many young women, they took one of her sisters to a hill to rape her. The soldier who divulged this to Sofía said that, after they raped her sister, he offered to take his sister to live with him. But the girl refused, saying: “Kill me.” Sofía says the soldier lives “over there in San Miguel” and that if one were to see him now, they would pity his physical state. “You reap what you sow here,” Sofía reflects.
The survivors are not the only ones with vague answers. Three years ago, one month after the reopening of the El Mozote case, then-president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, told the court that there was no documentation for “Operation Rescue,” the name of the operation that culminated in the El Mozote massacre. Despite Sánchez Cerén’s denial, the Institute of Social Welfare of the Armed Forces provided a roster of 480 soldiers to the court in February of 2019.
Given that the witnesses are in protective custody, there is no telling whether they contacted them through that roster. While the prosecution has been tight-lipped about its work on the case, things clearly sped up two months ago. On September 5, the Office of the Attorney General asked the Salvadoran Justice Sector, known by its acronym UTE in Spanish, to take protective measures on behalf of key witnesses Juan and Sol. UTE agreed on September 9. On the 13th, prosecutors petitioned Judge Guzmán to allow Juan and Sol to testify under protection, arguing that they are “indispensable to verifying the events, given their authoritative testimony as witnesses of some of the events under investigation.”
“I’ve been summoned to testify about the El Mozote massacre,” said Sol in the afternoon of November 1, in the same condition as Juan: hidden and with a voice from a horror film.
“It was 1981, between December 11 and 14. I was enlisted in the first company of the Atlacatl Battalion in the township of Sitio del Niño in La Libertad. I enlisted on March 1, 1981. There were nine companies.
The commander, Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, told us that we were going on a mission. I began preparing my equipment, rucksack, and M16. We climbed into the trucks—approximately 60 of them—some from the Armed Forces, others from Caminos (an old division of the government tasked with street maintenance), and others from the now-defunct National Guard. We set out for Morazán.
We stopped by the Third Brigade in San Miguel. I don’t know why. The commander and other leaders got out and entered the quarters, where they stayed for about an hour. Among them were Colonel Monterrosa Barrios, Major Natividad de Jesús Cáceres, Captain Ernesto Méndez Rodríguez, Lieutenant (Ángel Román) Sermeño Nieto, Lieutenant Carlos Fernando Herrera Carranza and many others that I don’t remember.
When they exited, Lieutenant Carlos Fernando Herrera Carranza told the driver we were headed to Gotera. The commander [at San Francisco Gotera], known as Colonel Crucito, was waiting for us as we got to the department capital city. Colonel Monterrosa talked with him for half an hour. We were on top of the trucks.
When the leaders climbed into the vehicles, we left for Perkín. We got to the Torola River and the company’s commanders got us out of the trucks. I only remember Captain Méndez Rodríguez. He told us we were to march along the highway to Jocoaitique. There were 1,500 of us. We walked for four hours.
At the Jocoaitique exit, we started taking fire, supposedly from the guerillas. We took cover and returned fire. The exchange lasted for half an hour. After that, everything calmed down and later we looked for a spot to sleep.
Early the next morning, around 3am, we set out marching to El Mozote. One group traveled along the road and another in the hills. We arrived around six in the morning.
There were about 150 of us. On the outskirts of El Mozote we had a skirmish with the guerrillas that lasted about eight hours. Then we entered into the village and the guerillas pulled out.
Monterrosa and Cáceres ordered us to thoroughly register the homes and group everybody in one place. We gathered the people—women, the elderly, and children. They laid the villagers down in the Catholic church in the town center, and others in the homes surrounding the temple. The girls were up to ten years old. Some of the boys only had on their underwear or pants, and the girls had their little outfits. Some without shoes. The people were gathered like that for three more days.
Colonel Monterrosa said that the General Staff were coming to interrogate the people. That’s how it went. They would arrive every morning by helicopter and in the afternoon they would leave. In one instance, six people got out—some dressed in civil attire and others in olive green military garb. They told us they were the investigators, and that the General Staff would decide what would happen to the people. I was stationed about three blocks away but would pass close by them as I went to fetch water. They would bring us food by helicopter. Major Godínez Castillo was in charge of the food supply.
At the end, as the helicopters left, shots and the screams of children and women rang out. They were killing them.
