Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

Page 5 of 12

"They were very abusive," Rufina says. "We couldn't do anything. They had all these guns. We had to obey." Some of the soldiers took down names as others went along the lines demanding to see people's hands and pulling from their fingers any rings they saw, then ordering them to turn over their jewelry and crucifixes and anything else that might have some value.

The people of El Mozote lay there in the street, their faces in the dust, the children sobbing, for a long time. The soldiers yelled, strode back and forth, aimed their weapons at them. "We thought that they were going to kill us all -- that we were sentenced to die right there," Rufina says.

But finally the soldiers ordered them to get up. As the people of El Mozote climbed unsteadily to their feet, the soldiers barked out an order: they were to go back into their houses, the soldiers said, and not let "even so much as their noses" poke out the door.

The people, terrified, grateful to be alive, hurried into their houses -- crowded into them, for virtually every room in the hamlet held extra people. Now the wailing of children made the houses seem smaller still. No one slept. Outside, the men of the Atlacatl shouted and laughed and sang songs, punctuating the hilarity with celebratory bursts of gunfire. Rufina and her husband, packed into a house with two other families, struggled to calm their children. "They were hungry, and we had no food to give them," she says. "We were going to kill a chicken to feed them, but as soon as we lit a candle the soldiers yelled at us from the street to put out the light. Our children were scared, and hungry, and the littlest ones were messing all over themselves, and we couldn't even take them outside to clean them."

So they huddled inside in the darkness, listening anxiously to the laughter, starting up each time it was cut by a burst of automatic fire, and all the while trying to soothe the children. "The saddest thing was that the children were crying and we could do nothing for them," Rufina says. Soon everything would be all right, their parents assured them -- soon they would be safe.

Perhaps the parents began to believe it themselves. After the terror of that evening, after feeling the earth against their faces and the gun muzzles at their necks, Rufina and her husband prayed that they had seen the worst, that the soldiers would leave the next day. "We were thinking that because they hadn't killed us yet, maybe they wouldn't," Rufina says. After all, no one had really been harmed, and, even if the promises of Marcos Díaz's officer friend had been worthless -- well, the people here had never had trouble with the Army. The people knew that they weren't guerrillas, and the soldiers, despite their angry shouting, must know it, too.

As the people of El Mozote huddled in their dark houses, down at Osicala, the base camp of the operation, south of the Torola River, the officers were taking stock. The first stage of the operation -- the convergence of the Atlacatl companies on El Mozote, the capture of the hamlet and its people -- had gone well.

"The first phase was over," an officer involved in the operation told me. "All the unit commanders came to Osicala to talk it over. I was heading for the mess hall, and I bumped into" -- he named a major who at that time was a key figure in military intelligence -- "and he said to me, 'Look, we might need you tomorrow. Be ready.' " Then the major gave the younger officer a rundown of the situation. "He said, 'You know, the first phase is over, the units have gone through and done what they've had to do, and now it's just a question of going in there and interrogating those people' -- you know, like P.O.W.s. I asked him if there had been any guerrillas there, and he said, 'No, they're gone. But we might need you. We have people to interrogate. We have maybe six hundred people altogether.' "

That was a lot of people to interrogate. "If I had gone in there," the officer told me, "I would have expected to spend two or three days, considering all the people they had."

The two men stood there for four or five minutes while the major briefed the younger man on the sort of information they wanted to get out of the prisoners. "Basically, we were looking for the guerrillas' means of support -- how they were getting their food, and so on. We'd stopped a lot of their communications, but we wanted to know their logistics, how they were getting their supplies, what their routes were, and so on. Especially, we wanted to know who it was they'd infiltrated" -- into the Army itself -- "and who was selling them arms. We had evidence that there was considerable selling of arms from the Army at that time -- I mean, you could ask three and four times what a weapon was worth, and these people would pay it, and many of the soldiers couldn't resist that. There was selling of information as well. All our operations were being leaked. Everyone wanted to make a buck -- that was the game."

Other officers passed by as the two men talked. That the first phase had been completed, that the Atlacatl had seized El Mozote and now held its population prisoner -- that much was widely known among the officers at Osicala that night. "My impression was that the plan was to spend the next day interrogating these people," the officer told me. "And apparently that was the major's impression as well. But the next day he never called me. And by that night everyone knew that something had happened."

