Excavation offers proof of massacre

October 30, 1992|By Tim Johnson | Tim Johnson,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

EL MOZOTE, El Salvador -- Bone by bone, the earth under this weed-covered ghost town is revealing its ghastly story after more than a decade of silence.

Shattered legs, gaping skulls, tiny rib cages and scores of rifle shell casings are emerging from the ground, coaxed by forensic anthropologists seeking evidence of what may be one of the hemisphere's worst massacres in decades.

The scientists, wielding trowels and brushes, are shedding light on one of the darkest chapters in El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

It was here, human rights monitors say, that soldiers went on a three-day rampage Dec. 11-13, 1981, and slaughtered as many as 1,000 peasants -- beheading, stabbing and shooting men, women and children.

El Mozote is in the northeastern highlands, a region later frequented by leftist guerrillas, and the U.S.-trained battalion apparently viewed the peasants as collaborators.

News of the massacre was slow to leak out. Only a handful of witnesses survived. The war made investigation difficult. And two U.S. reporters who dispatched stories about the slaughter were discredited by officials of President Ronald Reagan's administration as dupes of the Marxist rebels.

This month, the team of anthropologists has provided the first concrete evidence to back the allegations that El Mozote was the scene of a blood bath, not a clash with guerrillas as the army maintained.

Working with a criminal court judge and 27 members of El Salvador's coroner's office, the four Argentine forensic anthropologists began to excavate the rubble of a 10-by-7-foot former parish house Oct. 13.

By the middle of this week, the team had unearthed 59 skulls -- mostly of children -- from the dirt filling the building's foundation.

"We never expected that there would be so many children," said Luis Fondebrider, a member of the Argentine team.

There are bullet holes in some of the skulls, he added, lending credence to the reports of a massacre.

"These are irrefutable facts," Mr. Fondebrider said. "A shot to the back of the head is a shot to the back of the head."

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