The El Mozote Massacre

The work of Clyde Snow and others who labor with problems of individual identification in cases of mass disasters reflects the humanistic side of their profession—the need to account for all human beings, especially those who have been the victims of atrocities. — Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, Ph.D. Professor of Ecology, Anthropology, Asian Studies, Cornell University. (From a private letter to the author.)The site of the old, burned down church in El ...

In his book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, author Mark Danner wrote that the events at El Mozote in the early 1980s may well have represented the largest massacre in modern Latin American history. In fact, this tiny, impoverished village, which is located in a mountainous region of northeastern El Salvador, proved to be a killing ground of unspeakable horror and a focal point of international controversy that involved the outright denial of historical truth by high-ranking representatives of two governments, including our own. It was only when the science of forensic anthropology was brought to bear at the El Mozote site, more than a decade after the massacre, that the world would learn of the horrific crimes that had claimed the lives of all but one villager. Unfortunately, for Americans, we would also learn that the atrocities that occurred in this Salvadoran village were a direct result of our nation’s unflagging support of a foreign government that set few limits on the use of force against its own people.

El Salvador is a country of less than 6 million people, whose population lives primarily in rural areas. This is a very poor nation, with as many as 3 million inhabitants living in extreme poverty. Most of the citizens of El Salvador eke out a marginal subsistence on the land and live in isolated communities where comforts are few but family and religious bonds are crucial and unquestioned.

In 1981, El Salvador was at the height of a civil war that was ravaging the countryside, costing thousands of innocent lives and resulting in a complex network of foreign entanglements and intrigue that epitomized the political and philosophical divisions inherent in the Cold War. At the time of the civil war, Cuba and Nicaragua supported the guerrillas fighting in El Salvador, who were organized as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and committed to overthrowing the regime then in power in their country. For its part, the Salvadoran government was equally committed to putting down the revolution, using whatever force they thought necessary to do so. The ruling government was strongly supported by American funds, weapons, and specialized military training that focused on counterinsurgency combat techniques. Caught in the middle of this brutal conflict were the Salvadoran people—most of them poor, peaceful, and deeply religious peasants—who struggled with both the civil war and the inherently difficult living conditions common to the vast rural areas of their country.

In all, more than 75,000 people would be killed in the twelve-year civil war before peace was finally restored to El Salvador. Sadly, many peasants and refugees in this conflict became the victims of a series of brutal massacres that were carried out by the Salvadoran military. However, of the many atrocities that took place during the course of the conflict, none was worse than what occurred in the small village of El Mozote in 1981.

On December 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI), the Third Infantry Brigade, and the San Francisco Gotera Command Training Centre descended on the village of El Mozote in an anti-guerrilla action that had been code named “Operacion Rescate.” The goal of this operation, which had begun a few days earlier on December 6, 1981, was to eliminate guerilla presence in the northern Morazan area of the country and, in particular, in the hills near El Mozote, where a guerrilla training camp was thought to be located. The Salvadoran troops had been engaged in minor skirmishes with guerrillas in the area near El Mozote for several days preceding their occupation of the village. Much of the combat had involved American-trained and equipped soldiers, who comprised the heart of the infamous Atlacatl Battalion.

The Atlacatl Battalion had an unhappy history that may have led to its reputation as an especially brutal element of the Salvadoran military. Nine months before the commencement of Operacion Rescate, a company of the Battalion had taken part in another anti-guerrilla operation near El Mozote. During that encounter, the Atlacatl Battalion had suffered heavy causalities and was forced to retreat in disgrace from the area. After this incident, the Battalion became the brunt of jokes from other military units, acquiring the hated moniker of the “Rapid Retreat Infantry Battalion.” When the Atlacatl Battalion once again found itself positioned near El Mozote, its members were committed to not repeating their mistakes of the past.

El Mozote was a typical rural village, comprised of about twenty small homes that surrounded a modest central square. Facing the square was the village church, which was the primary gathering point for villagers and the pride of El Mozote’s inhabitants. Behind the church, a small building had been erected, which was known to the villagers as the “convent house.” This structure was used by the Catholic priest to change into his vestments before celebrating mass for the residents of El Mozote and the surrounding area.

