Nunca Más: Reflections on the 37th Anniversary of the Massacre of El Mozote
Written by Kathy Veit.
The diminutive older man sat perfectly still on the common office chair that served as a witness stand, his plaid shirt sleeves neatly folded above his elbows, his head slightly bowed. He seemed to stare at his knees as he described a scene from 36 years ago. He mentioned un campo grande.
“A large field? How large?” asked the attorney for the defendants, retired members of the Salvadoran high command.
“Un campo grande,” he repeated, with some insistence.
“How large? How many meters? Do you know how big a meter is?”
Despite my rudimentary Spanish, I understood exactly what was going on. I had been told about this defense tactic: attempts to rattle and delegitimize prosecution witnesses by making them seem like simple-minded, illiterate peasants. Now I was seeing it, live.
“Well? How many meters was the field? How big was it?”
“¡Un campo grande!” the witness repeated, now shouting.
The defense attorney backed down and let the man continue his testimony.
I will never forget hearing this brave cry of ¡un campo grande!—this elderly man’s refusal to be cowed by blatant bullying. His courage to come forward and bear witness to the largest war crime in modern Latin American history.
He recalled how soldiers came to his house and beat and restrained him. He pulled up his shirt sleeve to show a scar on his upper left arm. I caught a few other words: violada, desnuda, cuando mataron. . . . raped, naked, when they killed. . . . Somehow he escaped. The rest of his family did not. They all were murdered, mi padre, Tía María. . . .
Though the man fled to safety in the surrounding hills, a few days later he lost his sight. I hadn’t noticed the folding white cane with which he had entered the courtroom. He sat so still and seemed to stare at his knees because he was blind. The soldiers had beaten the vision out of his head—but they did not beat out his courage or his voice. Here he was, speaking the truth after almost four decades, refusing to be silenced by a lawyer from San Salvador or the generals who ordered the extermination of his family. I will not forget him.
Nor will I forget the tears and gentle voice of another witness, a man in his late 40s, dressed in a bright blue t-shirt and baseball cap. He had been just a boy at the time in question, and he was not there on that fateful December day, estaba en tránsito. His voice broke with sorrow as he named his parents and several brothers and sisters who perished in the massacre, the youngest just two months old—all slaughtered by the soldiers. José María, Elvira, Santo, Albertito . . . I will not forget him.
Nor will I forget the dignity and sorrow of the oldest of the three witnesses, a tall, mustachioed farmer in his 80s wearing a crisp white dress shirt and straw cowboy hat. He had been working in the fields on December 10, 1981, some distance from the hamlets targeted by the “operation,” and thus he had evaded the massacre. When things quieted down, and he found the courage to come back to his home on December 18, the scene was muy dolorosa, numerosas personas asesinadas en la vía, many murdered people along the road. Fifteen members of his family had been killed.
The defense attorney started up with his tactics again. “Helicopters, you mentioned helicopters—how many were there?” The witness wasn’t sure. “Did the soldiers kill your family?” I couldn’t understand the old man’s response, but he became agitated, and I imagined him saying, “Of course they did, you idiot! Who else would have killed them?”
Then, asked for how long this experience had affected him, he responded, toda mi vida, his voice cracking. “My whole life.” I will not forget him.
I was in El Salvador for a Cristosal board meeting in February this year. One afternoon, Jorge Medrano, Cristosal’s communication director, had asked me, “Do you want to go to El Mozote tomorrow?” I leapt at the chance, at the honor. I had planned to visit San Romero pilgrimage sites that day, but how could I not go and witness living history? This was the pre-trial evidentiary phase, one of the final days of testimony from close to 40 survivors and witnesses who had all received legal and psychosocial support from Cristosal and our partner organization, Tutela Legal. This was history in the making—that the witnesses were having their day in court at last, that the fractured Salvadoran justice system might maintain its independence and actually allow the trial to go forward.
It was an almost four-hour drive in a van with journalists from the Salvadoran press and Reuters. The trial is being held in San Francisco Gotera, the department head of Morazán. Prior to joining Cristosal, like most Americans, I had not heard of El Mozote. Once I did, I read Mark Danner’s excellent book on the massacre and cover-up. Years earlier I had also visited Dachau and the US Holocaust museum. Nothing prepared me, however, to hear these three men bear witness to an atrocity that had happened in my lifetime.
