Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

15 Salvadoran Military Officers Could Soon Go on Trial for the El Mozote Massacre

The 1981 El Mozote massacre was one of the most horrific crimes in the US-backed dirty war in El Salvador. Fifteen retired military officers could soon go on trial for the crime — spotlighting again the blood-drenched horrors of US imperialism in Central America.

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazán, El Salvador. (Wikimedia Commons)

In April, El Salvador began the final phase of pretrial hearings in the criminal case against the accused perpetrators of the 1981 El Mozote massacre. The massacre, which took place during the country’s civil war of 1980–1992 and killed some one thousand civilians in and around the village of El Mozote — most of them children — was carried out by the US-trained and -funded Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military. If the judge concludes that there is sufficient evidence to move ahead with the trial, fifteen retired military officers could face prison sentences.

In his book Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War, former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner cites the recollections of massacre survivor Rufina Amaya, whose blind husband and three daughters were slaughtered:

From her hiding place in the trees, she heard the soldiers’ conversation: “Lieutenant, somebody here says he won’t kill children,” said one soldier. “Who’s the son of a bitch who said that?” the lieutenant answered. “I am going to kill him.”

The day after the bloodbath began, soon-to-be Iran-Contra convict Elliott Abrams took up a post as Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs and set about denying that the massacre had ever happened. Even after the civil war ended, Abrams insisted that the Reagan administration’s legacy in the Central American nation had been one of “fabulous achievement” — this despite the loss of upward of 75,000 lives, with the vast majority of atrocities attributed to the US-backed state and allied paramilitary formations and death squads.

During the current round of pretrial hearings, political scientist and El Salvador expert Terry Karl testified that US military adviser Allen Bruce Hazelwood was present in the department of Morazán, where El Mozote is located, with Atlacatl Battalion commander Domingo Monterrosa when the massacre transpired. The Salvadoran investigative journalism site El Faro — which has offered nonstop, bilingual coverage of the case, in contrast to a US press that generally can’t be bothered — quotes Karl as asserting that had Hazelwood’s presence “come to light at the time, it would have cut off United States aid.” Instead, a massive cover-up was orchestrated, and the gringos proceeded with their fabulous achieving.

Granted, there’s no understating US willingness to flout its own aid certification laws. On January 28, 1982, for example — a month and a half after El Mozote — Reagan certified that El Salvador’s government was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” This certification allowed military assistance to the country to continue and military advisers to remain stationed there. As Bonner writes in Weakness and Deceit, Reagan’s celebration of Salvadoran efforts took place precisely one day after both the Washington Post and the New York Times had run stories about the massacre; according to a tally by the archdiocese’s legal aid office, in the year preceding the certification “13,353 Salvadorans had been murdered by the Salvadoran Army, security forces, and paramilitary groups.”

But, hey, there was a communist menace to be vanquished. And what do you know: some hard-right Vietnam War veterans lent a helping hand, offering mercenary services to the Atlacatl Battalion in particular, as Karl documented in her recent testimony. She also brought up — speaking of Vietnam — the battalion’s use of a smattering of napalm bombs in El Mozote. While not accounting for the bulk of the massacre’s carnage — characterized more by things like throwing small children in the air and bayoneting them as they descended and shooting elderly women in their beds — the napalm factor is still striking in connecting the bloody imperial dots.

It’s even more striking given that the bombs were supplied by US partner-in-crime Israel, which long ago detected lucrative opportunities in making life hell for other human populations, not just Palestinians. The Israeli connection was confirmed in 1983 by then Salvadoran air force commander Rafael Bustillo to a visiting US congressional delegation, as the New York Times reported: “We bought it [the napalm] from Israel several years ago, and used it until 1981. If we hadn’t done that, I might not be sitting here today.”

The article went on to note that “the delegation’s report appeared in The Congressional Record of May 26, 1983, shortly after the delegation’s trip, but attracted little notice.”

As for the victims of El Mozote who aren’t sitting here today — and who haven’t been sitting here for nearly forty years — obstacles to justice have ranged from a postwar amnesty to pandemic-related delays to obstructive machinations by current Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele of the “New Ideas” party, who appears to be under the impression that fascism is a new idea.

The judge in the case is himself effectively under assault and is facing two requests that he recuse himself. As El Faro explains: “If one of those requests succeeds, the hearings will be canceled and the process left in limbo.”

A Salvadoran friend of mine, who runs a small shop at a school in San Salvador, recently told me about a cousin of his who joined the Atlacatl Battalion seven years after El Mozote, and whose commander had assured him at the end of the war that the peace accords were a farce and that they’d be back in business at any moment. My friend remarked: “The poor bastard died waiting to return to war; he always carried a hand grenade, and he saw ‘terrorists’ everywhere — even in his soup.”

In many ways, indeed, the Salvadoran war never ended. And whatever ultimately happens with the El Mozote trial, it’s already an indictment of a US foreign policy that is fundamentally criminal.