Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

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Four miles south of El Mozote, outside the hamlet of La Guacamaya, the guerrillas of the People's Revolutionary Army also awaited the soldiers. From their agents in the capital, they knew that large shipments of American munitions had been arriving at Ilopango Airport, and that truckloads of troops had begun moving along the Pan-American Highway toward Morazán. On December 1st, Jonás, the most powerful comandante in the zone, had pulled aside Santiago, the director of the E.R.P.'s clandestine Radio Venceremos, and informed him that "an operation of great breadth, named Yunque y Martillo" -- Hammer and Anvil -- was being planned. Santiago recalls that "intelligence sources within the Army itself" had passed on a report of a key meeting at the High Command. According to the source's reconstruction, the Minister of Defense, Colonel José Guillermo García, declared to his officers that Operation Rescue must "wrest the offensive from the F.M.L.N." -- the guerrilla umbrella group, of which the E.R.P. was one of five members. His Vice-Minister, Colonel Francisco Adolfo Castillo, added that the troops "must advance no matter what the cost until we reach the command post and Radio Venceremos." Then Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, the dynamic commander of the élite Atlacatl Battalion, broke in, agreeing wholeheartedly that "so long as we don't finish off this Radio Venceremos, we'll always have a scorpion up our ass."

Colonel Monterrosa, who at the time was the most celebrated field commander in the Salvadoran Army, was well known to have an obsession with Radio Venceremos. He was not alone: the station, which specialized in ideological propaganda, acerbic commentary, and pointed ridicule of the government, infuriated most officers, for its every broadcast reminded the world of the Army's impotence in much of Morazán. Even worse, the radio managed to be funny. "They actually acted out this daytime serial, like a soap opera, with Ambassador Hinton in it," a United States defense attaché of the time recalls. "They'd call the Ambassador 'this gringo who is marrying a Salvadoran woman' " -- Deane Hinton was about to marry a woman from one of the country's wealthy families -- "and at the end they'd say, 'Tune in again tomorrow.' And you couldn't do anything about it. Most people at the Embassy, including the Ambassador, wanted to hear it." The mortified Salvadoran officers maintained that the broadcasts originated in Nicaragua or Honduras.

Colonel Monterrosa was mortified by Radio Venceremos as well, but, unlike his colleagues, he had determined, in his rage and frustration, to do something about it. For Monterrosa, as American military advisers had come to realize, was a very different kind of Salvadoran officer. By late 1981, with Congress and the American public having shown themselves resolutely opposed to dispatching American combat forces to Central America, it had become quite clear that the only way to prevent "another Nicaragua" was somehow to "reform" the Salvadoran Army. "We were on our last legs," an American military adviser who was in the country at the time told me. "We had to reform or we were going to lose. And it wasn't because the guerrillas were so good; it was because the Army was so bad." Salvadoran troops were sent into the field virtually untrained, soldiers rarely left the barracks after five o'clock in the afternoon, and officers rarely left the barracks at all. "The institution simply did not support people being good commanders," this adviser said. "I mean, who ever got relieved? You could surrender with eighty-five men and nothing at all would happen to you."

As the Americans soon realized, however, "reform" meant remaking an officer corps that had developed its own, very special criteria for advancement and reward. These had to do not with military competence but with politics: with showing unstinting loyalty to "the institution" and, above all, to one's military-academy class -- one's tanda, as it was called. A hundred teen-age boys might enter the Gerardo Barrios Military Academy, and from their number perhaps twenty toughened, hardened men would emerge four years later; throughout the next quarter century, these men would be promoted together, would become rich together, and would gradually gain power together. If among them there proved to be embarrassing incompetents, not to mention murderers and rapists and thieves, then these men were shielded by their classmates, and defended ferociously. Finally, perhaps two decades after graduation, one or two from the tanda -- those who had stood out early on as presidenciables, as destined to become leaders of the country -- would lobby within the officer corps to become the President of El Salvador.

Monterrosa had graduated in 1963, and though the records show him fourth in his class of nineteen, it is a testament to the respect he inspired that many officers now remember him as first. In the academy, he was a magnetic figure, charismatic from the start. Short, with the simple face and large nose of a Salvadoran peasant, he walked with the peasant's long, loping stride, which made his distinctly nonmartial figure recognizable from far off. General Adolfo Blandón, a former chief of staff, who was in his last year in the academy when Monterrosa was in his first, recalls that the young man "established himself immediately as the best in his class -- the top rank in studies, physical conditioning, knowledge of the concepts of war."

