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The Battle over Memory at El Mozote

The massacre’s survivors have been fighting for justice for forty years

The Agave fourcroydes, a plant in the same family as the one used to make tequila, looks mean-spirited. It’s a pineapple on steroids, a rosette of double-edged leaves that end in spikes. A plantation of it can become like a natural razor-wired field, each shoot intertwining with the next to form chains. Unlike other plants in its family, which need higher altitudes and cooler weathers to thrive, it can live in temperatures ranging from 50 to 100°F. Commonly known as henequen, a variety of sisal, the fourcroydes has “fairly good strength, an ability to stretch, and fair resistance to deterioration,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. And yet, the people from this story refer to it as a “coward.” 

“The plant is coward towards fire,” Santos Sánchez, a seventy-nine-year-old man, told me earlier this year in La Joya, a little village in the northeastern region of El Salvador. The only way to think of the henequen as cowardly is if you’ve had the life of Santos. Forty years ago, midway through December 1981, U.S.-backed and trained troops murdered twenty-four of his relatives in La Joya during the El Mozote massacre, the worst of El Salvador’s civil war, which stretched from 1980 to 1992. Santos had been hiding in the village during the military operation. Five days after the massacre, he and his son Amadeo escaped and found Santos’ sister Rosario, her husband Ángel, and their kids, who had hidden separately. Santos asked Ángel if he had seen his wife María. Ángel told him to brace himself for impact. 

“Look, Santos, you need to be a man, you need to be strong and man up,” Ángel said.

“And where is María?”

“She’s in the doorway of Jacinto Sánchez’s house. They’re all dead.” 

Nine years went by before anyone in El Salvador was able to speak the truth about the massacre at El Mozote.

Santos’s family is part of a larger number. The massacre has 989 registered victims according to an official government investigation. It was part of a three-day scorched earth operation, between December 11 and 13, 1981. Scorched earth means just that: the soldiers did not stop at killing the people, a majority of them children. They also killed chickens, cattle, cats, and dogs and burned crop fields and large plantations of henequen. The massacre is named after El Mozote because that village is where the largest number of victims were found, but the military scheme included six other surrounding locations, including La Joya. The area was targeted to set an example: this would happen to any community that collaborated with guerrillas, even if that collaboration was minimal and not entirely voluntary, since civilians feared retaliation from both sides.

When Santos learned his wife and other relatives were dead, he started to cry but stopped soon after. He couldn’t afford it. “The soldiers will hear us,” Angel warned him. Moments later, they heard gunshots. Troops remained in the area, and for days survivors like Santos hid in nearby caves and hills. When the soldiers finally left, Angel and Santos came down to bury all their relatives. 

Nine years went by before anyone in El Salvador was able to speak the truth about the massacre at El Mozote. The war raged on—in all, it took 75,000 victims—and democracy was an elusive idea. After five decades of military governments, there was no independent court, judges, police, or prosecutors. Going to the authorities to seek justice was not only naive, but also dangerous. But in October 1990, as peace negotiations were underway, a group of peasants backed by the Catholic church went to Court to search for justice, filing a criminal complaint against the Atlacatl Battalion. (Pedro Chicas was the main claimant.) Forty years later the survivors have taken big strides, but justice still remains elusive. 

Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador Pamphlet. | Loyola University Chicago Digital Special Collections.

These days, El Salvador is hardly discussed in the American media. You might hear about Salvadorans in an immigrant caravan heading to the southern border, or the MS-13 gang, or Nayib Bukele, our crypto-enthusiast president (we’ll get back to him). But the landscape was very different in the 1980s. Back then, El Salvador was front and center of U.S. foreign policy, the stage of a very warm conflict during the Cold War. 

