“The Truth” of what America did at El Mozote, according to the Salvadoran bourgeoisie was, in a somewhat defensive and offended tone, “that the members of the private sector, the productive people who create wealth… were under attack from the twin evils of terrorism and socialist policies”. Under this justification, El Mozote and every other massacre were simply experiments that the bourgeoisie, in collaboration with the United States, would conduct to validate their hypothesis. Prompted by the threat of the “terrorist” socialists taking power, the United States embarked on “the most ambitious counterinsurgency effort since Vietnam” in El Salvador. All the morbid techniques of violence experimented on the Vietnamese freedom fighters were deployed again in refined form against the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The most infamous of these “innovations” were the death squads. Today, these death squads constitute a hidden hypothetical of American history that is too easily verified from the perspective of the Salvadoran peasant. In the imperialist conception of “The Truth”, the reality could be whatever circular logic fit: “the death squads… do not, in fact, exist—the left invented them to discredit the oligarchy—or the death squads exist but are simply a necessary response to communism”. But the death squads were all too real, and their killings are brutal episodes carved into the consciousness of Latin America forever. The most infamous of these killings was in the village of El Mozote, on December 11 and 12, 1981. It is episodes like these that tell us the truth of American power in the Global South.
We can begin with the facts, which require no speculation: The Salvadoran Army's Atlácatl Battalion, trained in 1980 at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, murdered 986 people, 552 of which were children and 12 pregnant women. The details of El Mozote will always be “The Truth” as far as the American presence in Latin America is concerned: children as young as 10 were raped, and children as young as two years old were killed by having their throats slit and hung on trees. The United States, keeping its hands officially spotless, pumped the lifeblood for the killers, more than a million dollars a day of military aid that amounted to $4.5 billion throughout the 1980s.
America’s “Truth” was formed through constant denials. The day after the El Mozote massacre, the Reagan administration praised the Salvadoran government’s “strides” in terms of the army’s reduction of abuses and violations of human rights. Elliott Abrams (later to be infamous under the Trump administration for his imperialist meddling in Venezuela and Iran) defended the aid to the Salvadoran army during congressional hearings in 1982 (aid that would continue, sanctioned by both parties). The State Department asked the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador to disprove the massacre, as if it too was nothing more than a scientific hypothesis, something inconvenient to invalidate. The researchers they sent could not help but confirm the reality through interviews with refugees. But the truth is easy to prove false if it is simply ignored, so the El Mozote massacre and the US role in it was disappeared, a final epistemic violence against the very existence of the survivors after everyone else had been slaughtered.
Instead of accepting the truth, Americans insisted on their own “Truth”, and engaged in a systematic cover up. Every time sometime cites Orwell’s 1984 to point out the “doublespeak” of a socialist country, we should think back to the outrageous contortions Americans would use to bend the truth around to prove themselves the good guys. The Reagan administration called the story of the massacre "gross exaggerations". The Wall Street Journal criticized the reporting from the ground as "overly credulous" and "out on a limb". But it was Time magazine that won the prize by reminding us of "the fact that women and children, generally presumed to be civilians, can be active participants in guerrilla war”. In other words, we should stop thinking of women and children, civilians in general, as humans, and start seeing them all as potential communist militants whose extirpation is just a precaution.
The official narrative in El Salvador since the end of the civil war has continued to be “The Truth”. When the country’s Truth Commission met to establish the history of the war and prepare the ground for a “reconciliation” that never seems to incorporate justice for the oppressed, they followed the flawed model from neoliberal post-Apartheid South Africa and granted amnesty in 1993 to the killers and the death squad commanders. Also in 1993, Mark Danner published an article entitled “The Truth of El Mozote”. He detailed the discovery of children’s skulls in the area – irrefutable proof of the matanza. Yet the post-civil war denialism continued, as Danner noted. Following Time magazine’s lead, “Dr. Juan Mateu Llort, the director of El Salvador’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, declared that the skulls themselves proved nothing, for “there were an abundance of armed children in the guerrillas.” El Diario de Hoy, a conservative daily, argued that guerrillas had “barricaded themselves in what seemed to have been a religious center and from there opened fire on the troops, making the deaths of children, women and old people possible.” Then-President Cristiani’s government maintained its position that no records existed of any Army operation in Morazán in early December of 1981”. Though more evidence was being uncovered, the “Truth” would continue to be buried in denials.
This flawed peace which granted amnesty to killers while denying reparations to victims has recently been challenged. In 2016, the Salvadoran Supreme Court overturned the amnesty, and Judge Jorge Guzmán reopened a judicial inquiry into the massacre. One of the revelations from this inquiry was Stanford professor Terry Karl’s testimony in April 2021 that American military advisor Allen Bruce Hazelwood was present during the massacre. Karl also alleged that the United States government orchestrated a "sophisticated cover-up operation" to conceal the massacre and American presence. According to Karl, in 1982 Abrams had told the director of Human Rights Watch about the presence of an American advisor at El Mozote in private conversation. But the comprador bourgeoisie under right-wing President Nayib Bukele have rallied again to suppress the full revelation of the truth of the massacre. After ordering the army to block Guzmán from executing a search warrant at the military archives and barracks and accusing him and the families of the victims of being part of a plot against the government, in September 2021 Bukele ended the inquiry by simply removing Guzmán as a judge.
The truth of what happened in El Salvador has been suppressed by the continued suffocating narrative of “The Truth” promoted by the bourgeois media, the post-war governments, the United States, and the rush to promote reconciliation and amnesty over a full addressing of the facts. Murderers, like those who perpetrated the El Mozote massacre and the other countless massacres that stole the lives of 75,000 civilians continue to run amok, especially their American trainers and funders who bear equal responsibility for the brutality. The “true truth”, the reality of how El Salvador was destroyed, the truth of America’s presence in Latin America and the world, is known to the survivors and the victims of this massacre and all others stoked by Washington. Survivors like Pedro Ramos, who still trudges his way to earn $5 a day in the fields, or Amadeo Sánchez, who lost 24 family members during the massacre and is still searching for funds to build a house, know the truth better than any defender of the mythos of America ever could.
By Joseph Mullen