Miraculously a wave of retribution is sweeping Latin America leading to the crimes of military dictators and their accomplices being finally brought to trial. El Salvador is the latest to join other countries in pursuing those responsible for crimes against humanity.
On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in Morazán, the mountainous north-eastern corner of El Salvador, units of the counter-insurgency Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children. The following day, 11 December, they were deliberately and systematically killed. First, the men were tortured and executed, then the women were executed and, lastly, the children, in the place where they had been locked up.
In 1981, during the civil war, various left-wing guerrilla groups coalesced into the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front to battle El Salvador’s right-wing government. The region of Morazán was a major stronghold of the guerrilla movement, although unlike many villages in the area, El Mozote had a reputation for neutrality. The village had sold guerrillas supplies on occasion, but was also “a place where the guerrillas had learned not to look for recruits.”
The El Mozote massacre was first reported in the US by The New York Times and The Washington Post and came at a time when the US Congress was bitterly debating whether to continue supporting a regime so desperate that it had apparently resorted to the most savage methods of war. The story epitomized what became the classic debate of the Cold War: whether to prop up a “friendly” regime, however disreputable, because the alternative – a Communist victory in the region – was worse.
The Republican Administration of President Ronald Reagan denied that any credible evidence existed that a massacre had taken place. The Democratic Congress, after once more denouncing the murderous abuses of the Salvadoran regime, accepted the Administration’s “certification” that its ally was nonetheless making a “significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” The flow of US aid went on and was eventually increased.
Thirty-one years later, on Monday 10 December 2012, the Inter-American Human Rights Court has ordered El Salvador officially to investigate the massacre in a bid to bring those responsible to justice. The Court ruled that a 1993 amnesty law did not cover the massacre and that the killings were part of a “systematic plan of repression” by the military during the country’s civil war from 1980 to 1992 which left some 75,000 dead. The Court’s statement said that 440 victims had been confirmed, but that evidence indicated the actual number was much higher.
The Court ordered El Salvador to continue compiling a register of the victims and their families; to conduct investigations into the massacre; to ensure that the amnesty law is not an obstacle; to conduct the necessary exhumations and identification of bodies and where applicable return the remains to family members; and to pay compensation to the victims’ families and survivors totalling some $17 million.
On 6 December 1993, for only the second time in its history, The New Yorker dedicated its entire issue to American journalist Mark Danner’s article “The Truth of El Mozote”, which can still be found here. The article was the basis for Danner’s first book The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, published in 1994.
“Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long… at the length truth will out” (The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 2).