They said, “Oh no!”
So many shots rang out- I can’t say how many. Then I saw them light the houses on fire. It was the soldiers, because they were the only ones in the vicinity, along with their commanding officers. The civilians there weren’t armed. They were just women, children, and the elderly!
I don’t know who gave the order, it must have come from those tasked with coming to investigate. It couldn’t have come without the knowledge of the General Staff. They authorized all operations.
I hadn’t had the opportunity to share this like I am now, and I was scared they would murder me too. But since the Attorney General summoned me, I gladly came.”
Just as in each previous testimony, the military’s defense attorneys smirked and whispered when they heard Sol use the word “guerilla”.
“The examination clearly shows what happened. He says they had a grotesque confrontation for eight hours. As a soldier, that’s very significant. The military force in El Mozote was enormous,” said lawyer Roberto Girón Flores after the hearing. “After an eight-hour confrontation, how many bodies were left? Where are those bodies buried? Where are the children, women and elderly who fell in those firefights?”
After hearing Sol describe the confrontation, Girón Flores tried to attribute all of the deaths to that event. But his conclusion is faulty: the witness said that there was a confrontation before entering the village and described how, at the time of the executions, the victims were unarmed.
While it was the first time during the trial that a witness described confrontations with the guerillas before the executions of civilians, the information is not new. In 1991, Tutela Legal (Spanish for “legal guardian”), a plaintiff organization in the case, claimed in 1991 that on December 10, 1981, members of the first company of the Atlacatl Battalion “sustained combat with the guerrillas in the place known as El Portillón, in Arambala” under the command of the same Captain Méndez Rodríguez. Sol’s words confirm that account.
Girón Flores is the defense attorney for Colonel Natividad Cáceres, commanding officer of Atlacatl at the time of the massacre, and two other defendants: General Carlos Cáceres Flores and Colonel Luis Landaverde Barrera. A few weeks ago, Girón Flores and his firm failed in an attempt to file a countersuit against the judge of the El Mozote case.
The defense showed drastically different strategies in its treatment of Juan and Sol. They were harsh with Juan, leading the witness to divulge information in the cross-examination that he had not at first. For example, in response to questions from defense attorney Rodolfo Garay Pineda, Juan recounted that he had “worked with United States advisors” and that they had trained him. Garay Pineda asked him if he remembered the anthem of the Atlacatl Battalion, in an attempt to sow doubt about his membership in the unit. The witness said he did not remember it.
In contrast, nobody grilled Sol. “There are already so many inconsistencies in the claims about my client that it’s not worth asking further questions,” explained Fernando Godínez, attorney for Major Godínez Castillo. Another defense attorney, Néstor Pineda, said that “any inconsistency is in our favor because it contributes to a reasonable doubt in favor of the accused.”
Sol said that Atlacatl had nine companies, even though in 1981 it had six. For prosecutor Julio César Larrama, this type of contradiction “is not substantive and does not discredit the testimony.” Larrama is the chief of the prosecutor’s office that investigates war crimes. “We acknowledge that it was a place of frequent conflicts. But it’s clear that at the time of the executions, the conflict had ended. They weren’t armed at the time of their execution,” said Larrama.
David Morales, plaintiff and former human rights attorney, said that Sol’s account of helicopters landing when the army had already taken El Mozote coincides with Tutela Legal’s 1991 report and with the expert analysis of Terry Karl, who is on record in the case. To Morales, the fact of the helicopters “directly involves Guillermo García and Rafael Flores Lima,” former Defense Minister and former chief of the General Staff, respectively.
At 8:59 in the morning, one minute before the time the attorneys has been summoned, defense attorney Néstor Pineda presented a brief to try to suspend the hearing. Lawyer Rodolfo Garay Pineda protested the application of the new laws to the case, like those protecting victims and witnesses, for a case that began in 1990. Lisandro Quintanilla made a commotion in arguing that the protected witnesses should, in fact, be considered coparticipants in the massacre, thereby testifying as part of a plea bargain. The judge ruled Pineda’s brief inadmissible and rebuffed the petitions of Quintanilla and Garay.
The moment that the military, and now their attorneys, had tried to avoid for so long has arrived. 38 years later, the soldiers have begun to testify against their superiors.
*Translated by Roman Gressier