The El Mozote Massacre: The Community
June 27, 2016
Guest post by Leigh Binford, author of The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications
For those who follow events in El Salvador, it’s a given that they will become acquainted at least casually with the El Mozote massacre. Along with the murder of three American nuns and one lay worker, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and the killing of six prestigious Jesuit intellectuals, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Central American University, the El Mozote massacre was one of the government’s most egregious human rights violations. In this post I will describe the massacre itself as well as focus on some common misconceptions about El Mozote and the massacre.
Between December 11 and 13, 1981, the Salvadoran Altlacatl Battalion massacred more than a thousand men, women and children in and around the hamlet of El Mozote, located in the northeastern department of Morazán. The massacre occurred toward the end of the second year of a brutal civil war between the government and the rebel FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) that terminated in 1992. The war resulted in at least 75,000 dead and 7,000 disappeared, 85 percent at the hands of the government military and 10 percent by the paramilitary and death squads linked to them, according to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report. Government forces committed dozens of massacres, but the massacre at and around El Mozote is the one that most people recall, in part because several journalists visited the area several weeks after the event and published articles in major U.S. newspapers that forced the newly-installed Reagan administration to undertake a cursory investigation.
El Mozote shortly after the massacre
When the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered El Mozote on December 10, the resident population had been swollen by an influx of people from surrounding rural areas, apparently heeding a suggestion passed along by a respected local merchant that those concentrating there would be spared by the soldiers during its planned scorched earth operation, aimed at an FMLN encampment several miles to the west. The Atlacatl troops assembled the population, forced people to lie face down (boca abajo) and roughly interrogated them. It then separated men and boys from women and children for the night. The killing began the morning of December 11 when soldiers marched most of the men from the church in small groups into the fields and wooded areas, where they forced them to lie on the ground and dispatched them with shots to their heads. Late in the afternoon, groups of women were led from the houses in which they had been interned and forced into another house where they were apparently machine gunned en mass. Rufina Amaya, believed by many to be the lone survivor of the massacre, was in one of the last of these groups. During the chaotic scene in which a few soldiers attempted to control more than a dozen desperate, begging, pleading, praying and crying women aware of the death that awaited them, Amaya dropped down behind a tree and was not seen by the distracted guards. Later, she crawled into an adjacent cactus field and eventually abandoned the area, though not before she heard the agonized cries as the soldiers killed dozens of children, hers included. Amaya was certainly the principal and most important witness, but dozens of people avoided detection.
Over the course of the next two days Atlacatl companies rampaged across the landscape, murdering all those they encountered, dispatching farm animals and burning homes. At least six hamlets were affected and the dead totaled a minimum of 1061 as of April 2012, according to a careful, genealogically-based study carried out among surviving family members in Morazán, San Miguel, San Francisco Gotera, and other destinations of people displaced by the war.
Forensic work conducted by the Argentine Anthropology Forensic Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) in 1992-1993 and later during the first decade of the new millennium added more detail to our knowledge of the massacre and provided clear evidence that disputed the Salvadoran government’s repeated claims that FMLN guerrillas in El Mozote used civilians as human shields. Responsibility for the atrocity was put to rest in 2012 when President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) visited El Mozote on the twentieth anniversary of the peace accords that terminated the armed conflict and asked forgiveness from the residents for the government’s wartime actions. In April of that same year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard the El Mozote case in Guayaquil, Ecuador and in a ruling made public on December 10, 2012—the significance of the choice of that date was clear—found uniformly for the plaintiffs in the case and ordered the government to make monetary and nonmonetary reparations.
The El Mozote massacre seemed to have come full circle, from atrocity and denial to admission and (hopefully) reparations. While reparations cannot undue the wrong committed, they might, according to psychologist María Sol Yáñez, make it possible for the survivors to “confide in life again and develop a life project.”
But missing from this story is any sense of or apparent interest in the social and economic relationships and beliefs that predominated in El Mozote and its environs before the civil war. Who died at El Mozote? How did they live? Few people ask these questions, and when they are asked, most of the answers provided are downright wrong. I want to share briefly my understanding of the pre-war community in the hope that doing so will cast new light on this atrocity and further dignify the lives that were snuffed out in it.
