LOS QUEBRACHOS, El Salvador—The helicopters were the first sign of danger. They arrived carrying troops to the mountainous region of Morazán in northeast El Salvador on Dec. 10, 1981. José Amparo Martínez, 30 at the time, knew why they were there. “They came to kill,” Martínez said.
Martínez, his wife, and four kids fled to the hills. They trekked through ridges and ravines while rounds of gunfire echoed in the distance. “The massacre lasted three days,” Martínez said. “They grabbed women, children and elderly people, anyone who didn’t leave. And they killed them.” When the gunfire died down and it seemed the soldiers had left, Martínez returned to find his parents dead. Six of his immediate family members were killed in those three days. The survivors fled to Honduras.
The El Mozote massacre, named for one of the towns where it was carried out, claimed almost a thousand lives—the most brutal single episode of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. At the time, the Reagan administration was sending millions to the Salvadoran military and training soldiers in the name of fighting communism. Decades after the conflict ended, the El Mozote massacre is one of the most emblematic cases of human rights abuses carried out with support from the U.S. government that has yet to see justice. Now, 38 years later, convictions for Salvadoran military officers may finally be within reach. An ongoing trial against 17 high-level military officers has made important progress recently and a verdict seems near. Victims hope it will be the first step towards accountability for all those involved—the officers who ordered the massacre and the U.S. government.
“What I want is reparations for the damage from both the Salvadoran and U.S. governments,” said Martínez, who is part of an association of victims and survivors of the massacre. “Because they didn’t care about ordering them to kill all those kids and women and elderly.”
By the time the helicopters touched down in December 1981 in Morazán, the region was already heavily patrolled by the Salvadoran military because of a nearby guerrilla camp called La Guacamaya. The country was in the early years of a civil war between an armed guerrilla insurgency and the Salvadoran military.
The Cold War had turned this small Central American nation roughly the size of Massachusetts into a battleground in the U.S. fight to contain the spread of communism. The Reagan administration was sending $1 million a day to El Salvador. Only Egypt and Israel were receiving more U.S. aid. Salvadoran troops received counter-insurgency training at the controversial School of the Americas, which later was revealed to include lessons on torture, extortion and execution.
That December, the Salvadoran government launched an offensive called Operation Rescue (Operación Rescate) that they called an “anti-guerrilla” action. The Atlacatl Battalion, which had been trained at the School of the Americas, was dispatched to Morazán. Its commander, Domingo Monterrosa, was a favorite of U.S advisers for his adoption of cruel counterinsurgency tactics which earned him a reputation as one of El Salvador's most brutal commanders. What happened next is considered one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history.
Soldiers arrived in the area on Dec. 10 with the goal of wiping out the guerrillas in the area. They began interrogating villagers: Where are the guerrillas? Have you been helping them? Or worse yet, are you one of them? The next day, soldiers rounded up women, children and elderly people in the small, mountainous town of El Mozote, home to about 20 families. They locked most women and children in the convent. They locked others in houses. The men were tortured and executed. The soldiers open fired on the convent with machine guns, killing mainly women and children. When they finished, they burned the houses. The soldiers used the same tactics to execute peasants in other nearby villages over the course of three days. Only a few were able to flee or hide.
“Only ashes were left,” said Pedro Martínez, an 84-year-old survivor (no relation to José Amparo Martínez). “We’re only alive because we were able to hide where they couldn’t see us.”
An official government list of victims published decades later counted 978 killed. More than half were minors, 250 were younger than six.
Word of the massacre soon spread through radio reports. Sofía Romero had fled El Mozote for a nearby city shortly before the massacre because a group of soldiers had raped her and threatened to kill her. Her parents and some of her siblings stayed behind. She thought of them when she heard the news on the radio. Worried, she took the bus to check on them. As she got close, others who had heard of the massacre convinced her not to enter the town. But she met two men who had been there who confirmed her worst fear. “They said there were no more people there,” said Romero, now 57. “I started to cry and cry and cry.”
Reporters from The Washington Post and the New York Times went to investigate the heinous crimes and soon published victims’ reports of the massacre. In response, the US ambassador then sent two officials to investigate. They reached a different conclusion.
“Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone,” Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Thomas Enders told Congress in February 1982.
