Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

Page 10 of 12

One gets a vivid sense from these cables of the frustrating position the Americans had placed themselves in in their dealings with the Salvadoran military. The Salvadorans behave with an arrogance that bespeaks their awareness of their own power. Washington was behind them and they knew it: Why should they comply with these local officials, except in those cases where they absolutely had to?

In the case of El Mozote, it was already clear that they didn't have to. Greentree remembers thinking as he sat in the helicopter on the way back to the capital from Morazán, "If we're really going to get to the bottom of this, there's going to have to be a decision to put a tremendous amount of energy into it, to carry out a more formal investigation, like the ones conducted for the Americans" -- the four churchwomen. "I remember feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with what we came back with. But, if we'd wanted to go any further with it, it would have taken a decision to expend a tremendous amount of effort." No such decision was ever made.

Two days after Greentree's cable arrived at the State Department, Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Enders went up to Capitol Hill. Sitting before the House Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, he set out to defend the President's certification that the Salvadoran government was making a "concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights."

Secretary Enders told Congress that he would make "a coherent attempt to answer the question that you have raised ... are we getting some results." "Results" he would interpret to mean improvement. Thus he would be arguing, in essence, that, however horrendous "the human-rights situation" might now be in El Salvador, the last year had in fact been less horrendous than the year before. The effect of this argument was to shift the ground of the debate. "Previously, it had been 'We think this human-rights thing is important and you don't think it's that important,' " Aryeh Neier, then the director of Americas Watch, told me. "What the Reagan Administration did was embrace the principle of human rights and then conduct warfare over the facts. The fight over El Mozote exemplified this."

The human-rights groups had geared up to fight this new war; Americas Watch, for example, which had been founded only the summer before, issued a book-length study, "Report on Human Rights in El Salvador," on January 26th, two days before the certification was sent up to Congress. For the human-rights groups and for leading Democratic congressmen, as well as for the Administration officials, the fight would center on information and how it was gathered.

"Accurate information," Secretary Enders began. "I think we all have found out that is very hard to establish. The responsibility for the overwhelming number of deaths is never legally determined nor usually accounted for by clear or coherent evidence. Seventy per cent of the political murders known to our Embassy were committed by unknown assailants." As in the cable, the fact that the killers' identities could not be definitively known, though in most cases few doubted who the killers were, was used as a shield -- an excuse to ignore what was known. In the absence of conclusive, undeniable proof, the government would feel free to assert that all was darkness.

"We sent two Embassy officers down to investigate the reports ... of the massacre in Mozote," the Secretary went on. "It is clear from the report that they gave that there has been a confrontation between the guerrillas occupying Mozote and attacking government forces last December. There is no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone, or that the number of civilians remotely approached the seven hundred and thirty-three or nine hundred and twenty-six victims cited in the press." Echoing the strategy suggested in Greentree's cable, Enders went on, "I note they asked how many people there were in that canton and were told probably not more than three hundred in December, and there are many survivors including refugees, now. So we have to be very careful about trying to adduce evidence to the certification. We try, our Embassy tries, to investigate every report we receive."

Six days later, Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, remarked to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the El Mozote case "is a very interesting one in a sense, because we found, for example, that the numbers, first of all, were not credible, because as Secretary Enders notes, our information was that there were only three hundred people in the canton."

The argument about numbers is, of course, deeply misleading -- no one who read the Times and the Post articles could have missed the fact that the killing had taken place in several hamlets; two of the three survivors Guillermoprieto quoted, for example, were from La Joya, not El Mozote. But the argument exemplifies a pattern. Claiming to have investigated "the facts" and to have found "no evidence" of a massacre, American officials then seized on aspects of the charges that, they said, reveal them to be propaganda. "We find ... that it is an event that happened in mid-December [but it] is then publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee," Abrams told the Senate. "So, it appears to be an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas." In an interview more than a decade later, Abrams made the same argument. He pointed out that the massacre had "supposedly" taken place in December, and asked, "If it had really been a massacre and not a firefight, why didn't we hear right off from the F.M.L.N.? I mean, we didn't start hearing about it until a month later."

As has been noted, the guerrillas first "publicized" the massacre about two weeks after the event -- as soon as they had got Radio Venceremos back on the air. All the same, it is indisputable that the volume of reporting about El Mozote from Venceremos, from human-rights groups, and from the international press grew steadily throughout January, and reached a crescendo the day before Reagan's certification, with the front-page stories in the Post and the Times. Certainly a significant part of this publicity -- it is impossible to say how much -- was owing, directly and indirectly, to the efforts of those, beginning with the guerrillas and their international propaganda apparatus, who had a strong interest in derailing the Administration's policy in El Salvador. But Administration officials focussed obsessively on this unsurprising reality, as if the very fact that the El Mozote story was being used as propaganda -- that it was, as Abrams put it, "significantly misused ... by the guerrillas" -- in itself constituted proof that the massacre hadn't taken place.

