11 December 1981 is one of those days that should never be forgotten. Unfortunately it isn't well known.

On that day, an elite unit of the El Salvador government forces—the Atlacatl Battalion (named after a legendary Indian warrior who defied the conquistadores)—massacred nearly the entire population (including people who had sought sanctuary there) of the village (sometimes described as a "hamlet") of El Mozote, in the district of Morazán. They subsequently did the same in some smaller surrounding villages. While El Mozote ("the thistle") had the greatest and most comprehensive casualties, when discussing the "massacre" the villages of La Joya, Los Toriles, Jocote Armirillo, Cerro Pando, and Joateca must also be included and remembered, as they were part of the military operation.

The massacre(s) took place between unarmed citizens (including women and children) and the Atlacatl. It was not citizens armed and sympathetic to/fighting for the communist revolutionaries/ guerillas in the area, which was reported by the military forces who also claimed to have been actually fighting them at the site. These were a specially trained group (their leader, Lt. Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, was trained at the infamous "School of the Americas" by the US military—sometimes referred to as "School of the Assassins" due to the number of graduates who have committed atrocities) with modern military equipment: American M-16s, M-60s, 90 mm recoilless rifles, and 60 mm and 81 mm mortars.

They even had themselves referred to as "the elite American-trained Atlacatl Battalion" in press releases. They were trained by US Special Forces advisors sent to El Salvador to teach them weapons and tactics (admittedly, it was pretty basic training, but since the rest of the army was so poorly trained, it did make them the best-trained around).

[While it would take another node and more knowledgable writer, it seems The United States' chief interest/motive in giving military and economic aid to El Salvador's government stemmed from the fear of communist expansion in Central America. This fear—for what it's worth, this was while the Cold War was still "going on"—resulted in supporting a government whose military routinely committed Human Rights violations and atrocities, something which the US government was not entirely ignorant of, whether deliberately looking away or not. This is not meant to exonerate or honor the leftists, as they also had their share of blood on their collective hands. But they were not armed and trained by the US, nor were they responsible for the massacre—despite some attempts by the Salvadorans to implicate them.]

Operación Rescate
The army was in the midst of a sweep of the "Red Zone" Moarán called, ironically "Operación Rescate" (Operation Rescue). It's intention was to be La Limpienza ("The Cleanup"), in the words of Monterrosa. The area was considered guerilla territory and for the most part the citizens were suspected or assumed to either be sympathetic to or communists, themselves. The general tactic was for army and security forces move into the area pushing everyone back against a barrier (like a river or border, sometimes other troops waiting). When the guerillas were concentrated, helicopters containing the Atlacatl men would come in and strafe, followed by ground bombardment and then small arms fire. It was referred to as "hammer and anvil."

When the forces moved into the area, many of the villages were already empty or contained few citizens. Residents of the area knew that it was best when the army arrived to sneak out of town and hide until they had left. This wasn't the case for El Mozote. In fact, the village's population had swelled with non-inhabitants because it was believed to be safe.

The richest man in town, Marcos Díaz, had some friends in the military. An officer had let him know that he should "stock up" and that

soon the Army would launch a large operation in Morazán, and "nothing and no one" would be permitted to enter or leave the zone. But his friend Díaz needn't worry, the officer assured him. the people of El Mozote would have no problems—provided they stayed where they were.
Díaz informed the citizens and the word spread bringing in others from nearby villages.

Another thing was that the village was made up of mostly evangelical Christians and evangelicals were known for their anti-Communist sentiments (rather than Catholics who tended to be more sympathetic to the leftists). Further, while they had been visited in the past by both the military and the guerillas, they had had little trouble with either, cooperating civilly until the group left. As it was, the communists were well aware that attempts to recruit from the village would be a waste of time. One of the rebel commanders noted (interview with Danner) that some of El Mozote had been supporters, but they had left and joined them well before 1981. He added that those who remained were afraid of them (not surprising because of the very real and valid fear of army reprisals). He also adds "everyone knew there were many evangelicals in El Mozote, and these people wouldn't support us. Sometimes they sold us things, yes, but they didn't want anything to do with us."

