The rolling, crop-covered hillsides here are a quiet contrast to much of the rest of this war-ravaged country. There are few guerrillas in the region, the western part of El Salvador around the provincial capital of Sonsonate.
Yet on the banks of the muddy, green Talnique River today, beside small herds of grazing cattle, a shallow grave is covered with loose river mud.
Human rights sources, local residents and soccer fans believe it contains the body of one of at least 19, and possibly more than 40, persons taken from their homes in the nearby town of Armenia late last month for one of the most capricious massacres to date in El Salvador's newly resurgent civil war, where death comes randomly and vindictively and constantly.
The local press, which is carefully controlled by the government, has carried no word about the deaths. Some of the victims were apparently members of a local soccer team.
The priest in Armenia's main church said that he knew nothing of any massacres. But, the Rev. Fausto Cristales said, he does not go out into the streets and, essentially, does not try to investigate any killings. His predecessor, an activist cleric, had fled the country under threat of death and after his church sacristan was murdered.
The only public reference to an incident here came yesterday, when San Salvador's Acting Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, giving no details, said simply, "We have to condemn the capture and subsequent murder of 23 people in Armenia on July 30."
The most comprehensive version of what happened appears in testimony given to the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission, a private organization that collects evidence of alleged rights violations by security forces. The government has accused the group of aiding what it says are leftist attempts to defame and discredit the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.
According to an affidavit filed with the commission by an unnamed Armenia resident, the alleged massacre had its origins on Sunday, July 26, when the members of a local soccer team, playing for the Las Lajas Plantation, was stopped at a Salvadoran armed forces roadblock as it was returning home from a game in Sonsonate.
One team member, recently discharged from the Army, had been drinking and had words with a soldier. A fistfight ensued. The combatants were calmed down and the team members were allowed to pass through to their homes in Armenia.
Four days later, according to the Human Rights Commission affidavit, soldiers walked through the central streets of Armenia at 6 p.m., telling residents to stay inside because a house-to-house search was beginning.
By 7 p.m. soldiers were breaking in the doors of various houses, the affidavit says. One man named Pedro Sanchez was taken, another known as El Chino, a common nickname, was pulled from his home along with his entire family. Another, called Octaviano, was taken with 12 persons found in his house, and a man named Alfredo Pinto and his son were dragged away as well, according to the testimony.
Twenty-three bodies were found the next morning in the Talnique River, the affidavit said.
After the alleged massacre, according to a man connected with regional sports, the Las Lajas team was removed from the players' list of the Sonsonate league because it no longer existed.
The office of the official spokesmen for the Salvadoran armed forces in San Salvador said they would not be available for comment today.
Atrocity stories are commonplace in any war, and especially this one where propaganda battles have become as important as those fought with bullets. Often, the massacres are blamed on government forces. Sometimes, as with the deaths of 28 persons found lying on a river bank this summer in the northern province of Chalatenango, the government issues unqualified denials.
Other times, denials are followed by admissions. The government initially denied reports that its troops had killed as many as 600 peasant refugees attempting to cross the border into Honduras in the spring of last year. Later, a Cabinet minister said the number killed had not exceeded 135.
When the bodies of 30 persons who residents said had been dragged from their homes and shot were found strewn over the streets of the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango one morning last April, first the press, then the U.S. State Department, and finally the Salvadoran government said Treasury Police soldiers were responsible.
The alleged massacre of the Las Lajas soccer team fits a pattern of similar events in which many people profess to be certain of what happened, and the only certainty is that people were taken from their homes, and people were found dead. Sometimes even the numbers of the dead are at odds.
One Armenia resident, who insisted that his name not be used, but who makes it his business to know where bodies are buried, said he had been informed of 42 persons killed on the night of July 30. He said 22 bodies were dumped at a settlement called El Tigre on the Talnique River, another 15 in the Sucio River (of which the Talnique is a tributary) and the rest in the villages of Sacacoyo and Pacum.
Peasants who live near the bridge in El Tigre said that early on the morning of July 31 they heard a heavy truck stop for several minutes. They did not look outside.
"In the morning," said one peasant, "we saw bodies everywhere." He said he counted 16 before the local Army headquarters in Sacacoyo was informed and took the bodies away.
About a mile downstream three more bodies were found, apparently swept along by the current of the Talnique before lodging in the storm pipes of the little bridge here, according to the peasants who helped bury them.
Other bodies may have floated even farther downstream but the peasants here could only speculate about that.
Subsequently, families quietly came from Armenia and retrieved two of the bodies in this grave, the peasants said.
One man in Armenia said that friends of his had been told by the Army not to try to retrieve any of the corpses because the killing might "defame" the armed forces.
Today, despite its relative distance from the heavy fighting, Armenia is full of fear.
Reports that residents are fleeing the town seem exaggerated. Its central square is full of people strolling and even playing bingo in front of the church. But few want to talk about the night of July 30. Few want to talk at all.
"In the month of July alone," Rivera y Damas said yesterday, "there were 819 victims of the spiral of violence" in the country overall. "Some of them were taken from their houses after curfew. Who can feel safe after curfew?" he asked.