Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

Page 3 of 12

When Colonel Monterrosa set his helicopter down here in December of 1981, he found a town in government hands, but barely. Only four months earlier, in mid-August, the guerrillas had swept out of the surrounding hills and overwhelmed the local National Guard post, killing four men and capturing five. "There were many young ones, but some really old ones, too," children in Perquín told Alma Guillermoprieto, then a stringer for the Washington Post. "There were eight women. Some of them were in uniforms, but most of them wore raggedy clothes, like us. We knew some of them; they were from this town." The guerrillas had spent a week and a half digging defensive trenches, buying corn from the local coöperative, and marching about the streets shouting "Pueblo libre!" and other slogans. When the Air Force began bombing the city, ten days later, the guerrillas swiftly vanished, fading into the mountains and ravines they knew so well, and leaving behind the four dead men, buried in a bomb crater, and also the civilians who had been there all along -- the civilians who, after playing host to the guerrillas for ten days, now gazed with all innocence into the faces of the National Guardsmen who had taken the places of their dead comrades.

Colonel Monterrosa had thought long and hard about civilians and guerrilla war, about the necessity of counterinsurgency, about the frustrations of the odd and bloody conflict that the overextended Salvadoran Army had been fighting and losing. When the men of his Atlacatl Battalion touched down in Perquín that Tuesday morning in December, storming from helicopters in a crouch, gripping their helmets tightly against the backwash from the rotors, the officers had in their pockets lists of names to hand to the National Guardsmen. While the Atlacatl captains mustered their troops, the Guardsmen marched off through the town and pounded on doors. They were big men, well fed, and they looked even bigger than they were, outfitted in high black boots and uniforms of heavy greenish-brown cloth, with automatic rifles on their backs, and razor-sharp machetes hanging at their belts.

"In those days, if they came to your house to ask you to come with them to 'do something,' you'd end up dead," a Perquín man whom the Guardsmen visited that morning told me. When he heard the pounding and pulled open the door to find the Guardsmen there glowering down at him -- they always glowered, for their business was, and had been since the early days of the century, to induce fear in the countryside and to stamp out rebellion from the moment it revealed itself as a lessening of fear in a campesino's eyes -- this man could only try to control his terror as the Guardsmen stared for a moment, then barked, "Hey, we have work to do! Come with us and help us do it!" The man came outside, watched as one of the Guardsmen ran his finger down the list that Monterrosa's men had handed him, then looked up, exchanged glances with his partner, and murmured, "Ya vamos dándole." ("Now let's get started.") The Perquín man knew what that meant -- the killing was to begin -- and, in a panic, he began to protest, digging an identification card out of his pocket and begging the Guardsmen to look at it carefully. Finally, after a terrible few minutes, he succeeded in convincing these impassive men that the name on the list was not his -- that one of the surnames was different.

Nonetheless, the Guardsmen hustled him along the streets with them, and as they moved through town they pounded on other doors and collected other frightened men. Those men numbered ten by the time they reached a field in front of the clinic, which was a blur of unaccustomed activity: helicopters landing and hovering and departing, and, amid the blast and the roar from the rotors, hundreds of men in green moving about, checking weapons, cinching the straps on their packs, and talking among themselves as officers marched back and forth shouting orders. By then, several hundred of the Atlacatl soldiers had stormed off the helicopters, most of them in olive green, and a few in camouflage garb above black jungle boots. On the shoulders of their uniforms they bore, in white or yellow, the figure of an Indian and the word "Atlacatl" (the name of a legendary Indian warrior who had led the fight against the conquistadores). To a practiced eye, they seemed a somewhat different breed from most Salvadoran soldiers -- more businesslike, grimmer even -- and their equipment was better: they had the latest American M16s, plenty of M60 machine guns, 90-mm. recoilless rifles, and 60- and 81-mm. mortars.

