Notes From the Margins…

Remembering El Mozote

  • January 19, 2012
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Just over thirty years ago, in a three day period from December 10 to 13 1981, a unit of the US-trained elite Atlacatl Battalion massacred more than 1,000 men, women and children in the course of an anti-terrorist limpieza (cleanup) operation in and around the rural  hamlet of El Mozote, in El Salvador’s Morazan province.

The massacre was  a deliberate act of state terrorism that was intended to ‘drain the sea’ in an area was believed to be sympathetic to leftwing guerrillas of the Farabundi Marti Liberation Front (FMLN).    It was the single worst atrocity in a 12-year civil war in which some 75,000 people were killed.   At the time the provisional Salvadoran government under José Napoleón Duarte  denied any responsibility and blamed the massacre on the guerrillas themselves.

These claims were  supported by the Reagan administration, which carried out its own misinformation campaign and dismissed photographs and media reports of the massacre as propaganda.  It was not until 1993 that  the legendary Argentine Forensics team exhumed dozens of skulls and human remains, including children at El Mozote, as part of the UN truth commission investigations that paved the way for an end to the civil war.

Even then the troglodyte Salvadoran right denied that  the military was responsible and insisted that the children had been shot by the FMLN or were in fact armed guerrillas themselves.   In 1994 I visited El Mozote myself, in the company of Father Rogelio Ponseele, a Belgian priest who had spent the entire civil war with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP).

At the time the hamlet was a spooky and mostly deserted collection of huts, and the only  monument to the savage events that had taken place there more than a decade before consisted of four stark silhouettes of a man and a woman holding the hands of a boy and girl.  Today  the monument includes the names of all those who died there, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the killings.

It was not until this Monday,  that El Salvador’s leftist president Mauricio Funes made the first public apology for the massacre during a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the peace accords which bought the civil war to an end.  At the site of the massacre, according to Associated Press, Funes told a gathering of peasants and farmers:

“I ask forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of those who still today do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. I ask forgiveness from the people of El Salvador, who suffered an atrocious and unacceptable violence.”

On one level the fact that such an apology on one level is an indication of how much  El Salvador has changed politically since the 1980s.    To see what kind of place it was, it’s worth reading Mark Danner’s brilliant 1993 account of the massacre in the New Yorker  The Truth About El Mozote.

But the coming of democracy has not brought peace to El Salvador.  Two decades after the end of the civil war, it remains one of the most violent places on earth.  According to a report published last year by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world between 2004-09, with 65 homicides per 100,00 inhabitants, followed by Iraq and Jamaica.

Every year hundreds of Salvadorans are shot and stabbed to death.  But today it is no longer the death squads and the state organs of repression that are doing most of the killing, but tattooed nihilistic gangs fighting over territory in or a share of the US drugs market in a country where the average income is $7200.

Meanwhile, as the North American Congress on Latin America points out, military influence in El Salvador and across Central America is increasing as a result of the ‘war on drugs’ and its concomitant violence and insecurity.

From the US there has been no apology for El Mozote or for the support that it gave to the Salvadoran military and police who were responsible for 95 percent of all human rights abuses during the war.   At the time massacres and atrocities were considered a necessary price to prevent ‘another Nicaragua’ or the implantation of ‘totalitarianism’  in Central America – and Ronald Reagan’s coterie of Cold War zealots only paid attention to them in order to neutralise criticism inside the United States and ensure the continual flow of funding from Congress.

Today  the violence and cruelty that was part of the West’s ‘victory’ in the Cold War has been has been conveniently forgotten, while many of the ‘national security managers’ who oversaw that victory have died or continued in the same trajectory.   Ronald Reagan has a statue erected in his honour in London.   Other former Reagan officials went on to join the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror.’

One of them was  Elliot Abrams, Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.    A self-proclaimed ‘gladiator’ in the Reagan administration’s Central America policy, Abrams played a key role in covering up human rights abuses in El Salvador, and once dismissed reports of the El Mozote massacre in the Washington Post and the New York Times as “nothing more than communist propaganda”.

Abrams  subsequently insisted  that “The Administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.”   In 2001 he became a national security advisor to the Bush administration on, with responsibility for the Near East and North Africa.    Abrams was one of various old Central America hands who oversaw the Iraq war and insurgency, and were closely associated with the policy known as the ‘Salvador option’ – in which Shi’a death squads directed from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior were unleashed against Iraqi insurgents and civilians during the so-called ‘surge’.

Today this ruthless Israel-firster, former Contragate crook and apologist for atrocity is a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and an unrelenting advocate of American and Israeli violence across the Middle East and beyond.

Today America and its allies routinely decry regimes that ‘kill their own people’ as a justification for aggressive wars and ‘regime change’.   El Mozote reminds us of a time when the US supported one of the most barbarous and ruthless regimes of the late twentieth century – regardless of the fact its armed forces also ‘killed their own people.’

So we should remember the victims of El Mozote, but let’s not forget their murderers or the ‘national security managers’ who tried to cover up for them, some of whom are still with us.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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