Massacre Forces Salvador to Come to Terms With Past : Latin America: Investigation into mass killings 11 years ago will test whether country will be able to heal.


The killing began on a December morning.

By the time U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops had completed a rampage through six villages, according to human rights monitors, about 800 peasants and their children had died--rounded up, gunned down or beheaded with machetes. The massacre at El Mozote 11 years ago is believed to be the largest mass killing of civilians in El Salvador’s long and vicious fratricidal war.

Today, with the war officially over, forensic experts have recovered and examined the charred and shattered bones of victims in an effort to prove what the Salvadoran army and the governments of both El Salvador and the United States denied for years.

Most of the more than 140 skeletons found so far, extracted from a mass grave in the ruins of a parish house, are of children. Several have bullet holes in the backs of their skulls.


The emerging story of El Mozote is forcing El Salvador to come to terms with the hidden, ugly truths of its grisly past. And it is at the center of a larger debate over this country’s future: How does a polarized society heal itself after a war that killed tens of thousands of people and left a harvest of profound hatred?

The investigation into the massacre will test whether an ineffective and corrupt judicial system can be reformed and whether the army that has long dominated El Salvador and acted with impunity can be held accountable.

“If this case prospers through legal channels, it will finally give us some hope that we can build a judicial system,” said Maria Julia Hernandez, head of the Catholic Church’s human rights division, which is pushing the case despite what Hernandez describes as repeated roadblocks thrown up by government officials.

El Mozote is the most egregious among dozens of cases of torture, mass murder, rape and other human rights violations under investigation by the so-called Truth Commission set up by U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended the war.

Abuses committed by both sides in the 12-year civil war between government forces and leftist guerrillas are to be included in the commission’s final report, due this month. The commission’s work is unsettling to an already disgruntled military facing a purge of its worst human rights abusers.

“Salvadorans will only put the past behind them once the truth about the past is brought to light,” declared U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The army has long contended that if any civilians were killed at El Mozote, they were most likely caught in the cross-fire of combat. One government official heading the investigation suggested last month that the skeletons were from a guerrilla cemetery.

The church launched its mission to expose the truth last year. Investigators from the church’s human rights office, known as Tutela Legal, interviewed witnesses to reconstruct the events of December, 1981, at El Mozote and five nearby hamlets.

The church’s scathing, 81-page report laid blame for the massacre squarely on the shoulders of the army’s elite Atlacatl Battalion, a U.S.-created, -trained and -financed counterinsurgency unit. The report recounted the horrors witnessed by a lone survivor and by peasants from surrounding villages who hid in caves to escape death, but who were within earshot of the screams of dying children.

But it was the recent work of a team of foreign forensic anthropologists that produced the first concrete evidence of what happened.

The experts from the United States and Argentina spent a month carefully digging into the weed-covered ruins of an 18-by-21-foot parish house at El Mozote. Eventually they extracted 126 mostly small skeletons, filling dozens of boxes that were taken to the San Salvador coroner’s office for X-rays and inspection.

After working to piece together the palm-sized skulls exhumed from El Mozote, the anthropologists concluded that at least 120 children, many under the age of 12, were rounded up in the parish house and shot to death by gunmen using M-16 rifles and other weapons.

“There is no question about the fact that this was a mass murder,” said forensic pathologist Robert H. Kirschner, deputy chief medical examiner for Cook County, Ill., one of the experts who excavated El Mozote. “There is nothing to indicate this was a shootout.”

More than 200 spent cartridges and bullets were found inside and outside the parish house, Kirschner said. After they finished shooting, the gunmen set the small building on fire.

Also found at the excavation site--one of about 20 that will be explored--were the skeleton of a fetus in the pelvic bone of its mother and the skeleton of a baby so small that it must have been born only a few days before it died, said Argentine anthropologist Patricia Bernardi. “We’ve never had a site where they were almost all children,” she said. “The bones are very small.”

What has not been found in significant numbers, despite the reported scale of the massacre, are adult skeletons. Digging in and around El Mozote continues.

The forensic specialists are part of a team that has traveled the world exploring the dark secrets of mass graves created by conflicts as diverse as Argentina’s “dirty war,” Iraq’s repression of Kurds and the slaughter of peasants in Guatemala. They were allowed to work in El Salvador only after U.N. peacekeepers put pressure on the government here.

The forensic experts said they hoped, at best, to determine cause of death, age, sex and height of the victims. It was not likely that many would be identified.

El Mozote is a barely accessible village in Morazan province, a guerrilla stronghold that saw some of the fiercest combat of the war.

Troops from the Atlacatl Battalion, fresh from a firefight with rebels a mile or two from El Mozote on Dec. 10, 1981, were helicoptered to the village, according to the church investigation.

They spent the night in the area, then at dawn the next day they ordered the first group of townspeople into the plaza. The killing, according to the church report, went on for hours. Men were put in one line and taken to El Mozote’s church; some were decapitated by soldiers wielding machetes, while others who tried to flee were shot to death.