The Army arrives
So when the army arrived on 10 December, the villagers were in their homes or homes of friends or relatives. The soldiers went around banging on doors and making the people gather in the town center. There they were told to lie down (boca abajo—"mouth down"). Those that didn't respond fast enough for the soldiers were pushed to the ground. Then the soldiers " interrogated" them, asking for information on the rebels and where the weapons were hidden. From time to time people would be kicked or hit with a rifle butt.

When told the rebels weren't there but up in the hills, the soldiers' anger increased, one reportedly saying "All you sons of bitches are collaborators. You're going to have to pay for those bastards." (It should be noted that the battalion already had a big chip on its soldier. Earlier in the year they had been defeated in battle and had become ridiculed by others in the military and even the press.) When Díaz, confused, asked why they were being treated that way when he had been told nothing would happen to him, he was answered with "No, motherfucker, you all have to pay. Now get your face back in the ground.

After a time, the people were told to return to their houses and not to even attempt looking out (the warning clear without being explicit). In the still dark hours of the next day, the soldiers again rounded up the populace and assembled them in the plaza. At that point they separated them. Men and older boys lined up in one part and women and children in another. Then nothing. The soldiers made them stand for hours, walking past them frightened people and without saying a word. Around 7 A.M., the men's group was moved into the church and small adjacent sacristy. The women were moved to another building. A helicopter arrived with officers or the Atlacatl Battalion. They appeared to assess the situation and soon left, carrying some of the officers. Other officers continued to question the women.

The massacre
Shortly after, small groups of men ( blindfolded and bound) were led out of the church. They began by beheading them with machetes (something that couldn't be easily done with only one blow). Other officers went on questioning the men still inside the church. It had been about an hour. Other men were decapitated in or near the church and the heads and bodies were dragged into the convent. Giving up on that (there were an estimated more than a 100 men that had been placed in the church to begin with), they began taking small groups out to the nearby woods, forcing them to lie face down and shooting them with their M-16s.

Around noon, the women were told they were to be taken and questioned in the church—following which they would be allowed to return to their homes or elsewhere. No one believed them but there was little hope and little choice. They began, first, by pulling out younger women and girls and marched them into the surrounding hills. Any mother who resisted was beaten back with a rifle butt. The women could hear the screams of the girls. The men reportedly joked about the rapes.

There was a story, heard by the one of two survivors of the massacre—Rufina Amaya while hiding in the underbrush. She heard some soldiers discussing the events, wondering if the faith of evangelicals gave them some "strange power." Some people didn't resist and just gave themselves up and even sang while they were dispatched. The most chilling example was that of a girl (she was from another village, but was at El Mozote, having sought safe haven) who had been repeatedly raped. Unlike many who screamed and cried, she sang evangelical hymns during the violations. Even after she was shot in the chest and bleeding to death she continued singing as best she could. After the soldiers tired of the novelty they shot her again (not quite killing her or stopping the singing) and finally took machetes to her neck, silencing her.

As the women were moved out in groups they were able to see the bodies and the smoke of the buildings that were being torched by the soldiers. It was during the transfer that Amaya was able to escape (the guard behind her had moved up to deal with another woman and Amaya was able to hide behind a crabapple tree and finally in the bushes that grew in the area).

Some of the women were taken to the hills, some pushed into houses and shot. Then they began their systematic work on the children. They were herded into the sacristy where they were shot to death from the door and windows (not all the people in the sacristy were children but the majority of the identifiable remains were found to be under age 12).

The other survivor, now called "Chepe Mozote," had escaped the initial round-up with his little brother (their house was on the edge of town). Soldiers found them the next morning and saying he couldn't see his mother, he was told to go to the playing field where he would have his mother's whereabouts explained. When he got there, he saw about 30 children and soldiers putting ropes in trees. Being seven, he didn't realize the enormity of the situation until he saw a small child tossed in the air and stabbed with a bayonet. Some had their throats cut, other were hanged. Chepe ran into the bushes and managed to escape.

Following the extermination at the church, it was also burned. The animals and livestock were also killed. They left El Mozote the next morning.

