Mass Terror in El Salvador: The El Mozote Massacre of 1981 Revisited

Soldiers searching bus passengers along the Northern Highway, El Salvador, 1980. PHOTO: The New York Review of Books/Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

In December 1981, the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military conducted a scorched-earth operation in El Mozote, La Joya, Cerro Pando and surrounding villages in the department of Morazán.

Atacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained counter-insurgency force, killed nearly 1,000 civilians — mostly women, children and old people — in the worst massacre in modern Latin American history.

This was at a time when some real journalists were still active, and Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto wrote stories about the massacre that appeared in U.S. Lugenpresse. Pictures of rotting bodies and burnt homes taken by photographer Susan Meiselas accompanied the stories, which were published on Jan. 27, 1982.

Bonner wrote of seeing “the charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams, and shattered tiles.” The villagers gave Bonner a list of 733 names, all of whom, they claimed, had been murdered by government soldiers.

The Reagan administration downplayed reports of this massacre, dismissing them as propaganda, and the American-funded war in El Salvador continued.

After the war ended a decade later, a U.N. Truth Commission pressured the Salvadoran government to excavate the ruins of El Mozote’s sacristy, where they found the skulls of 143 individuals. All but 12 were children. Investigative journalist Mark Danner reviewed hundreds of State Department and CIA cables to expose the U.S. cover up in The New Yorker. Embassy officials had known about the scorched-earth operation and officials even visited the devastated area on Jan. 30, 1982. But they played it down in cables to Washington. The State Department denied the massacre to Congress. Danner’s 1993 article, “The Truth of El Mozote,” set the record straight: It happened. The U.S. knew.

The Salvadoran Minister of Defense and the chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff informed the Truth Commission that they had no information that would make it possible to identify the units and officers who participated in Operación Rescate. They claimed that there were no records for the period. In addition, a 1993 amnesty law was hastily put together that immediately halted an investigation into the massacre, eliminating the possibility of justice or reparations.

In 2008, British nun Anne Griffin and a Belgian priest spearheaded a fight for justice in the international realm. The amnesty law had extinguished the case in the Salvadoran courts, but the Inter-American Court of Human Rights agreed to hear it. The nun crisscrossed the country with Spanish psychologist Sol Yañez to conduct hundreds of interviews in preparation for the hearing in the spring of 2012.

“The majority of people were talking for the first time,” Griffin said.

In October 2012, the Inter-American Court found El Salvador guilty of committing the massacre, covering it up and failing to investigate after the war. The Court ordered the government to re-open the case, punish the perpetrators and compensate victims’ relatives.

In July 2016 — 35 years after the atrocity — in an unexpected twist, El Salvador’s supreme court declared the amnesty law unconstitutional. In September, a judge re-opened the archived case against the massacre’s culprits, and government investigators exhumed graves.

A Salvadoran judge has opened a case against 13 military officers accused of participating in the massacre. But Judge Jorge Guzmán decided not to order the officers’ arrest.

Prior to the massacre, El Mozote had a reputation for neutrality — unlike many other villages in the area. While many of its neighbors were largely Roman Catholic — and, therefore, often influenced by liberation theology and sympathetic to the insurgents — El Mozote was largely Evangelical Protestant. Word of an operation drew peasants from the surrounding area, into the town that was thought to be a neutral zone. In reality, it became a honey trap.

The soldiers reassembled the entire village in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked them in separate groups in the church, the convent and various houses.

During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men in several locations. Around noon, they took women and older girls in groups, separated them from their children and machine-gunned them after raping them. Girls as young as 10 were raped. Soldiers reportedly were heard bragging about how they especially liked the 12-year-old girls. Finally, they killed the children, at first by slitting their throats, then by hanging them from trees. One child was two years old. After killing the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings.

The next day, death-squad goons repeated the operation in the smaller village of Los Toriles. Men, women and children were taken from their homes, lined up, robbed and shot, then their homes set ablaze. Illustrating just how nasty these troopers in this U.S.-trained death unit were, in a January 2007 report in The Washington Post, a former Salvadoran soldier, José Wilfredo Salgado, told of returning to El Mozote several months after the massacre and collecting for “candleholders and good-luck charms” the skulls of the youngest victims, whose remains were exposed by recent rains.

An unknown number of people disappeared during the conflict. The U.N. reports that the war killed more than 75,000 people between 1980 and 1992.

The U.S. contributed to the conflict by providing large amounts of military aid — $1 million to $2 million per day — to the government of El Salvador for 12 years. By May 1983, U.S. officers took over positions in the top levels of the Salvadoran military, and they began making critical decisions and ran the war. Several American officers involved went on to enact similar goonery in Iraq.

The U.N. estimates that the FMLN guerrillas were responsible for 5 percent of the murders of civilians during the Salvadoran civil war, while approximately 85 percent of all killings of civilians were committed by the Salvadoran armed forces and death squads.