When they arrived in the village, the Salvadoran soldiers discovered that the population of El Mozote had swelled with a large number of peasants from the nearby area. These refugees had fled their own villages and homes to avoid the ongoing clashes between the military forces and the guerrillas, seeking the relative safety they thought would be provided by a respected businessman who lived in El Mozote. The occupying soldiers immediately assumed that the villagers and refugees were guerilla sympathizers and decided to deal with them in the harshest possible way. In reality, few of the peasants that the soldiers encountered that day were involved in the ongoing conflict. Most of them were women and children.

Soon after their arrival in El Mozote, government troops ordered the residents to leave their homes and gather together in the village square. There, the frightened peasants were divided into groups of men, women and children, and placed under guard in various structures, including the church and the convent house. Throughout that night, the villagers were held without food or water and kept under an armed watch.

The following morning, December 11, members of the Atlacatl Battalion reassembled the villagers in the square in front of the church. At midday, the male villagers were systemically interrogated, tortured, and then executed by the soldiers. When all the men in the village had been massacred, the troops began murdering the women and children by herding them into the convent house and shooting them to death. When they were convinced that the entire population of El Mozote had been slain, the troops set fire to the buildings in which the bodies lay. However, one woman managed to survive the ordeal and later tell her story of that horrific day.

After the massacre, the government troops spent the night in El Mozote without bothering to bury the bodies of any of their victims. The following morning, they moved to the village of Los Toriles, which was approximately two kilometers away. There, they continued with the massacre. However, a few residents of Los Toriles were able to flee the area after the soldiers arrived and later confirmed the atrocities that they had witnessed.

In the village of El Mozote, only one individual was known to have escaped the massacre of December 11, 1981—Rufina Amaya, who had witnessed the murder of her blind husband while hiding in some bushes at the edge of the village. Tragically, while still out of sight of the soldiers, she also heard the screams of her four children as they, too, were systemically murdered.

When she was later located and interviewed by investigators, Amaya explained her remarkable tale of survival in an exceptionally moving and straightforward way that both affirmed her strong faith and expressed her deep pain:

God saved me because He needed someone to tell the story of what happened. I wish He hadn’t, though, because it is very painful to have to think of it all the time. There are so many things that I remember, and I tell them, but I just cannot stand to be there [in El Mozote].

The actual number of victims who were massacred at El Mozote has never been precisely determined. However, highly conservative estimates initially put the number at two hundred. Some estimates ran as high as 1,000 victims slaughtered that day. In fact, most investigators believe the number to certainly exceed five hundred.

The villages of El Mozote and Los Toriles were not the only locations of atrocities carried out by Salvadoran troops around that time in the Morazan area. In fact, the Atlacatl Battalion and other government troops ravaged several surrounding villages. According to the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote, the following massacres of civilians also took place at approximately the same time in nearby locations:

  • More than 20 civilians were murdered in the La Joya area on December 11, 1981.
  • Approximately 30 civilians were murdered in the village of La Rancheria on December 12, 1981, by units of the Atlacatl Battalion.
  • An unknown number of civilians from the village of Jocote Amarillo were executed on December 13, 1981.

On January 27, 1982, the American public and the world became aware of the El Mozote tragedy when articles written by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and the Washington Post. In those articles, the investigative journalists confirmed that they had visited the site of the massacre earlier that month and had personally seen the remains of the victims and the ruins that had once been El Mozote. When these articles first appeared in the press, Reagan administration officials involved in overseeing Central American policy publicly ridiculed them and brushed aside any possibility of a massacre. In fact, they claimed that El Salvador had made a good deal of progress in the area of human rights. However, as the world would soon learn, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Despite an immediate outcry by a variety of human rights organizations in the United States and other countries, the Salvadoran government immediately and unequivocally denied that any atrocities had taken place. The United States government continued to publicly support the Salvadoran government position and no official investigation into the incident was undertaken. However, human rights activists, working in secret, located the few remaining eyewitnesses to the massacres. Their testimony left little question that the alleged atrocities had actually taken place. Still, in the face of strong denials by both the U.S. and El Salvador governments, more than eyewitness testimony was needed to confirm what had occurred. Somehow, hard scientific evidence of the tragedy that had befallen El Mozote would have to be gathered.

