First-Hand Account: Lessons From the El Mozote Massacre

Raymond Bonner, a New York Times correspondent, was one of the first journalists to uncover evidence of a deadly rampage.
By Clyde Haberman

The carnage was unspeakable. Across four days in December 1981, during El Salvador’s long civil war, American-trained and -equipped soldiers slaughtered nearly 1,000 civilians in and near El Mozote, a village in the country’s northeast. It was the largest massacre in recent Latin American history. Among the victims were hundreds of children.

Raymond Bonner, then a New York Times correspondent, was one of the first journalists to bear witness to El Mozote’s torment, along with the photographer Susan Meiselas. His reporting was roundly – and wrongly – assailed by the Ronald Reagan administration and others on the American right, but history has borne out the truth of his first-hand accounts.

As part of a team from Retro Report, Mr. Bonner returned to El Mozote to see what had changed over the years. Perhaps most important, those accused of responsibility for the massacre have still not been held to account: Long-dormant trials of retired military commanders that were revived in 2016 have been placed on hold by Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador since 2019.

The shadows cast by the events at El Mozote bear out William Faulkner’s oft-quoted observation, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” With that in mind, we talked with Mr. Bonner about his reporting.

Q. The scope of the killing at El Mozote almost defies belief. What was the military’s rationale for it?

A. It was a military “search-and-destroy” operation in a guerrilla stronghold during the first year of what became a decade-long civil war. The conflict pitted a Marxist-led revolution of peasants, workers and students against an alliance of the oligarchy and military that had long ruled El Salvador. Some 75,000 civilians were killed during the war, more than 80 percent of them by the government security forces, including so-called death squads.

It may be hard to fathom now, but the tiny country of some three million people was on the front burner of American foreign policy, just as Bosnia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were later. In Nicaragua, the Marxists had overthrown the Somoza kleptocracy, and the Reagan administration, fearing the advance of communism, sent hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, along with military advisers.

An image from RetroReport
1981 Days after nearly 1,000 villagers were killed by Salvadoran soldiers, journalists found Rufina Amaya in a field, in shock. “Where they took us out to line us to be killed, I hid,” she told Raymond Bonner, a New York Times correspondent. “The assassins didn’t see me. And then they killed all the women.” Find more photos documenting the El Mozote massacred here. (Photograph by Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

Q. Four decades later, trials of those held responsible are stalled. What is their purpose at this late stage?

Accountability. That’s the purpose from the perspective of the survivors and human rights activists. Sixteen former military officers were on trial, including the former defense minister, José Guillermo García Merino, now 87. He was America’s man in El Salvador back then.

Q. Has the United States government apologized or expressed regret for its role in El Salvador, especially in downplaying the Mozote massacre?

A. No, and an argument could be made that it should. For example, President Barack Obama went to Argentina in 2016 and apologized for the American failure to speak about human rights abuses during that country’s “dirty war” in the 1970s and ’80s, when a right-wing dictatorship tortured and killed students, workers, and other suspected opponents. With El Salvador, the United States went well beyond remaining largely silent in the face of severe abuses. The State Department and the White House often sought to protect the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes.

The Reagan administration sent in military advisers. The El Mozote massacre was carried out by a military unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, that was trained by the Green Berets and equipped with American M-16 rifles. The administration then sought to cover up the massacre, with the American embassy in El Salvador saying there was no evidence of a systemic military massacre of civilians and even blaming the guerrillas for “failing to remove them from the path of battle.”

Q. You and Susan Meiselas were attacked for your reporting, by the Reagan administration and The Wall Street Journal to name two. What was it like to have been so wrongly maligned, and did any of them ever acknowledge that you were right?

A. No one has ever apologized or acknowledged they were wrong. That said, the attacks had the effect that the Reagan government and it conservative allies wanted: inhibiting critical reporting on El Salvador.

Q. Do you sense events might have unfolded differently had today’s social media existed?

A. I’m glad I didn’t have to file hourly, tweet and otherwise face the many demands on journalists today. Still, had there been social media the American government might have found it more difficult to engage in a cover-up. Then again, the attacks on our reporting would probably have been fiercer with potentially devastating effects for us, as we have seen more than a few times with other journalists in recent years.

Q. Are there lessons from the El Mozote experience for journalists today?

A. Good journalism hasn’t changed. When you’re convinced that what you’ve reported is honest and accurate, as close to “the truth” as you can get, you write it. Then you live with the consequences.

Q. How large does El Mozote loom for El Salvadorans today?

A. I went back to El Salvador in February 2018 and was surprised at how the scars from the massacre, and more broadly the civil war, were still visible. The country is besieged by gang violence, with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Salvadorans say the gangs are an outgrowth of instability created by the civil war, which has also contributed to the flood of refugees trying to enter the United States.

Despite relentless efforts by Salvadoran politicians to block a trial (and they may yet succeed), public support for it appears to exist, especially among the peasants in villages where massacres occurred. I’m thinking of someone like Rosario Lopez, who’s in her late 70s. She managed to escape into the mountains with some of her children before Atlactl soldiers ransacked her village. Still, 24 members of her extended family were killed, including her mother and 17 children. “All I want to do,” she told me, “is ask them one question, just one: ‘What did the children do to any of you?’ I’m waiting for that answer.”

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.