To say the words “El Mozote” in El Salvador is to conjure up an event that is at once concrete and obscure—an atrocity whose basic facts are well known and documented in grisly detail, but whose motivations and architects have remained stubbornly obscure, or unaccountable. Legal proceedings currently underway hope to finally change that, and clarify one of the darkest chapters of El Salvador’s gruesome war. It’s been a decades-long, rocky process with starts and stops, constant obfuscation, a state apparatus that’s at best ambivalent, and tired, elderly survivors who have watched their ranks thin under the inexorable pressure of time. Yet they are still in court, seeking redress. “This is a disgrace for the judicial system, because there’s no justice,” Juan Bautista, a survivor, said in 2017 testimony.
The basic facts are these: between December 10 and 13, 1981—around two years into El Salvador’s long and brutal civil war—soldiers from the elite, U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion descended on the village of El Mozote and several other sites in the northeastern department of Morazán and systematically tortured, raped, and executed nearly one thousand civilians, more than half of them children.
There had been signs of a developing military operation, so people had actually congregated in El Mozote and surrounding towns and villages to avoid the danger. Many of the survivors were men who had left to hide, incorrectly believing that the soldiers would not harm their families. After the killings, soldiers set fire to the homes and many of the bodies. A structure known as the convent, adjacent to El Mozote’s church, was found to contain the charred remains of 143 people, all but a handful of them young children.
The troops were there as part of a broader deployment known as the Rescue Operation, which was overseen by the Third Infantry Brigade and which itself remains shrouded in secrecy, though it was likely an attempt to target encampments of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrilla at war with the government.
Earlier that year, a separate operation in the same department had turned out catastrophically for the military, and high-ranking officials suspected that the local population was broadly sympathetic to the FMLN. At base, it’s a story that played out with depressing frequency among armed internal conflicts throughout Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century: a dispossessed, often agrarian population caught in the crossfire and targeted by a sadistic security apparatus in its moments of impotence. Often, that security apparatus was funded, trained, or armed by the United States.
The tragedy is transnational, with shared responsibility. The United States did not make the Salvadoran military massacre those people, but it certainly facilitated it. The tactical Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalions (BIRIs), of which Atlacatl was the first, were created directly under the supervision of the United States, and many of their soldiers and officers were trained at the infamous School of the Americas, then located in Panama.
A report prepared by the nonprofit Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in 1992 noted that 245 spent shell casings were recovered at the convent—where about 140 children were slaughtered and set on fire—of which 184 bore recognizable markings identifying the bullets as having been manufactured for the U.S. government in Lake City, Missouri. All but one bullet was fired from an M16 assault rifle, standard issue for the U.S. military.
It wasn’t just the training and equipment, but the sense that the might of the United States was adamantly behind them. The military was emboldened by the steadfast support of Ronald Reagan, who viewed them as a dam holding a reservoir of regional communism at bay. This, too, is a familiar story: a war between a landed elite and its failed plutocratic leadership and an armed and fed-up segment of its constituency being immediately deemed a proxy for a greater global conflict, justifying any possible countermeasures. This was one of the war’s most infamous atrocities, but by no means the only one. Nor was El Salvador the only country in which the anti-communist zeal led the United States to ignore or actively foment crimes against humanity.
“The U.S. starts becoming involved in the months before El Mozote and starts taking a larger and larger role right around that time,” said Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a lawyer and professor at the U.C. Hastings College of Law who has researched and written about the massacre. “What happens in between is the change between the Carter and the Reagan administration, and Reagan is, you know, full throttled support for the Salvadoran military.”
There are indications that the U.S. embassy in El Salvador knew pretty quickly that civilians had been killed in and around El Mozote, that there hadn’t been crossfire in the area between the military and the FMLN, and that they weren’t being given the full story by the Salvadoran government. However, no action was taken until simultaneous front-page stories, in The New York Times and The Washington Post on January 27, 1982, brought the killings to the attention of the U.S. public and lawmakers. The stories were published just two days before the administration was required to certify to Congress that El Salvador was observing human rights, or risk closing the security aid spigot.
