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On the afternoon of December 11, 1981, a special battalion of the Salvadoran army entered the village of El Mozote in the eastern department of Morazán. The soldiers gathered together all of the residents in the town square and then divided them up into groups of men, women, and children. The following morning, soldiers tortured and then killed the men. Then, they raped the young women and killed them along with their mothers and grandmothers. The soldiers, many trained in the US, then killed the children. The Atlacatl battalion executed over 800 people, including 400 children, in El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets.
Despite articles by Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and by Alma Guillermoprieto the Washington Post denouncing the atrocity, the Reagan Administration and a supine media dismissed the reports as the work of guerrilla sympathizers. For the next decade, this massacre was rarely mentioned in the official media. Following the peace accords of 1992, a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists uncovered mass graves in a building called “the convent” next to the Church, with the skeletons of 140 children. An excellent book by Mark Danner published in 1993, fully dispelled the outrageous blanket of lies and obfuscations perpetuated by the Reagan Administration and dutifully reported by the media.
That soldiers under orders “to leave no one alive” murdered hundreds of children is something that is hard to grasp even within the macabre history of Central American massacres. In 1932, in response to an abortive Communist-led peasant uprising, the Salvadoran army executed some 10,000 people (a majority of whom were Indians) but they generally spared women and children under the age of 12. In El Mozote, unlike in Western Salvador in 1932, there was no racial dimension, clearly the military decided to set a ghastly example of a successful scorched earth policy.
On December 11, 2006, over 5,000 people gathered in El Mozote to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the massacre. The village plaza was packed and many moved to the nearby hillside where they could still follow the proceedings. Some had traveled from San Salvador 4 hours away. Slogans on banners and numerous chants suggested that many of those in attendance either sympathized or belonged to the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), a party that evolved from the former guerrilla movement which had one of its strongest bases of support in Northern Morazán. Others belonged to Christian Base Communities, local Catholic organizations, which promote community action and a liberationist interpretation of the Bible. Many of the Base Community members also sympathized with the FMLN. Finally, a number of people attended in order to remember and venerate family members.
The ceremony began with a young man’s speech. He recalled that as a young child in 1981 his father and other people from a neighboring village dug graves for corpses while he played with other kids. He offered up his testimony against those who would forget or deny the massacre. Then a children’s choir began singing hymns. Although a local group in this impoverished backwater, they were exceedingly well trained. The children’s choir had been born to family members or neighbors of the massacred, who had been either working picking coffee elsewhere or in refugee camps. It was impossible not to imagine these children as icons of their murdered forebears just as it was impossible not to focus on the barbarity of the crime.
Yet, the emotional impact of the children’s choir soon dissipated as two Church representatives spoke. First, the Bishop of San Miguel (the major city in Eastern Salvador) in a tone of voice that is meant to sound at once authoritarian and divine, urged the crowd to understand that “violence engenders violence” as if the lesson of this atrocity was that somehow the peasant guerrillas who were resisting the army bore responsibility for provoking this atrocity. The parish priest of Morazán echoed the bishop’s remarks and then indirectly attacked the politicization of the event by calling for future ceremonies to be held on the “real date” of the massacre instead of on a Saturday, thereby dramatically reducing the possibility of “outsiders” to attend or the scope of the ceremony since in 2007, December 11 falls on a Tuesday.
The next speaker, Father Rogelio, a Belgian-born priest who had ministered to the guerrilla forces in Morazán for twelve years, following an impassioned oration punctuated with the cry “Nunca Más!” He ended his speech by reminding his audience to come to El Mozote again the following year on Saturday. Thousands roared their approval and then echoed the chorus of Nunca Más!” The remaining speakers also called for the continuation of Saturday celebrations.
