Why El Mozote Matters Now

by Scott Pentzer, President, Cristosal Board of Directors

Memorial at El Mozote today

Memorial at El Mozote today

The killing of nearly 1,000 unarmed people in 1981 in the rural community of El Mozote, El Salvador was, by some accounts, the single largest massacre of this kind in the Americas during the Cold War era.  Men, women, and many children met their deaths at the hands of a Salvadoran army battalion armed and trained by the United States government and deeply imbued with a worldview in which people were either patriots or communists. 

Now, more than 35 years later, Cristosal’s legal team is representing the victims of El Mozote in a Salvadoran court.  But how can justice for these killings contribute to a durable solution for today’s crisis in El Salvador at a time when the country ranks among the most violent regions in the world and is, as it also was during the 1980s, a source of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people? 

Unfortunately, the tragedy at El Mozote was not the first of its kind in 20th-century El Salvador. 

Nearly 50 years earlier, another massacre of rural people accused of having been rebellious communists left perhaps 10,000 people dead in the western part of the country.  It is difficult to establish the exact number of victims because evidence of La Matanza (“The Massacre”), as the 1932 event came to be called, was intentionally distorted or destroyed by a government determined to impose a silent, and fearful “peace.”

While the international human rights movement advanced notably following World War I, public opinion in the world’s power centers about a country like El Salvador was, at the time of La Matanza, poorly developed at best, racist and self-serving at worst.  Colonialism was still alive and well in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in the 1930s, and US neocolonialism was intensely felt in the Americas.  Under these circumstances, an event like this was unlikely to raise much international protest, and none of the perpetrators ever faced justice at home or abroad. 

In terms of human suffering, the 1981 massacre at El Mozote occurred during an even more tragic time for El Salvador.  Some 75,000 people died and many thousands more were displaced amidst widespread violations of human rights during the civil war between a Salvadoran government heavily supported by the United States and the FMLN guerrillas—who took their name from Farabundo Marti, one of the martyrs of the 1932 conflict. 

Although echoes of 1932 were certainly to be heard at El Mozote, the context had changed in important ways. 

The 1981 massacre was promptly reported in the international press.  It was first announced to the world over the radio by the FMLN, and journalists from the New York Times and the Washington Post found their way to El Mozote just weeks afterwards. Unfortunately, the US and Salvadoran governments dismissed the journalists’ and survivors’ accounts of the events as rebel propaganda and claimed that the victims were either combatants or simply caught in the crossfire of a battle with the FMLN.  The crime of El Mozote was then quickly submerged in a sea of other stories of torture and disappearance, aerial bombing and death, as El Salvador suffered a decade of civil war.  The very same battalion that massacred the citizens of El Mozote struck again in 1989, killings six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in an attempt to silence some of the most critical voices in the country.

El Mozote did not, however, slip into oblivion after the civil war ended in 1992.  In part, this is because El Salvador and the world had developed a vocabulary for denouncing such crimes and a civil society that refused to be silenced.  World War II had given decisive momentum to the international movement to articulate, advocate for, and wherever possible legally enforce universal human rights.  The landmark 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was both the result of and an impetus for intense activism by non-governmental organizations and private citizens worldwide to finally give human rights a status at least equal to the jealously-guarded rights of sovereign states to act as they wished on their own territory. In the wake of the UN Declaration a broad range of agencies emerged around the world to pursue this agenda.  Among them were the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court for Human Rights and, in El Salvador, NGOs like the Catholic Church’s legal advocacy office (Tutela Legal) and, in 2000, Cristosal.

David Morales, who today leads Cristosal’s legal team, has accompanied the victims of El Mozote since 1990 when he and his colleagues were first assigned the case by Tutela Legal.  Together with human rights advocates, survivors, and international forensic experts, Morales’ team established the facts of the massacre and sought justice in El Salvador’s courts.  When that effort stalled, they brought the case to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.  Both entities ruled in favor of the victims of El Mozote and directed the government of El Salvador to set aside the 1993 Amnesty Law that shielded human rights violators from prosecution.  After initial resistance, the Salvadoran Supreme Court did set aside this law, and the case of El Mozote moved ahead.  In March of 2017, soldiers and commanding officers accused of carrying out the massacre appeared in a Salvadoran court.

