What happened

Synthesis of the massacre.

On December 8th, 1981, troops of the Infantry Batalion Atlacatl, BIRI, (rapid reaction unit) arrived in Perquín. The commander in charge of the Battalion was Lieutenant Coronel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, now deceased. The officer in charge of the operation was Major Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera. The contingent arrived with about six hundred troops.

In the afternoon of December 10th, the five companies of BIRI Atlacatl, came together in the village of El Mozote. An area where only civilians lived. In the El Mozote area hundreds of displaced persons had moved in. Rumors were circulating that the people living there would not be rounded up by the army. The Battalion took control of the village and gathered the residents in the plaza and told them to return to their houses with the threat that they would be killed if they came out.

On December 11th, in the early hours of the morning, the people of El Mozote were again brought together in the plaza but this time they were separated into groups: men and older boys in one group and the women and younger children in another. This group of women and young children were enclosed in several houses nearby. At eight o’clock in the morning the executions began with the men and adolescent boys, by groups. This took place around the village and the people of the community were filled with fear and terror. In the afternoon hours, after they had assassinated this great number of people, they did the same with the women. They separated the youngest of the women (from nine years old) from the rest then raped, tortured and executed them. Next they separated the women from their children to be taken to the place where they were to be massacred, in the far southeast section of the village. That night, the dozens of children and babies that were in the village chapel were killed by the soldiers and their bodies thrown into the “Convento” or parish house, which was a small building adjacent to the chapel.

Similar extermination procedures were carried out by the BIRI Atlacatl and other Army units massacring dozens of rural families in the nearby villages of Ranchería and Los Toriles on December 12th 1981, both located to the north of El Mozote. Then, on December 13th, the massacre was further extended to the villages Jocote Amarillo and Cerro Pando, to the south of El Mozote.

The massacre of Mozote was part of the military strategy of genocide against the Salvadoran population, the government and the army exterminated massive numbers of innocent campesinos (rural people) in the war zones. The thought was “take away the water from the fish”. As a result many massacres of hundreds of rural families were carried out in various places in the country such as Chalatenango, San Vicente, Cabañas, and Morazán in the years from 1980 until 1984. The operations were known as: “Land clearing Operations”.  

The Exhumations

On October 13th 1992, the Argentinean Team of Forensic Anthropology (EAAF) and experts of the Legal Medicine Institute of El Salvador began forensic archaeological work in the place denominated as, 1 “The Convent” of the village El Mozote. Previously, the Judge of the case ordered a series of bureaucratic and unnecessary procedures that were to (try to) impede the participation of the Argentinean anthropologists. Later on, the scientific work  would be summarised by several North American experts of world fame. The exhumations of the victims of the Massacre were carried out within the context of investigations that the Commission of Truth had developed and in conformity to its control.

The conclusions of the forensic report on the exhumations in “the Convent” were both categorical and horrific to read. It was clearly demonstrated that all the victims were deposited there at the same time, rejecting the hypothesis of a ‘clandestine cemetery’, a theory spread by some of the judicial authorities on the findings. It concluded in the investigated events that the remains of a minimum of 146  persons were recovered, although the number could be greater, given the consequential uncertainty caused by massive pre-mortem lesions, the post-mortem damage and the mixing of the remains. Many of the children could have been totally cremated and others, perhaps, were not counted due to the extensive fragmentation of the body parts.

In the place known as the “convento” or parish house, (one room of four adobe walls and a roof), a space of 3 by 5 meters, were unearthed the remains of 146 persons and 19 ‘concentrations’. 140 were small children under the age of 12 years with an average age of six years. Among the adults were an elderly woman and another woman in her third trimester of pregnancy. Many of the small children were pulverized by the explosions and fires so the number of victims can be greater.

Twenty-four shooters killed the children, using M-16 rifles and bullets manufactured in the United States. Experts established that the victims could not have been killed by crossfire, and that they were not buried there in groups at different times.

The forensics experts concluded that it was a massive execution, carried out all at the same time and that the victims did not die in a cross-fire between two armies, but in one massive assassination.

To date a list has been complied of the names of those massacred, it totals more than 800 people. The list includes more than 420 children.

What happened in El Mozote, for good or for evil, is part of our history. To forget it would be fatal because only in preserving and remembering history can we avoid repeating similar horrific acts.

Source of information: The community of El Mozote, Tutela Legal (legal aid office) archdiocese of San Salvador