In 1989, the legal office of the El Salvadoran Catholic Church, Tutela Legal, began an investigation into the massacres at El Mozote and the surrounding villages, based largely on the scarce eyewitness testimony of survivors and the work of a few investigative journalists. It was not long before the findings of Tutela Legal were made public. They indicated that at least 767 persons had been killed in the area around El Mozote in 1981. Still, even the report released by Tutela Legal was publicly derided since it contained no hard evidence to refute the Salvadoran government’s revised position that only insurgents had been targeted by their military actions.

In an effort to produce further hard evidence of the massacres, the leaders of Tutela Legal contacted the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and asked them to provide scientific assistance in their investigation by conducting an exhumation of key areas in and around the village of El Mozote. This action, they believed, would finally provide irrefutable proof of the atrocities that were now known to have been committed but continued to be so vehemently denied by government authorities.

In 1992, the warring parties in El Salvador’s civil uprising executed a peace accord, formally bringing an end to the twelve-year conflict that had ripped the country apart. As part of the treaty, both sides agreed to let the United Nations oversee an investigation into serious acts of human rights violations that had occurred over the previous decade. This was the opportunity that was needed by organizations like Tutela Legal to move ahead in gathering solid evidence of war crimes.

For much of 1992, the EAAF and several internationally renowned forensic anthropologists and scientists struggled to obtain legal permission from the Salvadoran government to begin their investigation in earnest. Finally, near the end of that year, all permissions were in place and the fieldwork was scheduled to begin.

An exhumation of the remains of the victims at El Mozote took place from November 13-17, 1992, by a combined effort with Salvadoran and international forensic scientists. It was decided that particular attention would be given to the area near the village church and the convent house, where Rufina Amaya had claimed to witness the murder of her entire family.

The El Mozote team of scientists included: Clyde C. Snow, Ph.D., forensic anthropologist; Robert H. Kirschner, M.D., forensic pathologist; Douglas D. Scott, Ph.D., archeologist and ballistics expert, and John J. Fitzpatrick, M.D., trauma radiologist. This team operated as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador and in conjunction with the EAAF, who had intimate knowledge of fieldwork in Central and South America.

Eight years earlier, in 1984, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense, or EAAF) had been founded under the guidance of Clyde Snow to investigate the fate of individuals who had disappeared during the many years of a repressive military regime in that country. Since its inception, the EAAF had handled cases in Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Brazil, and a number of other Central and South American countries. It was comprised of an experienced and highly professional group of scientists, who were familiar with the special challenges of forensic anthropology fieldwork in rural Central American venues. The organization’s efforts at El Mozote proved to be crucial to the successful exhumation of remains and evidence collection, as well as the eventual confirmation of the atrocities that had claimed the lives of so many villagers.

The Science at El Mozote

The principle site exhumed by the El Mozote forensic team was the convent house—the ruin of a small, single-room building that was adjacent to the remains of the village church. This structure measured 4.36 by 6.94 meters and had been destroyed by fire after the inhabitants of the village were executed. It was at this site that at least 143 human skeletons were unearthed.Because of the time that had elapsed since the massacre, the lack of burial of any of the victims, and the actions of predatory animals in the area, many of the remains were scattered and partially destroyed. In addition, because the structure had been set ablaze, the remains were also subject to damage by fire and the crushing weight of the structure as it collapsed on the bodies inside. The El Mozote site was exhumed by members of the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and the remains were subsequently analyzed by members of Clyde C. Snow’s interdisciplinary team, acting as consultants to the United Nations Truth Commission.

The exhumation team carried out the field investigation, prepared extensive sketches, photographs, and videotapes of their work, which were later provided to Snow’s analysis team using the facilities at the Institute of Legal Medicine at Santa Tecla. Both Snow’s team and the EAAF subsequently released separate reports on their findings. Snow’s report was included in the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Mozote (1992), which proved to be the definitive account of what had transpired in that village in 1981.

The El Mozote team issued their report of findings on December 10, 1992, which not only authenticated the story that had been told by Rufina Amaya but vilified the government of El Salvador. The conclusions reached by the scientists clearly demonstrated that a horrific act of mass murder had occurred at El Mozote and had been subsequently covered up for more than a decade.

While in El Salvador, the El Mozote team analyzed hundreds of skeletal remains, ballistic evidence, a variety of clothing, coins, and other artifacts that had been exhumed in and around the area of the village church and the convent house. After collecting the evidence at the village, the group undertook its analysis at a special laboratory that had been established at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Santa Tecla. There, the scientists were assisted by various members of the Institute staff, a local dental expert, and the Comision de Investgacion, which provided additional ballistics testing support.