Cristosal Human Rights Director David Morales (left), and the Tutela Legal team

Cristosal Human Rights Director David Morales (left), and the Tutela Legal team


This prosecution is unprecedented in El Salvador and shows that history need not repeat itself.  It speaks to the fortitude of a nation struggling to remember, learn from, and build upon its history even in the midst of a new crisis of violence and displacement.  It also highlights how international attention and accompaniment can help to build a more durable culture of human rights.  In this new century, Cristosal has focused much of its effort on addressing the relationship between human rights violations and forced migration.  And now, Cristosal is extending the scope of its work and its partnerships to the entire Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) whose citizens are being displaced by violence both within their own countries, within the region, and beyond. 

We in the US are also part of this region: nearly 1.5 million Salvadoran migrants, for example, live in the United States. 

El Salvador’s main newspaper even runs a regular section about the migrant community called “Department 15” in reference to the fact that so much of the country’s population lives not in one of its 14 sub-national jurisdictions, but rather abroad, principally in the United States.  Whether or not we were alive in 1932 or in 1981, geography and history have made the United States and Central America in many ways one place—a fractured community, but a community nonetheless. As inhabitants of a 21st century global civilization, we are also inheritors of generations of human rights activists, and of the struggles and achievements of individuals like Archbishop Oscar Romero, institutions like the UN and Inter-American human rights system, and communities like El Mozote.

Cristosal works in this space where North Americans, Central Americans and people everywhere can remember that we are part of one community, learn from our common past, and rebuild our relationships by accepting the mutual obligation to defend, restore, and continually build a global civilization founded on human rights.  Sometimes this work happens in courtrooms and other venues, such as the Civil Society Working Group Against Forced Displacement by Violence.  Here, facts, principle, and law can be brought to bear in support of victims of violence as long ago as the 1980s or as recently as the last few years when families and youth have sought escape from neighborhoods where simply going to work or school has become unacceptably dangerous.  At other times, the work moves forward in a Citizen Formation School where grassroots leaders come together to build a culture of transparency, participation, and respect for human rights.  And Global School encounters reveal the potential for mutual learning and solidarity when we dare to cross the boundaries of nationality, language, opportunity, and historical experience that initially divide us.

The Salvadoran people have suffered a great deal in the last century and still today confront many challenges.  The peace agreements of 1992 ended the civil war but failed to address the fundamental inequalities that limit human development and create a fertile environment for gang violence and forced migration.  But since then, much has been built, too.  To continue this work, a broader imagined community must unite existing pockets of solidarity in families, neighborhoods, and across borders behind a more inclusive and rights-based vision of human development.  While this is a forward-looking project, strong communities are also created through shared memories and conceptions of justice.  Indeed, at a moment when the future is so uncertain for so many people in Central America, a just conclusion to one of the darkest episodes of the region’s history would send a powerful message that it is possible to make real progress toward a society where impunity for human rights violators is no longer the norm; where victims are not invisible or forgettable; and where it is possible for one’s own state and the international community to treat citizens as subjects of human rights rather than objects of pity, fear, or disregard.  In such a society everyone has rights, everyone has obligations to others, and everyone matters—which is why El Mozote matters now.   

For more information about El Salvador’s 20th century history, the massacre at El Mozote, and the history of the international human rights movement you may wish to consult:

Anderson, Thomas P.   Matanza:  El Salvador’s Communist Revolt of 1932.   Lincoln and London:  University of Nebraska Press, 1971.

Binford, Leigh.  The El Mozote Massacre:  Human Rights and Global Implications (Revised and Expanded Edition).  Tucson:  The University of Arizona Press, 2016.

Danner, Mark.  The Massacre at El Mozote.  New York:  Vintage, 1994.

Gould, Jeffrey L. and Lauria-Santiago, Aldo A.  To Rise in Darkness:  Revolution, Repression, and Memory in El Salvador, 1920-1932.  Durham and London:  Duke University Press, 2008.

Lauren, Paul Gordon.  The Evolution of International Human Rights:  Visions Seen.  Third Edition.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.