To many in the Administration, the importance of the massacre was that it had such propaganda value, and that the propaganda, coming at a crucial time, posed a threat to American aid. Preserving the Salvadoran government and helping it win the war were paramount; "improving human rights" naturally took a back seat since, as the Administration liked to put it, by far the worst disaster that could befall human rights in El Salvador was a Communist victory. This attitude was no mystery to the Salvadoran leaders; despite the periodic brouhahas over certain atrocities, they could see the bottom line quite clearly, which was, as Abrams phrased it, that "whatever you think of us from a human-rights point of view, what you think of us from a security point of view is determinative."

To say the least, this attitude did not encourage anyone in the State Department to make any additional effort to find out what had happened at El Mozote. As far as the Department officials were concerned, Greentree's cable was the end of the matter. The cable had come from Hinton's Embassy, and Hinton had a great deal of prestige in the Department. By now, however, Hinton himself had taken a rather different view. "I would be grateful if Department would use extreme care in describing my views on alleged massacre," he cabled on February 1st. Apparently, Washington had sent out cables saying that the Ambassador, in his reply to the National Council of Churches, had denied the massacre had taken place. "My letter did not 'deny' incident: it reported that at that time I had no confirmation and ... had no reason to believe Venceremos reports. I still don't believe Venceremos version but additional evidence strongly suggests that something happened that should not have happened and that it is quite possible Salvadoran military did commit excesses."

Not only McKay and Greentree but now Hinton himself had come to the conclusion that "something happened" at El Mozote -- and Hinton had now told the State Department so. To this, he added a frank appraisal of the Salvadoran officers' credibility. "I find García's assertion ... 'we have absolutely no information on military actions in El Mozote' to be stonewalling without credibility. I have tried to warn him re need to face up to problem, but my impression is he thinks categoric denial is way to handle question. Department officers may wish to discuss matter with him ... before U.S. press gets to him."

As it happened, however, "Department officers" seem to have agreed with General García. They had the Greentree cable, and they would make use of it. After all, the question would come down to -- as Abrams put it to me -- "Do you believe the Embassy, an agency of the United States government, or Americas Watch?" Americas Watch and other human-rights organizations, Abrams said, "did not have a great deal of credibility with us," for, in his view, they had ranged themselves on the side of those who argued, in effect, for an F.M.L.N. victory, and thus they served as willing tools of the hypocrites in Congress who now forced Administration officials to undergo a meaningless certification exercise. "Certification was this political game they were playing," Howard Lane, the Embassy press officer, told me. "I mean, everybody knew, Congress knew, what they" -- the Salvadoran government -- "were doing down there. By then, they had to know, unless they refused to see it. So they beat their breasts, and tore their hair, and yelled about human rights, and made us jump through this hoop called certification. If any Ambassador wanted to keep his job, he had to jump, which meant essentially saying the half-empty glass was really half full. It was a game. I mean, 'improvement' -- what's improvement, anyway? You kill eight hundred and it goes down to two hundred, that's improvement. The whole thing was an exercise in the absurd."

Ever the good soldier, Enders on Capitol Hill attacked the numbers from the human-rights groups, put forward the Administration's numbers, explained how, despite all appearances, the Salvadoran government was "making progress." He testified, "The results are slow in coming. I would agree with you on that. But they are coming ... The figures show it. We have September, October, November, December figures for 1980, which show something on the order of eight hundred, seven hundred and seventy-nine, five hundred and seventy-five, and six hundred and sixty-five political murders. That is for 1980. We have the same figures for this year which show September, a hundred and seventy-one, October, a hundred and sixty-one, November, three hundred and two. It shows December, two hundred. Our returns are showing markedly different numbers on the same methodology."

That methodology, as anyone who had looked into it knew, was very obviously flawed. The Administration's numbers, drawn from the Embassy's weekly "grim gram," were based on reports in the Salvadoran newspapers, all of which not only ranged from conservative to unabashedly right-wing but weighted their reporting toward the cities. In 1981, fewer people were being killed in the cities, because fewer activists were there to be killed; most of those who had not been liquidated in late 1979 or 1980 had moved to the mountains. And the killings in the mountains, in the isolated hamlets and villages, rarely reached the pages of newspapers in the capital.

"Let me be clear this is not a complete report," Enders told Congress. "Nobody has a complete report ... But, nonetheless, it is a coherent attempt to answer the question that you have raised ... are we getting some results. This is the indication that I submit to you that we are."

To this statement a number of congressmen responded with outraged eloquence. Gerry Studds, Democrat of Massachusetts, told Enders, "If there is anything left of the English language in this city ... it is gone now, because the President has just certified that up is down and in is out and black is white. I anticipate him telling us that war is peace at any moment." It was an irresistible quote, and it made for great television. But it didn't make any difference. Enders had supplied a "coherent attempt to answer the question" that Congress had posed, and though Democratic congressmen would not spare their voices, or their sarcasm, in noting "the Orwellian tones of this certification," as Steven Solarz, Democrat of New York, put it -- though congressmen attacked the numbers and the methodology, and the hearings became contentious and angry -- it was clear that, come what may, there would not be the votes to cut off aid to El Salvador, for that, as everybody knew, would mean "losing" the country to the Communists. At root, nearly everyone tacitly agreed (the Democrats -- whose purported "loss" of China three decades before was still a painful Party memory -- no less than the Republican Administration and its allies) that that eventuality was too intolerable even to contemplate, and that in the end the Salvadoran government, by whatever means, had to win the war, or the country's security would be unacceptably threatened. And so, because of this underlying agreement, the entire debate, loud and angry as it appeared at first glance, was not a debate. It was an exercise for the cameras.