But it wasn't their equipment that made them "the élite, American-trained Atlacatl Battalion" (as press accounts invariably identified them). It was their aggressiveness, their willingness to "do the job": a willingness that the rest of the badly led and badly trained Army generally lacked. In part, perhaps, this aggressiveness was instilled by American trainers -- Special Forces personnel, who, beginning in March, had been coming over from Southern Command, in Panama, to show the Salvadoran recruits how to shoot and how to seize positions. Mostly, though, it came from Monterrosa. Among senior field commanders who in many cases, as one lieutenant put it to me, "don't even own fatigues," Monterrosa seemed a soldier of the classic type: aggressive, charismatic, a man who liked nothing better than to get out in the field and fight alongside his troops. The Salvadoran grunts -- mostly unlettered peasant boys, many of whom had been pulled from buses or off country roads and pressed into service, having received little training and less regard from their officers -- loved Monterrosa for his willingness to get down in the dirt with them and fight. The press loved him, too: not only was he a natural story but he was only too happy to invite reporters to come along with him in his helicopter. And, of course, the Americans loved him as well: Colonel John Cash, a United States military attaché, speaks of "a hot-shot strategist like Monterrosa, whom I'd put up against any American hot shot."

As the war moved decisively to the countryside, the American government was no longer able to deny that it had a major problem on its hands. The Salvadoran officers were showing themselves utterly incapable of fighting a war of rural counter-insurgency. Not only was the Army, with a total of thirteen thousand men facing perhaps a third that many guerrillas, terribly overstretched, but its officer corps was burdened by a byzantine political structure and a perverse system of anti-incentives. The most important commands from the military point of view were from the point of view of most Salvadoran officers the least desirable, and the result was that those posts tended to be assigned to the politically least powerful, and often least talented, members of the officer corps. "The guys in the real combat commands tended to be the total incompetents," Todd Greentree, who was a junior reporting officer in the United States Embassy at the time, told me. "These guys would be sent out there to the end of the line, and they'd spend their days drinking in the cuartel."

Embassy officials recommended, cajoled, and finally urged reassignments, but changes, when they came at all, came only after enormous effort. The explanation was not just the superior political and economic power of the right wing of the officer corps but the fact that the tanda system, in which classmates, no matter what their failings, were fiercely protected, appeared nearly impervious to outside pressure -- including pressure from the Americans, who were now pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the country. As the officers understood only too quickly, the ultimate sanction that the Americans could brandish -- turning off the aid spigot -- threatened to hurt the Americans themselves as much as it would hurt the Salvadorans, since the American fear of a Communist El Salvador taking its place alongside Sandinista Nicaragua had become overriding. Even during the final months of the Carter Administration, this underlying reality became embarrassingly evident, when President Carter, after cutting off aid in response to the murder of the American churchwomen, rushed to restore it only a few weeks later, in the face of the rebels' "final offensive."

Ronald Reagan did not suffer from the same ambivalence. By the fall of 1981, Reagan had removed the outspoken American Ambassador, Robert White; had vowed, through Secretary of State Alexander Haig, to "draw the line" in El Salvador against Communist subversion in the hemisphere; had almost doubled economic aid for El Salvador, to a hundred and forty-four million dollars, and increased military aid, from twenty-six million dollars to more than thirty-five million; and, in November, had begun funding the Nicaraguan Contra fighters as a proxy force against the Sandinista government. By late 1981, the priorities of American policy in El Salvador had become unmistakable.

The Americans had stepped forward to fund the war, but they were unwilling to fight it; it would be left to the Salvadorans to defeat the guerrillas. "The guerrilla always carries his masas into battle with him" was a famous Army saying of the era, a piece of received wisdom from that darkest period of the Salvadoran civil war, and its author was Colonel Monterrosa himself. It was intended not only as a statement of fact but as a general affirmation of principle: in this bloody war, in the red zones, there was really no such thing as a civilian.

A large professional Army would have reoccupied territory and sent out aggressive patrols, all the while doing "political work" in the countryside to regain the loyalty of the people. Indeed, that was part of the rationale behind the search-and-destroy operations. "There are a lot of different names for counter-guerrilla fighting," Colonel Castillo, then the Vice-Minister of Defense, told me in an interview. "Whether they call it Hammer and Anvil, or the Piston, or something else, it's all the same idea -- to try to expel the guerrillas from the zone. After we managed to expel them, they would lose the support of all the people they had indoctrinated."

But in those days, Castillo conceded, the Army "didn't have enough equipment or forces to maintain operations there for a long enough time." The result was that the Army would enter a zone in force; the guerrillas, after a few minor engagements, would flee; and the soldiers, after killing a number of supposed "subversives" (civilians who may or may not have been guerrilla supporters but hadn't been quick enough, or smart enough, to get out of the way), would evacuate the zone, leaving a token force behind -- which the guerrillas, when they flowed back in a few days later, would maul and expel.