While it was still dark, the soldiers came to Rufina's door and began pounding on it with the butts of their rifles. "Salgan!" they shouted once again. "Get out here!" The families were hustled outside. "We wanted to give our children food," Rufina says, "but they said, 'No, get out to the plaza.' "

All around, the people were emerging from the houses; the soldiers pushed them along roughly, and in the darkness they stumbled over the ground and bumped against one another. "Form lines!" the soldiers shouted. "Men and older boys over here! Women and children over there!"

Soon all the people of El Mozote were lined up in the plaza. The soldiers ordered them not to move. They stood for hours. The children, having had no food and no rest, sobbed and fussed; the mothers tried to quiet them. The soldiers, unlike the evening before, said little. "They just marched up and down the lines looking real mean and ugly, not saying anything," Rufina says. And so the sun rose on the people of El Mozote that Friday.

Around seven, they heard the sound of a helicopter approaching. As it hovered overhead, the soldiers began herding the people from the plaza. The men were ordered into the church, a small whitewashed building adjacent to the even smaller sacristy; the women and children were crowded into the house of Alfredo Márquez, a small building on the main street a few feet from the larger house of Marcos Díaz and directly opposite the church and the sacristy.

Looking out a window of the tightly crowded house -- well over a hundred women and children had been forced into a space meant for perhaps a dozen -- Rufina saw the helicopter touch down in the plaza and half a dozen officers climb out. She saw several of them, accompanied by soldiers of the Atlacatl, stride to the church, where the men were being held. The others came marching to the house where she was, and pushed through the door into the packed, noisy room.

"They had bayonets on their guns, and they used them to push the women back," Rufina says. "They said we were collaborators. They were angry. They kept asking us where our pistols were, where the men had hidden our guns, and when we kept saying, again and again, that we didn't have any, they'd push at us with the bayonets. Then they'd say, 'Shut up, old woman, what are you crying about?' They said they'd kill us if we didn't tell them."

After only a few minutes, the officers strode out, leaving soldiers to guard the door. Around this time, the helicopter lifted off, taking at least some of the officers along.

Now the women began to hear shouting from the church. "We could hear them yelling -- the men," Rufina says. "They were screaming, 'No! No! Don't do this to us! Don't kill us!' "

When she heard the screams, Rufina, who together with her children had been sitting on a bench with her back to the front wall of the house -- the wall facing the church -- climbed up on the bench so that she could look out a small window high up in that wall. Through the window she saw soldiers leading groups of men from the little whitewashed church -- blindfolded men whose hands were bound behind them. Each pair of soldiers led five or six men past the house of Alfredo Márquez and took them out of the hamlet in various directions. After a time, she saw her husband in one group, and as she watched, along with young Cristino, who had climbed up next to her, eager to see what was happening, they both saw him -- Domingo Claros, twenty-nine-year-old woodcutter, husband of Rufina and father of Cristino, María Dolores, Marta Lilián, and María Isabel -- bolt forward, together with another man, in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. But there was nowhere to run. The men of the Atlacatl levelled their M16s and brought both men down with short bursts of fire. Then the soldiers strode forward to where the men lay gasping on the ground, and, unsheathing their machetes, they bent over them, grasped their hair, jerked their heads back sharply, and beheaded them with strong blows to the backs of their necks.

"I got down from the bench and I hugged my children to me," Rufina says. "My son was crying and saying over and over, 'They killed my father.' I was crying. I knew then that they were all being taken away to be killed. I just hugged my children to me and cried."

While the officers had been questioning the women, other officers and soldiers were interrogating the men in the church. "Many of the men were bound, blindfolded, and forced to lie face down on the ground while they were interrogated," according to the Tutela Legal report (which was evidently compiled with the coöperation of at least one soldier who had been present). "The soldiers would step on their backs and pull their heads back by their hair until they screamed in pain." For all their brutality, however, the interrogations of the men appear to have been almost as perfunctory as those of the women. The officers devoted scarcely an hour to questioning the hundreds of supposed collaborators, which makes it difficult to believe that they really expected to acquire useful intelligence from the people of El Mozote.