Enders disputed the body count based on the estimated population of the village, ignoring the fact that reports said the massacre occurred in multiple towns. Cables released in the 1990s confirm that the U.S. embassy did in fact know about the El Mozote massacre and many other human rights abuses in El Salvador. But the Reagan administration did not want to reveal this information to lawmakers so that Congress would continue sending money to the Salvadoran government.
“Look, it was an American-trained battalion. The United States was supporting the Salvadoran government,” said former New York Times journalist Raymond Bonner, one of the first reporters to cover the story. “It’s not really an issue of if the United States knew it at the time or knew it 24 hours later. They knew it.”
Still, for years, the Salvadoran military and U.S. officials cast doubt over victims’ accounts of the massacre, portraying the deaths as the result of a clash between guerrillas and troops. But widespread disbelief in their story didn’t stop survivors from seeking justice.
“You consider what has happened and you see it as an obligation to speak,” said José Amparo Martínez. “When they kill your parents and your family, you become outraged.”
The first group of survivors came forward in 1990 to open a case against Salvadoran military officers, a risky move that could have cost them their lives with the civil war still raging around them.
“At that time, there wasn’t any judicial independence,” said Ovidio Mauricio González, a lawyer with human rights legal group Tutela Legal, who has worked on the case since the beginning.
In January 1992, guerrilla rebels finally signed a peace accord agreement with the Salvadoran government to end 12 years of fighting that left more than 75,000 dead. Victims hoped justice would soon come.
But shortly after, the Salvadoran Congress passed an amnesty law that prevented prosecution for crimes carried out during the civil war. Justice seemed out of reach in El Salvador.
“Supposedly it was a closed case. We kept pressuring so that they would investigate the people who carried out these acts, but they never wanted to,” said Mauricio González. “There was nothing we could do in terms of the criminal prosecution [in El Salvador].”
So victims took their case to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. They won. In 2012, the court issued a sentence that confirmed the victims’ accounts of events and ordered the Salvadoran state to investigate the massacre and provide reparations for victims.
That same year, then-President Mauricio Funes, the first person elected to the presidency as part of the party formed by guerrillas, traveled to El Mozote on the 20th anniversary of the peace accords to issue a public apology for the massacre.
“I’m convinced that the best way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the peace accords is advancing with recognition of the truth,” he said in a speech in El Mozote.
Even with this public apology, the fight for justice was not over yet. In 2016, the country’s Supreme Court voted to overturn the amnesty law in a historic ruling. For the first time in decades, justice was within arm’s reach.
Lawyers for the victims petitioned to reopen the case, which is currently ongoing. Seventeen military officers stand trial for a dozen crimes, including rape, murder, torture and forced disappearance.
Nearly 50 victims and survivors have testified before the court. After more than two years, the case reached a breakthrough recently. In early November, two former soldiers testified that the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion killed innocent women, children and elderly civilians on orders from high-level military officers, including Monterrosa, the U.S. golden boy and commander of the Atlacatl Battalion who was killed by a guerrilla-set bomb in his helicopter in 1984. Monterrosa remains a controversial figure in El Salvador, revered by some and despised by many others. In June 2019, the newly inaugurated president, Nayib Bukele, ordered Monterrosa's name be removed from a military building, once again sparking the debate on whether his military career was filled with merits or atrocities.
The testimony was the first time anyone from the military testified in favor of the victims.
“It’s clear that these types of action came from higher orders and that the Atlacatl Battalion carried out orders from the state,” David Morales, a lawyer for the human rights organization Cristosal, said to reporters outside the court room in November.
Diplomatic correspondence from U.S. embassy officials shows that the U.S. now recognizes the victims’ version of events at El Mozote: a massacre of unarmed peasants rather than a confrontation between the army and guerrillas. Former U.S. ambassador Jean Manes wrote in a cable that she considers the El Mozote trial to be a “test case for civil war accountability” and "barometer for the ability of the Salvadoran justice system to tackle its complex history and stubbornly entrenched impunity.”
But the U.S. still has not taken responsibility for its role in the massacre or other human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war. The U.S. embassy in El Salvador did not respond to a request for a direct comment by the time of publication.
Now, victims eagerly await a verdict. Many survivors well into their eighties are racing against the clock. “I’m almost ready to leave this world,” said 84-year-old Pedro Martínez as he listed off his ailments including high blood pressure and arthritis. “They want to erase history, but we just want justice.”