The Truth of El Mozote, El Salvador

Mark Danner, The Truth of El Mozote. The New Yorker, 6 December 1993. “In a remote corner of El Salvador, investigators uncovered the remains of a horrible crime — a crime that Washington had long denied. The villagers of El Mozote had the misfortune to find themselves in the path of the Salvadoran Army’s anti-Communist crusade. The story of the massacre at El Mozote — how it came about, and why it had to be denied — stands as a central parable of the Cold War.”

Excerpt from story:

For eleven years, Rufina Amaya Mí­rquez had served the world as the most eloquent witness of what had happened at El Mozote, but though she had told her story again and again, much of the world had refused to believe her. In the polarized and brutal world of wartime El Salvador, the newspapers and radio stations simply ignored what Rufina had to say, as they habitually ignored unpalatable accounts of how the government was prosecuting the war against the leftist rebels.

In the United States, however, Rufina’s account of what had happened at El Mozote appeared on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, at the very moment when members of Congress were bitterly debating whether they should cut off aid to a Salvadoran regime so desperate that it had apparently resorted to the most savage methods of war. El Mozote seemed to epitomize those methods, and in Washington the story heralded what became perhaps the classic debate of the late Cold War: between those who argued that, given the geopolitical stakes in Central America, the United States had no choice but to go on supporting a “friendly” regime, however disreputable it might seem, because the alternative — the possibility of another Communist victory in the region — was clearly worse, and those who insisted that the country must be willing to wash its hands of what had become a morally corrupting struggle. Rufina’s story came to Washington just when the country’s paramount Cold War national-security concerns were clashing — as loudly and unambiguously as they ever would during four decades — with its professed high-minded respect for human rights.
In the United States, the free press was not to be denied: El Mozote was reported; Rufina’s story was told; the angry debate in Congress intensified. But then the Republican Administration, burdened as it was with the heavy duties of national security, denied that any credible evidence existed that a massacre had taken place; and the Democratic Congress, after denouncing, yet again, the murderous abuses of the Salvadoran regime, in the end accepted the Administration’s “certification” that its ally was nonetheless making a “significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” The flow of aid went on, and soon increased.

By early 1992, when a peace agreement between the government and the guerrillas was finally signed, Americans had spent more than four billion dollars funding a civil war that had lasted twelve years and left seventy-five thousand Salvadorans dead. By then, of course, the bitter fight over El Mozote had largely been forgotten; Washington had turned its gaze to other places and other things. For most Americans, El Salvador had long since slipped back into obscurity. But El Mozote may well have been the largest massacre in modern Latin-American history. That in the United States it came to be known, that it was exposed to the light and then allowed to fall back into the dark, makes the story of El Mozote — how it came to happen and how it came to be denied — a central parable of the Cold War.

Additional resources:

Raymond Bonner, Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village. The New York Times, 27 January 1982.

Joan Didion, ‘Something Horrible’ in El Salvador. The New Yorker, 14 July 1994.