El Mozote: The last witness before the massacre
Óscar Antonio Romero Martínez, 55, has emerged as the last civilian witness to see the inhabitants of El Mozote before they were killed by the Atlacatl Battalion. After 36 years, he gave his testimony on November 30 in the trial against the military leaders behind the massacre.
At almost 6 feet, Romero Martinez, now a merchant, stood tall in the courtroom. He gave his statement at the Second Court of First Instance in San Francisco Gotera, Morazán, as a witness of the massacres at El Mozote and surrounding places.
Around 10:00 a.m. on December 9, 1981, twenty or thirty soldiers—apparently part of a community patrol—arrived at Óscar's farmhouse in the village of Cumaro, Tierra Colorada, Arambala, Morazán. Óscar recalled the military uniforms and olive green helmets, which lacked any identifying ranks or markings.
The soldiers chose 18-year-old Óscar as their guide for the patrol they were to conduct in El Mozote. Until just a month earlier, he and his family had lived in that village.
Afraid, Óscar was forced to accompany them. First, they went south to the Sapo River, to camp for the night at Cerro de las Pillas. The next day, around 7:00 a.m. on December 10, they moved to Cerro El Cantarito, about 500 meters from El Mozote.
Around 1:00 p.m., there was an armed attack against the soldiers Óscar was accompanying. When he heard the shots, he threw himself to the ground. The confrontation lasted a couple of hours. When it ended, they continued on their way to the El Cantarito hill, where they camped that night. He never knew who was shot.
On November 11, at 7:00 a.m., they left the hill. They arrived at the home of a man named Moisés Claros and found Claros’s body outside. His foot had been cut off. The rest of the family was inside the house; everyone had been killed. "Everything (was) very bloody, there were so many women and children," Oscar said at the hearing.
The soldiers with Romero Martínez were appalled when they saw what had happened in the house. "'What have they done! What did they do to these poor children!’ they said," recounted Óscar.
When they got back to the El Cantarito hill, the soldiers told Óscar to fetch some drinking water. He took six caramañolas— a type of canteen used by the military—and went down to El Mozote. He got water from his uncle, José Daniel Romero, who lived next to a Catholic temple in El Mozote.
The village was filled with members of the Atlacatl Battalion. They had separated the men, women, and children into groups. The men were tied up, blindfolded, and lying face down on the ground. The women were locked in the church, and the children were locked in the sacristy nearby.
Oscar's uncle, his wife, Florentina Pereira, and their son, Jesus Salvador Romero, had not been taken from their home. However, his cousin, 12 years old, had been wounded. Óscar could only stay with his family a few minutes. They told him they could not leave. Romero Martínez remembers his uncle telling him "to remember what they are going to do to us.”
Óscar stayed in El Mozote for about ten to fifteen minutes. After filling the caramañolas with water, he returned to the El Cantarito hill. He overheard the soldiers talking to each other:
“What are they going to do with these people?” asked one soldier.
“They’re waiting for orders,” answered another.
After that, the soldiers let Óscar go. They warned him that they didn’t want to see him in the area again. On his way home, between 10:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., he saw black smoke rising from El Mozote. Witness testimonies and forensic evidence indicate that some victims died trapped inside the houses the Atlacatl Battalion set on fire. It is estimated that about 1,000 people were killed in all.
Five of Óscar’s extended family members were killed in that massacre. The next day, December 12, 1981, he and his family fled their home.
After Óscar Antonio Romero Martínez gave his testimony, guided by questions from private prosecutor David Morales (a lawyer from the organization Cristosal), the military’s defense questioned the witness. The defense lawyers said they doubt the veracity of his statement regarding who murdered the inhabitants of El Mozote.
The lawyers asked Óscar if there were armed civilians in El Mozote.
“That's why [my family] left El Mozote [in November 1981],” Óscar answered.
“Do you remember the number of civilians who were armed in El Mozote?” asked attorney Diego Flores, lawyer for Colonel Luis Alberto Landaverde Barrera, then-lieutenant of the Artillery Brigade.
"There were only a few," replied the witness.
“A few? Two, three, ten?" The lawyer asked.
“Well, five, six ...” answered Óscar.
Óscar emphasized that the guerrillas—the armed civilians the defense lawyer was asking about—were passing through El Mozote. They did not live there, as the defense has argued. The defense also claims that the people were not deliberately killed by the army, but died as a result of crossfire between the Armed Forces and the FMLN guerrillas.
For prosecuting attorney David Morales, Óscar's testimony is very valuable. So far, Óscar is the last non-military witness, of the more than 30 who have appeared in this judicial process, to see the inhabitants of El Mozote alive.
In addition, Morales highlights the importance of this witness hearing two soldiers say that the highest military leadership ordered the massacre. The defense holds that the elite soldiers who participated in the massacre acted without authorization from higher military spheres.
For many years, the story of what happened at El Mozote was told by the only woman to survive the massacre, Rufina Amaya, whose husband and 4 children were killed. She managed to save herself by hiding in a thicket.
According to part of her testimony, she overheard one soldier tell another, “Our order is to leave no one alive, because they are all collaborating with the guerrillas; but I would not want to kill children.”
The Truth Commission report states that after killing everyone in El Mozote, the Atlacatl Battalion went on to kill the villagers of Los Toriles, Jocote Amarillo, and Cerro Pando on December 12 and 13.
Translated from Marroquín, I. (December 8, 2017). El Mozote: El testigo antes de la masacre. InformaTVX. Retrieved from www.informatvx.com/el-mozote-el-testigo-antes-de-la-masacre