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El mozote massacre { December 10 1981 }

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The U.N. Truth Commission on the El Mozote Massacre

Editor's Note: In 1992 a U.N.- sanctioned Truth commission investigated the 1981 massacre at El Mozote in the Morazan Department of El Salvador. Below are excepts from its report.

Summary of the Case
On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazan, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place. The following day, 11 December, after spending the night locked in their homes, they were deliberately and systematically executed in groups. 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.

These events occurred in the course of an anti-guerrilla action known as "Operacion Rescate" in which, in addition to the Atlacatl Battalion, units from the Third Infantry Brigade and the San Francisco Gotera Commando Training Centre took part.

In the course of "Operacion Rescate", massacres of civilians also occurred in the following places: 11 December, more than 20 people in La Joya canton; 12 December, some 30 people in the village of Rancheria; the same day, by units of the Atlacatl Battalion, the inhabitants of the village of los Toriles; and 13 December, the inhabitants of the village of Jocote Amarillo and Cerro Pando canton. More than 500 identified victims perished at El Mozote and in the other villages. Many other victims have not been identified.

We have accounts of these massacres provided by eyewitnesses and by other witnesses who later saw the bodies, which were left unburied. In the case of El Mozote, the accounts were fully corroborated by the 1992 exhumation of the remains.

Despite public complaints of a massacre and the ease with which they could have been verified, the Salvadoran authorities did not order an investigation and consistently denied that the massacre had taken place.

The Minister of Defence [sic] and the Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff have deneid to the Commission on the Truth that they have any information that would make it possible to identify the units and officers who participated in "Operacion Rescate". They say that there are no records for the period.

The President of the Supreme Court has interfered in a biased and political way in the judicial proceedings of the massacre instituted in 1990.


Village of El Mozote

On the Afternoon of 10 December 1981, units of the Atlacal Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI) arrived in the village of El Mozote, Department of Morazan, after a clash with the guerrillas in the vicinity.

The village consisted of about 20 houses situated on open ground around a square. Facing onto the square was a church and behind it a small building known as "the convent", used by the priest to change into his vestments when he came to the village to celebrate mass. Not far from the village was a school, the Grupo Escolar.

When the soldiers arrived in the village they found, in addition to the residents, other peasants who were refugees from the surrounding area. They ordered everyone out of the houses and into the square; they made them lie face down, searched them and asked them about the guerrillas. They then ordered them to lock themselves in their houses until the next day, warning that anyone coming out would be shot. The soldiers remained in the village during the night.

Early next morning, 11 December, the soldiers reassembled the entire population in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked everyone up in different groups in the church, the convent and various houses.

During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men in various locations. Around noon, they began taking the women in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them. Finally, they killed the children. A group of children who had been locked in the convent were machine-gunned through the windows. After exterminating the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings.

The soldiers remained in El Mozote that night. The next day, they went through the village of Los Toriles, situate 2 kilometres away. Some of the inhabitants managed to escape. The others, men women and children, were taken from their homes, lined up and machine-gunned.

The victims at El Mozote were left unburied. During the weeks that followed the bodies were seen by many people who passed by there.


...The Atlacatl Battalion was a "Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion" or "BIRI", that is, a unit specially trained for "counter-insurgency" warfare. It was the first unit of its kind in the armed forces and had completed its training under the supervision of United States military advisors, at the beginning of that year, 1981.


Atlacatl Battlion Army of El Salvador

Atlacatl Battalion: A rapid-response unit created, under U.S. pressure, for counter-insurgency warfare. In a contemporary account, Americas Watch said that "Created, trained and equipped by the United States, the an elite grouping within the Armed Forces" [AW AYOR page 127] The Atlacatl was the showpiece unit of the U.S.-inspired reorganization of the Salvadoran military during the early 1980s. Commanded by the dashing Col. Domingo Monterrosa, Atlacatl was the headline grabbing unit of the army.

Atlacatl carried out some of the most notorious massacres of the civil war, including the worst massacre in modern Latin American history at El Mozote. Atlacatl also carried out the November 1989 massacre of six Jesuits at the University of Central America. According to a 1991 Americas Watch report, the Altacatl Battalion "remains perhaps the most appalling violator of human rights in El Salvador." [AW DOT page 20]

The Atlacatl Battalion was disbanded under the terms of the 1992 peace treaty.


The Peace Accords in El Salvador

The civil war in El Salvador was both an internal conflict and part of a larger struggle within Central America. After the Sandinista victory in 1979 in Nicaragua, Central America became a major theater in the Cold War. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala would all either experience political violence themselves or become staging grounds for incursions into other Central American nations. The Soviet Union, Cuba, other Latin American nations, Western Europe, and particularly the United States, played roles in fostering or trying to end the violence. As early as 1983 several Latin nations tried to foster a regional settlement through the Contadoa Peace Process.

The Reagan administration, which had made the containment of Central American insurgencies and the defeat of the Sandinistas a major foreign policy objective, consistently worked against any settlements which would establish the legitimacy of Leftist regimes or movements. [CAUS pages 196-203] The Salvadoran army also worked against a settlement of the war during the administration of Christian Democratic president Jose Duarte. The military opposed a negotiated settlement both for ideological reasons and because peace would diminish its preeminent role in society.

When the rightist-Christiani regime responded to peace feelers from the FMLN in 1989, death squads unleashed a wave of terror designed to head off any agreement. The FENASTRAS and COMADRES bombings in November of that year may have originated as a protest by the right against further talks with the guerrillas.

Serious peace negotiations only began after the murder of six Jesuit priests at the University of El Salvador at the end of 1989. Heavy losses by both sides during the Febe Velasquez Offensive, the collapse of American support for the military after its role in the massacre of the Jesuits was revealed, and a growing popular belief that the war was unwinnable by either side on the battlefield forced the government to sit down with the FMLN. U.N. negotiators worked with the parties to hammer out a 1992 peace accord.

In January, 1992, the FMLN and the government of El Salvador signed accords ending the decade-long civil war. The peace agreement, signed in Chapultepec, Mexico, contained the following major provisions:
- Demobilization of the FMLN.
- Demobilization of rapid deployment battalions (BIRIs) which had been responsible for massacres (most notably at El Mozote by the Atlacatl Battalion) and other human rights violations.
- Limitation on role of the military to defense from external threats.
- Demobilization of the existing security forces and the creation of a police force under civilian control.
- Reduction in the size of the military by one-half.
- Creation of the Commission on the Truth to investigate human rights abuses.
- Creation of Ad Hoc Commission to investigate the human rights records of military officers.
- Reintegration of Combatants into civilian life.

The provisions contained in the accords were to be implemented over a period of more than a year.

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