El Mozote Before the Massacre
I carried out ten fieldtrips to northern Morazán between 1991 and 2012, conducting interviews in municipalities through the region and participating in dozens of cooperative meetings, NGO orientations, local government functions, church services, fiestas and so on. While I was particularly interested in the civil war and reconstruction and reconciliation, I knew that I needed baseline knowledge of the pre-war period in order to be in a position to grasp local and sub-regional differences in degrees of adherence to the government, the actions of security and paramilitary forces, and incorporation into the FMLN. El Mozote, which means “The Thistle,” turned out to be unique and one-of-a-kind, the most unlikely site imaginable for the recruitment of people to an organization dedicated to overthrowing the government. No single factor explained the resistance that FMLN recruiters encountered in El Mozote. But the fact that most people residing in and around the hamlet had achieved substantial benefits from working within the system goes a long way to explain why they had little interest in seeing it replaced or opposing it.
A small group of local merchants and landowners spearheaded a series of impressive social and economic achievements. In the late 1950s the inhabitants spent several years raising money and donating labor in order to build the church in which the Atlacatl interned the men and boys before killing them. A decade earlier residents of El Mozote had formed a ten-person directorate, acquired a plot of land, constructed a rudimentary edifice and solicited a schoolteacher from a representative of the government Ministry of Education. A census enumerated 75 eligible schoolchildren, and in 1946 the ministry provided a teacher for the school, which locals named “El Jícaro” (The Calabash Tree). El Jícaro remained the area’s sole educational institution until a brick school building, constructed with government assistance, opened near the center of the hamlet in the 1970s.
Then in the mid-1970s El Mozote was chosen to be the site of an agricultural school that would train peasants in agriculture, bricklaying, carpentry and other practical skills. The school was to be a gift of the Venezuelan government. The government made location of the project in El Mozote contingent on the community’s acquisition of 5 manzanas (roughly 8.5 acres) of land. A portion of the land was donated, and the remainder was purchased with community funds obtained from the sale of the abandoned El Jícaro site. An engineer measured the site in 1978, and representatives from the Venezuelan embassy arrived to approve the project. But construction was suspended because of the deteriorating political situation in northern Morazán.
One of El Mozote’s main streets shortly after the massacre
Finally, it is important to mention the Cooperative Association of Agricultural Production “23 May,” established in 1975. Most of the half-dozen pre-war cooperatives that I have documented in northern Morazán began as “revolving credit” associations; their members bought raw materials and sold agricultural products but never accumulated sufficient capital or developed the organizational and accounting skills necessary to move into production. Members of the El Mozote cooperative were required to make small, monthly donations that were deposited in a bank account in San Francisco Gotera, the departmental capital. They used this money as collateral with which to contract bank loans for the purchase of fertilizer and cattle. During the cooperative’s last years, the membership bought a motorized machine to extract henequen fiber, used to make rope and other products, from the cactus plants that most of them cultivated. The machine cheapened the cost of production, although it also reduced the need for human labor power.
The accomplishments that I have discussed—and there were others—were initiated and moved forward by a core group of highly motivated peasants and petty merchants, but they improved the quality of life in El Mozote for everyone. Without leaving the area, people in and around El Mozote and nearby hamlets could purchase many key consumer items, send their children to school, attend church, and bury their dead. (Unlike other hamlets in northern Morazán, El Mozote also had its own cemetery.) These services saved time and resources for everyone who lived within walking distance of the hamlet center. Those who resided farther away had to expend more time to shop, worship, and attend school. With its “main street” and cluster of cement-block and tile-roofed buildings around the little plaza, El Mozote even looked like an embryonic municipal center, a far cry from most northern Morazanian hamlets. Some people in El Mozote even had aspirations of achieving municipal status; had they been able to do so, the educational, transportation and economic infrastructure would have improved even more.
There were, without a doubt, serious limits to the developments that I have documented here. The population grew rapidly in the decades before the civil war, leaving a growing number of people without land or without enough of it on which to sustain a household, for which reason many males migrated seasonally to coffee and other agro-export areas in the west and northwest. Some people even abandoned Morazán altogether. But compared with the vast majority of those residing outside municipal centers, people in and around El Mozote were in a privileged situation. In effect El Mozote was a relatively successful example of liberal rural development theory put into practice, the kind of community about which USAID bureaucrats rhapsodize. Its success goes a considerable way to explain why few people were attracted by the FMLN call to arms, and why fewer still heeded that call, as rebel spokespersons admitted. Many people in El Mozote had little to gain and much to lose by opposing the system. That makes it all the more ironic that their community was eradicated by government forces.
