The Salvadoran government this week officially apologized and asked for forgiveness for the El Mozote massacre in 1981, one of the worst atrocities in their history that happened during their civil war. In December of that year, government forces descended into the village of El Mozote looking for guerrilla insurgents. After interrogating the El Mozote residents – all civilians – the soldiers of the Salvadoran army’s elite Atlacatl battalion began executing the men under the pretext of being an insurgent sympathizer. The rest of the men, women and children (the youngest having been a three month old girl) were grouped together and machine-gunned down. Many of the women and children were first raped and then executed, and some of the children were stabbed or clubbed to death. Civilians were locked in a church building and shot through the windows until the place lay still with corpses. Most other buildings in the village were burned down. By the end of the ordeal, approximately 800 civilians had been massacred.
Unfortunately, no one was really ever brought to justice for this crime. Years later, the soldiers involved and their higher ups were shielded from justice by El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law. The psychological harm all these years later is still potent among the people, and the public apology is far too late and pathetically incomplete.
One reason it is incomplete is because the U.S. has yet to join in that apology. The forces who carried out this horrendous crime were armed and trained by the U.S. as elite soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. Not only had the U.S. been giving money, weapons, and direct training to these forces, but U.S. military advisers were in El Salvador at the time of the massacre. The history of the U.S. ties to the notoriously criminal Atlacatl Battalion is virtually infamous at this point, especially because they went on to commit many more high profile atrocities. But the U.S. did not offer any condolences. Rather, they praised their elite soldiers. As a 1992 Americas Watch report explained (via Tim’s El Salvador Blog):
The history of U.S. human rights policy in El Salvador is not only one of downplaying or denying the war crimes of the Salvadoran military. U.S. officials often went one step further, asserting that the behavior of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion, in particular, was “commendable” and “professional” in its relations with the civilian population. The Atlacatl Battalion, which carried out the massacre at El Mozote, was created in early 1981 and trained by U.S. advisers drawn primarily from the Special Forces in a first effort to reorganize the Salvadoran military to wage a full-scale counterinsurgency war. By mid-1981, 1200 soldiers had begun operating as a “rapid reaction” battalion in conflictive zones, spearheading major
military operations in the departments of Chalatenango, CabaÒas, and Moraz·n.
U.S. officials have long been extremely proud of the Atlacatl Battalion’s performance and have praised it throughout the history of the war. In the February 8, 1982, Senate hearings on the presidential certification on El Salvador, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams lavished praise on the Atlacatl Battalion, saying that “the battalion to which you refer [regarding the massacre at El Mozote] has been complimented at various times in the past over its professionalism and over the command structure and the close control in which the troops are held when they go into battle.”
In congressional testimony a few months later, a senior U.S. Defense Department official went one step further, saying that the Atlacatl had “achieved a commendable combat record not only for its tactical capability in fighting the guerrillas but also for its humane treatment of the people.”
Terrible atrocities like this one, tied to the United States, occurred appallingly often south of the border throughout the 1980’s and the U.S. still actively trains elite military forces throughout Latin America, many of whom are associated with human rights abuses and corruption. So not only have Salvadorans not received an apology or any measure of justice for the crimes committed, but the U.S. has not even done them the favor of learning from their mistakes by ending support for these militias.