Think Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine during the Trump impeachment—that kind of coverage. Every major news organization had correspondents going in and out of San Salvador: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press, the Miami Herald. Even TV networks showed up. Americans had a stake in the country. U.S. taxpayer money—hundreds of millions of dollars—was being sent to support the military-controlled government and Army, in their fight against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups. Between 1980 and 1982, the economic aid totaled $354.5 million, more than what it had been in the prior three decades from 1946 to 1979. These figures come from Weakness and Deceit, a book by Raymond Bonner, who was a New York Times correspondent in El Salvador. Bonner and two other American journalists, Susan Meiselas and Alma Guillermoprieto, arrived at El Mozote in January 1982, barely weeks after the massacre.

The Times and the Post published their findings on January 27, 1982. The following day, President Ronald Reagan certified to Congress that the Salvadoran government “is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” To the leftist cries that “if Vietnam fell, El Salvador will fall,” Reagan responded by “drawing a line in the sand against communism,” as Secretary of State Al Haig put it. The policy was more important than the truth. Hence, the truth-tellers had to pay the price. Bonner took heat from the U.S embassy officials who said he had made “factual errors and misleading statements,” and he was later barred by Colonel Waghelstein from attending military briefings for some months. More viciously, he was attacked by other journalists; an editorial in the Wall Street Journal editorial said that Bonner was “overly credulous” with the guerrilla’s side of the story and added that he was “a reporter out on a limb.” Later that year, the Times transferred him to the financial beat in New York, and he quit.

No one in El Salvador told the truth about the massacre. The news was first picked up by a clandestine guerrilla radio, Radio Venceremos, but it did not make the mainstream media. La Prensa Gráfica, a major print outlet, reported on the Mozote operation with a picture of kids greeting troops. They said that the population had happily received the army’s entrance to recover territories that were under “terrorists” control. Neighboring countries, also under military regimes, didn’t report on El Mozote either. 

The president of the Court opposed the investigation in El Mozote, claiming that “only dead guerillas were buried” there.

It was in this context of a general media blackout—of state-sanctioned denial—that survivors went to the court in 1990. Their path through the legal system was as intricate as the henequen plantations under which many had hid. In 1977, a legal aid office, Socorro Juridico, had been opened in the Catholic Church by Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador whose assassination in 1980 marked for some the start of the civil war. Romero was a human right’s leader and the country’s foremost voice against social injustice and repression; a symbol of liberation theology, which tried to bring the church closer to the poor and oppressed, he was made a Catholic Saint in 2018. Socorro Juridico, which was renamed Tutela Legal in 1982, started gathering survivors’ testimonies soon after the massacre. Victims left the El Mozote area and scattered over the country and into refugee camps in Honduras. As survivors came back to El Mozote, Tutela Legal stepped up their investigations and got enough victims on board to present the case in October 1990.

The military then still had a strong grip on the country’s institution. The Attorney General’s office and the Supreme Court was filled with military allies. The president of the Court opposed the investigation in El Mozote, claiming that “only dead guerillas were buried” there. But after more persistence from Tutela Legal, the excavations began in El Mozote’s main square in October 1992, and the earth unveiled the truth:  thousands of  bones were dug up; more than two hundred of them were of children. Yet in 1993, six days after an UN Truth Commission on the war was published, the Legislative Assembly passed a broad amnesty law. There would be no trial in El Mozote.

Many changes came with peace. The security corps was dismantled and a new “civil police” put in their place; the FMLN became a political party and stood in free elections; freedom of speech was better respected. The right, however, remained in power, and they imposed a narrative of “forgive and forget.” Nevertheless, the victims persisted. They challenged the Amnesty law before the Constitutional Court and failed. Next, they went to the biggest regional stage, the Inter-American Human Rights Court (IAHRC). In 2012, the IAHRC announced its decision: El Mozote was a massacre and the Salvadoran government had to conduct an investigation. Three years later, in 2016, the left won central elections and the Constitutional court composition changed. The new justices struck down the amnesty and the El Mozote trial restarted in 2016. 