Correcting the Misconceptions
In addition to adding to our knowledge about the El Mozote before the massacre, I want to speak to three common misconceptions about the massacre. The three common misrepresentations are the following: first, that all or almost all the inhabitants died in the massacre; second, that El Mozote had escaped political violence until the Atlacatl battalion conducted its scorched earth operation in December of 1981; and third, that most residents in the hamlet were evangelical Protestants. These three misrepresentations have been produced and reproduced in books, articles, blog posts and elsewhere for over two decades.
The first of those misrepresentations is that all or almost all the population was wiped out in the massacre. It is a fact that Rufina Amaya, a humble peasant woman, married to Domingo Claros and mother of six children, who is believed by many to have been the only survivor, was the only person who was rounded up by the Atlacatl, marked for imminent death and then escaped, though José Guevara (later known as “Chepe Mozote”), ten-years old at the time of the massacre, ran from soldiers when he observed them hanging children from a tree near the school. However, dozens of people left their homes shortly ahead of Atlacatl soldiers and hid nearby; they heard or observed as people were lined up and shot and their homes torched. Most of these survivors found their way to the United Nations refugee camp in Colomoncagua, Honduras, where they remained until camp residents returned to northern Morazán in late 1989 and early 1990 to form Community Segundo Montes. Numerous survivors of the massacre, including Rufina Amaya, resided in Segundo Montes and I had no difficulty locating and speaking to them during the summer of 1993. Indeed, Rufina Amaya was only one among a number of people who went to the departmental capital of San Francisco Gotera in 1990 to file a formal complaint about the massacre. Over the course of the next fifteen years, former residents of El Mozote and other hamlets wiped out in the Atlacatl operation pursued justice (to no avail) with the assistance of Tutela Legal of the San Salvador archdiocese.
The number of witnesses willing to come forward and give testimony multiplied after 2006, when a human rights organization formed in the now repopulated El Mozote. Dozens of people contributed written and videotaped testimony in a 2010 complaint delivered to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and later to judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which heard the case in April 2012 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Three women born in northern Morazán made the trip to Ecuador in order to give verbal testimony before the court: Dorila Márquez de Márquez of El Mozote, María del Rosario López Sánchez of La Joya, and María Margarita Chicas Márquez of Arambala. These women survived because they lived on the edges of the operation where the killing was selective and not within the operation zone where it was complete (María Margarita), or because Atlacatl soldiers “missed” the house, perhaps thinking that it had been abandoned (Dorila), or because they did not trust the army and left just before it arrived (María del Rosario).
It seems certain that many people from outlying areas concentrated in the hamlet center, probably because they were told by Marcos Díaz that they would be spared. However, many others either ignored Díaz’s warning or did not learn of it and remained in their homes. Most of the survivors—Rufina Amaya and José Guevara excepted—lived outside the hamlet center or in rural settlements scattered over the extensive countryside. This was a chaotic time and people made all manner of decisions based on incomplete and uncertain information as well as their own beliefs concerning the army’s intentions.
Given what I have said, one might wonder about the proportion of the population, and not just the number, killed in the massacre. It was, I think, much smaller than is generally believed. During the summer of 1993, I collected 14 genealogies from people originating from El Mozote and the surrounding area who had either begun to repopulate the community or were living in Segundo Montes. These 14 extended family units included 586 persons alive in December 1981 on the eve of the arrival of the Atlacatl to El Mozote. According to interviewees, 168 persons (28.6 percent) died in the massacre. What of the remaining 71.4 percent? The vast majority had already left El Mozote in the months, weeks, days or just minutes before the massacre occurred. Several large groups of civilians were led to safety by FMLN guides, well informed about the coming operation and aware of the potential for a massive human rights violation. Readers will be surprised to learn that one of the guides was Joe David Sanderson, an American adventurer who joined the FMLN in January of 1981. (Sanderson himself died in combat on April 27, 1982 near the Torola River and his remains lie somewhere beneath the ground in northern Morazán.) In short, most area inhabitants were driven by the spread of political violence in northern Morazán to seek safety outside the area, while many that remained were guided out by the FMLN. Otherwise the loss of life would have been several times greater.
