Remembering US-backed state terror in El Salvador

Justice and accountability for the El Mozote massacre and other crimes of US-backed Salvadoran forces remain elusive.

Silhouettes representing the victims of the El Mozote massacre are seen outside the installations of El Salvador's Air Force as the military rejected a request by a judge to access files on the massacre, in Ilopango, El Salvador on October 12, 2020 [File: Reuters/Jose Cabezas]

Forty years ago, on December 11, 1981, one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history commenced in El Salvador, in the village of El Mozote and its environs.

Some 1,000 civilians, most of them women and children, were slaughtered over a period of several days by the Salvadoran military’s elite Atlacatl Battalion, which had been trained, funded, and equipped by the United States.

A Jacobin Magazine tribute published on the 35th anniversary of the massacre recalls some of the gruesome scenes:

“The soldiers entered the house and began slashing the children with machetes, breaking their skulls with their rifles and choking them to death. The youngest children were crammed into the church’s convent, where the soldiers unloaded their rifles into them.”

The bloodbath took place in the context of El Salvador’s civil war of 1980-92, which ultimately killed more than 75,000 people – with the vast majority of atrocities perpetrated by the right-wing state in collaboration with paramilitary outfits and death squads.

Joining in the collaborative effort, naturally, was everyone’s favourite Cold War superpower to the north, the US, which throughout the course of its existential battle to make the world safe for capitalism has managed in the process to destroy countless human lives.

Between 1980 and 1982 alone, US military aid to El Salvador soared from $6m to $82m and would later skyrocket to more than $1m per day.

The continued overzealous funding was made possible in large part by the shamelessness with which officials from the Ronald Reagan administration lied to cover up Salvadoran state terror, including at El Mozote.

The administration also waged a campaign to discredit the few journalists intent on exposing the truth, such as former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, author of Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War.

In a new documentary titled “Massacre in El Salvador”, Bonner and photographer Susan Meiselas reflect on the whole sordid affair in El Mozote, where they arrived together in January 1982 to find a “ghost town” and a severely traumatised woman named Rufina Amaya, one of the sole survivors.

Amaya, whose blind husband and three daughters – aged five years, three years, and eight months – had perished in the slaughter, would later recall overhearing a conversation between soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion:

“‘Lieutenant, somebody here says he won’t kill children’, said one soldier. ‘Who’s the son of a b**** who said that?’ the lieutenant answered. ‘I am going to kill him.’”

Near the beginning of the “Massacre in El Salvador” documentary, a video clip features President Reagan – a former Hollywood actor – delivering the following lines in an apocalyptic tone better suited to the silver screen than to reality: “Very simply, guerrillas are attempting to impose a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship on the people of El Salvador.”

Never mind that massacring 1,000 civilians is not any way to go about “saving” them from the spectre of communism – or from the guerrillas’ dangerous attempts to bring some semblance of equality and justice to a country that had long suffered from the tyrannical rule of an exceptionally brutal elite.

To be sure, the US has never had a problem with brutal right-wing tyranny – as long as profits keep flowing in accordance with US interests.

Now, four decades after El Mozote and nearly three decades after the official end of the civil war, the latest Salvadoran tyrant – President and Twitter star Nayib Bukele, who has even bizarrely self-identified as the “world’s coolest dictator” – is doing a fine job of ensuring that justice in the country remains ever elusive.

In addition to blissfully converting El Salvador into a Bitcoin dystopia, Bukele has pursued various other actions befitting a, well, dictator – like firing five Salvadoran Supreme Court judges as well as the attorney general earlier this year.

Significantly, he also fired Judge Jorge Guzmán, who had been investigating the El Mozote case since 2016, when a post-civil war amnesty was reversed. The amnesty reversal had opened the possibility that the perpetrators of the massacre might finally be held accountable for their crimes – and that people like Maria Rosario, who lost 24 members of her family in the rampage, might obtain the emotional closure that human beings generally require in order to move on with their lives.

And yet responsibility for El Mozote extends far beyond the individuals from the Atlacatl Battalion who macheted and beheaded their way through the village and its surroundings.

The US is also directly responsible for this as well as other episodes of state terror in El Salvador and many other territories across the world.

Thanks to the perks of imperial privilege, however, history and accountability are simultaneously disappeared – except, of course, when things like 9/11 happen, and then the global populace is commanded to “never forget”.

The notorious Elliott Abrams, who was appointed in 1981 as Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, dutifully promoted the US version of “human rights” by denying that the El Mozote massacre had ever transpired. Years later, he would continue to maintain that the Reagan administration had enjoyed a legacy of “fabulous achievement” in El Salvador.

But while 40 years of murderous impunity is an achievement indeed, it is anything but fabulous.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.