“Mrs. Amaya said the first column of soldiers arrived in El Mozote on foot about 6:00 p.m. Three times during the next 24 hours, helicopters landed with more soldiers. She said soldiers told the villagers they were from the Atlacatl Battalion. ‘They said they wanted our weapons. But we said we didn’t have any. That made them angry, and they started killing us. Many of the peasants were shot while in their homes, but the soldiers dragged others from their houses and the church and put them in lines, women in one, men in another.’ It was during this confusion that she managed to escape.”
“She said about 25 young girls were separated from the other women and taken to the edge of the tiny village and she heard them screaming. When asked why the villagers hadn’t fled, Mrs. Amaya said, ‘We trusted the army.’ From October 1980 to August 1981, there had been a regular contingent of soldiers in El Mozote, often from the National Guard. She said they hadn’t abused the peasants, and that the villagers often fed them.”—“Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvadoran Village,” The New York Times, Raymond Bonner, January 1982
Why Did They Have to Kill the Children?
Maj. Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera, second in command of the Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Battalion, was frustrated. He’d just ordered the men under his command to begin killing the children of El Mozote. They’d shown little hesitation in the killing of adult and elderly men in the village, and no hesitation at all in leading away the young girls, most between 12–to–15, whom they gang-raped, then butchered.
But the children, the ninos and ninas, they were now a problem. Major Cabrera was a true believer. The only good communist was a dead communist. And one dead communist child was one less future communist guerrilla the Salvadoran Army would have to fight.
El Mozote was a limpieza operation—a “cleaning up” of the communist guerrilla presence and control in the Department of Morazán. The Atlacatl Battalion was newly-reformed and devoid of American Special Forces combat advisers. Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, the battalion commander, was going to fight the guerrilla armies of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)—one of the two primary political parties in El Salvador—his way.
Atlacatl was to be the Einsatzgruppen. Just like the Like the Nazi “deployment units” raised by Heinrich Himmler—the founder and overall commander of the SS during World War II—the Atlacatl was the mobile killing unit of the Salvadoran High Command. Special tasks included the execution of communist party functionaries, FMLN and Catholic church officials, and FMLN political officers; as well as men, women, and children in those areas the military command deemed under the control of the guerrillas.
“Everything points to the fact that if ‘civilians’ of Catholic and evangelical affiliation died in the battle that took place in the El Mozote hamlet, were they linked to the activities of the terrorist group ERP [People’s Revolutionary Army]? The answer is yes, and this is what the report from the Department of State of the United States of America explained: El Mozote is located about 25 kilometers north of San Francisco Gotera, the capital of the department of Morazán. El Mozote hamlet was in the heart of the zone under constant siege by the ERP insurgents.”
“The investigation confirms that the settlers of the El Mozote hamlet were collaborating, voluntarily or involuntarily, with the insurgents. The report also revealed that the insurgents mobilized their supporters within the area of influence in the north of Morazán to harass the military units of the Armed Forces while they were advancing in the area. The insurgent forces had been permanently re-established in the El Mozote village since August 1981.” —Charly Monterrosa, Mountains of Morazán: The Muda Verdad of El Mozote
“We Carried Out a Limpieza There”
Major Cabrera, like his commander, believed in leading from the front. Ordering an infant to be brought to him, he held it in hand while unsheathing his bayonet with the other. Amid a cascade of gunshots, young girls’ screams, and the smoke and stench of tiny homes burning, Cabrera threw the baby skyward, and speared it as the tiny body fell back to earth.
This wanton act of murder was attributed to U.S. Special Forces advisors over the years; a mixture of FMLN wartime propaganda and myth. One such occurrence was published as a reader comment in October 2007 to this author’s post on the entry, “U.S. Special Ops in 1980’s El Salvador” for the blog, El Salvador Perspectives:
Anonymous said [Original spelling and punctuation errors uncorrected—Editor]:
“I know for a fact certain of these green berests threw babies in the air and caught them on their bayonets, some of the same were North’s bubbies and involved with Cocaine trafficking with the contras and in and out of Ilopongo arrogant rude ignorant assholes as are all in US miklitary taight to kill all unlike themselves and in foreign lands….”
In 1984, James LeMoyne of The New York Times asked Lieutenant Colonel Monterrosa about El Mozote. According to LeMoyne, Lieutenant Colonel Monterrosa, in the aftermath of a long and exhausting day of combat, answered. “He shrugged and said, ‘Yeah, we did it. We carried out a limpieza there. We killed everyone. In those days, I thought that was what we had to do to win the war. And I was wrong.”