The bishop and the local priest seemed isolated at this event; but the politics of remembering exhibited other tensions, related to the meaning of the commemoration, itself. All of the speakers (except the bishop and the priest) hammered home the necessity to bring the military chieftains to justice, arguing that this was a case of “crimes against humanity” not covered by the amnesty. Judging from the crowd response this position reflected a deeply felt need for such justice. That these killers enjoyed a life of freedom was unbearably wrong. Indeed, at this moment the case is before the Inter American Commission of Human Rights (a branch of the OAS) and in a Salvadoran court. This demand for justice was also congruent with a demand to remember the event and bitterly contest the politics of amnesia that the Salvadoran governing elites promoted. Codes for the discourse of amnesia include phrases like “you shouldn’t scratch the scabs,” “put that horror behind us,” “that was in the past, we must move on.” Carlos Henriquez Consalvi, former director of Radio Venceremos (the clandestine radio station of the FMLN during the war) who arrived at El Mozote two weeks after the events and was the first person to broadcast a denunciation of the atrocity argued vigorously against this position. Currently, the director of the “Museum of the Word and the Image” (disclosure: I worked with him on “Scars of Memory,” a documentary film about the 1932 massacre), “Santiago” called on the assembled to never forget El Mozote, “la Capital de la Memoria Salvadoreña This place is a live symbol of hope. Where there was only death and destruction, El Mozote, with each year become a space of encounter that reveals how from a desert of destruction a new community arises.” The crowd erupted with applause and chants demanding that he speak in the voice of the Radio Venceremos announcer. He obliged for a minute and the assembled roared their approval. He then presented a plaque to Rufina Amaya, the one survivor of the massacre, who escaped from the soldiers after they had yanked her eight-month old daughter from her arms, but could do nothing to halt the execution of her children. Once again as so many times before she recounted the events, how the soldiers dragged her children away and placed her with another group of women, and how she snuck away and heard the soldiers execute her children. Her repetition was part of her fight against amnesia at this moment twenty five years after the atrocity. People shouted for her to name the killers, for justice. Both to Santiago and Rufina, their evocation of a discourse of remembering, provoked a militant response. The assembled, at once, demanded vengeance and recalled a time of action and not words.
This battle for memory was intense and contradictory. People remembered the atrocity to venerate those who perished. Family members, of course, remembered most intensely but others, even the adolescents, who had lost loved ones in the war, could imagine. There was also a strong demand for justice: the guilty had to pay. The politics of memory also blended into more ordinary forms of politics. The FMLN mobilized the memory of El Mozote to energize itself by reminding its militants of its origins in a struggle against a terroristic state. By mobilizing this memory, in part, in order to justify its own struggles, the FMLN did politicize the ceremonies yet without their denunciations the battle against amnesia would be that much weaker.
It was this latter more political dimension that began to transform the events after two hours into a celebration. A local band, a remnant of the same group that animated parties in the guerrilla encampments of the 1980s, played a number of sets. Then, los Guaraguaos, a Venezualan band appeared on stage; the Chavez government reportedly had paid for their plane tickets. Practitioners of “la Nueva Cancion” in the 1970s, they became famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world for their song, “Casas de Carton,” (cardboard houses). The thousands of people still remaining in the plaza after 5 hours of ceremonies, including the adolescents sang every word of this leftist anthem and host of other songs from the revolutionary era.
As the level of excitement grew, Father Rogelio, “the guerrilla priest,” stepped to the podium. “I too, am of the left,” he said, “but we have to remember why we are here.” He then urged the people walk over to the monument at the edge of the plaza and to light candles for the deceased. He stated that los Guaraguaos would play something appropriate. The large majority of the crowd then lined up by the side of the monument.
Father Rogelio pointed to the danger of sectarian politicization of the memory as something ultimately offensive to those family members who came to venerate their dead. The battle against amnesia, incarnated in the government’s refusal to plead for forgiveness, let alone to pay reparations to family members, or to imprison the guilty, is political. Father Rogelio’s point, however, is that “nunca más” must never become a sectarian slogan.
JEFFREY L. GOULD is Rudy Professor of History and Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of To Die This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of the Mestizaje and To Lead as Equals: Rural Protest and Political Consciousness in Nicaragua. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org