Late last month, in a crowded courtroom in the eastern part of El Salvador, a small taste of justice was granted to survivors of the worst slaughter of civilians in Latin American history. The courtroom in San Francisco Gotera, in the heart of what had been known as the “conflictive zone” during the years-long civil war in El Salvador (1979 – 1992), heard testimony from a former military commander that, for the first time, tied the Salvadoran government and its armed forces to the El Mozote massacre.
Thirty years ago, as the war still raged, I visited El Mozote in the company of the only survivor, Rufina Amaya. It was one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences I’ve had.
I was a member of a solidarity delegation visiting Ciudad Segundo Montes, at the time a recently-built settlement whose members had all been refugees from the war. A decade earlier they had fled the country, driven out by atrocities committed by the military in Morazon Province. To the north of the settlement was an area dominated by the forces of the FMLN, the rebel group trying to oust the brutal dictatorship. To the south was a major army installation. Hence the term “conflictive zone”.
Ostensibly, the purpose of our solidarity delegation was to learn about the self-organization of the former war refugees with an eye to educating others about Ciudad Segundo Montes and the war in El Salvador — and our country’s support for it — upon our return. In reality, we were there to provide a little insurance to the villagers against attack by the government soldiers stationed just south of the settlement. The village tried to maintain the presence of international travelers at all times, especially those of us from the US. The thinking was that the government forces would be loath to harm foreigners, especially Americans since the US was the Salvadoran government’s patron, both financially and politically.
The strategy worked, although we often heard gunfire and bombs dropping nearby (a bit too nearby, if you ask me). And we were stopped and searched at gunpoint by soldiers whenever we traveled into government controlled areas.
The day of our visit to El Mozote, not far from Ciudad Segundo Montes, was a typical Salvadoran day — hot and humid and dusty. The sun is a relentless presence in El Salvador, the heat feels as if it has heft and weight. Rufina was waiting for us as we arrived, standing in the middle of the dirt road in the middle of the town. On one corner a Catholic church, on another a community hall. There were a handful of other buildings visible in the immediate area, businesses and homes, all standing vacant, abandoned since the day of the massacre.
After a round of polite introductions, Rufina launched into her harrowing tale, with our delegation leader providing simultaneous translation. The words seemed to rush from her mouth like the waters of a rain-swollen river. She was committed to telling her story, brutally painful as the memories were. She knew the important role she played as the only living witness to the atrocity. But it was painful each time she had to relive the awful events and so she rushed through the narrative.
Soldiers from the notorious Atlacatl Battalion, a brutal force specifically trained for counter-insurgency warfare, arrived en masse in the village on December 10, 1981. The Battalion was engaged in Operación Rescate (“Operation Rescue”), an effort to eliminate the FMLN in Morazon Province. The soldiers had very recently been engaged in a fierce firefight with FMLN guerillas. They would finish their fight by attacking civilians, whom the government accused of providing support for the guerillas. Government soldiers, and especially the Atlacatl Battalion, routinely terrorized the civilian population in an effort to undermine that support and to drive them from the area. It was a tactic known as “draining the sea to get to the fish”.
The soldiers rounded up every villager in El Mozote and assembled them in the town square. Everyone was questioned about what they knew of guerilla activity in the area and told to name who supported the FMLN. As evening fell, the villagers were ordered back to their homes and warned not to go outside lest they be shot.
Early the next morning, the soldiers again assembled all the villagers in the town square. They separated men, women, and children into separate groups. The men were again interrogated, some of them tortured. Then the killing began, as soldiers started executing the men in several locations around the village.
Rufina managed to break away undetected from the group of women she had been with. She hid in a hollowed-out tree trunk and from that vantage witnessed the horrors that followed, including the decapitation of her own husband.
When the men had all been murdered, the soldiers turned to the women, separating them from their children. The women were lined up in groups and machine-gunned. And finally, the children were slaughtered by slitting their throats or hanging them from tree branches. Rufina heard her 9-year-old son Cristino cry out, “Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me.”
When the soldiers had finished their orgy of killing, they burned the bodies and many of the homes. Villagers would later give reporters a list of 733 names of people they said had been killed by the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion. Later investigations by international human rights organizations put the tally at nearly 1,000.
The next day, the soldiers departed for the nearby village of Los Torriles and repeated the entire gruesome process.
The torrent of words from Rufina stopped as abruptly as they had started. She was in tears and so were all of us with the delegation. So was our translator, who had translated Rufina’s story many times before. The sun seemed to burn even hotter, the heat and humidity felt more repressive.
I don’t know how many times Rufina repeated her nightmare story. I don’t know how many other groups stood with her in the dusty crossroads of abandoned El Mozote. But tell her story she did. It was the only way Rufina had available to her to seek justice, so she kept on telling her story.
“I remember people saying, ‘Don’t get involved. Let’s just live and work and not get involved,’” she told The New Yorker in a 1993 interview. But she got involved and stayed involved. “God saved me because he needed someone to tell the story of what happened.”
One of the first people to whom Rufina related her tale was a New York Times reporter by the name of Ray Bonner, who was working the Central America beat for the paper. Bonner had heard rumors of the massacre and went to El Mozote to investigate. His first dispatch about the massacre appeared on the front page of the Times on January 27, 1982. Bonner wrote of seeing “the charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams, and shattered tiles.” His report was immediately condemned as a fabrication or, at best, an exaggeration, by the White House and State Department.
Congressional funding for the war in El Salvador was conditioned on the administration regularly confirming that the Salvadoran government was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” The next certification was due to be delivered to Congress, as it turned out, just two days after Bonner’s Times report appeared.
Bonner was attacked in Senate hearings by members of the administration as well as by representatives of conservative think tanks which were called on to help in the assault on the reporter. They said he exaggerated. They claimed that the FMLN was really to blame. They labeled Bonner an “advocate reporter”, an activst. Bonner was soon recalled to New York from his post in El Salvador and shortly later left the paper entirely.
And still the people of Morazan — and Rufina — pressed on for justice.
In 1992, after a peace agreement had put an end to the war, the United Nations oversaw a Truth Commission for El Salvador. The hearings at last confirmed that the massacre had occurred, but the government testified that no records remained that could help to identify the authors or perpetrators of the atrocity. Five days after the Commission released its report in 1993, the government passed an amnesty law for all combatants named during the truth commission hearings, putting them beyond prosecution. It seemed the door to justice was closed for good.
But the campesinos of Morazan Province kept demanding their elusive justice. Rufina and the survivors of other massacres kept telling their stories, while international organizations were urged to investigate. Rufina suffered a stroke and died in 2007.
In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered El Salvador to hold a trial for the El Mozote perpetrators, claiming the amnesty law did not cover them. Nothing happened until the supreme court of El Salvador ruled the entire amnesty law unconstitutional. Lawyers for the survivors brought the case against the 17 officers that same year.
And that is how, after all 38 years, a small act of justice emerged from a courtroom in the El Salvador countryside in late January. The perpetrators have been named, a general has confirmed that it was the Atlacatl Battalion that carried out the assault. Truth has been acknowledged. Rufina’s story has been heard.
The trial continues.
Post updated 2/24/20 - I changed "Twenty years ago, as the war still raged, I visited El Mozote..." to "Thirty years ago..." Oops. My, my how time flies.