The Army's tactic was not effective, and it made for great frustration. "When I arrived here, in June of 1982, the Salvadoran officers used to brag to me that they didn't take prisoners," Colonel Cash, the military attaché, said. "They said, 'We don't want to dignify them by taking prisoners.' They wouldn't even call them prisoners, or guerrillas. They called them terroristas -- delincuentes terroristas." (General Blandón, the former chief of staff, told me, "Before 1983, we never took prisoners of war.") As the guerrillas were reduced to the status of terrorist delinquents, all civilians in certain zones were reduced to the status of masas, guerrilla supporters, and thus became legitimate targets. North of the Torola, for example, it was believed that the civilians and the guerrillas were all mixed together, and were indistinguishable.

By late 1980, the Army had begun the tactic that William Stanley, the political-science professor, refers to as "killing by zone." One of the first such operations took place in October, and began with a staff meeting in Perquín. "Colonel Castillo explained that it was necessary to stop the Communist revolution -- that it was necessary to make an example of this place, so we wouldn't have the same problems in other parts of the country," an officer who had been present at the meeting told me. "He said we must take into account that the great majority of the people here are guerrillas. So the idea was to surround them all, to create this 'hammer and anvil' thing, push all the people down to Villa El Rosario, where a huge artillery barrage would be unleashed. The city would be totally destroyed. We were going to make an example of these people." The brutality of this operation provoked the first major exodus from Morazán, as entire populations fled their villages for the refugee camps in Gotera, or for the camps over the border in Honduras.

Despite the Army's success in taking away the water, however, the fish continued to multiply and grow stronger. In November of 1980, a month after the Villa El Rosario operation, the guerrillas began to receive the first of a number of shipments of small arms from the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua -- "a mixture of fals, M16s, and Uzis," according to Stanley. After the collapse of the "final offensive," in January, the guerrillas also benefitted from a fresh infusion of manpower, including not only the fighters who had fled the cities but a number of important deserters from the Army.

In front of the Perquín health clinic that Tuesday in early December, amid the backwash from the helicopters, the men of the Atlacatl mustered and made ready. The National Guardsmen, who by this time had collected the ten villagers, pushed their reluctant charges forward through the troops until they reached a tall, green-eyed officer in combat fatigues, who was striding about amid the commotion, pointing here and there and issuing orders. One of the Perquín men, who had served in the Army several years before, recognized the officer as Major Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera, a legendary figure: sixth in his academy class, a born-again Christian, a fanatical anti-Communist, and now the executive officer of the Atlacatl Battalion. (Later, his legend grew: as a colonel in command of Chalatenango in 1986, he forced all the residents of that substantial city to "express their desire for peace ... their purity, their soul, and also their cleanliness" by painting the entire city white; and in 1989, on a Salvadoran highway, Cáceres ordered his men to block the convoy of the American Ambassador, William Walker, and, when the Ambassador refused to emerge and offer proof of his identity, threatened to blow up his limousine with antitank weapons.)

On that Tuesday, Major Cáceres looked over the ten men and gestured to five captains who were organizing the companies under their command. "He put two of us with each company," one of the Perquín men told me, "and he said, 'We want you to come with us, to show us the area.' " They had been brought there to serve as guides for the Atlacatl.

Major Cáceres gathered the captains together, gave them pseudonyms to be used over the radio during the operation -- he himself would be known as Charlie -- and issued a few orders. Then the five companies of the Atlacatl moved out, down the mountainside. Everywhere, above the roar of the helicopters, could be heard the thud of mortars and the booming of artillery. "It was a huge operation," the guide from Perquín told me. "There were helicopters and planes and heavy equipment and troops all through the mountains, and they even had animals to cart along some of the guns and ammunition."

As the Atlacatl men set off south from Perquín, hundreds of other soldiers were moving steadily north. Having been deployed as a blocking force along the Torola and Sapo Rivers, to the south and east, and along the black road, to the west, they were now tightening the circle. These units, the hammer of the operation, were meant to push all the guerrillas in the zone up toward the anvil of the Atlacatl and crush them against the best troops the Army had to offer. But, as a lieutenant involved in the operation remarked to me, "you take troops from all over the country and move them up to Morazán in about ninety truckloads, right along the Pan-American Highway -- I mean, you think somebody might notice?"

