Posts Tagged ‘history’

Lessons from El Mozote

January 12, 2010

note:  This was a “short paper” I wrote for a class, Latin American History, at Montana State University. It was a commentary on Mark Danner’s book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which proved to be a rude awakening to a devout American. I still believe in this great nation. I just can’t be as naive as I once was.

The term “dirty war” was originally used to describe the government sponsored combat in Argentina against leftist guerrillas in the 1970s, killing subversives by the tens of thousands. The same term was used in Mark Danner’s Book, The Massacre at El Mozote, to describe a similar operation in El Salvador in the early 1980s. (Danner, 25) In this book, Danner gives a glimpse into the efforts used by Salvadoran government and by extension its army, to contain revolutionary changes during the Cold War period.  Those measures, made acceptable to them in consideration of the history of civilian support of the rebels, were military tactics such as their so-called “Hammer and Anvil”, a scorched earth policy, and wholesale brutality (including the subsequent lies to cover it up).  Although there is no evidence that US forces directly took part in the atrocities, Atlacatl (Salvadoran army) leaders were largely taught and their army funded by the United States government with full knowledge of the actions they supported.

The Salvadoran army had faced guerrillas in the past.  Rebel forces frequently lived among, did business with and even recruited from small towns in the mountains.  In the late 1970s, radical priests had brought their congregations to believe in the leftist causes.  Many of the youth would, at the guerrillas’ bidding, join the national army “in order to receive military training and gain firsthand knowledge of the enemy…” (Danner 30)  They provided intelligence to the guerillas and later left the army and joined them (leftist forces). “By 1980, small groups of young guerrillas were operating throughout northern Morazán, drawing food and support from sympathetic peasants, and launching raids from time to time against the National Guard posts in the towns.” (Danner 31)   Of course, the fact that the people of El Mozote had stepped out of that mold, refusing to actively support either the military or the rebels didn’t seem to matter to the government. The ERP (guerrilla forces) understood that the people of El Mozote only cooperated “at the lowest level” so as not to bring any harm on their town. A rebel called Licho said, “Sometimes they sold us things, yes, but they didn’t want anything to do with us.” (Danner 18/19)

Hammer and Anvil was a general term for any method of counter-guerrilla fighting that would “expel the guerrillas from the zone”.  The intended effect was to get rid of the rebel-imposed Marxist-Leninist system, hoping to break “the support of the people they [the guerrillas] had indoctrinated.” (Danner 41) This method was largely ineffective for several reasons.  First, it required a large military force to maintain the territory taken, and the army didn’t have enough troops or equipment. Second, there were disagreements among the army personnel as to what to do with the town or people. Civilians were often accused of being subversives and were killed. (Danner 41). After a short time, the army would move out. The guerrillas would move back in and any progress would be lost.    The end result was only a few rebels killed and the civilian support was not broken. (Danner 42)

Those whom the army had captured didn’t rate the word “rebel” or “guerrilla”.  Instead the army called them “delinquent terrorists” and all civilians in that zone “masas” or guerrilla supporters.  That turned the civilians into legitimate targets for the army. (Danner 42)  The Salvadoran government adopted the stand, “If you’re not with me you’re against me. And if you’re against me, I have to destroy you.” (ibid)

Although El Mozote was known to not support the rebels, they didn’t much more support the army.  The minimal courtesy they gave to each force was by and large uniform, not showing favoritism to one or the other.

The “Hammer and Anvil” had already been tried out at El Rosario in 1980.  Assuming that most of the townspeople were guerrilla supporters, the army pushed them down into the city center where the plan was to annihilate them with artillery.  The push (Hammer) came by way of armed combat lasting two weeks.  The Anvil portion was never fulfilled as intended. While about 40 civilians were killed directly by the soldiers, a far greater slaughter was averted because the officers couldn’t agree on who was enemy and who wasn’t. (Danner 43/44)  When the killing was over and survivors escaped, the “scorched earth” part began.  With only a few people remaining in El Rosario, “the soldiers burned all the corps they could find.” (Danner 44) With nothing to sustain them, peasants from Morazán headed north to Honduras.

A year later, El Mozote would not be so fortunate.

