Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mark Danner's The Massacre of El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War


Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote (1994) is a book based on Danner’s report for the New Yorker in 1993.  Danner’s report “The Truth of El Mozote” (December, 1993) revealed that the U.S. had ignored evidence of El Salvador’s military committing a massacre of hundreds of civilians in December of 1981.  Instead of denouncing El Salvador’s human rights violations, the US continued to fund the military.  It is worth noting that the entire issue of the New Yorker was devoted to Danner’s report and it was only the second time that the magazine had dedicated an entire issue to a single report. 

Mozote was a small community in the province of Morazán.  On December 11, 1981 the military’s “elite” U.S. trained Atlacatl battalion carried out a scorched earth mission on the community killing nearly all of its residents including women, children and the elderly.  Community members were viciously interrogated and then brutally tortured, raped and killed.  El Mozote was the most hard hit community, but the military mission lasted from December 7-17th and during that time wrecked havoc and killed civilians in various hamlets in the Morazán region.  The brutality of the military campaign responded to the growing control of the FMLN in the region and mounting fears that the FMLN was gaining the upper hand in the war.     

In the weeks leading up to the massacre, various sources (military and FMLN) informed the communities of Morazán of the impending military mission in the region.  Since El Mozote was not a town that collaborated with the FMLN, and instead maintained friendly relations with the army, the villagers debated whether they should flee or remain in their homes.  Ultimately, most decided to stay because of a report from the richest man in the community, Marcos Díaz, that an officer had said that villagers in el Mozote would not be harmed as long as they stayed put. 

Only two eyewitnesses survived to tell about the massacre of their families and neighbors at el Mozote; Rufina Amaya and Chepe Mozote (José Guevarra).  Several weeks after the massacre, Rufina Amaya gave her testimony on Radio Venceremos, the FMLN clandestine radio station.  The FMLN also smuggled U.S. reporters (Raymond Bonner from the New York Times, Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post, and photographer Susan Meiselas) into Morazán a month later to investigate, report on, and publicize the massacre.   

On January 27, 1982 the NewYork Times and the Washington Post both ran front-page reports about the massacre in El Mozote.  Danner sustains that news of the massacre broke at an inopportune time for Congress; Congress members were engaged in a heated debate about whether to continue sending aid to the Salvadoran military.  Mark Danner calls his book “a parable of the cold war” because of this dilemma that played out again and again during the Cold War.  The fundamental question before Congress was if the US should fund “friendly” governments in the fight against Communism even if these governments commit horrible human rights violations.  The Wall Street Journal’s editorial “The Media’s War” attacked Bonner and Guillermoprieto for, what they argued was, “overly credulous” reporting.  According to the Wall Street Journal “neither the press nor the state department has the power to establish conclusively what happened at Mozote in December.” In the end, Congress seemed to shrug the massacre off submitting that whatever had happened at Mozote could not be verified and deciding that the possibility of another Communist country in the region would be far worse than a mounting death toll of civilians in El Salvador.  Congress would send billions of dollars, training and weapons to aid El Salvador’s military for the next ten years.    

After the Peace Accords were signed in 1992 ending the war in El Salvador, the internationally renown Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit exhumed the bodies of the dead in El Mozote.  The remains of the villagers at El Mozote provided definitive evidence that a hundreds of civilians were killed in a military massacre in December of 1981 in Morazán.  The cartridges recovered showed that at least twenty-four people participated in the killings and all but one of the 245 cartridge cases were from American M16 rifles.  184 were traced directly to a US ammunition manufacturer at Lake City, Missouri.  In 1992 the United Nations Truth Commission Report concluded that over 500 villagers had been killed by the military in Morazán.  Five days after the United Nations published its report, the Salvadoran legislature passed a blanket amnesty ensuring impunity for the crimes committed by the military at el Mozote.         

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