New Voices

Foreign Relations: How U.S. Policy and Involvement Scarred El Salvador

by Tomás Rogel, on December 11, 2015.

Today marks the the 34th anniversary of the El Mozote massacre; a forgotten piece of Salvadoran history. The tragedy took place during El Salvador's civil war, an event fueled socioeconomic inequality, and to no surprise, the United State's irrational fear of communism. With 95% of the country's income going to the hands of the top 2%, peasants and coffee workers soon grew upset and revolted against the government. In 1932, the Salvadoran army responded with the genocide of 10,000 to 40,000 indians. Socioeconomic inequality continued to rise with the crash of the coffee market, the oil crisis of 1971, and finally a coup d'état in 1979, which marked the beginning of a 12 year war.

The United States saw the coup as the perfect change to prevent "another Nicaragua", and thus began to siphon money to the right-wing Salvadoran government. In addition, the United States also implemented several army schools in order to train Salvadoran soldiers. In 1980 alone, the U.S. had allocated $5.7 million to the Salvadoran military.

On December 10, 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion, formed in one of the American army schools, arrived at El Mozote village. Word of the battalion's coming had passed around, so villagers from other villages convened in El Mozote, in addition to its residents, in order to seek protection from the military. El Mozote had a reputation of neutrality and did support the government nor the guerrillas. On that night, all the villagers were searched, questioned about the guerrillas, and ordered to lock themselves in their house, otherwise they would be shot.

On December 11, the residents were ordered out of their houses. The battalion separated the men, women, and children and locked them in separate houses. One by one, they took the men. The men were questioned, tortured, and executed after digging their own grave. Then, they took the women. The were brought to the mountains and fields, where they would not be heard, and each one of them was raped and killed. Girls as young as 10 were raped. Last, they took the children. They were tortured and killed in numerous ways. Some were found with slit throats and others lynched on trees. They proceeded to burn the entire village to ground. The next day, the battalion left to a nearby village and continued their terrorism.

Reports of the crime began to pop up soon after, and many cited a death count of 733 to 900 civilians, but evidence suggests that the toll was likely much higher. The reports were discredited by several U.S. officials. The Reagan administration called the reports "gross exaggerations". Elliott Abrams, at the time Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (and also a key player in the Iran-Contra affair), claimed the reports were communist-sympathizing and guerrilla-affiliated propaganda.

There was only one survivor in this massacre, Rufina Amaya, who hid in a tree and witnessed the deaths of her husband, four children, and community. With her help and testimonies, the UN was able to carry on with the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador investigation. In 1992, an exhumation of the bodies would confirm Amaya's claims. In March 1993, the Salvadoran Truth Commission reported that over 500 civilians were "deliberately and systematically" executed in El Mozote in December 1981 by forces affiliated with the Salvadoran government.

In addition to these crimes, the U.S-financed war saw the assassination Archbishop Oscar Romero, soon after Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter asking for the U.S. to remove itself from the conflict, as he believed U.S. involvement would only bring more destruction. A massacre also took place during Romero's funeral. Furthermore, in December 1980, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered by military and paramilitary forces, causing Carter to finally stop financing the war. In the same year, however, new President Ronald Reagan saw El Salvador as an ally during the cold war and began to finance the war once more until 1990. Under Reagan's support, the same Atlacatl Battalion that terrorized El Mozote entered the campus of the University of Central America and publicly executed six prominent Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.

An estimated 75,000 Salvadoran civilians died between 1980 and 1992 alone, in addition to the 10,000 to 40,000 natives killed in 1932.

Due to an agreement to end the war which granted the government with general amnesty, those responsible for the massacres have never faced justice for their inhumane actions. The United States has yet to apologize and acknowledge their role in the civil war. Meanwhile, the civil war and crimes against El Salvador are being erased from history altogether.

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