A United States military advisor, Sergeant Major Allen Bruce Hazelwood, was in Morazán with Coronel Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, during the El Mozote massacre in December of 1981. This revelation from expert witness Terry Karl, given on Monday, April 26 during pretrial hearings in El Salvador, expands the known scope of U.S. involvement in the Salvadoran civil war and the reasoning behind the United States covering up the massacre perpetrated by the Salvadoran Army.
According to Karl, a Stanford political scientist and internationally recognized expert on human rights violations during the Salvadoran civil war, the omission until this week of the role of Hazelwood in public accounts of the massacre owes to a “sophisticated cover-up” orchestrated by the Reagan administration and the civil-military junta which ruled El Salvador at the time. “Had [Hazelwood’s presence at El Mozote] come to light at the time, it would have cut off United States aid,” said Karl, adding: “The participation of an advisor in wartime activities is against our laws, and it was illegal at the time.”
Between December 11 and 13 of 1981, the Salvadoran Army deployed almost an entire elite battalion to El Mozote and seven nearby cantons in northern Morazán, killing 978 unarmed civilians. Most of them, 533, were children. 477 of those children were under 12 years old, and 248 under six. For years the governments of El Salvador and the United States denied that the massacre had occurred. Later, they questioned the identities of the victims in suggesting they were guerrillas. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights pronounced the Salvadoran state guilty of the crime.
Monterrosa’s Atlacatl Battalion was an elite commando unit directly dispatched by the High Command. 'The main idea at the time was that it was a unit not bound to a specific territory,' Karl explained, contrasting with other units of the Armed Forces consigned to the various departments across El Salvador. 'Atlacatl was the first military unit to be able to rapidly deploy, but also connected to the top [of the chain of command] because it wasn't tied to a specific brigade.'
Hazelwood — also identified in some parts of Karl’s report as Hazelton — “was known as one of the best sources for the United States for information regarding a segment of the [Salvadoran] officer corps that distrusted the United States,” wrote Karl in the first version of her expert report prepared for the El Mozote case, dated April 2019, and reviewed by El Faro. A 2018 documentary on the Dutch television network Zembla identified Hazelwood as having inside knowledge of the plot of Coronel Mario Reyes Mena to murder four Dutch journalists in 1982. Karl suggests that the same could have been true in the case of El Mozote, especially when taking into account the deep trust, according to reports, that Hazelwood and Monterrosa shared.
“The documents and sworn statements suggest that Hazelton could have been aware beforehand of what was to come, though there is no implication that he supported the decision of the Salvadoran officers to kill civilians in any of these cases,” reads Karl’s report.
Two representatives of the U.S. Embassy were present for the first day of Karl’s testimony. “The United States supports the trial of the massacre at El Mozote,” said Jonathan Lloyd, the embassy’s political attaché. “We’re supporting the rule of law and an independent trial here in El Salvador, and we believe that efforts to guarantee accountability for human rights violations are important for ensuring justice for the victims,” he said, without referring to the presence of a U.S. military officer during the massacre.
“I Won’t Say He Didn’t Order It”
Karl’s sworn testimony is part of the discovery phase of the El Mozote trial, and will form the basis of evidence presented during the trial. She first traveled to El Salvador in 1981, and has since conducted research on human rights violations during the Salvadoran civil war through official documents, academic work, and direct interviews. Over the past four decades, she has interviewed dozens of political, social, and military figures, from across the political spectrum, who were central to the war — from Major Roberto D’Aubuisson to members of the guerrilla, also including U.S. diplomats and military officers intimately involved in the country’s affairs in recent decades.
She’s also an expert on the 12,000 documents on the El Mozote massacre written by civil society groups, international human rights organizations, and the United States and Salvadoran governments. “I think I’ve read them all,” said. In recent years she has also offered testimony in other major cases against civil war abuses: the U.S. trial of Captain Saravia for the murder of Archbishop Óscar Romero; the Jesuit massacre case in Spain; and the U.S. trials of former defense ministers Guillermo García, the highest-ranking official accused in the Mozote case, and Eugenio Vides Casanova for torture.
The final report Karl submitted to the court is dated in 2020. Hers is the second session of expert testimony in the case since the testimony of Argentinian anthropologists in August of 2018, and she’s the first U.S. citizen to testify.
Shortly after the audience began on Monday, the judge granted a short recess upon the request of the military’s high-powered defense attorney, Lisandro Quintanilla. Just days before the hearings resumed, Quintanilla, one of the defense attorneys who requested the recusal of Judge Jorge Guzmán, motioned unsuccessfully to have the audience postponed. “They always throw up obstacles,” said Rosario Sánchez, a survivor of the massacre in the canton of La Joya who was present in the courtroom. Her nephew, Amadeo Sánchéz, added: “All my life.” The Sánchez family lost 24 relatives in the massacre.
On Tuesday, in the second portion of her expert testimony, Karl opened by discussing the role of clandestine U.S. weapons, funding, and disgruntled Vietnam veterans working as mercenaries in El Salvador — particularly with the Atlacatl Battalion — to 'fight communism.'
As the C.I.A. and military attachés began to fear a guerrilla victory over the Armed Forces, they ramped up clandestine support for the Battalion, Karl elaborated. 'It was all under the table, as well as the financing,' said Karl. 'The mercenaries were also hard-liners in their way of thinking. The commandos talked about the need to kill civilians, an idea not in the periphery but shared by the mercenaries.'
These preliminary hearings took place in the middle of the defense lawyers legal onslaught against Judge Guzmán, who is facing two requests that he recuse himself. If one of those requests succeeds, the hearings will be canceled and the process left in limbo.
The El Mozote case, as with the rest of the country’s judicial cases, were delayed in 2020 because of the pandemic. The last hearing with actual testimony took place in January of 2020, in which one of the accused, General Juan Rafael Bustillo, admitted that something “awful” took place in El Mozote, and that the massacre was a “moment of madness” from Monterrosa. The case is now in its final phase of the initial hearing, in which the judge will decide if there is sufficient evidence to begin a formal trial, with the possibility of a prison sentence for the implicated officials.
For months, as part of his investigation, Judge Guzmán has tried, without success, to access the archives of the Salvadoran Army. His efforts included a public standoff with President Nayib Bukele in September and October of last year. During that period, the Army, on at least five occasions, refused to carry out a judicial order to allow him to inspect their offices and archives.
This backdrop underscores the importance of Karl’s testimony, which by Tuesday night had spanned ten hours. The attorneys have yet to even begin asking her questions.
One of the pieces of evidence that Karl presented about Bruce Hazelwood’s role in the massacre was a statement from Aryeh Neier, who was director of Human Rights Watch, then known as America’s Watch, in 1982. In an interview given in 2019, Neier told Karl that Elliot Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, complained to him about a January 11, 1982 New York Times article written by Raymond Bonner, in which he described the participation of an American advisor in a torture session that took place in El Salvador. Abrams denied that there was an advisor at the torture session, but he said to Neier, “I’d like to be able to say the same about El Mozote.” He was referring to Hazelwood.
The revelation about the presence of U.S. advisor Hazelwood bears, more than just historical importance, specific judicial importance. One of the objectives of the prosecution and the victims’ lawyers in the trial is to specify the individual responsibility of the accused Salvadoran officials. Karl’s testimony is a key part of those efforts, especially due to the interview Hazelwood gave to the United Nations Truth Commission in 1992, increasingly pertinent following the revelation of his presence at the time and place of the massacre.
According to the document presented by Karl, Hazelwood said in the interview that “[Colonel Domingo] Monterrosa was in the barracks when the operation began on the day of the massacre, but went out into the field because ‘things’ were still happening,” and that Colonel Natividad Cáceres Cabrera “began the murders.” Finally, about the military decision to carry out the operation in El Mozote on December 11, 1981, he said, “I won’t say that Monterrosa didn’t order it.”
The Importance of the Coverup
Karl detailed the cover-up plan that was put in place after the massacre, explaining how it made it difficult to get to the truth about what happened. “In the Mozote case, more than in any other case except for the Jesuits Massacre, there was an intense cover-up because it took place during such an important moment,” she said. On January 28, 1982, President Ronald Reagan certified before Congress that El Salvador had made strides in terms of the Army’s reduction of abuses and violations of human rights. He justified an enormous flow of military aid to El Salvador’s Armed Forces. Just one day earlier, the Washington Post and the New York Times had published articles about the massacre.
In 1981, the U.S. Embassy heard rumors about what happened in Morazán, and Ambassador Deane Hinton sent two people in his charge to investigate: a young official, Todd Greentree, and Vietnam War veteran John McKay, who had experience in guerilla warfare. “Something horrible happened here,” McKay wrote in his report.
According to Karl, even though they were sent on a mission to disprove that a massacre had taken place, they concluded that it, in fact, had. In their report they also documented the cover-up and the systematic intimidation the Salvadoran Army engaged in: “We did not obtain cooperation from the Salvadoran Army, and the soldiers were with us the whole time so we couldn’t do interviews with people who were obviously traumatized,” they wrote.
“Greentree and McKay had gathered circumstantial evidence to support what villagers had told the Washington Post and New York Times,” journalist Raymond Bonner writes in his book, Weakness and Deceit. “Greentree and McKay concluded “there had been a massacre.” Bonner was one of two journalists, along with Alma Guillermoprieto, who first revealed the massacre to the world.
Despite internal reports, the official line of the U.S. Embassy was that the massacre was “pure FMLN propaganda,” according to Karl. “I can’t say that Reagan knew, but a lot of people in government did know what had happened,” she said in her testimony. Karl explained that, during the 1980s, El Salvador was “the most important country in terms of foreign policy for the United States.”
Karl summarized the first day of her testimony with six conclusions.
One, that the Salvadoran Army made Morazán its principal target because it feared the formation of an FMLN rearguard stronghold. Two, there was an extermination strategy that did not differentiate between combatants and civilians. Three, the high command, including the minister and vice minister of defense, along with the army chief of staff, were responsible for the military strategy, with the chief of staff being responsible for operational tactics. Four, the officer corp ordered, coordinated, carried out, and covered up the massacre. Five, an operation like the El Mozote Massacre, which included the participation of a third of the Armed Forces, only could have been carried out with the direct participation of the high command and the chief of staff. Six, officials in Morazán directly transferred the kill orders to the troops.
*Translated by John Washington and Roman Gressier.