At about eight o'clock, "various of the men who had been gathered in the church were lifted off the ground and decapitated with machetes by soldiers," according to the Tutela report. "The soldiers dragged the bodies and the heads of the decapitated victims to the convent of the church, where they were piled together." It must have been at this point that the women in the house across the street began to hear the men screaming.

Decapitation is tiring work, and slow, and more than a hundred men were crammed into that small building. After the initial beheadings -- it is unclear how many died inside the church -- the soldiers began bringing the men out in groups, and it was from one of the first of the groups that Domingo Claros had attempted to escape.

While Rufina huddled with her children in the crowded house, mourning her husband, other women climbed up on the bench beside her and peered out the small window. From here, they, too, saw the soldiers taking groups of men from the church and marching them off in different directions.

Outside the hamlet, on a hill known as El Pinalito, the guides from Perquín waited in the company of several corporals -- the officers had ordered them to stay there, lest they become confused with the townspeople during the operation -- and throughout the morning the guides watched the soldiers pass. "I saw them marching along groups of maybe ten each," one guide told me. "They were all blindfolded, and they had their hands tied behind their backs. Then we would hear the shots, the bursts from the rifles." Out in the forest, the soldiers forced the men to the ground and ordered them to lie flat, with their faces against the earth, as they had lain, with their families, the evening before. Then the soldiers lowered their M16s and fired bursts into each man's brain.

"All morning, you could hear the shots, the crying and the screaming," Rufina says. In the house of Alfredo Márquez, some of the children had become hysterical, and no one knew how to calm them. Cristino begged his mother tearfully to take them out of the house, lest they be killed, as he had seen his father killed. Rufina could do nothing but point helplessly to the guards and try to calm him. None of the women had any idea what would happen next. "We just cried and hugged one another."

Around midday, a group of soldiers came into the house. "Now it's your turn, women," one of the soldiers said. They were going to take the women out now in groups, the soldier explained, and then, he said, the women would be free to go to their homes, or down to Gotera, or wherever they liked.

With that, the soldiers began picking out, one by one, the younger women and the girls, and pulling them toward the door. "The girls would hang on to their mothers, and the soldiers would come in and just grab them from their mothers," Rufina says. "There was a lot of screaming and shouting. Everyone was screaming, 'No! No! Don't do this!' But the soldiers would hit the mothers with the butts of their rifles, and they would reach behind and grab the girls and pull them along with them."

From the house of Alfredo Márquez, the soldiers marched the group of young women and girls -- some of them as young as ten years old -- out of the hamlet and up onto the hills known as El Chingo and La Cruz. Before long, the women in the house could hear screams coming from the hills.

The guides, on El Pinalito, nearby, also heard the screaming. "We could hear the women being raped on the hills," the Perquín man told me. "And then, you know, the soldiers would pass by, coming from there, and they'd talk about it. You know, they were talking and joking, saying how much they liked the twelve-year-olds."

In the midst of this, one or perhaps two helicopters -- accounts differ, as they do about many details of the story -- touched down in the plaza in front of the church, and a number of officers climbed out. From his vantage point on the hill, the guide says, he recognized the distinctive figure of an officer he had seen several times before: Colonel Jaime Ernesto Flores Grijalba, the commander of the Third Brigade, in San Miguel, who was widely known as El Gordo (the Fat Man). Among the officers accompanying Colonel Flores was one famous figure, a small but charismatic man whom the soldiers of the Atlacatl proudly pointed out to the guide: Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, their beloved commander.

The officers, having been received at their helicopter by Major Cáceres and the company captains, were escorted to a house not far from the church, and disappeared inside. After some time, during which the killings went on around El Mozote -- and also in the adjacent hamlet of Tierra Colorada, where patrolling Atlacatl troops had begun shooting people they found hiding in the houses -- the officers strolled out onto the common, climbed back into their helicopter, and lifted off from El Mozote.

