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In three days, from December 11-13, 1981, U.S.-trained troops in Central America’s smallest, most densely populated republic, El Salvador, rounded up and killed over a thousand unarmed civilians in the hamlet of El Mozote, in Morazán province, near the Honduran border. This massacre, I believe, still has the dubious distinction of being the largest mass killing of civilians by state forces in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century.
Most people who know anything about the Central American civil wars in the last decades of the Cold War know that they were U.S. proxy wars, the Reagan Administration’s “line in the palms” against Soviet expansion. In Weakness and Deceit, then New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner carefully exposed the bloody fingerprints of the administration on that massacre and the years-long cover-up that followed, and was exiled from the paper for his pains.
El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war ended in a negotiated settlement, after displacing a fifth of the country’s population of five million and killing over 75,000. And after billions of U.S. tax dollars were poured in to prop up its army and political class by Carter, Reagan and Bush – El Salvador was at one time the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. The war was followed by fifteen years of right-wing dominated plutocratic governments that institutionalized denial, and pushed through a craven amnesty for all military and political figures implicated in war crimes, while they continued (a little more discreetly than before) looting the country. A few triggermen were prosecuted for death squad activities but by and large, the major perps walked free, some of them settling comfortably in the U.S. A lot of other Salvadorans ended up in the U.S. as well, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service worked diligently to ensure that none of those who had fled government repression were given political asylum.
El Salvador’s guerrilla army, the FMLN, had taken swifter, if limited, justice: in 1984, they lured the massacre’s engineer and top commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa into a booby-trapped helicopter by letting him think he had captured the transmitter for the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos. They blew him up in mid-air. A pretty good film, Trap for a Cat, made by a Venezuelan filmmaker sympathetic to the struggle tells this as a story of poetic justice, with some dramatic license.
In 1991, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, I stood with a tiny group of people in the tall dry grass of the empty place that had once been the busy market town of El Mozote. A majority of its residents had been conservative evangelical Christians who had refused to support the FMLN – and so the initial story manufactured for the cover-up was that the massacre was a reprisal by the guerrillas. That story eventually sank under the weight of the facts – in no small part because there had been at least one surviving witness to the attack.
That was Rufina Amaya, widow of a smallholder who was killed in the massacre, and she was standing with our group in the susurrus grass of that depression in the barren hills where there was absolutely no structure, whole or partial, remaining to indicate the former town. She began to speak about what she had seen and heard on that day in 1981, when she hid in the bushes as the army marched in and began rounding up the townspeople.
Because what she saw and heard – including the cries of her own children as they were locked inside the town church, which would later be burned to the ground with them in it – was too much for any human to bear and remain unbroken, she spoke rapidly, almost at the edge of panic at first and then in tears, her voice shaky but never choking, never stopping for breath or reflection, just saying what had to be said, which she had already had to do a hundred times by then. She had crouched in her hiding place through the long day of screams, shouts, weeping, gunfire and blood and escaped in the dark.
I was responsible for interpreting for her to those in the group who did not speak Spanish and I remember that the only way to do it was to relinquish any intermediation between her words and mine and simply open my mind to hers as the words flowed out. I had never had to do that before, have never had to do it since and I don’t know if I could do it again.
Yet it is in such moments that phrases like “a shared humanity” lose their abstract or clichéd status. The facts can always be argued, twisted, or simply suppressed. Narratives and counter-narratives can be created in which the facts disappear in a welter of relentless polemic that is far more captivating than the facts can ever be. The only truth we will ever know is the truth we recognize in one another in situations where pretense and pretexts are stripped away – and in the living world that sustains us, whenever we can experience it without intervention. Rufina was truth that day in the dust of that whispering place where a thousand bodies were moldering invisibly under the soil.
History is mostly what’s told us by the victors. But El Salvador’s best poet – murdered, in despicable political irony, at the order of a brilliant FMLN commander who made northern Morazán, throughout the later 1980s, a guerrilla stronghold into which the Salvadoran army could no longer enter and kill at will, allowing some remarkable if inevitably limited experiments in collective autonomy to flourish at the same time (just in case you ever thought revolution was a case of stark, unmistakable distinctions between good and evil) – the revolutionary Roque Dalton, wrote a poem called “The Victim’s Turn” in which the possibility of a different history is raised:
Ahora es la hora de mi turno
Now my turn has come
el turno del ofendido por años silencioso
the victim’s turn, silent for years
a pesar de los gritos
in spite of the shouts
Last year, an Argentine forensic team was finally authorized to complete exhumations at the El Mozote massacre site. The team had begun digging more than twenty years before and when it actually unearthed over a hundred bodies (more than half of whom were children) its work was rapidly suspended. But the families of the murdered persisted, and at last the wheels of some kind of justice began to turn – first with a decision by the Inter-American Human Rights Court in 2012 that El Salvador’s amnesty law had limits, and a case of grave violations like El Mozote had to be investigated and produce reparations. A decision that the Salvadoran Supreme Court has now ratified: the amnesty law was annulled last year, and 22 high-ranking military officials will face trial for crimes against humanity.
But the words “never again” still ring hollow, 35 years on, as none of the institutions that permit massacres and cover-ups here, there or elsewhere have been abolished or even weakened much, despite the tireless efforts of millions to stop the past from repeating itself. One hegemonic enemy collapsed but the great game has continued, creating new enemies to order and churning out fancy new tools to do the old work of killing and distracting and covering tracks afterward. The transformative hopes of the thousands who died fighting in El Salvador – or died only because they were poor and in the way of power – were not realized. Neoliberal economics, corruption and gang wars continue to pillage it today. Still there isn’t a choice but keep driving forward while never ceasing to look backward, as if we were all a motorized version of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, watching the disasters pile up in the rear view mirror.
And yet it is the utmost disrespect to the survivors to relax into a distanced despair. The last time I saw Rufina Amaya was on the back roads of Morazán in the first years of peace. She was on her way to a dance. She died of cancer in 2007; she did not live to see the first government in El Salvador’s history that was even slightly to the left of outright oligarchy take power in 2009, or its president admit the state’s responsibility for the El Mozote massacre and apologize to the victims’ families in 2012. But the victory that she had already won for herself, the triumph over annihilating despair – and for her people, the survival of the truth – was an even greater one.
For further reading:
The Massacre at El Mozote by Mark Danner (Vintage, 1994)
The El Mozote Massacre by Leigh Binford (University of Arizona Press, 1996)