Revisiting American Involvement in El Salvador: The Massacre at El Mozote

In 1981, El Salvador's military leaders began to employ "scorched earth" tactics in their battle against left-wing guerrillas. In Spanish the saying was "sacar el pes del agua," or "remove the fish from the water." Whatever the name, total warfare and destruction was the objective, and the policy resulted in a brutal massacre in the small town of El Mozote. I visited the town last week, a few days after the historic presidential election victory of the FMLN, political descendants of the guerrillas who endured a 12-year civil war against a repressive military government. A local ex-guerrilla and a curator of the memorial dedicated to the massacre shared the disturbing story with me. It is one that more Americans should hear.

Over the course of three days in January, 1981, approximately 1000 people, almost the entire population of Mozote, were tortured and slaughtered. Men, women, children, and the elderly were separated in groups around the town plaza. Men were tortured and shot. Women were tortured and shot. Young women were taken up a hill, raped, and then shot. 146 children, ranging from the ages of 3 days to 14 years, were brutally murdered. Soldiers smashed the skulls of small babies and decapitated older children. Several pregnant mothers were shot, then had large rocks dropped on their stomachs to kill their unborn children. Finished, the soldiers set fire to the church where the children had been killed. Oscar, my ex-guerrilla guide, was among those that found the town smoldering the next day and recalled seeing animals pick at decapitated heads, strewn about, as smoke rose from charred bodies.

A monument to the victims now stands in the town plaza. The bones that have been recovered are enterred beneath a wall that lists the names of the deceased. A garden with bright flowers and colorful murals has been dedicated to the 146 children, whose names and ages are listed on a wall of the rebuilt church that burnt along with their bodies.

How are we, as Americans, involved? The American government, one of the people, was intimately involved with El Salvador's right wing government before and after the massacre. We provided them with weapons, money, and political support for a full 11 years after the massacre. The story of the massacre, while initially disputed by both the Salvadoran and American governments, has been corroborated by eyewitness accounts (Rufina Amaya, a local woman, escaped while her family was killed). A New York Times reporter visited the town shortly after the massacre and published this article. Furthermore, examinations of exhumed remains are consistent with accounts of the brutality of the killings. Despite strong evidence of mass torture and senseless murder, America stood by El Salvador´s military leaders.

While not unique, this example of our indirect support of crimes against humanity is timely. El Salvador is charting a new course in government, and so are we. One of the stated aims of President Obama's administration is to reassess our approach to foreign policy with the aim of regaining a measure of respect and admiration from those we have alienated. Hopes are high at this moment in time, but why not drive them higher? Why not internalize, and fully recognize, all of our past mistakes rather than bury them amidst generalizations that serve only to excuse.

Many people know that the U.S. intervened in Latin American politics throughout the 20th century and that we supported dictatorships favorable to American business interests. Rarely, however, do discussions of this fact proceed beyond a verbal slapping ourselves on the wrists for having "meddled" to further our own interests. Knowledge of the full extent of past atrocities is largely confined to a limited circle of journalists, foreign-policy history buffs, and dedicated human rights activists (many of which, it should be noted, vehemently protested our involvement in El Salvador).

The historic elections in El Salvador provided an opportunity for reflection, and the opportunity was largely missed. The story of Mozote, and the many others like it, should not be blurred. These stories should be taught, discussed, highlighted and made known to future generations. Only then will we hold our government to a standard of conduct in foreign policy that is informed by full historical context. Perhaps, like fear, stress, and salt, a national sense of guilt would, in moderation, be healthy.