Women and children were ordered into another line. Some were taken to a villager’s house, others to the town schoolhouse. Some of the women were forced to lie face down on the ground, blindfolded and interrogated about whether they had collaborated with the guerrillas and where the rebels had hidden their weapons. Later, they were shot.

The younger women were taken away, forced to leave their children behind. They were raped and then shot or stabbed to death.

“I saw so many dead people, it gave me chills,” recalls Jose Guevara, one of only a handful of people known to have survived El Mozote.

“The soldiers were killing people,” Guevara said in an interview at the one-room shack where he now lives, not far from El Mozote. “They’d shoot through the windows into the houses where they had put the people. When they finished killing one group, they started rounding up the next.”

Guevara was 8 years old at the time. With other children, he had been ordered to one side of a field by the soldiers. But, he said, when he saw one of the battalion commanders throw a baby into the air and catch the child on the point of a bayonet, Guevara took the risk that saved his life.

“I decided it was better to die running than to die butchered,” he said. He bolted and ran into the brush, even as soldiers fired after him.

Guevara’s mother, father, 5-year-old brother and 3-month-old sister were killed at the scene.

He hid for days in the rough, forest-covered countryside until he was found by a contingent of guerrillas. He joined the rebel ranks and was with them until his unit was demobilized last month as part of the Salvadoran peace process.

Rufina Amaya also survived El Mozote. After fleeing to a refugee camp in Honduras, Amaya returned to El Salvador in 1990, and her testimony was the basis for the core of the church report.

Amaya escaped from the last group of women being led to their deaths. She hid in a tree, stifling her cries as she listened to the moans of the victims. She left behind four daughters, all of whom were murdered along with her husband.

“This is a reality that you don’t forget,” Amaya recently told reporters. “The suffering there was tremendous.”

The troops continued on their mission for at least two more days, moving into five other villages, according to the church investigation. In all, the report lists 393 dead in El Mozote, plus 401 dead in Rancheria, Jocote Amarillo, La Joya, Cerro Pando and Los Toriles. The church’s lists of dead were based not on physical evidence but on recollections of the surviving villagers, and the report states that the actual death toll may have been much higher because of uncounted children. Entire families were wiped out.

For Amaya, Guevara and other relatives, the newly invigorated probe into El Mozote is a vindication that the stories they told all these years are true and, moreover, that justice may be done.

Officially, the government is supportive of the investigation, which is costing $10,000 to $20,000 a month. But human rights groups maintain that the government, preferring that the probe not be completed, has sought to undermine it.

President Alfredo Cristiani, asked by the judge in charge of the case to provide a list of army officers active in the Morazan area at the time of the massacres, said no such information could be found. And several officials have stated publicly that they consider Amaya’s testimony exaggerated at best.

“If the killing was of the (magnitude) that she claims, it would have been very difficult for her to have survived,” said Dr. Juan Mateo Llort, the coroner overseeing the case.

A second site at El Mozote is currently being excavated by Salvadoran forensic experts, but no additional bones have been found, Llort said, adding that this calls into question portions of Amaya’s testimony.

The massacre was first reported by two U.S. newspaper reporters who were taken to the site by guerrillas about a month after the killings. When the reporters’ accounts were published, U.S. and Salvadoran officials went to great lengths to discredit the information, suggesting that a smaller number of people had been killed and that it was in the heat of combat.

The reports had surfaced at a particularly embarrassing time for then-President Ronald Reagan: The Administration was in the middle of a campaign to certify significant improvement in the human rights situation in El Salvador--an ultimately successful endeavor that freed additional U.S. military aid.

Eventually, U.S. officials came to recognize that a massacre had indeed taken place. But no effort was made to get to the bottom of it; and, according to a report earlier in 1992, from the Americas Watch human rights organization, few U.S. diplomats stationed in San Salvador had even heard of the case.

The Atlacatl Battalion, praised by U.S. advisers as El Salvador’s most aggressive fighting force, went on to rack up a notorious record. A platoon from the Atlacatl in 1989 carried out the middle-of-the-night murders of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter.

The Atlacatl was disbanded last month as part of the peace accords. But its now-dead first commander, who is said to have directed the El Mozote killings, was hailed by the government and the military as a hero during the disbanding ceremony.

The commander, Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, went on to lead a 1983 massacre in Copapayo of about 100 peasants whom he accused of being Communists, according to survivors. Monterrosa was killed in 1984 by guerrillas who blew up his helicopter.

Some in the government and elsewhere argue that delving into past atrocities is counterproductive for national reconciliation. These are wounds that should be allowed to heal without reopening, some officials argue.

But church leaders, human rights activists and the leftist guerrillas who fought the government for 12 years say that learning the truth about this and other massacres is the catharsis that is necessary before rebuilding can commence.

“If we are to begin a new life, we must know the truth,” said Father Jon Cortina, a Jesuit priest. “We cannot create a new society committing the same old errors of lying and falsifying.”