Normally, of course, such prestige, such respect from his colleagues, would brand him presidenciable. But, unlike his fellows, Monterrosa was, as Blandón puts it, "that rare thing: a pure, one- hundred-per-cent soldier, a natural leader, a born military man with the rare quality of being able to instill loyalty in his men."

In the years after his graduation, Monterrosa taught at the academy, took courses from the Americans in Panama, travelled to Taiwan to study anti-Communist counter-insurgency tactics, and served in the paratroops as part of El Salvador's first free-fall team. After the controversial elections of 1972, in which a hard-line faction of the military stole the ballot from what looked to be a winning Christian Democratic ticket, led by San Salvador's Mayor José Napoleón Duarte, Monterrosa grew close to the new military President, Colonel Arturo Molina.

In the Army at this time, the key focus was on politics, and the struggle over El Salvador's stunted political development increasingly split the country, and the officer corps. By the late seventies, after Molina had given place to General Carlos Humberto Romero, in another dubious election, the situation had become even more polarized. On the far left, several tiny guerrilla groups were kidnapping businessmen, robbing banks, and, on occasion, assassinating prominent rightist leaders. Activists on the moderate left, having been denied an electoral path to the Presidential Palace by the Army's habitual ballot tampering, joined populist forces in organizing vast demonstrations, and managed to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The security forces generally responded to these demonstrations with unflinching violence, shooting down scores, and sometimes hundreds, of Salvadorans.

Within the Salvadoran officer corps, the country's political crisis had reopened a political fault line that had spread apart periodically throughout the century. Back in 1960, a faction of "progressive" officers had staged a coup, but it had been quickly reversed by a conservative counter-coup; in 1972, when Duarte's victory was stolen by conservative officers, the progressives attempted another, with the same result. Finally, in October of 1979, with at least tacit American support, a group of young "reformists" who called themselves the juventud militar -- the "military youth" -- overthrew General Romero and set in his place a "progressive" junta, which included politicians of the left. As had happened two decades before, however, the conservatives in the Army almost immediately regained the upper hand, and now, under cover of a more internationally acceptable "reformist" government, they felt free to combat the "Communist agitation" in their own particular way -- by intensifying the "dirty war" against the left.

The most visible signs of the "dirty war" were mutilated corpses that each morning littered the streets of El Salvador's cities. Sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless, their features having been obliterated with a shotgun blast or an application of battery acid; sometimes limbs were missing, or hands or feet chopped off, or eyes gouged out; women's genitals were torn and bloody, bespeaking repeated rape; men's were often found severed and stuffed into their mouths. And cut into the flesh of a corpse's back or chest was likely to be the signature of one or another of the "death squads" that had done the work, the most notorious of which were the Union of White Warriors and the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade.

The latter was named for a general who had taken over the country in 1931, during a time of rising leftist agitation among the peasantry, and had responded the following year with a campaign of repression so ferocious that it came to be known simply as La Matanza. Throughout the western part of the country, where an abortive rebellion had been centered, members of the National Guard, along with civilian irregulars, lined peasants up against a wall and shot them. Before the purge was over, they had murdered well over ten thousand people.

Now rightist officers who proudly counted themselves heirs of Martínez determined to root out this new leftist infection with equal thoroughness. Drawing on money from wealthy businessmen who had moved to Miami to avoid kidnapping or assassination, and benefitting from the theoretical guidance of ideological compatriots in neighboring Guatemala, the officers organized and unleashed an efficient campaign of terror in the cities. The campaign intensified dramatically after the "progressive" coup of October, 1979. By the end of the year, monthly estimates of the dead ranged as high as eight hundred.

Against the urban infrastructure of the left -- the network of political organizers, labor leaders, human-rights workers, teachers, and activists of all progressive stripes which had put together the enormous demonstrations of the late seventies -- this technique proved devastating. "These people weren't organized militarily, which is what made them so easy to kill," William Stanley, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, told me in an interview in San Salvador. As the repression went on, month after month, it became less and less discriminating. "By the end, the killing basically outran the intelligence capability of the Army and the security services, and they began killing according to very crude profiles," Stanley said. "I remember, for example, hearing that a big pile of corpses was discovered one morning, and almost all of them turned out to be young women wearing jeans and tennis shoes. Apparently, one of the intelligence people had decided that this 'profile' -- you know, young women who dressed in that way -- made it easy to separate out 'leftists,' and so that became one of the profiles that they used to round up so-called subversives."

