The Voice of the Aggrieved from El Mozote

At 9:00 am on December 11, 1981, María del Rosario López Sánchez fled from her home in La Joya, Meanguera, north of Morazán, to hide in an "opening" in El Perico hill. She left with her life partner and their three children after she saw a group of soldiers come into the village firing. She was afraid the military would kill her. She told her story last Thursday, 36 years later.

"The other members of my family, the ones who stayed there, died. They were machine-gunned by the Atlacatl Battalion," said Rosario in her testimony about the largest massacre committed by the Army during the Salvadoran civil war, under a scorched-earth operation called Operation Rescue, which left more than a thousand people dead. The government has recognized 1,650 casualties. On October 19th, Rosario testified in the Second Court of First Instance of San Francisco Gotera (department of Morazán) as one of the witnesses presented by private prosecutors in the criminal process against 18 high-ranking military men accused of planning and ordering the massacre.

Rosario says she left her hiding place 15 days later to find the rest of her family. "I saw many dead animals and burned houses. I kept looking for my mother and other family. I saw a neighbor, Maria Santos, dead in her bed with a baby girl. The girl was born on December 10th and was killed on the 11th."

Rosario, now 60, is sure that the massacre where she lost 24 members of her family, including her parents, was perpetrated by the Atlacatl Battalion. She found a "green scarf that said Atlacatl Battalion," with her neighbor Santos. In addition, she says, she saw signs that said, “Here passed the Atlacatl Battalion,” and “A dead child is a dead guerilla,” painted on the walls of the massacred peoples’ houses.

After searching the hamlet, Rosario found her family’s bodies. All 24 were together. "I found my father Ismael López, my mother Francisca Sánchez, my sisters Reynelda Lopez and Priscila López, and then nephews and brothers-in-law and... excuse me," María trails off, fighting tears. She takes almost a minute to compose herself, then continues by saying, "It is not easy to lose your whole family and then testify about it."

The prosecuting attorney asks, “Doña Rosario, have you spoken out about this massacre in recent years?”

"No, because I have been afraid."

"How has this affected you in your life, Doña Rosario?" asks the prosecutor.

"It has affected me too much—but at least I can give proof.”

Rosario’s words echoed in the loudspeaker of the court, and were heard by the former head of the Salvadoran Air Force, Juan Rafael Bustillo.

It was the first time General Bustillo faced victims of the El Mozote massacre. He listened from his seat in the observers’ section of the courtroom, having decided to stay after being accused of murder, rape, and seven other crimes as a mastermind of the massacre. He listened to the story of the “offended,” the 1973 Criminal Code’s name for victims—the code under which this case is being judged.

Minutes before Rosario’s testimony, Bustillo’s presence caused a disagreement among lawyers from the two sides. The private prosecutors and representative of the Attorney General’s Office approached the judge, together with the crowd of ex-military leaders’ defenders, and asked him to order the general’s departure so Rosario could give her statement without added pressure.

Two of General Bustillo’s children, who accompanied the former Air Force chief to the hearing, dismissed the prosecution's request as "a show."

The general remained seated with his arms folded. The defense lawyers returned to their seats with mocking laughter after learning that the judge had granted 15 minutes for Rosario to meet with a psychologist.

While the arrangements were being made, Rosario glanced at the general. "I was not angry," she said later, "I was sad because of what they did to the children, to my family."

She added that the psychologist offered to sit next to her during her statement. "It was not necessary; one has to be strong. Brave. But it hurts," she admitted.

María del Rosario López Sánchez (witness) looks at ex-Air Force Commander Juan Rafael Bustillo (accused) /  Photo La Prensa Grafica

María del Rosario López Sánchez (witness) looks at ex-Air Force Commander Juan Rafael Bustillo (accused) / Photo La Prensa Grafica

During the pause, Lisandro Quintanilla, leader of the group of defense attorneys for the military, offered his opinion about how they should release their statement:

“Do you know what we’ll do? We’ll bring them all in (the ex-military leaders accused of the massacre). We have to bring them all in in their uniforms.”

The other defense lawyers laughed with delight at this suggestion.

"And make sure a General comes too," Bustillo added.

In addition to Rosario, María Margarita Chicas de Argueta, 62 years old, also testified. Through her responses to the prosecutors’ questions, she revealed how Colonel Domingo Monterrosa arrived on December 8, 1981 in the urban center of Arambala (also in Morazán) to murder seven men, including her husband.

"How do you know it was Colonel Monterrosa?" asked David Morales, one of the private prosecutors.

"Because he introduced himself. He said he had been sent to clean up the town, to destroy everything,” she replied.

Margarita's eyes filled with tears when she talked about how she could not even bury her husband because his body was in such poor condition: “He was very bad.” After that, she says she told the soldiers, "Take me, I do not want to live."

The General on the Bench of the Accused

The hearing began with Judge Jorge Guzman Urquilla notifying General Bustillo of the accusations against him. Urquilla said Bustillo is accused of murder, aggravated rape, deprivation of liberty, theft, breaking and entering, aggravated damage, terrorism, and preparatory acts of terrorism.

"The accusations are motivated by the fact that at the time of these events, you were the Commander of the Air Force. As detailed in the facts of the case, these operations were preceded by bombers executed by air troops," explained the judge. Bustillo remained serious, arms crossed, with a copy of the Truth Commission’s report (where his name does not appear).

"I ask you, General Juan Rafael Bustillo, have you understood the rights that have been given to you?"

"Look, Your Honor, I wanted to point out something about the case..."

"Excuse me, General, allow me a moment.”

"Can’t I explain yet?"

"For now, I would only like to know if you understand the rights of which you have just been informed.”

“Yes, I understand, I understand...”

“Very well. Later I will give you the floor so that you can speak. You were also informed that one of your rights as the accused is the ability to make a statement. General Juan Rafael Bustillo Toledo, do you wish to submit your statement in this process?

“Yes, I do.”

"Then this court will appoint a day and time for you to make your statement."

"Your Honor, I do not have a good understanding of the law. I don’t understand why I can’t make my statement right now. Why do I have to wait? I have read everything, I have heard everything presented at this hearing about what happened in December 1981, but I cannot talk right now?”

"Certainly, you may do so, General."

"Can I express myself?"

"Excuse me, let's take it step by step. You have the right to make a statement; however, right now, I’m only letting you know about that right. The court will enforce it at a later date. Today was designated only as a time to inform you of the facts and your rights.”

The private prosecutors and representatives from the Attorney General’s Office also requested that Bustillo be allowed to speak, but Bustillo’s public defender opposed the idea. "I only heard part of the facts when they were read. This is not a race; everything has its proper time and process."

"The truth is that making the statement is his decision," says the judge. "I would even interpret his conduct as a demand to speak. It's important to hear him," Guzmán Urquilla added.

"My lawyer has recommended that I speak later," Bustillo said. Then he signed the form confirming his attendance, and decided to stay and listen to Rosario.


Translated from Flores, R (October 23, 2017). La voz de los ofendidos de El Mozote. La Prensa Grafica. Retrieved from