Background on El Salvador’s Plutocracy

Coffee was the major cash crop for El Salvador, bringing in about 95 percent of the country’s income. However, this income was restricted to only 2 percent of the population, exacerbating the divide between a small-but-powerful land-owning elite and an impoverished majority. Until recently, 20 families — or, more accurately, clans –controlled more than 70 percent of El Salvador’s private banks, sugar mills, coffee production and exports, as well as television and newspapers.

Salvadoran oligarchical families are based on monopolies, and they pay almost no taxes. The elites maintained a tight grip on the country for a century. Many live abroad and function as absentee owners. It finally came to a head in 1977.

In the countryside, the agrarian elite organized and funded paramilitary death squads, such as the infamous Regalado’s Armed Forces (FAR) led by Hector Regalado. While the death squads were initially autonomous from the Salvadoran military and composed of civilians, they were soon taken over by El Salvador’s military intelligence service, ANSESAL, led by Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson. It became a crucial part of the state’s repressive apparatus, murdering thousands of union leaders, activists, students and teachers.

With the country on the verge of an insurrection, the civil-military group Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) deposed President Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero in a coup on Oct. 15, 1979. They tried to head off the civil war by enacting a land reform program. It restricted landholdings to 100-hectares; nationalized banks and the coffee and sugar industries; scheduled elections for February 1982; and disbanded the paramilitary, private, death-squad ORDEN on Nov. 6, 1979.

El Salvador’s military and economic elites sabotaged the process as soon as it began, and the JRG was purged and co-opted. Upon learning of the government’s intent to distribute land to the peasants and organize cooperatives, wealthy Salvadoran landowners began killing their own livestock and moving valuable farming equipment across the border into Guatemala, where many Salvadoran elites owned additional land. In addition, most co-op leaders in the countryside were assassinated or “disappeared” soon after being elected and becoming visible to the authorities.

In one case, Human Rights Watch noted: “U.S. embassy officials apparently collaborated with the death squad abduction of two law students in January 1980. National Guard troops arrested two youths, Francisco Ventura and José Humberto Mejía, following an anti-government demonstration. The National Guard received permission to bring the youths onto embassy grounds. Shortly thereafter, a private car drove into the embassy parking lot. Men in civilian dress put the students in the trunk of their car and drove away. Ventura and Mejía were never seen again.”

On March 24, 1980, the archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass, just one day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers and security force members to not follow their orders to kill Salvadoran civilians. At his funeral a week later, government-sponsored snipers in the National Palace and on the periphery of the Gerardo Barrios Plaza were responsible for the killing of 42 mourners and wounding of many others. This was caught on film, shown here.

The National Guard and the newly reorganized paramilitary ORDEN, with the cooperation of the Military of Honduras, carried out a large massacre at the Sumpul River on May 14, 1980, in which an estimated 600 civilians were killed, mostly women and children. Escaping villagers were prevented from crossing the river by the Honduran armed forces “and then killed by Salvadoran troops, who fired on them in cold blood.”

The insurgents in the civil war were badly outgunned. About the only recourse were strikes that were brutally beaten down. On Feb. 7, 1984, nine labor union leaders, including all seven top officials of one major labor federation, were arrested by the Salvadoran National Police and sent to be tried by a military court. More than 80 trade unionists were also detained in a raid by the National Police. The police confiscated the union’s files and took videotape mugshots of each union member.

During a 15-day interrogation, the nine labor leaders were beaten during late-night questioning and were told to confess to being guerrillas. They were then forced to sign a written confession while blindfolded. They were never charged with being guerrillas, but the official police statement said they were accused of planning to “present demands to management for higher wages and benefits and promoting strikes, which destabilize the economy.”

A U.S. official said the embassy had “followed the arrests closely and was satisfied that the correct procedures were followed.” The US wink winked and collaborated through most of the atrocities over twelve years, and kept a steady flow of funds coming.

The entire country was subjected to terror tactics derived and adapted from U.S. strategy during the Vietnam War and taught by American military advisers. An integral part of the Salvadoran Army’s counterinsurgency strategy entailed “draining the sea” or “drying up the ocean”; that is, eliminating the insurgency by eradicating its support base in the countryside.

El Mozote massacre in 1981 where hundreds of civilians where killed by the Salvadoran Army trained by the USA. PHOTO: Metro Latino

In a typical operation, hundreds of civilians were massacred in November 1981 by Col. Ochoa’s Atlacatl unit as troops moved through the villages. Col. Ochoa claimed that hundreds of guerrillas had been killed but was able to show journalists only 15 captured weapons — half of them virtual antiques — suggesting that most of those killed in the sweep were unarmed.

State security forces turn to the use of a meat-packing plant to dispose of human remains. Victims were decapitated by a death squad using a guillotine.

Any attempts at exposing this behavior via a nongovernmental human rights commission was met by assassination of those parties. All popular organizations were decimated by mass state terror. In 1989, the Atlacatl Battalion, running low on victims, even went after the church. Entering the campus of the University of Central America in the middle of the night, the battalion executed six Jesuit priests and two female housekeepers.