Some civilians were certainly involved, particularly on the funding end, but there can be no doubt that the "dirty war" was basically organized and directed by Salvadoran Army officers -- and no doubt, either, that the American Embassy was well aware of it. "There was no secret about who was doing the killing," Howard Lane, the public-affairs officer in the Embassy from 1980 to 1982, told me in an interview. "I mean, you formed that view within forty-eight hours after arriving in the country, and there was no secret at all about it -- except, maybe, in the White House." In public, the fiction was resolutely maintained that the identity of the killers was a mystery -- that the corpses were the work of "rightist vigilantes." This campaign of lies was designed in part to accommodate the squeamishness of the Administration in Washington, which had to deal with growing concern in Congress about "human-rights violations," particularly after several notorious cases, including the murder, in March of 1980, of Archbishop Oscar Romero while he said Mass; the rape and murder, the following December, of four American churchwomen; and the assassination, in January of 1981, of the head of the Salvadoran land-reform agency and two of his American advisers.

On the evening of December 1, 1981, Santiago, the director of Radio Venceremos, after learning from Jonás, the comandante, about the coming operation, set out on foot from the guerrilla base at La Guacamaya, four miles south of El Mozote. As darkness fell, Santiago hiked east over the hills and through the gullies, crossed the Río Sapo, and climbed down into a heavily forested ravine at El Zapotal. Here, dug into a rock niche half a dozen feet underground, was the "studio" of Radio Venceremos, which consisted of a small transmitter, an unwieldy gasoline generator, assorted tape recorders, microphones, and other paraphernalia, and a flexible antenna that snaked its way up through a forest of brush. Santiago gathered his handful of young staff members, and soon news of the coming operation was broadcast throughout the zone.

Back in La Guacamaya, in a rough encampment in the open air, perhaps two hundred young men and women, outfitted in a motley combination of peasant clothing and camouflage garb, were making preparations. Some cleaned their weapons -- mostly old M1s and Mausers, along with a few captured American M16s. Many of the women bent over smooth flat stones, grinding corn, making the meal that would serve as the company's fuel during the days ahead -- for, confronted with the arrival of thousands of troops, the guerrillas of the E.R.P. were preparing not to fight but to flee.

Mobility and quickness had always been central to the guerrillas' strength, along with their familiarity with the mountain terrain. Like El Salvador's other radical groups, the People's Revolutionary Army had been the brainchild of young urban intellectuals, who had founded the organization in Mexico City in 1972, funded it during the mid-seventies largely by robbing banks and by seizing and ransoming wealthy businessmen, and battled among themselves for its leadership, using high-toned abstract arguments of the left (which more than once deteriorated into violent schism).

"The revolutionary process started in Morazán around 1977 or '78 with the consciousness-raising of Christian 'base communities' led by radical priests," said Licho, the rebel commander, whose parents were campesinos living on the other side of the black road from El Mozote. "We young people would get together and read the Bible and apply it to our own situation, and gradually we became more politically aware." When the young men came of age, the guerrilla leaders often urged them to join the Army -- they had urged Licho to do so -- in order to receive military training and gain firsthand knowledge of the enemy while providing useful intelligence until they could return to their home provinces to take up arms.

By 1980, small groups of young guerrillas were operating throughout northern Morazán, drawing food and support from sympathetic peasants, and launching raids from time to time against the National Guard posts in the towns. They would attack suddenly, kill a few Guardsmen and capture their weapons, then fade back into the bush. After the posts had been reinforced, the Guardsmen responded, as they had done for years, by beating or killing peasants they suspected of having been "infected" with Communist sympathies. This quickened the flow of able-bodied men and women into the mountains. Soon some villages were inhabited almost entirely by old people and mothers and their children. The Guardsmen abandoned some towns completely -- in effect, ceding them to the control of the guerrillas. And the people abandoned other towns, either fleeing to the refugee camps beyond the Honduran border or joining the guerrillas, and thus forming, as time went on, a quasi-permanent baggage train of masas, or civilian supporters. "The people who supported us moved around as our rear guard, providing food and other help," Licho told me. "In some areas, our supporters were in the majority, in others not." The distinction between combatants and noncombatants, never very clear in this guerrilla war, was growing cloudier still.