As Monterrosa's men circled the hills below Perquín, the guerrillas of the People's Revolutionary Army, far to the south, at La Guacamaya, completed their preparations. Confronted with a heavy force blocking the river to the south, and the Atlacatl moving down from the north, the guerrillas would break straight west, punching their way through the military's lines at the black road. That night, some of their train started the trek: long columns of peasants, their belongings, food, and young children bundled on their backs, trudged single file through the mountains, flowing in a vast nocturnal exodus that would carry them over the mountains to the Honduran border.

On the morning of Wednesday, December 9th, while thick mist still carpeted the valleys, the men of the Third Company of the Atlacatl rose in their encampment on a hill called El Gigante, broke camp, and circled back toward the black road. In the hamlet of La Tejera that afternoon, they seized three civilians, two youths and an old man of eighty or more, hustled them along to a field not far from the sawmill, and began interrogating them "very strongly, very brutally," according to the guide from Perquín. The officers accused the men of being guerrillas, demanded to be given the names of their comrades, to be told where they had hidden their weapons. When the men denied the charges, Major Cáceres declared that they would be executed; the killing, he said, would begin here. But then a farmer from the area came forward. The two youths worked for him, he told the Major, and he protested vigorously that they had nothing to do with the guerrillas. One of the guides vouched for them as well, and after a prolonged dispute the men were spared.

This argument over identity, over who was a guerrilla and who wasn't and what constituted evidence one way or the other, would recur during the next two days. Already in La Tejera, officers disagreed about whether the men should have been spared; according to the guide, Captain Walter Oswaldo Salazar, the company commander, reacted angrily when he was told of a comment from another officer that the local people should be treated with respect unless there was evidence that they were guerrillas. "Salazar said, 'No, these are all guerrillas,' " the guide said. "He said the soldiers could go ahead and kill any of them, or all of them." Later that day, according to the guide, Captain Salazar let slip his suspicion that the other officer was in fact a guerrilla himself, and vowed to assassinate him.

This wasn't simply paranoia. "We had tremendous infiltration in the Army at that time," the lieutenant involved in the operation told me. "We knew that certain sales of arms were going to these people, that information was being leaked -- all our operations, all our movements, were being leaked." The overwhelming suspicion that this engendered, together with the growing panic among the officers about the deterioration in the government position, gave the hardest-line officers a decisive upper hand.

"The hard-core guys there really did believe that it was a virus, an infection," Todd Greentree said. "They'd always say 'a cancer' -- you know, 'Communism is a cancer.' And so if you're a guerrilla they don't just kill you, they kill your cousin, you know, everybody in the family, to make sure the cancer is cut out."

These officers, of course, had Salvadoran history on their side. "They had a 'kill the seed' mentality," Professor Stanley told me. "After all, what happened in 1932? To this day, when someone wants to make a threat here, why do they invoke the name of Martínez?" -- the author of the Matanza. "Because he is an icon, that's why. The idea of going out to the zones and killing everyone is not a new idea. It's a proved idea."

Putting that proved idea into practice would become the mission of the Atlacatl Battalion. Hoping to insure that at least one unit of the Salvadoran Army was adequately prepared to fight, the Americans sent Special Forces instructors in early 1981 to train the first recruits of the new Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalion (biri). Yet, as the American advisers well knew, the epithet of "élite, American-trained" that was hung on the Atlacatl by the press was a bit of a joke. "They had no specialized training," one of the original Special Forces trainers told me. "They had basic individualized training -- you know, basic shooting, marksmanship, squad tactics. I mean, the difference was that the Salvadorans basically had no trained units in the country, so this was going to be a unit that would be trained."

Some officials in the Embassy and the Pentagon had wanted the entire unit to be trained in the United States -- and, indeed, later in the year recruits for the second of the biris, the Belloso, would be flown en masse to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But the Atlacatl had something the Belloso didn't: it had Monterrosa. "That the battalion wasn't sent to the United States but was trained by Monterrosa here was in large part a testament to his authority," a contemporary of Monterrosa's told me. "The High Command had been preparing him, grooming him. He had taken all the courses the Americans offered, including those for the paratroopers and the commandos. His ambition became very concrete around the time the Americans decided to direct a major counter-insurgency effort here. When the Atlacatl came along, he jumped at it."

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