“Understanding that in El Mozote there was a base for insurgents and that the ERP took advantage of minors when training them to kill, there is no doubt that many of the remains of children found in El Mozote could clearly have belonged to the group of insurgents that ambushed the First BIRI Atlacatl Group. The only thing that separated these children and adults from seeing themselves as combatants or humble peasants was their weapons of war.”—Charly Monterrosa, Mountains of Morazán: The Muda Verdad of El Mozote
According to retired Master Sgt. Bruce Hazelwood of the United States Army Special Forces, Monterrosa was changing his strategy and tactics by 1984. “As you know, I was working with Atlacatl during the time in question,” Hazelwood wrote me in January 2018. “By the time [of] Monterrosa’s death, he had made a 180-degree change. For three years, I stayed very close to him until the end in 1984.”
War Crime Tribunal
The war in El Salvador ended in 1992 with the UN-brokered Chapultepec Peace Accords. For the next eight months, the Truth Commission of El Salvador, approved by the UN, conducted investigations of 191 reported war crimes, during which time it interviewed 2,000 witnesses to the atrocities. War crimes were committed by the Salvadoran security forces and army as well as the FMLN and its guerrillas. Another 20,000 statements from additional witnesses taken by human rights groups were incorporated into the final report, From Madness to Hope.
Exhumations of massacre sites, including El Mozote, also began in 1992. Forensic teams from Argentina as well as other countries continue to exhume, identify when possible, and document these and newly discovered body dumps, mass graves, and single and family grave sites. The final report showed 85 percent of the alleged crimes were committed by the government’s forces, with the remainder assigned to the FMLN’s leadership and forces or criminal activity.
In 1993, former guerrilla leaders turned politicians, and their military counterparts, used the new system of government to decree a general amnesty for all war crimes committed between 1980 and 1991. In short, the guilty parties exonerated themselves under the rule of law. However, in 2016, the Salvadoran Supreme Court threw out the amnesty law, opening the doors for stalled investigations to be resumed, and start prosecution proceedings.
By this time, the body count and means of execution at El Mozote were more firmly established. Additional witnesses—now much older members of the Atlacatl Battalion who participated in the massacre—were interviewed. More survivors, some of them children who had managed to run away and hide during the killing spree, came forward. Finally, the first indictments and trial for the most infamous massacre of civilians in the history of modern Latin America began.
Protecting Dirty Deeds
As a result, the Salvadoran Congress, made up of now much older and richer former FMLN guerrilla commanders and their Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) counterparts, as well as retired and wealthy Salvadoran military officers, are ramming a new amnesty law down the throats of the Salvadoran people. Why? Several are named in the 1992 Truth Commission report as being directly tied to specific war crimes.
For example, Nidia Diaz (real name Maria Marta Valladares), former commander of the Revolutionary Party of the Central American Workers (PRTC), now a firmly-entrenched politician in San Salvador, stands to be indicted and tried for her role in the Zona Rosa massacre—four off-duty, unarmed Marine embassy guards were specifically targeted by the PRTC for assassination. From the “U.S. Coming Around on El Mozote” post on the blog El Salvador Perspectives:
The National Assembly in 2017 created an ad hoc commission to look at the development of a new law of national reconciliation. Human rights and other groups called foul when the commission was made up of members who have been alleged to have involvement in various human rights violations:
- Antonio Almendáriz (PCN) was identified in the Truth Commission Report as being in the command structure of units which committed atrocities and was the last commander of the Atlacatl Battalion.
- Rodolfo Parker (PDC) while a lawyer for the armed forces was alleged by the UN to have covered up evidence related to the Jesuit massacre.
- Nidia Díaz (FMLN) has been accused in El Salvadorof command involvement with the Zona Rosa massacre of U.S. Marines.
- Mauricio Vargas (ARENA) has also been accused by U.S. authoritiesof involvement in human rights abuses.”
If the cartel of alleged war criminals in the Salvadoran Congress is successful in passing the new law before June 1, 2019, they’re essentially free and clear of further investigation, indictment, and prosecution. The new law offers that rather than completing prison terms, a convicted war criminal would receive community service for a period of time, and based on their age.
The Journalist Returns to El Mozote
Raymond Bonner, the former Marine officer turned war correspondent and investigative reporter for The New York Times, was castigated for discovering and reporting the truth about what occurred in December 1981 in El Mozote. The American government, intent on protecting its investment in stopping communism in Central America and using El Salvador as its first step in doing so, assassinated his character. The New York Times caved, pulling him out of El Salvador even as the Salvadoran government was making him persona non grata.
‘When Bonner got kicked out of the country Amb Hinton [Deane Roesch Hinton, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador] had me over to his residence for a celebration drink. I will say to my knowledge Ray’s reporting—at that time— was always very accurate.’—Master Sergeant Bruce Hazelwood, in his January 2018 letter. “
Bonner was exonerated with the confirmation of the massacre years later, as the bones of the dead were exhumed and counted. In his latest article for The Atlantic, Bonner describes the feelings of one Salvadoran survivor.