The Salvadoran High Command had become increasingly alarmed by the situation in Morazán. "The military view the situation in the countryside as critical," the United States Ambassador, Frank Devine, wrote in a 1980 cable. "Many feel there are 'liberated' areas where they dare not operate due to the concentration of leftist-terrorist strength."

In January of 1981, the F.M.L.N. proclaimed a "final offensive" -- the badly equipped guerrillas hoped to provoke a popular insurrection, as the Sandinistas had done in Nicaragua eighteen months before, and to do it in the days just before Ronald Reagan took power in Washington -- but the people did not rise up, and the offensive ended in a costly defeat. After the collapse, hundreds of fighters streamed out of the cities and headed for the mountains. Having failed to overthrow the government, and having seen many of their civilian sympathizers liquidated in the past months by death squads, the guerrillas decided to focus their forces on a full-scale rural insurgency rooted in the northern mountains.

By November, General Fred F. Woerner, whom a worried Pentagon had sent to assess the Salvadoran war, was concluding in a secret report that the situation on the ground had so deteriorated that a primary aim of the Salvadoran Army had now become to "prevent the establishment of an insurgent 'liberated' zone in the Department of Morazán, which could lead to international recognition of the insurgents as a belligerent force." (Three months before, France and Mexico had recognized the F.M.L.N. as "a representative political force.") If the guerrillas were not dislodged from Morazán, the Salvadoran officers feared, they would risk seeing their country split in two.

On December 1, 1981, after Radio Venceremos broadcast word that the Army was coming, people throughout northern Morazán began talking among themselves, arguing, and coming to decisions about what to do next. Hundreds of people assembled outside the guerrilla camp at La Guacamaya, having packed up what tortillas and beans they had, and gathered their children, ready for the hard trek ahead.

On Monday, December 7th, the young men and women of Radio Venceremos began doing what they had practiced many times: rapidly dismantling the components, loading the generator aboard a mule, and hoisting the transmitter, the antenna, and the other equipment on one another's backs. Then they hiked off to join the fighters at La Guacamaya.

Around this time, according to Joaquín Villalobos, representatives of the guerrillas approached El Mozote and attempted to warn the campesinos there. "We always had rear-guard people, political people, behind the lines," he says. "So when the fighting was beginning in the south they advised people in the north to leave the zone." But the people in El Mozote had already made their decision. "Because they had little relation to us, and because they were evangelical, they decided they had little to fear from the Army," Villalobos says. More likely, they had decided, after listening to the words of Marcos Díaz, that the danger would be greater outside the hamlet than within.

"We told them what might happen," Licho says. "But they didn't believe that the Army would do anything to them." Perhaps they regarded the guerrillas' warnings -- those who heard them, that is (Rufina, for one, heard nothing) -- as attempts at recruitment. As the people of El Mozote well knew, in the view of the Salvadoran Army, to go with the guerrillas was to be a guerrilla.

By Tuesday morning, December 8th, the guerrillas at La Guacamaya could hear the sounds of battle, of mortars and small-arms fire, coming, it seemed, from all directions; they knew by now that perhaps four thousand soldiers had entered the zone, that troops had crossed the Torola and were moving toward them from the south, that others were approaching the Sapo from the east. The only way clear had seemed to be to the north, toward the Honduran border; but, even as the Radio Venceremos announcers were putting out their last broadcast, urging the people of the zone to join the guerrilla columns, the guerrillas heard the helicopters approach and saw them pass overhead, carrying the troops of Domingo Monterrosa's Atlacatl Battalion northward, to the mountain town of Perquín.

To reach Perquín from El Mozote, you turn right on the black road and begin to climb. Soon the grade grows steeper, the tropical brush gives place to mountain pine, and the air lightens and grows fresh. Here and there, a bit of sorghum or corn or maguey pokes out from among the trees, but, increasingly, from the red soil of the mountainside only great white rocks grow. The overpowering fragrance of freshly cut pine announces the hamlet of La Tejera and its sawmill, a low building of unstripped logs surrounded by stacks of new planks. Finally, a sign announces Perquín; the road tilts sharply upward and becomes a street of large cobblestones; and, after a few moments' jolting, the traveller comes upon a dramatically uneven town square, which, despite blasted buildings and damaged streets, remains an oddly beautiful, vaguely otherworldly place. At its heart is a bizarre park, which accommodates many wildly slanting levels of green grass, like lopsided terraces on a cultivated but dilapidated hillside. Bordering the park are a yellow-painted clinic, a rough-hewn little hut, and a remarkable church crowned by a bulbous steeple.

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