"Most were children who didn’t know why they were killed:” María López
María del Rosario López Sánchez, 70, and María Margarita Chica de Argueta, 64, share a name and a past filled with the violence of war and impunity from the Salvadoran state.
Now, the Second Court of First Instance of San Francisco Gotera, in Morazán, has given them a space to share the truth about the scorched-earth military operation executed by the Salvadoran army in 1981.
The women resided in the rural villages of Canton La Joya and Arambala, near El Mozote. Before the judge and lawyers, they spoke about horrible examples of military abuse perpetrated between December 9th and 12th, 1981 in El Mozote and surrounding areas.
María del Rosario remembers very well how her everyday life, and the lives of her husband José de los Angeles and children Eugenio, Mélida, and Rosalina, were changed forever.
"I saw the soldiers coming and I ran because I was afraid to die. My family and I fled to an opening in a hill called Perico. We were there for 15 days. Then I went back to look for my mother and other relatives, but they were already dead— 24 relatives," she said, before breaking down in tears.
María del Rosario does not doubt who was behind the massacre.
It was the Atlacatl Battalion, confirmed by the messages left on the walls: "The Atlacatl Battalion was here," and "A dead child, a dead guerilla.” She also saw their camouflaged uniforms with the black and green insignia that distinguishes military battalions.
Maria Margarita lost her husband on December 8, after the Atlacatl Battalion, led by their commander, Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, arrived in Arambala at six o’clock in the morning. The whole population was forced to gather in the central square, in front of the church. The men, young and old, tumbled to the floor face down as the soldiers took aim at their heads.
"Colonel Monterrosa told us that he had come to Arambala to clean up the town. He took a list with names on it and walked through the group asking, ‘How do you want to die, sitting up or lying down?’ Then Monterrosa blindfolded some of them, including my husband, and took them to a room at an inn. Then he took them out of the room and to a farm. I went after them with my son and the soldiers forced me to leave. My father, Lázaro Chica, asked for my husband; the soldiers beat him. Then I heard the bullets.
"They killed all those men, and then the Atlacatl Battalion prepared to go to El Mozote," she said.
In response to the survivors’ harrowing testimonies, Eduardo Garcia, from the NGO ProBúsqueda, lauded the bravery of the women who told their stories.
"There is a starting point here that disgusts me: they start with the violation of their rights, and now, as it should be, the rights of the perpetrators must be protected in the trial; but neither way is just," he said.
As for the presence of General Juan Rafael Bustillo at the hearing, Garcia considered it a good thing that he complied with the law and appeared before the court. Garcia thought it atypical that he did so without an army of lawyers. Bustillo was instead assigned a public defender. "He seems kind of alone without private defense lawyers. And I think that in the face of that situation, he decided he wanted to testify that day. Perhaps he wanted to talk about what happened because he felt abandoned," Garcia said. One of the thirteen jurists hired by the other soldiers involved in the El Mozote massacre said they will wait to give their statements until after the prosecution’s round of witnesses and the forensic experts’ technical explanations of the exhumations.
“Right now, we are only assessing the witness testimonies. We know that the prosecution’s witnesses have denied that it was a war zone in 1980; that the northern area of Morazan was recognized as guerrilla territory. It was the territory of the ERP, part of the FMLN, which was recognized by France and Mexico as a belligerent group. They had their base of operations in Morazan, as well as schools for Samuelitos, child soldiers between 8 and 10 years old. We do not yet know how many people died. It could have been by crossfire or friendly fire; also, those areas were depopulated," he argued.
As they left, Maria del Rosario and Maria Margarita reiterated their longing for justice.
"We get our strength from the souls of our families. It is not easy to find yourself alone in the world in an instant, that's why we’re here," says María del Rosario. Maria Margarita said, "I am not intimidated anymore. I thought it would be worse, because it's hard to say these things, but now I just want justice; justice is the only thing for us."