The El Mozote team was able to confirm overwhelming evidence of the massacre that had been denied on virtually all fronts, including by the United States government, for so many years. In their final report, Snow’s group offered precise and compelling evidence for their troubling conclusions:

  • At least 143 skeletal remains were discovered, including 136 adolescents and children, and 7 adults. The team was able to determine that the average age of the slain children was approximately six years. Despite the confirmed number of victims, the scientists believed that a greater number of deaths had occurred at El Mozote. However, they were unable to positively confirm additional victims due to the chaotic nature of the burial site, the activity of predatory animals in the area, and the number of years that had passed since the executions.
  • The skeletons unearthed at El Mozote demonstrated unmistakable evidence of severe trauma caused by high velocity gunshot wounds, crushing wounds, and fire or heat damage to the remains.
  • The team determined that the victims had all died at approximately the same time, followed by a deliberate burning of the structure in which the villagers perished. It is possible that some of the victims were burned alive since not all the remains showed evidence of death by gunshot wounds or other identifiable trauma. From the evidence at the scene, including coins and other personal belongings, the team determined that the victims had definitely been slain no later than 1981.
  • Although the vast majority of the victims were children, one of them was a pregnant woman.
  • At least nine of the victims were shot inside the convent house while they were lying in a horizontal position.
  • Nearly 250 cartridge cases and more than 260 bullet fragments were discovered at the El Mozote site. The majority of these cartridge cases (184) showed discernible headstamps that indicated the ammunition had been manufactured for the United States government at a Lake City, Missouri, location. Beyond this, 34 of the casings were preserved well enough for the team to further identify certain characteristics related to the weapons that had been used in the executions. According to the El Mozote ballistics team report, all but one of the bullets had been fired from M-16 rifles that were manufactured in the United States. Twenty-four individual weapons were identified, based on an analysis of the casings, implying at least twenty-four individual shooters who participated in the massacre.
  • According to the unearthed ballistics evidence, the team determined that the shooters fired at their victims while they were huddled together in the convent house. The shooters had positioned themselves near the doorway and at the area of a window to the right of the doorway, while their targets were gathered together in the middle of the room. In other words, the children and adults were surrounded and fired upon by the shooters, who had blocked any possible escape from the structure.
  • There was no evidence discovered that would support the long-held government assertion that these victims were actively involved in armed conflict or caught in the crossfire of warring parties. Rather, the evidence clearly supported the conclusion that the victims were intentionally murdered while unarmed and apparently uninvolved in any ongoing conflict.

Even at the time of their field investigation, the forensics team was convinced that many more victims had been claimed at El Mozote than could be accounted for by their findings, and several EAFF scientists carried on with the work at the site. By late 1993, the EAAF team publicly announced that they had been able to identify more than 500 people who had been killed in and around the village in December 1981. However, it is widely accepted that the true extent of the massacre will never be known.

Unfortunately, there are few final answers to the El Mozote tragedy, and much will likely never be known about the atrocious acts that destroyed the village and its inhabitants in 1981. The Salvadoran government has persistently claimed that it is unable to identify any of the participants in the massacre at El Mozote, publicly maintaining that there are no government records still in existence from the time period in question.

Today, in the village of El Mozote, a Wall of Lamentations has been erected in honor of those who died so needlessly. The monument depicts a man and woman holding the hands of two small children. On the monument, a plaque reads: “They have not died, they are with us, with you, and with all mankind.” For El Salvadorans, no other explanation is needed to describe the horror that befell this small village.

The humanitarian work undertaken by the forensic scientists who excavated and analyzed the El Mozote massacre site confirmed the truth of what had happened in this tiny village so many years ago—and it did so beyond any doubt. The efforts of these scientists not only led to an important revision of false history that had been propagated by government authorities for far too long, it also brought honor upon themselves and to the victims who perished in such a merciless, cruel way. Hopefully, the truth of the horrible history that the EAAF and Clyde Snow’s team brought to light will lead us all to a heightened awareness of the atrocities that are so often committed by a government against its own people. In so doing, perhaps this knowledge can help prevent future occurrences of these kinds of horrific crimes.

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