Some 370 people have been listed as killed at El Mozote (as best anyone can determine). The bodies were left where they fell.

The massacre continues
The smoke from the burning buildings of El Mozote had been seen by the occupants of Los Toriles (by then it was known that the army was in the area). Some of them escaped to the hills but other remained to protect their property (on previous visits, empty houses were burned by the army who claimed being empty proved it belonged to guerillas). The soldiers again assembled the people in the middle of town and stole anything of value. Then lined the people against the wall and machine-gunned them. After eliminating the populace (and its animals and livestock), the town was burned. It was determined at least 62 people died.

The same day as El Mozote took place, members of the Atlacatl Battalion attacked La Joya. Some 190 people have been listed as killed at La Joya.

At Jocote Armirillo, Cerro Pando, and Joateca some 17, 113, and 15, respectively, have been listed as killed.

Over the course of a few days, over 767 people were massacred.

At first, the El Salvadoran military denied anything took place, later blaming the communist forces. It was also covered up (a strong word to use, regretfully) but the US government's refusal to acknowledge the incident and attempts to discredit the reporters who eventually covered the story in January 1982—it all coming at an inconvenient time when Congress was voting for certification that El Salvador had decreased Human Rights violations at the hands of its military and security forces, something necessary to continue economic and military aid.

Eventually a team of forensic anthropologists were able to study the site was (nearly untouched since the massacre took place) in 1992. As part of the peace agreement between the two Salvadoran factions (also in 1992), a UN sponsored Comisión de Verdad ("Truth Commision") was established to investigate Human Rights violations. In 1993, it issued its report listing El Mozote as an "illustrative case" under the section "Massacres of peasants by the armed forces." It concluded that it

Everything points to the fact that these deaths formed part of a pattern of conduct, a deliberate strategy of eliminating or terrifying the peasant population in areas where the guerrillas were active, the purpose being to deprive the guerrilla forces of this source of supplies and information and of the possibility of hiding or concealing themselves among that population.

It is impossible to blame this pattern of conduct on local commanders and to claim that senior commanders did not know anything about it. As we have described, massacres of the peasant population were reported repeatedly. There is no evidence that any effort was made to investigate them. The authorities dismissed these reports as enemy propaganda. Were it not for the children's skeletons at El Mozote, some people would still be disputing that such massacres took place.

Those small skeletons are proof not only of the existence of the cold-blooded massacre at El Mozote but also of the collusion of senior commanders of the armed forces, for they show that the evidence of the unburied bodies was there for a long time for anyone who wanted to investigate the facts. In this case, we cannot accept the excuse that senior commanders knew nothing of what had happened.

No action was taken to avoid incidents such as this. On the contrary, the deliberate, systematic and indiscriminate violence against the peasant population in areas of military operations went on for years.

Five days after the publishing of the report, the El Salvadoran government voted in a "blanket amnesty that would bar from prosecution those responsible for El Mozote and other atrocities of the civil war."

In 1993, the Secretary of State's Panel on El Salvador was created. After defending its earlier conclusions (reports that it was propaganda, that the sources couldn't be trusted, that either nothing happened or that it was a battle between two armed forces), it admitted that mistakes were made. That the issue had been lost in a flood of ongoing embassy business." That with charges of that "enormity and prominence"

extraordinary effort—possibly including pressing for a Salvadoran military operation to escort neutral observers to the site—was needed. The Embassy does not seem to have been inclined to press, and Washington preferred to avoid the issue and protect its policy under siege.
Though at the end, just prior to the concluding paragraph, the concern is voiced that the whole thing "undermined the Department's credibility with its critics—in a serious way that has not healed." True, perhaps, but beside the point. It finally conceded that
The exhumations in 1992 showed clearly that a massacre had indeed occurred and the US statements on the case were wrong. On December 11, 1991, two Embassy officers went to El Mozote to attend a ceremony honoring those who had died in the massacre.
Ten years after the fact.

(Sources: Mark Danner's The Massacre at El Mozote: a parable of the Cold War, 1993, From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 1993—the chapter on El Mozote can be found in the documents appendix in Danner's book)