A lone judge, Jorge Guzmán, conducted pre-trial hearings where he took testimony from over fifty witnesses and demanded information from the army. (Though the military had lost much of its formal power, it still retained the respect and loyalty of many old timers. Expert witness Terry Karl compared them in the trial to a mafia family, in the sense that they protect each other and speaking out was seen as treason.) Justice seemed to be closing in, with the former minister of Defense among the defendants. But then the political winds changed again. The left was voted out in 2019, after ten years filled with accusations of corruption and perceived inefficiency, making way for an incumbent, young, independent (though formerly leftist) candidate. One of his first acts in power? To rename a military headquarters that honored Domingo Monterrosa, the executive commander of the massacre. Nayib Bukele announced to the world in 2019 that he was here to turn the page on the war. If the judge asked him to declassify files from A to F, he’d go further and declassify all the files, from A to Z. 

He didn’t. After Bukele’s party won a landslide mid-term election in 2021, he used his supermajority to illegally dismiss the Constitutional Court, the Attorney General, and a third of the country’s judges and replace them all with loyalists. Guzmán was among the two hundred judges dismissed. His replacement has not given any public indication of what her stance will be.

Archbishop Romero’s Funeral. |The Archbishop Romero Trust

Alma Guillermoprieto, who broke the story of El Mozote for the Washington Post at the same time as Bonner, says that journalists watch the spectacle of reality in front row seats. That’s what covering the El Mozote trial has been for me. I was born in 1991 and graduated high school in 2008. I did not learn about war history in high school. The El Mozote massacre is not included in the academic study plan because El Salvador is a country that’s not come to terms with its history. The massacre is a footnote, sometimes taught in college, which is a privilege most cannot afford. There’s not a national museum where you can learn about what happened. Information is available in newspapers and documentaries, but there’s no political will to teach history. Bukele’s government hasn’t even commemorated the Peace Accords in two years, which was a tradition upheld by the left and right. 

I believe the trial has already chipped away at the debate. The doubts are receding. In 2020, the former head of the Air Force admitted, under oath, that something “barbaric” (“grosería”) had happened in El Mozote. The lawyer of one of the defendants said they were not denying what had occurred, simply noting that their client’s participation hadn’t been proved. Even radicals among the military no longer claim that El Mozote is fiction. Now they point out that the guerrilla’s war crimes are not being equally pursued. The relentless voice of the victims has succeeded in a way, even if justice remains as distant as ever.  

The people in El Mozote have been crushed for four decades, and El Salvador is yet to weave something with all that has come out.

For decades, Rufina Amaya was the most visible face of the El Mozote survivors. Her testimony was featured in the Times and Post stories. Rufina’s daughter, Marta, opened a small museum in her house to commemorate the massacre, a room showcasing some of her mom’s belongings. She was threatened by an unknown man while riding a bus and the U.S. granted her asylum in August 2018. She is now one of millions of Salvadorans based in America. The war is why many of them made the journey north. 

Some silences remain. Santos is usually found in a tank top and straw hat, machete by his side, a suitable uniform for the humid heat in La Joya. Despite his slow pace, he retains strength enough to walk, climb steep roads, and do hard labor. He wears Elvis-like sideburns that are now gray, and his face is harrowed like the fields he’s cultivated all his life. He’s a man of few words. He’s never told me his side of the story. I’ve learned about it through his son, Amadeo, and his sister, Rosario. They both appeared before court in the trial. Not him. 

Santos still cultivates the Agave fourcroydes. The plant remains under three feet tall during its first five years; afterward it can go on to be harvested biannually for the next fifteen years. Santos will cut the leaves and crush each of them between rollers extracting a fiber that is then sun-dried and used to make rope. The people in El Mozote have been crushed for four decades and El Salvador is yet to weave something with all that has come out of them. Any hope I have left for the case rests on their shoulders. I’ve gone tens of times to their houses. Today, I call Amadeo, Santos’s son, to ask a question. I know the answer before I call him, but I still do. “Yes,” he says, “I will keep on testifying if they decide to start over. There are many witnesses who are tired and others who have died, but I agree on showing up every time.”