The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. role in the El Mozote massacre echoes in today’s immigration

An ongoing trial is bringing atrocities to light

The Judge of the Municipality of San Francisco Gotera, Jorge Guzman, left, swears-in U.S. expert Terry Karl before a hearing on the case of the El Mozote massacre, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, April 26 2021. (Miguel Lemus/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A previous version of this article stated that Orlando Márquez found the bones of relatives while digging the foundations for a house in 2011. The discovery was in 2010.

Forty years ago, one of the most widely known mass killings in recent Latin American history occurred in and around the village of El Mozote in El Salvador. A U.S.-backed Salvadoran army unit attacked civilians, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,000 people, 500 of them children.

After decades of fits and starts, a trial has resumed in El Salvador that is shedding new light on the events of those few days in early December 1981, as well as on how much U.S. officials knew and how they tried to cover up that knowledge.

Victims are still — after decades of denial, stonewalling and obfuscation — seeking justice for their suffering and the deaths of family when members of the U.S.-trained and armed Atlacatl battalion and other similarly equipped Salvadoran soldiers slaughtered the villagers.

The massacre was part of a war between an alliance of the military and an oligarchy that had oppressively ruled for five decades and a collection of guerrilla opposition groups that unified in 1980. The conflict’s official start date is typically marked by the 1980 assassination by a right-wing death squad of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was canonized a saint in 2018. Romero’s killing was the culmination of a half-century-long class war that pitted an extraordinarily impoverished peasantry against an ostentatiously wealthy landed elite that relied on murderous repression to maintain its stranglehold and squeeze profit out of the workers.

Though the United States had been meddling in the region for decades, by the 1960s, both Green Beret and CIA officers were in El Salvador organizing paramilitary groups that would, in the following decades, mature into death squads.

By the height of the Reagan era’s anti-communist fervor, the United States was dumping more than a million dollars a day of military aid into El Salvador. Terrified of any leftist activism in the context of the Cold War, the United States wanted to save face after the prolonged disaster of Vietnam and threw resources into El Salvador — as well as Guatemala and Nicaragua — to try to beat back the alleged Marxist menace. The United States poured in materiel and money. An estimated 75,000 people were killed in the 12-year civil war, half a million were displaced, and tens of thousands went missing. There were dozens of massacres: Whole villages like El Mozote and neighboring hamlets were razed, with survivors left to deal with the tragedy and trauma for decades.

In El Mozote in December 1981, the victims’ bodies were dumped behind houses, in the fields, in the dirt roads, left to rot or be burned. Villagers scurried to hide in a nearby cave. After a night listening to sporadic gunfire, explosions and screams outside, one woman took her infant baby down to a stream to wash. She was spotted by a soldier, who followed her to the cave and, perhaps for the sake of efficiency, perhaps just following orders, pulled the pin on a grenade and chucked it into the cave. Another child in the cave, a 6-year-old boy, was shielded from the shrapnel by his father. He survived. So did the father, who was temporarily deafened, and brother, who was bleeding from his ears. His mother died, and his 3-day-old sister’s legs were blown off. She died, too.

On Jan. 27, 1982, The Washington Post and the New York Times exposed the massacre to the world. Yet, one day later, the Reagan administration certified to Congress that the Salvadoran government had made strides in terms of the army’s reduction of abuses and violations of human rights.

But the Reagan administration knew this was false: Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state, energetically defended the continuity of aid to the Salvadoran army during congressional hearings in 1982. In doing so, he relied on an investigation that the State Department asked the U.S. Embassy to conduct. The objective was to disprove that the massacre at El Mozote had occurred. The embassy sent two researchers into the field. Although they never really entered the scenes of the slaughter and were systematically blocked by Salvadoran soldiers, their interviews of refugees indicated the magnitude of what had taken place. The refugees’ testimony, however, was ignored.

(Abrams would later play roles in Iraq and Venezuela under Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump.)

The civil war ended with the peace accords in 1992. A year later, the rightist government established an amnesty law that lasted until 2016 and spared from prosecution masterminds and foot soldiers alike. This injustice is being corrected through the current trial.

The civil war and massacres like El Mozote prompted Salvadorans to flee and emigrate. “When the Atlacatl arrives, people flee to the mountains,” Stanford University professor Terry Karl testified during the El Mozote trial, recalling a quote a Salvadoran farmer told a U.S. military adviser in the early 1980s. And when the mountains didn’t provide enough shelter from the Atlacatl, or other murderous brigades, Salvadorans took to the migrant trails, headed north, across Guatemala and Mexico until they got to Texas, New York, Maryland or California. But, because of its support for the Salvadoran government, the Reagan administration roundly denied their asylum claims.

While the El Mozote massacre was extreme, such atrocities continue across Central America today, but the U.S. populace remains mostly unaware, whether through indifference or by design.

News out of Central America rarely appears in U.S. media. Central Americans fleeing the carnage are only seen as embodying the border crisis and domestic issue, with little regard as to what sent them north. Rarely acknowledged is the past and current role of the United States in Central America.

Those that survived the massacre and have stayed in El Mozote and its surrounding area still live with the psychological and economic toll.

Pedro Ramos, who testified in August 2018, still wakes before dawn in La Joya and trudges his way to earn $5 a day in the fields. Amadeo Sánchez, who lost 24 family members during the massacre, is still searching for funds to finish the house he started to build with reparation money. His father, Santos, still works to make rope and fabric out of the sisal plant, only he says it’s now a hobby.

Some faces, however, aren’t to be found. At Orlando Márquez’s house, not far from Mozote’s main plaza, one of his granddaughters, an adorable 6-year-old, liked to play at his feet. (In 2010, Márquez found the bones of his relatives while digging the foundations for a house.) When asked about her, in the middle of the hearings, he said she had left with her parents. “There’s nothing to do here for young people. They don’t want to stay and earn $400 a month,” Márquez explained. Both the girl and her parents now live in New York.

Their migration reflects an effort to find safety from continued human rights violations, rampant crime, drug cartels, gang violence and poverty.

Indeed, the pattern of violence sparking northward migration hasn’t fundamentally changed since the El Mozote massacre. Perhaps because justice has never been served. Perhaps because both the governments of the United States and El Salvador have yet to own up to the atrocities that were committed.

The trial is bringing these atrocities — including the revelation that napalm bombs were used in El Mozote — into the open, offering a different lens through which to view Central Americans’ migration to the United States and the debate about U.S. border and immigration policy.