Around this time, the soldiers returned to the house of Alfredo Márquez. "I was still sitting on the bench with my kids," Rufina says. "When they came back, they began separating the women from their kids. They pulled the mothers away, leaving the children there crying. They took one group of women and then in a while they came back and took another. That was the saddest thing -- little by little, the mothers disappeared, and the house became filled mostly with crying children."

Rufina found herself in one of the last groups. "It must have been five o'clock. There were maybe twenty of us. I was crying and struggling with the soldiers, because I had my baby on my chest. It took two soldiers to pull the baby from me. So when I came outside into the street, I was the last in the group. I was crying and miserable, and begging God to help me."

The soldiers marched the women down the main street. They passed the house of Marcos Díaz on the right and, on the left, that of Ambrosiano Claros, where Rufina and her family had spent the previous night. Ambrosiano Claros's house was in flames. "I saw other houses burning, and I saw blood on the ground. We turned the corner and walked toward the house of Israel Márquez. Then the woman at the head of the line -- we were in single file -- began to scream. She had looked through the door and seen the people in the house."

What the woman had seen was thick pools of blood covering the floor and, farther inside, piles of bloody corpses -- the bodies of the women who only minutes before had been sitting in the house with them, waiting.

"The first woman screamed, 'There are dead people! They're killing people!' and everyone began screaming. All down the line, the women began resisting, hugging one another, begging the soldiers not to kill them. The soldiers were struggling with them, trying to push the first women into the house. One soldier said, 'Don't cry, women. Here comes the Devil to take you.' "

Rufina, still at the end of the line, fell to her knees. "I was crying and begging God to forgive my sins," she says. "Though I was almost at the feet of the soldiers, I wasn't begging them -- I was begging God. Where I was kneeling, I was between a crab-apple and a pine tree. Maybe that was what saved me. In all the yelling and commotion, they didn't see me there. The soldier behind me had gone up front to help with the first women. They didn't see me when I crawled between the trees."

The crab-apple tree -- which still stands, next to the ruin of Israel Márquez's house, as gnarled and twisted an old crab apple as one can imagine -- was within about fifteen feet of the house. "I couldn't move, couldn't even cry," Rufina says. "I had to remain absolutely still and silent. The whole group was still outside the house -- the women grabbing one another and hugging one another and trying to resist. Soon, though, the soldiers pushed some of them into the house. I couldn't see inside, but I started hearing shots and screams."

Finally, when the screams and the gunfire had stopped, some of the soldiers went off. A few minutes later, they returned, pushing along the last group of women, and now Rufina heard the sequence -- the cries of terror, the screaming, the begging, and the shooting -- all over again. After a time, those sounds ceased. In the sudden silence, scattered shooting and fainter screams could be heard echoing from the hills. A few feet from where Rufina lay hidden behind the tree, nine or ten soldiers laid down their guns and collapsed wearily to the ground.

"Well, all these old bastards are dead," one said to somebody farther off. "Go ahead and burn the house."

It was growing dark, and soon flames were rising from the house of Israel Márquez, highlighting the soldiers' faces and the trunk of the tree. It grew so hot that Rufina began to fear that the tree would catch and she would be forced to run. She had remained perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe, and her legs had begun to fall asleep. And the soldiers, still close enough to touch, remained where they were, smoking cigarettes and watching the fire.

"We'll just stay here and wait for the witches of Mozote to come out of that fire," one said.

The soldiers watched the fire and talked, and Rufina, frozen in her terror a few feet away, listened. "Well, we've killed all the old men and women," one said. "But there's still a lot of kids down there. You know, a lot of those kids are really good-looking, really cute. I wouldn't want to kill all of them. Maybe we can keep some of them, you know -- take them with us."

"What are you talking about?" another soldier answered roughly. "We have to finish everyone, you know that. That's the colonel's order. This is an operativo de tierra arrasada here" -- a scorched-earth operation -- "and we have to kill the kids as well, or we'll get it ourselves."

"Listen, I don't want to kill kids," the first soldier said.

"Look," another said. "We have orders to finish everyone and we have to complete our orders. That's it."

At about this time, up on the hill known as El Pinalito, Captain Salazar was shrugging off a guide's timid plea for the children's lives. "If we don't kill them now," he said angrily, "they'll just grow up to be guerrillas. We have to take care of the job now."

Next page