This brings me to the second misconception about El Mozote, which projects the absence of political violence during the late 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. The Atlacatl assault seemed to come out of nowhere and targeted a population that trusted in the government and its military forces. El Mozote was certainly less conflictive than many other communities in northern Morazán, but it was far from the placid island in a sea of armed confrontation some maintain. Based on fieldwork over two decades and an exhaustive study of the available documentation, I conclude that there occurred a minimum of twenty politically-motivated murders and assassinations in and around El Mozote between January 1980 and early December 1981. The majority took place not in El Mozote proper but in nearby hamlets and rural areas. The violence was dispersed over a wide area and was intermittent rather than continuous, which made it extremely difficult for people to get a firm handle on the reasons for it or the causal agents who enacted it. In northern Morazán as in San Salvador (or Guatemala or Argentina), people learning of an assassination tended to presume guilt rather than innocence. “Por algo murió” (S/he must have died for a reason) was a common response. Of course speakers taking this tact usually knew that they were innocent of political wrongdoing, knowledge that might have made many feel less vulnerable than they in fact were. Even so, the rise in politically-motivated violence in the area, and the more acute violence elsewhere in northern Morazán—where death squads regularly executed or disappeared people and the FMLN battled the army and National Guard—convinced growing numbers of people to leave the zone.
The third misconception concerns the argument that the population’s political passivity could be explained by its embrace of evangelical Protestantism associated with pro-government sentiments. However, the residents of the hamlet were overwhelmingly Catholic, albeit traditionalist or conservative in their orientation as opposed to the more radical Liberation Theology current.
José Carmen Romero, the local catechist or lay preacher, had indeed studied Liberation Theology at El Castaño in the department of San Miguel, but he failed to implement the teachings when he returned to Morazán and remained faithful to Fr. Andrés Argueta, for many years the region’s sole priest. Argueta urged the poor to accept their fate, promising that suffering on earth would receive its reward in the afterlife. Ironically, Argueta’s nephew, Miguel Ventura, was appointed curate of the newly-created Torola parish in 1972. Ventura was trained in Liberation Theology in a San Salvador seminary; when he attempted to organize poor workers and peasants to improve their lives, he clashed with his uncle. Ventura cultivated a coterie of progressive catechists who developed a network of Christian Base Communities (CEBs) in which poor people analyzed their lives through the insights gained from Bible discussion and worked together to resolve some of their most pressing problems. When the CEBs in Torola and elsewhere were harassed by the National Guard, and as threats against the peasants multiplied and people began to disappear, Ventura even put catechists in contact with Rafael Arce Zablah, an early leader of one of the factions that eventually formed the FMLN. But Ventura never visited El Mozote, which was located in the midst of the Jocoaitique parish controlled by Argueta, his uncle.
Evangelical groups did recruit and function in rural areas outside of El Mozote, but in northern Morazán evangelicals exercised limited influence until the civil war concluded. The political conservatism of many people in El Mozote is probably best explained by the combination of material progress (compared to other rural hamlets)—which I discussed above—and the traditionalist religious message imparted by Fr. Argueta and his local surrogate, José Carmen Romero. Even so, I’ve also suggested that responses to the growth in political violence in northern Morazán and rumors of an army invasion were understood in a wide variety of ways, and those understandings informed different courses of action: some people left early, some left just ahead of the Atlacatl’s arrival. About 30 percent of the pre-war population remained, and was murdered.
A historical and ethnographic understanding of El Mozote and the surrounding area teaches us that while the lives of people living in northern Morazán might seem simple, they were really quite complex. Moreover, people living in and around El Mozote were, no less than ourselves, products of history. Their understandings were historically and culturally shaped. They reasoned from and not outside those understandings, and it is clear that however much some people had benefited from the system, there existed a great deal of distrust in the government and its army. Had that distrust not existed, many more people likely would have died.
Leigh Binford is a Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. He began working on human rights and development in northern Morazán in 1991 and has made ten field trips to the region. He is the author of The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications.