Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

In a remote corner of El Salvador, investigators uncovered the remains of a horrible crime -- a crime that Washington had long denied. The villagers of El Mozote had the misfortune to find themselves in the path of the Salvadoran Army's anti-Communist crusade. The story of the massacre at El Mozote -- how it came about, and why it had to be denied -- stands as a central parable of the Cold War.

by Mark Danner

Heading up into the mountains of Morazán, in the bright, clear air near the Honduran border, you cross the Torola River, the wooden slats of the one-lane bridge clattering beneath your wheels, and enter what was the fiercest of El Salvador's zonas rojas -- or "red zones," as the military officers knew them during a decade of civil war -- and after climbing for some time you take leave of the worn blacktop to follow for several miles a bone-jarring dirt track that hugs a mountainside, and soon you will find, among ruined towns and long-abandoned villages that are coming slowly, painfully back to life, a tiny hamlet, by now little more than a scattering of ruins, that is being rapidly reclaimed by the earth, its broken adobe walls cracking and crumbling and giving way before an onslaught of weeds, which are fuelled by the rain that beats down each afternoon and by the fog that settles heavily at night in the valleys. Nearby, in the long-depopulated villages, you can see stirrings of life: even in Arambala, a mile or so away, with its broad grassy plaza bordered by collapsed buildings and dominated, where once a fine church stood, by a shell-pocked bell tower and a jagged adobe arch looming against the sky -- even here, a boy leads a brown cow by a rope, a man in a billed cap and bluejeans trudges along bearing lengths of lumber on his shoulder, three little girls stand on tiptoe at a porch railing, waving and giggling at a passing car.

But follow the stony dirt track, which turns and twists through the woodland, and in a few minutes you enter a large clearing, and here all is quiet. No one has returned to El Mozote. Empty as it is, shot through with sunlight, the place remains -- as a young guerrilla who had patrolled here during the war told me with a shiver -- espantoso: spooky, scary, dreadful. After a moment's gaze, half a dozen battered structures -- roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush -- resolve themselves into a semblance of pattern: four ruins off to the right must have marked the main street, and a fifth the beginning of a side lane, while an open area opposite looks to have been a common, though no church can be seen -- only a ragged knoll, a sort of earthen platform nearly invisible beneath a great tangle of weeds and brush.

Into this quiet clearing, in mid-October last year, a convoy of four-wheel drives and pickup trucks rumbled, disgorging into the center of El Mozote a score of outsiders. Some of these men and women -- most of them young, and casually dressed in T-shirts and jeans and work pants -- began dumping out into the dust a glinting clutter of machetes, picks, and hoes. Others gathered around the hillock, consulted clipboards and notebooks and maps, poked around in the man-high brush. Finally, they took up machetes and began to hack at the weeds, being careful not to pull any, lest the movement of the roots disturb what lay beneath. Chopping and hacking in the morning sun, they uncovered, bit by bit, a mass of red-brown soil, and before long they had revealed an earthen mound protruding several feet from the ground, like a lopsided bluff, and barely contained at its base by a low stone wall.

They pounded stakes into the ground and marked off the mound with bright-yellow tape; they stretched lengths of twine this way and that to divide it into quadrangles; they brought out tape measures and rulers and levels to record its dimensions and map its contours. And then they began to dig. At first, they loosened the earth with hoes, took it up in shovels, dumped it into plastic pails, and poured it onto a screen large enough to require several people to shake it back and forth. As they dug deeper, they exchanged these tools for smaller, more precise ones: hand shovels, trowels, brushes, dustpans, screens. Slowly, painstakingly, they dug and sifted, making their way through the several feet of earth and crumbled adobe -- remnants of a building's walls -- and, by the end of the second day, reaching wood-beam splinters and tile shards, many now blackened by fire, that had formed the building's roof. Then, late on the afternoon of the third day, as they crouched low over the ground and stroked with tiny brushes to draw away bits of reddish dust, darkened forms began to emerge from the earth, taking shape in the soil like fossils embedded in stone; and soon they knew that they had begun to find, in the northeast corner of the ruined sacristy of the church of Santa Catarina of El Mozote, the skulls of those who had once worshipped there. By the next afternoon, the workers had uncovered twenty-five of them, and all but two were the skulls of children.

Later that afternoon, the leaders of the team -- four young experts from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit, who had gained a worldwide reputation for having exhumed sites of massacres in Guatemala and Bolivia and Panama and Iraq, as well as in their own country -- piled into their white four-wheel-drive vehicle and followed the bumpy, stony road out of El Mozote (the Thistle). Slowly, they drove through Arambala, waving to the smiling little girls standing on their porch, and out onto the calle negra -- the "black road" -- which traced its way up the spine of the red zone, stretching north from the city of San Francisco Gotera to the mountain town of Perquín, not far from the Honduran border. At the black road, the Argentines turned left, as they did each evening, heading down to Gotera, but this time they stopped in front of a small house -- a hut, really, made of scrap wood and sheet metal and set among banana trees some fifteen yards from the road. Getting out of the car, they climbed through the barbed wire and called out, and soon there appeared at the door a middle-aged woman, heavyset, with high cheekbones, strong features, and a powerful air of dignity. In some excitement, the Argentines told her what they had found that day. The woman listened silently, and when they had finished she paused, then spoke.

"No les dije?" she asked. ("Didn't I tell you?") "Si sólo se oía aquella gran gritazón." ("All you could hear was that enormous screaming.")

For eleven years, Rufina Amaya Márquez had served the world as the most eloquent witness of what had happened at El Mozote, but though she had told her story again and again, much of the world had refused to believe her. In the polarized and brutal world of wartime El Salvador, the newspapers and radio stations simply ignored what Rufina had to say, as they habitually ignored unpalatable accounts of how the government was prosecuting the war against the leftist rebels.

In the United States, however, Rufina's account of what had happened at El Mozote appeared on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, at the very moment when members of Congress were bitterly debating whether they should cut off aid to a Salvadoran regime so desperate that it had apparently resorted to the most savage methods of war. El Mozote seemed to epitomize those methods, and in Washington the story heralded what became perhaps the classic debate of the late Cold War: between those who argued that, given the geopolitical stakes in Central America, the United States had no choice but to go on supporting a "friendly" regime, however disreputable it might seem, because the alternative -- the possibility of another Communist victory in the region -- was clearly worse, and those who insisted that the country must be willing to wash its hands of what had become a morally corrupting struggle. Rufina's story came to Washington just when the country's paramount Cold War national-security concerns were clashing -- as loudly and unambiguously as they ever would during four decades -- with its professed high-minded respect for human rights.

In the United States, the free press was not to be denied: El Mozote was reported; Rufina's story was told; the angry debate in Congress intensified. But then the Republican Administration, burdened as it was with the heavy duties of national security, denied that any credible evidence existed that a massacre had taken place; and the Democratic Congress, after denouncing, yet again, the murderous abuses of the Salvadoran regime, in the end accepted the Administration's "certification" that its ally was nonetheless making a "significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights." The flow of aid went on, and soon increased.

By early 1992, when a peace agreement between the government and the guerrillas was finally signed, Americans had spent more than four billion dollars funding a civil war that had lasted twelve years and left seventy-five thousand Salvadorans dead. By then, of course, the bitter fight over El Mozote had largely been forgotten; Washington had turned its gaze to other places and other things. For most Americans, El Salvador had long since slipped back into obscurity. But El Mozote may well have been the largest massacre in modern Latin-American history. That in the United States it came to be known, that it was exposed to the light and then allowed to fall back into the dark, makes the story of El Mozote -- how it came to happen and how it came to be denied -- a central parable of the Cold War.

In the weeks that followed the discovery of the skulls of the children, as each day's work at El Mozote yielded up a fresh harvest, the initial numbers came to seem small. But in San Salvador, five hours by road to the west, where President Alfredo Cristiani and the generals and the guerrillas-turned-politicians were struggling with one another about how to put in place, or not put in place, a purge of the officer corps, which was proving to be the most difficult provision of the ten-month-old peace accord -- struggling, that is, over what kind of "reconciliation" would come to pass in El Salvador after more than a decade of savage war -- the first skulls of the children were enough to provoke a poisonous controversy. Those twenty-three skulls, and the nearly one hundred more that were uncovered in the succeeding days, were accommodated by the nascent Salvadoran body politic in two ways. Members of human-rights groups (those members, that is, who had survived the war), along with the politicians of the left (many of whom had been guerrillas shortly before), hailed the discovery as definitive evidence that a matanza -- a great killing -- had taken place in Morazán, and that what they had been saying for eleven years had at last been proved true. Members of the government, on the other hand, and various military officers found themselves forced to concede that something had indeed happened in Morazán, but they insisted that the situation was more complicated than it appeared. Dr. Juan Mateu Llort, the director of El Salvador's Institute of Forensic Medicine, declared that the skulls themselves proved nothing, for "there were an abundance of armed children in the guerrillas." El Diario de Hoy, an influential right-wing daily, published a reconstruction according to which guerrillas had "barricaded themselves in what seemed to have been a religious center and from there opened fire on the troops, making the deaths of children, women and old people possible." President Cristiani's government, already under attack for stalling in the dismissal of senior officers, maintained its position that no records existed of any Army operation in Morazán in early December of 1981.

And yet on the ninth day of that month any reader of La Prensa Gráfica, one of San Salvador's major dailies, could have learned that "all the highways with access to Gotera and the other towns in the Department of Morazán are under strict military control ... No vehicles or individuals are permitted to enter the zones of conflict in order to avoid accidents or misunderstandings ... Neither was the entry of journalists or individuals permitted." The Department of Morazán had been sealed off from the rest of the country. Four thousand men, drawn from the security forces -- the National Guard and the Treasury Police -- and from regular units of the Salvadoran Army, were hard at work. The area north of the Torola River, the heart of the red zone, was alive with the thud of mortars, the clatter of small-arms fire, and the intermittent roar of helicopters. Two days before, Operación Rescate -- Operation Rescue -- had begun.

Many of the towns and villages were already empty; during and after Army operations of the previous spring and fall, thousands of peasants had left their homes and begun a long trek over the mountains to the Honduran border and refugee camps beyond. Of those who remained, many made it a practice, at the first sign of any Army approach, to leave their villages and hide in the caves and ravines and gullies that honeycombed the mountainous region. But El Mozote was crowded; in the days before Operation Rescue, people from the outlying areas had flooded into the hamlet.

"Many people were passing by the house, saying, 'Come on, let's go to El Mozote,' " an old peasant named Sebastiano Luna told me as he stood behind the yellow tape, watching the experts bent low over the brown earth of the sacristy of Santa Catarina. Between their feet lay an expanse of dark rubble, a miniature landscape of hills and ridges and valleys in every shade of brown. It took a moment or two to distinguish, among the dirty-brown hillocks, the skulls and parts of skulls, each marked with a bit of red tape and a number; and, beneath the skulls and skull fragments and the earthen rubble, scores of small brown bundles, heaped one on top of another, twisted together, the material so impregnated with blood and soil that it could no longer be recognized as clothing.

Amid the rubble in the northeast corner of the tiny room that had been called el convento (though it was really a kind of combined sacristy and parish house, in which an itinerant priest, when he visited the hamlet, would vest himself, and sometimes, perhaps, stay the night), a dark-haired young woman in denim overalls was kneeling. She slowly drew a small bundle toward her -- it had beenlabelled No. 59 -- and began, with almost agonizing gentleness, extracting the brown bits and placing them on a sheet of cardboard. "Left tibia, fragments only," she sang out in a low monotone. "Vertebrae, one, two, three ... six of them ... Tibia, left, I think ... Metacarpals ..."

