Mark Danner Publications: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Truth of El Mozote

Page 11 of 12

Six months after the Journal's attack on him, Raymond Bonner was gone from Central America. Since the El Mozote story and the controversy surrounding it, Bonner had been under great pressure, enduring a steady fusillade of criticism from the Embassy and the State Department, as well as from various right-wing American publications for whom Bonner had come to symbolize the supposed "leftward tilt" of reporting in Central America. In August, 1982, Bonner received a telephone call in his Managua hotel room informing him that he should report to the Metro desk in New York.

The Times' decision to remove a correspondent who had been the focus of an aggressive campaign of Administration criticism no doubt had a significant effect on reporting from El Salvador. The New York Times editors appeared to have "caved" to government pressure, and the Administration seemed to have succeeded in its campaign to have a troublesome reporter -- the most dogged and influential in El Salvador -- pulled off the beat.

The public position of A. M. Rosenthal, then the executive editor of the Times, has always been, as he told me by telephone, that "at no time did anybody in the United States government suggest to me, directly or indirectly, that I remove Mr. Bonner," and, further, that "anyone who would approach the New York Times and suggest to me that I remove or punish a correspondent would have to be an idiot. To imply that a man who devoted himself to journalism would remove a reporter because of the U.S. government or the C.I.A., or whatever, is ridiculous, naïve, cruel, and slanderous."

According to Rosenthal, Bonner was removed because he had never been fully trained in the Times' particular methods. Bonner, he said, "didn't know the techniques of weaving a story together ... I brought him back because it seemed terribly unfair to leave him there without training." Bonner had been trained as a lawyer, had been an assistant district attorney and a Nader's Raider, and had joined the Times as a stringer in Central America. Seymour Topping, then the managing editor, told me that "because we were considerably pressed at the time in getting people into the field in Salvador, we short-circuited what would be our normal process of training people on Metro to learn the style and methods of the Times." Bonner, Topping went on, "had done a first-class job of investigative journalism, and there was never any question that he had come up with the facts -- that his stories were true. But, if he had been more experienced, the way he had written his stories -- qualified them, etc. -- would have left him much less open to criticism."

But "training" was not the only issue -- for that matter, as Bonner pointed out to me, he had spent a good part of 1981 on the Metro desk -- and, at least in Rosenthal's case, the question of Bonner's "journalistic technique" seems to have been inextricably bound up with what the executive editor came to perceive as the reporter's left-wing sympathies. "If anybody ever asked me to withdraw him, he'd still be there," Rosenthal told me, and certainly the idea that the government simply pressured the Times into withdrawing Bonner is wrong. Rosenthal suggests that others have promoted this version of the story because "I was an agent of change in the Times, and a lot of people didn't like my politics"; but conversations with a number of Times reporters and editors, former and current, persuaded me that the campaign against Bonner was more effective than it might have been because of Rosenthal's own politics. Several people told me that Rosenthal had made no secret that he was unhappy with Bonner, because the reporter, as one characterized the editor's view, "was too willing to accept the Communist side of the story. He was very vocal that Bonner was sympathetic to the Communist side in Central America." The criticism from the right -- led by the Wall Street Journal editorial on El Mozote -- "resonated with Abe, because it reinforced his own suspicions about Bonner. There seemed to be a growing audience out there that agreed with Abe." Several current and former Times employees (none of whom would speak for attribution) pointed to a scene in a Georgetown restaurant a few weeks after the El Mozote story ran -- it was the evening of the annual Gridiron dinner -- in which Rosenthal criticized Bonner and angrily described the sufferings that Communist regimes inflict on their people.

(Bonner finally left the Times in 1984; in 1987, he began writing for The New Yorker -- as did, two years later, Alma Guillermoprieto. He left the magazine in 1992; he is now writing special assignments for the Times.)