Nov. 16, 1989: Archbishop of San Salvador, Mons. Arturo Rivera y Damas and journalists view the bodies of six Jesuit priests murdered in San Salvador. The priests, the leadership of the local Jesuit University and two employees were killed and mutilated by a squad of assassins. They had received death threats the previous day. Salvadoran police said Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, that they’ve arrested four former soldiers wanted in Spain for the 1989 murder of the priests. Five of the priests were Spanish. PHOTO: AP/John Hopper/File

A byproduct of this Crime Syndicate operation was the development and piggy backing of a CIA-facilitated drug trade from Central America. The late Gary Webb — an award-winning investigative journalist from The Mercury News in San Jose, Calif. — published a pivotal series called “Dark Alliance” that exposed the CIA’s involvement with the U.S. crack epidemic in the 1980s.

After he lost his job, Webb documented everything in a comprehensive book, also called “Dark Alliance.” He was then suicided with two shots in the back of the head. Jeremy Renner played Gary Webb in a movie about his life called “Kill the Messenger” (2014), a very rare truth film that got some play in the U.S. and is recommended.

The decimation of more traditional democratic civil institutions, such as trade unions, and the promotion of drugs has paved the way for criminal gangs, who now run sway over the country.

12 Comments on Mass Terror in El Salvador: The El Mozote Massacre of 1981 Revisited

  1. And one of the biggest criminals in this whole mess has his own T.V. show entitled “War Stories” and has been elected president of the NRA. That’s just how we roll here in “Murica”.

    • It’s a mostly white country, white meaning of Spanish/European descent — so it’s generally more prosperous and stable.

      • Plus it is one of the very very few nations without a standing army…apparently it doesn’t need one! Plus it is full of American ex-pats…I’ve known a few.

      • Yes, it has to be that for sure.
        Why bother doing some research when you could just “explain” it just like that.

  2. And where did many of these leaders get their training? Why in “The School of the Americas”, where else.
    The original goal of SOA was to halt the spread of Marxism. It was established in Panama by the US in 1946, and then relocated to Ft. Benning GA. It is roughly a three-hour drive from Florida State University’s campus.

    “Around 2,000 students are recruited each year from the military in Latin American countries, and more than 60,000 have graduated since the school opened. The curriculum includes courses in psychological warfare, counterinsurgency, “enhanced interrogation” techniques, torture, civilian repression and assassination. Presented with the most sophisticated and up-to-date techniques by the US Army’s best instructors, these courses teach military officers and soldiers of Third World countries to subvert the truth, to silence union leaders and journalists, to terrorise the clergy, and to make war on their own people. (3)
    It prepares them to subdue the voices of dissent and to make protesters submit.
    It instructs them in techniques of marginalizing the poor, the hungry, and the dispossessed. It tells them how to stamp out freedom and terrorize their own citizens.
    It trains them to destroy their people’s hope of good government.”

    One wonders how Americas chickens cannot help but come home to roost after reading stories like this. Karma, as they say, is a bitch..

    • Once upon a time there was enough pushback from the public to get rid of the SOA. Perhaps karma operates more precisely? Of course the USA government didn’t really close the SOA, they just re-named it. It still resides in Ft. Benning. It’s called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation now.

  3. I’ll see your El Salvador and raise you a South Korea (200,000- 250,000 dead in the so-called Bodo League Massacres of June 1950). South Korea was a puppet state under the control of the American government. The massacres coincided with the start of the Korean War, a war planned and organized by Wall Street, which is why the South Korean puppet troops were able to kill so many people in so short a period of time- it was all planned long in advance.

    Then there were the Indonesian massacres of 1965, with a million+ killed over a longer period of time. These massacres were planned by the Lyndon Johnson regime, with the CIA and especially the Rand Corporation neck-deep in the blood of the innocent. Rand compiled the lists of the victims and psychologically conditioned the Indonesian officers who were tasked with carrying out the killings. CIA arranged the fake coup which served as both the trigger and the excuse for the massacres.
    The guilty parties? Lyndon Johnson, Marshall Green, Robert Komer, Frank Wisner, all Jews, and the entirely Jewish Rand Corporation as well. Their names are in my notes.

  4. Hopefully, Russ, one day you can “revisit” the Sandanista events in Nicaragua….the two stories, the one here and the Sandanista one, seem very very similar with similar results.

    Johnny Walker Read’s “karma” comment above rings true when you bring El Salvador’s MS-13 gangs into the picture and how they’ve massacred many Americans…whites, blacks, Hispanics, etc. And I truly think all the crapola and “ordo ab chao” events including Covid-19 nonsense and BLM-Antifa really is a “kharma is a bitch” scenario happening now as “vengeance” (divine vengeance?) against the USA for its abominations world-wide including continued support for the Syn of Sat aka Israel.

      • Yeah it was a rough war. You tell only the Communist side. The Communists were more brutal, as usual. A lot of tit for tat. And some Spanish priests and an Archbishop who were active participants on the Communist side. By the way, using the U.N. as a source is absurd.

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