The people of El Mozote trusted the army.  In the past there had been no reason not to.  Everyone knew they weren’t rebel supporters, so the Atlacatl (LTC Monterrosa’s elite American trained army) would have no argument with them.  So, when army personnel told a well-respected member of the community, Marco Díaz, that people would be safer in their homes than fleeing into the mountains, he believed it. So did the rest of the small town. (Danner 17)  After all, why would they lie?

Site of 1981 Massacre

El Mozote

The hammer worked perfectly. People from surrounding areas all gathered in the homes of family or friends in El Mozote, resting on the reassurances of the army and of Marco Díaz. The wholesale slaughter and depraved degradation that followed defies comprehension. (Danner 68-84)  If the rapes, beheadings, hangings, impalings, and other atrocities were policy, the only evidence in Danner’s book were the words of one captain who told his men, “What we did yesterday, what we’ve been doing on this operation, this is what war is, gentlemen.” (Danner 82)

Some may call it rogue, some may call it policy. This was the “dirty war”. The rest of El Salvador was not exempt. As shown towards the beginning of this book, many cities shared the “mutilated corpses” and “headless or faceless” bodies showing evidence of many of the same atrocities and some even worse. (Danner 25) The use of “death squads” was “organized by the Salvadoran Army officers…and the American Embassy was well aware of it.” (Danner 27)

Monterrosa’s claim that the guerrillas needed their masses (wives, children, community support that followed the camp) and in the fighting some of these women and children would be killed smacked of excuse and alibi more than policy. (Danner 170) El Mozote was not a town of masas but of civilians without rebel connections. Once discovered, these ruthless actions were followed by a steady flow of lies from Salvadoran ambassador to the United States, Ernesto Gallont, who rejected “emphatically that the Army of El Salvador [killed] women and children.”  He claimed, “It is not within the armed institution’s philosophy to act like that.” (Danner 183) Later, when faced with having to answer questions regarding the massacre, Defense Minister Garcia said, “I’ll deny it and prove it fabricated.” (Danner 202)

The US involvement began long before El Mozote was an issue.  Located in Panama, The School of the Americas was started by the US back in the 1940s, training Latin American military officers “in psychological warfare, counterinsurgency, interrogation techniques, and infantry and commando tactics.” (Bourgeois, thirdworldtraveler.com)  According to a website sponsored by an organization that believes the SOA to be more of a “School of Assassins”, out of the 12 Salvadoran officers indicated in the El Mozote incident, 10 were graduates of the SOA. (ibid)

The United States was in a difficult position at this time.  With one strongly communist nation sitting 80 miles off Miami beach, President Reagan was loathe to allow another any sort of foothold in Central or South America if he could at all stop it.  Funding from the US assured a democratic influence in El Salvador, so Reagan thought.  But with a poor track record on human rights abuses, that funding would stop if El Salvador could not show “a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” Reagan had just signed off on the certification of that effort, but the reports published in four newspapers could have derailed all of it.

Pressure from Amnesty International, the ACLU, the National Council of Churches and other civil and human rights groups pushed Congress into opening an investigation into the events in Morazán. Despite the best efforts of Ambassador Hinton (Danner 201 – 203), LTC Monterrosa (Danner 203 – 206), and Assistant Secretary of State Enders (Danner 208 – 224) the horrific events were disclosed and participants exposed. Enders protected the decision to continue funding for all he was worth, twisting the words of the panel, quoting “this Foreign Affairs Committee” without addressing in the least the question posed by Mr. Solarz and otherwise avoiding divulging incriminating information that could overturn certification. (Danner 219-221)

The strong arm tactics used in El Salvador and the continued funding and training by the United States showed a tendency to place the value of human life far below political ambition and perceived political/ideological threats. The use of death squads and “scorched earth” tactics, then deception, denial and fraud to cover it up don’t speak well of either nation.

Work Cited:

Danner, Mark. The Massacre at El Mozote. New York: Vintage – Random. 1994. Print.

Bourgeois, Roy. “The School of the Americas”. Third World Traveler. SOA Watch, 08 May 2002. Web. 28 Nov. 2009.