New revelations about the El Mozote massacre

This week, new developments came to light in the decades-long saga of the El Mozote massacre, one of the most high-profile incidents of human rights abuses in modern Central American history.


Illustration Credit: Otto Meza

This week, new developments came to light in the decades-long saga of the El Mozote massacre, one of the most high-profile incidents of human rights abuses in modern Central American history. During pretrial hearings for charges against the now-disbanded Atlacatl Battalion, Stanford University political scientist Terry Karl testified that a U.S. military attaché was near El Mozote, El Salvador at the time of the massacre. Karl described the efforts of the Reagan administration to conceal the attaché’s presence in the vicinity of El Mozote as part of a deliberate, “sophisticated cover-up,” undertaken in order to ensure that generous American military and economic aid could continue to flow unencumbered to the anti-communist Salvadoran regime. Karl, alleging a much cozier relationship between the U.S. and one of the most notoriously savage units of the Salvadoran military, noted that “[t]he documents and sworn statements suggest that [the military attaché] could have been aware beforehand of what was to come, though there is no implication that he supported the decision of the Salvadoran officers to kill civilians in any of these cases.”
The massacre was carried out on December 11, 1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, when the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army—an elite commando unit trained in counter-insurgency tactics at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia—descended upon the small, rural hamlet of El Mozote in northeastern El Salvador. Allegedly seeking to unearth sympathizers of left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerillas, the men of the Atlacatl Battalion instead brutally murdered upwards of 1,200 civilian campesinos, residents of El Mozote and refugees displaced from surrounding communities by military and paramilitary fighting. Later forensic investigations would reveal that at least 248 sets of human remains uncovered at El Mozote belonged to victims under six. While correspondents for The New York Times and The Washington Post would publish accounts of the mass killings as early as January 1982—the American journalist Mark Danner would eventually publish the definitive account of the massacre, his seminal book The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, a decade later, in 1994—both the Salvadoran military dictatorship and the administration of then President Ronald Reagan vociferously denied such allegations, accusing journalists of propagating pro-FMLN narratives and harboring communist sympathies.
After peace between the FMLN and the Salvadoran regime was finally negotiated in 1992, the United Nations organized a Truth Commission for El Salvador to investigate human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war—and in particular, the massacre at El Mozote—thus commencing the arduous process of trials and investigations that has continued until today. The Truth Commission found conclusive evidence that the massacre had, in fact, occurred; nevertheless, the Salvadoran government once again rejected the Truth Commission’s conclusions, offering amnesty to any former government or military personnel implicated in such investigations. In 2005, based on forensic evidence collected at the site of the massacre by Argentine investigators, the Organization of American States opened its own investigation in order to discern whether orders for the slaughter at El Mozote had originated from the Salvadoran high command. In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights filed a case against the government of El Salvador, resulting in its issuance of a formal acknowledgment and apology for its role in the massacre. One year later, in 2012, the Inter-American Human Rights Court ordered the Salvadoran government to conduct its own investigation into the massacre, urging that all implicated parties be held responsible for their actions in 1981 and over the course of ensuing cover-ups.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of El Salvador ruled that the blanket amnesty granted to individuals named in UN reports, originally issued in 1993, was unconstitutional, opening the doors for further prosecution and accountability. Since 2016, 16 former members of the now-disbanded Atlacatl Battalion have been brought to trial in an ongoing case; in 2019, the judge presiding over the case expanded the charges faced by the 16 defendants to include torture, forced displacement, and forced disappearance. Retired Salvadoran general Juan Rafael Bustillo admitted in testimony that high-ranking military officers, and in particular the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa—who himself was killed in 1984—had ordered the killings at El Mozote.
The ongoing trial proceedings, already delayed for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have also been hindered by multiple attempts made by the defense to force presiding Judge Jorge Guzmán to recuse himself, as well as to restrict access to sensitive government and military archives.

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