El Mozote represented the climax of the era of the great massacres. It was not the last of them -- most notably, in August of 1982 the Atlacatl, in an operation similar to that in El Mozote, killed some two hundred people at El Calabozo, in the Department of San Vicente -- but after El Mozote the Army relied less and less on search-and-destroy operations that entailed large-scale killing of civilians. It may be that the guerrillas' use of El Mozote for propaganda and the controversy that followed in the United States led senior officers to begin to realize the potential cost of such slaughter. It may be that the highly visible denunciations in Congress finally lent the Embassy's habitual scoldings a bit more credibility. (Even someone as firmly contemptuous of congressional pressure as Elliott Abrams acknowledges that "the good-cop, bad-cop routine with Congress was very effective" and that "there was some positive impact there in reducing the killing.") It may be that the officers realized that lesser massacres -- of forty people or fewer, say -- could accomplish as much without attracting so much attention.

More important, the key Salvadoran officers no doubt realized that El Mozote had accomplished its purpose. It was not only that in much of north- ern Morazán the civilians had fled beyond the border -- that in several key areas the water had been taken from the fish. It was what El Mozote had meant -- what it had said -- to those who remained. For El Mozote was, above all, a statement. By doing what it did in El Mozote, the Army had proclaimed loudly and unmistakably to the people of Morazán, and to the peasants in surrounding areas as well, a simple message: Whatever the circumstances, the guerrillas can't protect you, and we, the officers and the soldiers, are willing to do absolutely anything to avoid losing this war -- we are willing to do whatever it takes.

 By late 1982, the tide had begun to turn in Morazán, which is to say not that the Army had begun to win but that it had become less than certain that it would lose. The preceding March, the elections for the Constituent Assembly, on which the Reagan Administration had set much store, had been a huge political success for Administration policy, with a much higher turnout than had been expected. By exerting enormous pressure, the Administration had succeeded in blocking Roberto d'Aubuisson, the best known of the ultra-rightists, from becoming provisional President. Instead, the officers and party leaders and the Americans had agreed upon Alvaro Magaña Borja, a wealthy aristocrat and international banker with many old friends in the officer corps, as a compromise.

The successful elections and the consequent emergence of the highly presentable, English-speaking Magaña helped the Administration placate Congress. (By the July certification report, the Administration had altered its language from "no evidence to confirm" to "no evidence to support" allegations of "large-scale massacres allegedly committed by government forces" -- in direct contradiction of what Hinton, and even Greentree, had reported.) Congress more than doubled military aid, from thirty-five million dollars to eighty-two million, and increased economic aid to more than twice that. Not only were the Americans sending new, top-of-the-line equipment and plenty of ammunition but they were expanding the Army -- training hundreds of officers and soldiers in the States. Most important, Colonel Jaime Flores, apparently because of rather too blatant irregularities in his payroll in San Miguel, incurred the wrath of Magaña, and was consequently "promoted" from command of the all-important Third Brigade to command of the less important First Brigade, and, finally, to that of San Salvador's Fire Department. To replace Flores in San Miguel, Magaña drew on the obvious -- the inevitable -- choice: Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa.

Monterrosa thus became the military commander of the entire eastern zone of El Salvador, and entered upon the period of his greatest renown. Very often, the Army publicity people or the American press people steered reporters straight to the dynamic colonel. "He was a phenomenon," Lucia Annunziata, who travelled frequently with Monterrosa as a correspondent for La Repubblica, told me. "The Americans were always telling us that here he was, here was the new breed of officer they were always promising. He had embraced completely the anti-Communist ideology of the Americans. By then, he talked not like some kind of butcher but like an American. He was completely full of this idea of conquering hearts and minds."

In 1978, Monterrosa had attended the Political Warfare Cadres Academy, in Peitou, Taiwan, and had been trained there in what he described to an interviewer as "war of the masses" and "Communism of this side." He'd returned to El Salvador "very enthusiastic" about the skills he had learned -- "how to project ourselves to the civilian population and win them over" -- but found to his dismay that senior officers weren't very interested. Now he began to apply what he'd learned.

