A chilling account of Salvador massacre

May 31, 1994|By Pamela Constable | Pamela Constable,Boston Globe

It was the most notorious open secret of a civil war rife with atrocity and cover-up: the reported army massacre of an entire hamlet in El Salvador, airily denied by the army and cynically papered over by U.S. officials determined not to let the excesses of their military wards undermine the crusade to stop communism in Central America.

Despite newspaper accounts and eyewitness testimony, it took a decade for the full facts to emerge about what happened at El Mozote in December 1981.

The story of that tortuous process makes Mark Danner's meticulous reconstruction of this war crime and its aftermath as instructive as it is horrifying to read.

Taken out of context, the atrocity would be almost impossible to imagine -- and, indeed, Reagan administration officials found it relatively easy to cast doubt on rumors of a remote massacre even while Democrats in Congress were howling against the war.

But Mr. Danner, wandering through the ruined village and piecing together various accounts, re-creates a searing, and utterly convincing, scene from hell.

First the soldiers marched into town, ordering all inhabitants to lie on their faces in the dirt. Group by group, they took the men off for questioning while the women huddled together, listening to screams and shots. Then they seized the girls and young women, dragging them off to the hills to be raped. Finally, they began hanging and bayoneting the children.

"I heard one of my children crying. . . . 'They killed my sister! They're killing me! Help me!' . . . I knew that if I went back there to help my children I would be cut to pieces. But I couldn't stand to hear it, I couldn't bear it. . . . I crawled across the road and under the barbed wire. . . . I dug a little hole with my hands and put my face in the hole. . . . I could hear the children screaming still, and I lay there with my face against the earth and cried."

The voice is that of Rufina Amaya, the sole adult survivor of El Mozote, where the Atlacatl Battalion systematically murdered at least 370 peasants in a single day, including her husband and three children, during an anti-guerrilla sweep through Morazan province known, ironically, as "Operation Rescue."

Ms. Amaya had told her story to reporters and human rights groups long before Mr. Danner's account appeared last year in The New Yorker, from which this book is expanded. But until the conflict ended, in 1992, and a team of international investigators was able to dig up the site, the testimony of a single peasant woman could not compete with the powers of an American administration committed to prosecuting a foreign war.

The context and rationale of that war, in both Washington and San Salvador, are what made El Mozote and its cover-up possible. Here Ms. Danner performs an especially impressive feat of reporting -- and draws a frightening portrait of collusion between cynical or cowed U.S. officials and their unsavory Salvadoran allies.

His depiction of the Atlacatl unit and its legendary commander, Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, makes grimly clear how U.S.-instilled concepts of leadership and anti-communist zeal were easily perverted by a Third World army steeped in corruption and violence -- while Monterrosa dazzled American trainers with his "gung-ho, dynamic" style.

Even more fascinating is the author's description of U.S. officials' role in the watering-down of El Mozote. Sleuthing through a trail of declassified cables and tracking down former diplomats, Mr. Danner dissects the subtle process by which facts are distorted, unpleasant suspicions are self-censored and an official truth can emerge that bears little resemblance to reality.

Describing one cable from a U.S. Embassy officer who investigated the massacre, he writes, "The circumspect locutions . . . take on the aspect of shields -- judicious phrases by which the investigators deflected the burden of explicitly recounting what they strongly suspected had happened."

Thus, the horror of El Mozote was diluted up the chain of command until the Reagan administration could comfortably state that "there is no evidence to confirm" an army massacre had taken place. Congress continued funding the war, tens of thousands more Salvadorans died, and Rufina Amaya's story had to wait another 11 years to be believed.


Title: "The Massacre at El Mozote"

Author: Mark Danner

Publisher: Vintage

Length, price: 304 pages, $12 (paperback)

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