Faced with the possibility that its activities in the country would be curtailed by a wary Congress, the Reagan administration chose to launch a now-infamous full-court press to discredit the reporters and news organizations that had reported on the crimes and prevent a thorough inquiry into what had taken place. In testimony to policymakers, officials—including Elliot Abrams, now Trump’s special representative to both Iran and Venezuela—deliberately took unreliable Salvadoran government information at face value and insisted that reported details of the massacre were communist propaganda.
Efforts at accountability were even less impressive in El Salvador, where despite ample evidence of the crimes committed there was no official attempt to investigate until 1990, when a complaint by a survivor opened a criminal investigation before the San Francisco Gotera Court of the First Instance. Much of the investigative and legal work was done by victims’ lawyers and private entities like the human rights legal team at the office of the Archbishop of San Salvador and nonprofit forensic investigators, with government prosecutorial personnel taking a pretty lax approach.
A 1992 peace accord between the FMLN and the government created a United Nations Truth Commission to examine claims of atrocities committed during the war. Relying on both the forensic examinations being conducted for the criminal trial and its own interviews with witnesses and review of the available documentation, the commission presented a report to the U.N. Secretary General in March 1993, which concluded that the massacre had taken place as the victims had described and blasted the government for failing to investigate, as well as for interfering in the ongoing inquiry. It specifically called out the president of the Supreme Court of Justice, Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro, for having “interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.”
Just five days later, the prospect of even a glimpse of accountability was disintegrated as the country’s legislature approved a general amnesty law that broadly prevented prosecution for any crimes related to the civil war. The criminal investigation was promptly closed, leaving only international bodies to continue their examinations. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a decision painstakingly documenting the atrocities at each site and finding El Salvador responsible, mandating reparations for the victims and making a series of other recommendations. That same year, then-President Mauricio Funes formally issued a public apology for the massacre.
Nonetheless, the possibility that the full truth would ever come out seemed to peter completely until 2016, when the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber declared that the 1993 amnesty law was unconstitutional. The reversal cleared the way for the criminal investigation to reopen in September 2016. The next year, the first batch of alleged perpetrators were formally charged in the investigation, including retired generals Juan Rafael Bustillo Toledo, José Guillermo García, and former joint chiefs leader Rafael Flores Lima.
The strategy of the military high command and the Salvadoran state has mostly involved pleading a mixture of ignorance and powerlessness: they didn’t know, it wasn’t ordered by the higher-ups, their subordinates were acting alone, it was actually the FMLN who either made them do it or did it themselves. In the face of now-overwhelming forensic evidence that the massacre took place and was conducted by Atlacatl soldiers, the defense has settled on a convenient scapegoat: hanging the entire ordeal around the neck of now-deceased officers, mainly Atlacatl commander Domingo Monterrosa, who died in a 1984 helicopter explosion. Last July, the accused generals claimed that now-dead members of the military junta were the real masterminds. As the saying goes, dead men tell no tales.
The claim that certain officials were acting in isolation and defying military protocol is, on its face, an absurd one. The assault involved coordination between several Salvadoran military units, with the Third Battalion overseeing the Rescue Operation, which also included troops from the San Francisco Gotera Command Training Center and required the cooperation of the Air Force for aerial bombardments that preceded the murders. “At one point they go up to the border and they have the Hondurans come down to the border to keep people from crossing. You can't do that without a plan. That's not something that you do spontaneously on the spur of the moment. It's not something that a local captain can take into his own hands,” said Roht-Arriaza.