"He was always tactically very good," Licho, the rebel commander, told me. "Then he began using much more intelligent methods. You know, whenever he would take a village he would come in personally and do political work himself." His soldiers, usually helicopter-borne, would storm a town, flushing out the armed guerrillas, and then Monterrosa would arrive and gather the people together. "He would make a speech there in the plaza," Annunziata said. "He would ask, 'Who is sick? Who needs help?' Then he would say, 'Do you know these people?' -- that is, the guerrillas. And, of course, no one would answer. And he would say, in this soft voice, 'Are you sure? Are you sure you don't have a cousin with them?' "

By this time, people all over the countryside recognized the famous figure of Monterrosa. He was short -- stooped, even -- with a slight paunch. "He was completely nonmartial," Annunziata said. "He always wore this tattered, sweat-stained camouflage-green bandanna on his head, and he had a real Indian face -- big nose, receding chin. With that bandanna, he looked like an old aunt. He was a bit of a fop, a bit dandified. He had this young boy always with him, a beautiful young boy of ten or twelve, who took care of his things. He was always touching his soldiers -- very physical, you know. At night, he would get in his red hammock and put on blue gloves and cover his face with a blue towel. He was a real dandy.

"It was late in the afternoon, and we were outside the town of Carolina, on a hill above it. Monterrosa was sitting on a low stone wall, with his feet dangling over the side. He got on the radiophone and he called, 'Charlie, Charlie' -- that was his code name -- 'to Orange,' and he gave the coördinates, and the planes came and bombed and all the while he was directing the planes with the radio. We looked down, and we could see another Army unit entering the town and then the guerrillas leaving from the other side.

"The next morning, the people came out of the town in a long column. You could see them winding their way up the hill in a long line, moving up to where Monterrosa was sitting on the same wall, leaning back, looking halfway between a king and a hero. And, one by one, the peasants passed in front of him, and each of them had an offering. One of them would give him an egg, another some tortillas, another would push forward a young boy to sign up. And Monterrosa would motion to an aide, as he reclined there like a Roman emperor. I remember a father carrying a little boy who had his head covered with a white handkerchief, and then when he came in front of Monterrosa the father unveiled the kid's head and you could see he had this big growth on his face. And Monterrosa nodded to an aide. The aide grabbed the radio and called in the helicopter to take the kid to the hospital in the city."

By 1983, Monterrosa's new tactics had begun to show some success. "He changed the way he related to the local population, and he was less arrogant in his military stance toward us," Villalobos, the E.R.P. comandante, told me. "There was this first stage, I think, in which he executed the massacres not only because it formed part of his military training and it was tactically approved by the High Command but also because he didn't think it would become a political problem. Then, later, he realized that this sort of tactic didn't work. It did not produce a quick military victory."

Annunziata agreed. "He was not bloodthirsty, but he was so neurotically driven -- he wanted at all costs to win the war," she said. "The point was to create a turning point, a watershed, to turn the tide, and to do it by scaring the hell out of the enemy. It was a deliberate demonstration of cruelty to show them that the guerrillas couldn't protect them. And he understood that you do this as cruelly, as brutally as possible; you rape, impale, whatever, to show them the cost."

To most of the reporters who covered him now -- few of whom had been in the country in 1981 -- El Mozote was just a distant rumor, a dark echo from the past. "He was the press-corps officer, you know, very personable," Jon Lee Anderson, who was reporting for Time magazine, said, "but there was always this buzz that he was responsible for El Mozote, and, of course, he always denied it." By this time, Monterrosa had a mistress in the press corps -- a beautiful young Salvadoran woman who worked for an American television network. Annunziata recalls, "He would helicopter in to the Camino Real" -- the San Salvador hotel favored by the international press -- "to visit her, and he would burst through the door of the press offices in his combat fatigues and come over and look over your shoulder at what you were writing and say, 'Have you written about me today?' " Monterrosa's girlfriend let her colleagues know -- speaking in all confidence, of course -- that there had been "a problem" with the El Mozote operation, and although, for understandable reasons, she wasn't free to go into details, all one had to know was that on that particular day the Colonel had unfortunately "lost radio contact" with his men -- with regrettable consequences.

The guerrillas did not find this story very convincing. "He was well known to all the guerrillas as the man who had ordered the massacre," Licho said. "Everybody wanted to kill him in combat." Now, however, their adversary had begun doing what they themselves knew was the most effective thing to do in order to win the war: "political work" in the countryside. "He started learning; he began to play football with the people, help their families. We realized that for someone as militarily talented as he was to start to do real political work could be very dangerous. I think it was at the beginning of 1983 that we started making plans to kill him."

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