The El Mozote massacre is named for the largest of several rural hamlets in the eastern Morazán department of El Salvador, where the mass murders took place. El Mozote and the surrounding area were targeted by the elite, US-trained Atlacatl counter-insurgency brigade of the Salvadoran army during the country’s civil war (1980-92). The scorched-earth strategy of Operación Rescate (“Operation Rescue”) was to obliterate communities suspected of supporting the leftist guerrilla forces: to make an example of them and terrorize the rural campesinos into submission: “Did you hear about El Mozote? This is what happens if you support the rebels.”
On December 10-11, 1981, in and around the hamlet of El Mozote, the soldiers rounded up and murdered close to 1,000 civilians suspected of sympathizing with the guerrilla insurgency. They interrogated, tortured, and summarily executed the men. They raped most of the women before shooting them. They also rounded up and killed the children. They forced some people to stay in their homes. They shot them through the windows and doors, and then set the houses on fire. They killed the livestock. They torched most of the buildings and fields. The brigade “signed” their work, writing ”Atlacatl” on at least one building. Argentinian forensic anthropologists have verified that fifty-five percent of the victims were children. US-manufactured bullets have been found among the bones.
Although reported by the Washington Post and New York Times in January 1982, the news was dismissed as leftist propaganda by both the Salvadoran and US governments, and a cover-up ensued. Although documented after the war in a 1992 UN truth commission report as the largest atrocity of the brutal war, the conservative Salvadoran government immediately passed an amnesty law. No war crimes, including El Mozote, would be prosecuted. “There were wrongs on both sides. People just want to move on. They’ve had enough. Let’s move on.”
Thus El Salvador’s long-standing culture of impunity continued into new decades and a new century; a culture that says victims don’t matter, and literally allows one to get away with murder. This culture was centuries old, rooted in Spanish colonialism and perpetuated over many decades in no small part by US foreign policy and economic interests in the region. The civil war and the El Mozote massacre were just the latest manifestations of hundreds of years of oppression and impunity, now cloaked to some degree in Cold War domino theory rhetoric.
But how quickly the world forgets. Many people in El Salvador do not know about El Mozote. It was swept under the rug at the time and then again a decade later by the 1993 amnesty law. It was not taught in schools. In the United States, many people don’t even know where El Salvador is, let alone heard of El Mozote or about our country’s connection to this war crime and this country’s history.
But there is hope. The Salvadoran Supreme Court overturned the amnesty law in 2016, clearing the way for truth and healing at last. Cristosal has become the home base for the prosecution of the generals who planned and oversaw Operación Rescate, in partnership with Tutela Legal, which documented El Mozote and other human rights abuses from the very beginning of the war. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the amnesty law implicitly says: We need to know. We need to remember. We need justice for victims. They do matter.
Indeed. And I would argue that we also need to understand how El Mozote connects to the present and the future. Today, El Salvador has a rate of violence typically found only in official war zones. This violence diminishes people’s everyday lives in every conceivable way and drives internal displacement, regional instability, and irregular migration all the way to the southern border of the United States. It is this history of violence—and the unresolved root causes—that drive people into hiding or to hire coyotes to take them to the US or to join caravans to seek security outside their homeland. The real crisis is in the Northern Triangle of Central America, not the manufactured crisis at the southern border of the United States. Great economic inequity and impunity—lack of accountability for crimes—are at the root of this violence. The prosecution of El Mozote and other war crimes is critical to ending this long culture of impunity and the never-ending cycles of poverty and violence that cause people to flee their homeland.
Of the Holocaust, we say “never forget.” At El Mozote, the survivors say, nunca más. “Never again.” They know, as Santayana wrote, that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
On this anniversary of the El Mozote massacre, please make a commitment to remember. Join in supporting the trial. Tell people you know about El Mozote. Help people understand how a nation’s past connects to its present, and dispel ignorance about the drivers of migration to our border. Think of the courage of these three men and the hope that they had, despite surviving great tragedy, that emboldened them to come to the modest courtroom in the provincial town of San Francisco Gotera this past February to speak their truth. Accompany them on this journey toward a more just world by remembering, by ensuring through your actions: nunca más.
Kathy Veit is a vice president of Cristosal’s Board of Directors. She lives and works at Stanford University in northern California. She attended the El Mozote pre-trial proceedings on February 8, 2018.