The massacres happened over several days, during which commanders would have had to be aware of their soldiers’ movements, and they may have needed to be resupplied and transported. Monterrosa was supposedly spotted arriving in a helicopter at one point, and helicopters were carrying other officers around. The evidence of a state-sanctioned crime is not just about what happened over those calamitous days in December 1981, but what happened later. “Their careers were never negatively impacted by this. They continued their ascent through the ranks, without any indication that this was problematic to anybody in high places,” said Roht-Arriaza. Two former Atlacatl soldiers, who were allowed to remain anonymous as protected witnesses, have thus far named several specific officers on the ground as having been aware of and tasked with implementing orders that came from above.
In a perfect information landscape, the path of the orders and their originators would be easy to establish, even if no one was stupid enough to put the war crime directives in writing. Orders for troop movements and coordination, documents about ammunition expended and resupplies, and other such military records would go a long way towards establishing who knew what and when, and who gave the orders. Indeed, presiding Judge Jorge Guzmán has brought on a number of archivists and documentary experts to untangle the records’ significance and help substantiate clear culpability. The trouble is, the relevant records have by and large not been handed over.
The Struggle to Remember
This is the crux of the ongoing proceedings, and a battle that has been going on for thirty years. Ever since the criminal process began in 1990, successive administrations and military leaders have variously claimed that documents related to the operation were never created, were subsequently destroyed, simply cannot be found, or cannot be turned over. The latest denial came just last month. Despite the fact that President Nayib Bukele had said in November 2019 that the government would hand over “A to Z,” his administration claimed no responsive records existed just later that month.
The records sought don’t just pertain to the massacre itself, but to operations and human rights violations throughout the war. Dr. Terry Karl, a Stanford professor and longtime expert on violence in Central America who is serving as a sworn expert in the trial, said that the events of El Mozote can best be understood in the context of the totality of war planning and policy. “The documentation of everything prior to this as a part of understanding, because it's all the same leadership,” she said.
This June, Judge Guzmán ordered the government to allow the technical experts to personally conduct inspections at several military archives and installations to look for documents. In late August, a representative of the government claimed that some of the documents sought were secret and couldn’t be revealed without endangering national security, an argument that the judge dismissed as absurd.
There is another transnational quirk to these proceedings in that many experts suspect the United States has a trove of relevant documents it hasn’t turned over. The security coordination between the Salvadoran military and U.S. advisers was closely intertwined. “In my view, there's more information in the United States about what happened in El Salvador than there is in Salvador,” said Karl. A series of declassifications by former President Bill Clinton shed some light, but the judge is demanding that agencies throughout the government, including the CIA and the Department of Defense, turn over additional classified documents.
In this, Judge Guzmán has had support from some U.S. lawmakers, who have tied foreign aid to assisting with the investigation and pressured the Pentagon into turning more material over. It’s a last-ditch effort to gather more information before the case moves to a trial phase, which is expected to happen later this year. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking; Lima, one of the indicted generals, died in July. There are questions about how the court procedures will be run, as the penal code changed during the time that the investigation was closed. The legal wrangling over how the proceedings themselves are handled could lead to further delays.
There is also the specter of a new amnesty law; a measure that tied a reparations program to new protections from prosecution for the perpetrators was passed by the National Assembly but vetoed by President Bukele. The legislature could try again, and Bukele has given mixed signals as to his commitment to a full investigation. Survivors were pleased by the veto and by his decision to strip Monterrosa’s name from the Third Battalion’s barracks. Nonetheless, he’s been less than forthcoming with the documents, and has exhibited his own concerning authoritarian tendencies.
Meanwhile, both witnesses and the accused, many now quite elderly, keep dying. Yet even with the uncertainty that the perpetrators will ever truly be made to answer for their crimes, a full accounting is important for El Salvador and its future. “Knowing that this came from the top is still something that is not universally understood. The massacre itself, people do know about and they'll tend to kind of shake their heads and go, ‘Oh, that was horrible. What a horrible thing to do,’” said Roht-Arriaza. “But that this was part of a pattern, was part of a plan, that this is what they did in order to win this war, that's not universally understood. And I think that would make a difference.”