Trying, Against Odds, for National Reconciliation Pursuit of Past Can Jeopardize Peaceful Future EL SALVADOR By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

December 13, 1992

Tuesday, El Salvador's Marxist rebels are to surrender the last of their arms bringing to a close a 12-year civil war that cost more than 70,000 lives and more than $4 billion in American taxpayers' money.

In the days before the historic moment, Dr. Robert Kirschner, the deputy Cooke Country medical examiner, was putting together a puzzle of skull and bone.

Dr. Kirschner and a colleague, Clyde Snow, a medical anthropologist from Oklahoma, had assembled similar puzzles in Argentina, Guatemala and South Korea.

In the early 1980s, the pieces of this Salvadoran puzzle would have struck a powerful blow against the Reagan administration's policy in El Salvador.

Had the puzzle been assembled and made public, it would have created an uproar in Congress and seriously eroded -- if not ended -- support for the Salvadoran anti-guerrilla campaign. But now with signing of peace accords in January, El Salvador was determined to at least document terrible past atrocities, including whatever Dr. Kirschner might turn up.

Yet it found itself in the delicate quandary of countries like Chile and Argentina. If it was too zealous in its pursuit of human rights violators in the still powerful military, it risked a coup and the hard-won peace.

The pieces of Dr. Kirschner's puzzle had been treated like a state secret for more than a decade.

It was not until this year, with the signing of a United Nations-brokered peace accord, that Drs. Kirshner and Snow and an Argentine forensic team finally got their hands on the pieces and began to re-assemble them.

The pieces had been lying around since 1981, the year that Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. The president had become alarmed at the Central American landscape. Nicaragua had fallen into the hands of the Marxist Sandinistas, Guatemala was beset by a Marxist-led insurgency and El Salvador had just )) shrugged off a "final" offensive from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

In the Manichean world of Ronald Reagan -- abetted by anti-Castro Cuban advisers -- the map of Central America was becoming pink, if not red. Vital interests were at stake requiring drastic measures. A hysterical CIA report concluded that Mexico might be next.

Although the administration advocated economic reforms and the ballot box as part of its strategy, the tiny nation of 5 million was, after all, in the midst of a civil war, and that meant the Salvadoran military establishment would be the major actor in the Reagan strategy.

To be sure, the Salvadoran security forces were a little rough around the edges (having been linked to the killing of an archbishop, the rape and murder of American church women and the slaying of two U.S. labor advisers), but with a little training the men would become more civilized.

They would, in effect, become like American soldiers; they would be trained on American bases and get imbued with American values. Clean-cut G.I. Jose would save the day. The Pentagon's post-Vietnam thinking held that wars of liberation of the El Salvador sort could be won by well-trained troops able to win the hearts and minds of the people.

That the Salvadoran military had not changed and still held genocidal views at variance with American humanitarian values was tangential to the central aim of the administration -- the defeat of Communist aggression.

And so, within a few days of taking office, the Reagan administration launched the first of four American-trained "rapid action" battalions. It bore the name of Atlacatl, a legendary Indian hero of Salvador history.

Yet within a few weeks of the Atlacatl's existence, Dr. Kirschner found in the pieces of his puzzle, in the skulls and femurs, in the rib cages and chalky pelvis bones, that the battalion had done something monstrous.

After being in the field a few months, this win-the-hearts-and-minds, U.S.-trained battalion had killed 134 people in a hamlet called El Mozote.

Nearly all of them were children under the age of 6. Many of the tiny skulls had a single bullet hole.

The children and a few adults apparently had taken refuge in a parish house as the Atlacatl battalion swept an area in control of the FMLN. The parish house was burned after the killings.

Shell casings unearthed by the forensic team belonged exclusively to weapons used by the Salvadoran military. "There was no evidence of battle. These people had been murdered," said Dr. Kirschner, who returned to Chicago last week to write a report on the massacre.

At the time of the massacre, the Salvadoran government said the people were innocent victims caught in a cross-fire or were family members of FMLN fighters. Contemporary eyewitness accounts of the bodies by Ray Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post were belittled by administration officials.

In all, about 794 people -- mostly women and children -- were murdered by the Atlacatl battalion in El Mozote and five nearby towns in November and December, 1981.

It was the biggest massacre of the war.

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