Now she disentangled the bits of ruined fabric: "Belt of brown leather, metal buckle ... Pants, light in color, with patches of blue and green color in the posterior part ... In the pants pocket ... ah ... um ..." The strong voice took an odd slide downward and stopped. Over her shoulder, I saw her staring at something in her palm, then heard her swear in a low voice: "Hijo de puta!" She turned and opened her hand to reveal a tiny figure: a little horse of bright-orange plastic. No. 59 had been a lucky child, had had a family prosperous enough to provide a lucky toy.

After a moment, the anthropologist Mercedes Doretti said, "Ordinarily, we could use this for identification. I mean, even after eleven years, any mother would recognize this as her kid's, you know?" She looked back at No. 59 and then at the brown rubble. "But here, here they killed all the mothers, too."

Behind the yellow tape, Sebastiano Luna and his wife, Alba Ignacia del Cid, stood silent amid a knot of peasants, watching. They had walked from their small house, several miles outside El Mozote, where the dirt track joins the black road. Eleven years before, in early December, scores of people were passing by their house, pulling their children along by the hand, laboring under the weight of their belongings. "Come with us!" they had called out to the old couple. "Come with us to El Mozote!"

The afternoon before, the people of El Mozote had gathered, some fifty yards from the church, in front of the general store of Marcos Díaz, the richest man in town. He had summoned the townspeople, neighbors and customers all, and when they had assembled -- perhaps a couple of hundred of them, the men in caps and straw hats and the women in bright-colored skirts, holding children in their arms -- Marcos Díaz addressed them from his doorway. He had just come up the mountain from his regular buying trip to San Miguel, he said, and as he was waiting at the checkpoint in Gotera, at the entrance to the red zone, an officer in the town had greeted him -- Marcos Díaz, an important man, had friends among the officers -- and then pulled him aside for a little talk. Díaz would do well to stock up, the officer said, for soon the Army would launch a large operation in Morazán, and "nothing and no one" would be permitted to enter or leave the zone. But his friend Díaz needn't worry, the officer assured him. The people of El Mozote would have no problems -- provided they stayed where they were.

In the street that day, these words of Marcos Díaz's set off a debate. Some townspeople wanted to head for the mountains immediately, for the war had lately been coming closer to the hamlet; only the week before, a plane had dropped two bombs near El Mozote, damaging its one-room school, and though no one had been hurt, the people had been terrified. "A lot of people wanted to leave -- there was a lot of fear," Rufina Amaya said when I visited her a year ago. "And a few people did leave. My godfather left, with his family. My children were crying. They said, 'Mama, let's go.' " But Marcos Díaz, a man of influence, had put his prestige on the line, and he insisted that his neighbors would be safe only if they stayed in their homes -- that if they left the hamlet they and their families risked being caught up in the operation. "That was the lie," Rufina Amaya told me. "That was the betrayal. Otherwise, people would have left." In the end, Marcos Díaz's prestige decided the issue. Though the debate went on that afternoon and into the following morning, most of the people of El Mozote finally accepted his assurances.

They had seen soldiers before, after all; soldiers often passed through on patrol and sometimes bought supplies in El Mozote. Only the month before, soldiers had come during an operation and occupied El Chingo and La Cruz, two hills overlooking the town, and though the people of El Mozote could hear mortars and scattered shooting in the distance, the soldiers had not bothered them. In the crazy-quilt map of northern Morazán in 1981, where villages "belonged" to the government or to the guerrillas or to neither or both, where the officers saw the towns and hamlets in varying shades of pink and red, El Mozote had not been known as a guerrilla town. "The Army spent a lot of time around here," Rufina told me. "We all sold them food. If the soldiers were looking to find guerrillas, that was fine with us, because we didn't have anything to do with them. And the guerrillas knew about our relations with the Army."

The guerrillas knew, the soldiers knew: northern Morazán during the early eighties was a very small world, in which identity, or the perception of identity, often meant the difference between living and dying. That El Mozote in late 1981 was not a guerrilla town is a fact central to Rufina's story and lies at the heart of the mystery of what happened there; and though it is a fact -- one that almost everyone from the zone affirms -- it seems to have nonetheless been a slightly more complicated fact than Rufina makes out. As in many other communities in northern Morazán, the people of El Mozote were struggling to keep their balance in the middle of the perilously shifting ground of a brutal war -- were working hard to remain on friendly terms with the soldiers while fearing to alienate the guerrillas. Joaquín Villalobos, who was the leading comandante of the People's Revolutionary Army (or E.R.P.), the dominant guerrilla group in Morazán, told me flatly during an interview last year in his headquarters in San Salvador that the people of El Mozote "would not support us" -- only to concede twenty minutes later that his fighters had, at least on some occasions, bought supplies in the hamlet. "They had the lowest level of relationship with us -- only the very slightest commercial one," Villalobos said. Licho, a rebel commander who had grown up in Jocoaitique, a few miles from El Mozote, acknowledged to me during an interview in Perquín that in the late seventies "some from El Mozote had been our supporters," but that long before 1981 these supporters "had come along with us, they were with us." He added quickly, "The people who were still in El Mozote were afraid of us."

But the reason, apparently, was not only their fear -- the frank terror that many villagers in the zone felt about exposing themselves to Army retribution -- but their ideology. The guerrillas' support in Morazán had grown largely in soil made fertile by the work of Catholic liberation theology, but El Mozote had been uniquely unreceptive to such blandishments, for the hamlet was a stronghold of the Protestant evangelical movement. People had begun to convert as early as the mid-sixties, and by 1980 it is likely that half or more of the people in El Mozote considered themselves born-again Christians; the evangelicals had their own chapel and their own pastor, and they were known -- as were born-again Christians throughout Central America -- for their anti-Communism. "Everyone knew there were many evangelicals in El Mozote, and these people wouldn't support us," Licho told me. "Sometimes they sold us things, yes, but they didn't want anything to do with us."

So, unlike many other hamlets of Morazán, El Mozote was a place where the guerrillas had learned not to look for recruits; instead, a delicate coexistence had been forged -- an unstated agreement by both parties to look the other way. The guerrillas passed by El Mozote only at night, and when they did, Rufina says, "the people would hear the dogs barking and they'd be afraid." She remembers seeing guerrillas only once in daylight: a few ragged young people, unarmed and wearing civilian clothes, had come into the hamlet and tried to hold a meeting in the tiny church of Santa Catarina. Rufina didn't attend, nor did most of the other townspeople. "I remember people saying, 'Don't get involved. Let's just live and work and not get involved.' People just didn't want anything to do with it. I had four children to look after. You're worrying about feeding your family, and you try not to pay attention to these other things."

And so when Marcos Díaz brought his news from Gotera, when he conveyed the strong words of the officer and presented the choice as one of leaving the town and risking "getting involved" in the operation or of staying put and remaining safe, there was never much doubt about what the people of El Mozote would in the end decide. That very afternoon, at Marcos Díaz's urging, people began fanning out from the hamlet into the outlying districts to spread the word that one and all should come to El Mozote, and quickly, for only there would they be protected. Marcos Díaz helped matters along by letting it be known that he would offer on credit as much food and other supplies as the newcomers needed. Peasants poured into the hamlet, occupying every bit of space. "All the rooms in Marcos Díaz's house were filled with people," Rufina recalls. "Every house had people staying there from outside." Even the common in front of the church was crowded with people, for the few houses could not accommodate them all.

" 'Come to El Mozote' -- that's what everyone was saying," the old peasant Sebastiano Luna told me. He and Alba Ignacia del Cid had stood in front of their house, had watched the people pass. But they had decided not to go. "I had half an idea something bad might happen," Sebastiano said. "So I told her" -- nodding to his wife -- " 'You, you go if you want to. I'm staying.' " "And I," said Alba, "I said, 'No, no, I won't go without you, because they'll ask me where my husband is. They'll say he's not here because he's a guerrilla and then they'll kill me. Either we both go or we both stay.' " So Sebastiano and Alba hid in the mountains above their house. They saw soldiers pass by, and saw a helicopter hover and descend. And later they saw thick columns of smoke rising from El Mozote, and smelled the odor of what seemed like tons of roasting meat.

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