As for El Mozote, since the Salvadoran newspapers said nothing about it, those who had died there merited no place in the numbers Secretary Enders brought to Congress. Had the massacre somehow been "proved" to the State Department's satisfaction -- had it been, somehow, impossible for the Administration to deny -- El Mozote would have had an ugly effect on the Administration's numbers: political murders would have shown an increase in December from six hundred and sixty-five to well over a thousand, rather than the sharp decline he claimed. Would this have led Congress to reject the certification and cut off aid? Reading the record now, feeling once again the fear in Washington of an F.M.L.N. victory and of the blame such a victory might impose on American politicians, the question seems, sadly, difficult to answer. Aid might have been reduced, true, but, at most, Congress might have managed to cut off aid temporarily, only to restore it again in a panic -- as Carter had done -- at the first new guerrilla onslaught.

But this is speculation. In the event, the dead of El Mozote did not really come into the discussion at all.

On February 10th, the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy editorial headed "The Media's War," in which it noted that the public's "perceptions are badly confused" on the war in El Salvador, and attributed much of that confusion to "the way the struggle is being covered by the U.S. press." Most notable were several paragraphs that took up the question of El Mozote:

Take the recent controversy over charges of a "massacre" by an elite battalion of the El Salvadoran army. On January 27, Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post simultaneously reported on a visit to rebel territory, repeating interviews in which they were told that hundreds of civilians were killed in the village of Mozote in December. Thomas O. Enders, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, later cast doubt on the reports. There had been a military operation but no systematic killing of civilians, he said, and anyway the population of the village was only 300 before the attack in which 926 people supposedly died.

When a correspondent is offered a chance to tour rebel territory, he certainly ought to accept, and to report what he sees and hears. But there is such a thing as being overly credulous. Mr. Bonner reported "it is clear" the massacre happened, while Miss Guillermoprieto took pains to say that reporters had been "taken to tour" the site by guerrillas with the purpose of showing their control and providing evidence of the massacre. In other words, whatever the mixture of truth or fabrication, this was a propaganda exercise.

Realistically, neither the press nor the State Department has the power to establish conclusively what happened at Mozote in December, and we're sure the sophisticated editors of the Times recognize as much. Yet as an institution, their paper has closed ranks behind a reporter out on a limb, waging a little campaign to bolster his position by impugning his critics. A "news analysis" charged the government of sowing confusion by questioning press reports "without presenting detailed evidence to support its position." The analysis posed the question of "how American diplomats gather information abroad," but not the same question about American reporters.

Oddly missing from these paragraphs, and from the rest of that very long editorial, was any acknowledgment that the two reporters had actually seen corpses -- in Guillermoprieto's case, at least, dozens of corpses -- and that Meiselas had taken photographs of those corpses. Instead, the editorial said that the two journalists "repeat interviews in which they were told that hundreds of civilians were killed in the village of Mozote," and then said immediately afterward that Enders "later cast doubt on the reports" -- as if Enders, or his representatives, had actually made it to the village, as if the kind of evidence he was purveying were no different from what were, after all, two eyewitness accounts, if not of the events themselves, then of their aftermath. The reporting done by the journalists and by the Embassy officials is repeatedly yoked together, as if the two parties had visited the same sites, seen the same evidence, talked to the same people, and merely drawn different conclusions. Neither party, the editorial declared, "has the power to establish conclusively what happened at Mozote" -- the implication being, as the Administration itself had argued repeatedly in its defense of its Salvadoran allies, that, since there is no "conclusive" account, nothing can be truly known. The idea that much of a journalist's business consists of a studied sifting of what is said and what is observed, of a careful wrestling with gradations of evidence, and a continual judgment of the credibility of witnesses -- this notion is nowhere present in the sixteen paragraphs of the Journal's editorial.

Seven days after the Journal's attack on the Times' "overly credulous" reporter, the State Department received a cable over the name of the Ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte, reporting on a visit by an Embassy official and a House Foreign Affairs Committee staff member to the refugee camp at Colomoncagua, to which many of the refugees from Morazán had fled two months before. According to the cable, the refugees described to the American diplomat "a military sweep in Morazán December 7 to 17 which they claim resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and physical destruction, leading to their exodus." The cable went on to say that "names of villages cited coincide with New York Times article of January 28 same subject." The reporting officer added that the refugees' "decision to flee at this time when in the past they had remained during sweeps ... lends credibility to reportedly greater magnitude and intensity of ... military operations in Northern Morazán." This information was not made public.

Next page