Lessons of El Mozote PDF Print E-mail
Politics
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Saturday, 22 January 2011 15:45

El Mozote was once a small village in the northeast corner of El Salvador. It wasn’t much: Twenty houses around a square, a church, a schoolhouse. Today, it is less than not much. It is a graveyard.

During the afternoon of December 10, 1981, soldiers from El Salvador’s Atlacatl Battalion descended on the village of The US-trained counter-insurgency unit had been in the area fighting anti-government rebels from the Marxist FMLN. Soldiers dragged the residents from their homes, made them lie face down in the square, and searched them before ordering them back to their homes with a stern warning that they would be killed if they ventured outside.

It had become standard procedure for the Atlacatl Battalion. Only a day before, soldiers from the same Battalion had arrested and tortured suspected rebels in Arambala, and on December 10 residents of Cumaro had been assembled in the town square for search and interrogation.

Early on December 11, the soldiers brought the villagers back to the square at the center of El Mozote, separated the men from women and children, and locked them in various buildings around town. During the morning, they tortured, interrogated, and eventually killed all the men. After lunch, they started on the women. Girls as young as ten were raped, and nearly all the women were killed. The soldiers had locked children in the church, and now shot them through the windows. Before they left, they set fire to the buildings. By the time the unit got to Los Toriles, a few kilometers away, El Mozote was no more than charred ruins and shards of incinerated bones.

Rufina Amaya, one of the handful of survivors, escaped the soldiers by hiding in a tree. She watched the soldiers kill her husband, son, daughters, and then set fire to stacks of bodies. Another survivor described “the shots, the crying and the screaming” that continued through the morning: “if only you could have heard that enormous screaming.” When Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post visited the site a month later, there were “dozens of decomposing bodies still seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields.” In the church “countless bits of bones – skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column – poked out of the rubble.” Another reporter was given a list of over seven hundred names of people who had been slaughtered.

The first reports of the massacre came from an FMLN radio broadcast, which claimed that “more than 900 Salvadorans” had died. The first reporters from American newspapers were escorted to the scene by rebels.  Given the sources, it is understandable that officials in both San Salvador and the Reagan administration were skeptical. Some denied the event had occurred at all. Elliott Abrams, then in charge of human rights at the State Department, said that the incident was overblown and that news reports were being used to the advantage of the guerillas, while other media outlets speculated that the dead might have been guerillas themselves, rather than innocent villagers. Unable to get close enough to the village to discover what had happened, investigators from the US Embassy in El Salvador cabled Washington with the report that “No evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians,” and that became the Reagan administration line. Conservative media watchdog Accuracy in Media (AIM) linked the reporters who discovered the massacre with leftist causes, but did not offer evidence to contradict their reporting.

More than a decade later, though, forensic anthropologists pieced together the remains of almost 700 men, women, and children. Contradicting the claim that the villagers were FMLN sympathizers, Mark Danner, who wrote a book on the massacre, concluded that “The people of El Mozote were struggling to keep their balance in the middle of the perilously shifting ground of a brutal war, working hard to remain on friendly terms with the soldiers while fearing to alienate the guerrillas.” This was not good enough for the government, who terrorized the villagers to take the government’s side. Yet, while admitting that civilians were killed in El Mozote, Reed Irvine of AIM was still arguing in a 1994 Washington Times letter that the number killed was much lower. Rather than admit that financial aid from the Reagan administration was supporting thuggery in Central America, some prominent American conservatives closed ranks in defense of a popular conservative President. And long after it became undeniable, some prominent conservatives continued in denial.

1981 is virtually ancient history. Few remember the Salvadorean conflict at all, much less El Mozote or the murders at the University of Central America. But these events provide a cautionary tale for American Christians as we assess America abroad. Kneejerk patriotic and/or conservative reactions won’t do. We have to learn to hold our natural patriotism loosely enough to recognize and denounce horrors, even if we are implicated and even if they tarnish our favor party or politician. We must learn to apply a basic New Testament teaching to our evaluation of American action and policy, that we are members of a new international nation whose water is thicker than blood.



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