“‘This is mocking the victims,’ Amadeo Sanchez said recently in front of the parliament, where he was with other El Mozote victims to protest the law. He was eight at the time of the massacre. He survived because he fled into the hills with his father before the soldiers arrived in his village, he told me in an interview last year after testifying in court. ‘They want to favor the ones who committed the crimes,’ he said about the politicians, who are scheduled to vote on the law today.”
When he came out of the hills and returned to his village, Sanchez told me, he found the bodies of his mother, siblings, and neighbors, including a woman who had been shot in the head. Next to her lay her one-day-old daughter. Her throat, he said, had been cut.
‘On the wall,’ he told me, ‘the soldiers had scrawled in blood, Un nino muerto, un guerrillero menos: “One dead child is one less guerrilla.’”
The U.S. Collusion
What did the U.S. government know and when regarding the El Mozote massacre? NEWSREP confirmed there was an American adviser present with Lieutenant Colonel Monterrosa on the day of the massacre, both at the Atlacatl’s base in La Libertad, and then on the ground when Monterrosa flew in to personally relay the order to “clean” the village.
That American left the village as the killings began and made his way back to the U.S. Embassy, where he reported what was occurring. That information was cabled to the U.S. State Department. Elliott Abrams, former Assistant Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, was privy to the embassy report. Abrams would dismiss the massacre outright, then offered praise for the Atlacatl Battalion as described in the Human Rights Commission’s March 1992 report on the massacre:
“During the Senate hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre. Abrams noted, for example, that the estimates by the guerrillas changed several times and found it suspicious that an event which occurred in mid-December did not come out until just before the certification was due. The village of El Mozote was under control by the military until December 29, 1981, however (a fact reported in the January 31 cable); the area was heavily contested in that period, so it was not surprising that the guerrillas did not report the massacre until January 2, 1982, nor that the numbers of victims changed as the guerrillas discovered the full extent of the slaughter.”
“Abrams also insisted that the high numbers of victims reported in the press were implausible, pointing out that only three hundred people were reported to have been living in El Mozote at the time of the alleged massacre. Apart from the fact that one survivor said that there had been five hundred people in the village at the time, the comment blithely obscured that both the Washington Post and New York Times accounts clearly referred to El Mozote and several other villages.”
Abrams, the ever-loyal lapdog, would be convicted on two counts of withholding information from U.S. Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings. He was later pardoned by President Bush.
Master Sergeant Hazelwood has gone silent. He was a plank owner with Delta Force and a near permanent fixture at the United States Military Group in San Salvador during seven of the 10 years that the U.S. military campaign to support the war took place. He was also the American adviser/trainer to the Atlacatl Battalion and its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Monterrosa. In November 2011, he sent me several photos.
One of these was of Hazelwood in civilian clothes and carrying a .45 Colt pistol in a shoulder holster with Monterrosa on the Torola River in the Department of Morazan during an Atlacatl military operation. Being in civilian attire meant Hazelwood accompanied Monterrosa to the location by helicopter, most likely to observe the operation as it was occurring.
In 1992, Master Sgt. Hazelwood was voluntarily interviewed by the UN Truth Commission regarding the El Mozote massacre. Offering to the UN he wasn’t at El Mozote, Master Sergeant Hazelwood later told both retired Maj. Andy Messing of the National Defense Council Foundation and this author that he did indeed, did accompany Lt. Col. Monterrosa to the village and less than 24 hours later, reported his observations to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. (Excerpt: Raymond Bonner/Marco de Lang)
In September 2018, Hazelwood was named in the Dutch investigative documentary, “In Cold Blood,” as being present and privy to the plans and operation by Col. Mario Reyes Mena, then commander of the 4th Brigade in El Paraiso, to assassinate a Dutch film crewin 1982.
If the new amnesty law is passed after the new Salvadoran president, Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez, 37, is sworn in on June 1, 2019, Bukele has said he will veto it. In the meantime, the survivors of El Mozote, and the people of El Salvador, continue to be brutalized by those they trusted in both the Armed Forces and the FMLN. If it’s passed before then.…
And the United States government, which authorized the war in El Salvador as a formal U.S. military campaign in 1997 and continues to pour millions of U.S. dollars into a country on the verge of becoming a kleptocracy, keeps its silence regarding justice for the children of El Mozote.
About Greg Walker:
Born in Fairbanks, Alaska, Greg Walker’s military career includes the 9th Infantry Division and the 10th, 7th, and 19th Special Forces Groups. He is a combat veteran of the war in El Salvador and Operation Iraqi Freedom. A published author and journalist since 1989, Greg specializes in investigative reporting, U.S. Special Operations history, and Veteran healthcare issues.