Resisting oblivion in El Salvador

El Mozote survivors do everything, tirelessly, to demand justice and to make sure that no one has to live through what they faced ever again. Español

Sofía Espinal
9 November 2018

Two El Mozote 1981 massacres' survivors in El Salvador. Image:

When arriving at the plaza of El Mozote on Thursday, August 30th, it was difficult to conceive everything that had occurred there. In the same place where about a thousand people had been executed at the hands of the Salvadoran army, today, a stage was being prepared. In a few moments, a local band would play to welcome the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) that was visiting for the first time one of the villages where the largest documented massacre in the recent history of Latin America took place, 37 years ago.

Everything had been prepared in a marathon production. This town, which has no more than two paved streets and is located in the middle of the mountains, was the point of attraction for an international meeting. The objective: to identify what had changed in El Mozote and its surroundings based on the sentence that the IACHR Court issued in 2012.

An exhibition of photos, located on the memorial that houses the square, would be the preamble to a tour in which judges from the Inter-American Court, representatives of the State of El Salvador, the organizations that facilitated the international process, and some of the protagonists, participated. The images exhibited portrayed women who participated in experiential workshops to signify what had lived there.

There were 3 days. Between December 10th and 13th, 1981, in the face of the internal armed conflict that El Salvador faced for 12 years, it marked the turning point for El Mozote, La Joya, Rancheria, Los Toriles, Jocote Amarillo, Cerro Pando and other surrounding places. In 72 hours, the Atlacatl battalion, led by Domingo Monterrosa, along with units of the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel and the Command Center of San Francisco Gotera, executed the mass murder of men, women, boys, girls, and teenagers. The order was to destroy everything. Do not leave traces of the place, which, according to military intelligence, served as shelter for the guerrilla forces.

The attack, known as "Operation Rescue" or "Anvil and Hammer," was carried out as part of the military strategy called "scorched earth", a tactic that involves destroying entire communities in order to prevent guerrilla movements from receiving supplies or hiding among civil society.

In other words: for El Salvador's army, those who inhabited El Mozote and its surroundings personified an enemy figure that should be annihilated at any cost.

How can one knew and understood that Thursday morning there were close to 500 children and adolescents murdered? In part, because the protagonists of this story have managed to put an end to the silence that the State of El Salvador ensured for many years. That it was a "telenovela," a perfect product of fiction, they said, trying to deny that such atrocities had occurred.

It was the struggle of those who survived to tell it ー and who remain standing, after 37 years ー the ones that allowed them to reach international tribunals and, that August 30th, verify the advances and debts that El Salvador still has with El Mozote and its surroundings.

Promises unfulfilled

The tour started at 9 in the morning. The starting point was the Plaza de El Mozote. At the beginning of the visit, different authorities and protagonists gave their first words. The local band presented themselves and representatives of the State distributed a kit containing tourist brochures about El Salvador.

Raúl Zaffaroni and Humberto Sierra Porto, judges of the IACHR who carried out the proceeding, visited for the first time the Historic Monument of El Mozote, which represents a family. Behind this sculpture, the stone walls that surround it are covered by gray plates with hundreds of names. The surnames are repeated: entire families were killed in the massacres.

Zaffaroni and Sierra Porto also saw the "Garden of the Innocents", located next to the local church. There, a pastel colored mural presents a rainbow, butterflies and flowers, and hundreds of other names to remember the children who were killed during the massacre. According to the reports, in 1981, these children were separated from their families, and taken to another part of the village to be killed. During the exhumations, remains of toys, small traces of clothing, and tiny bones were found.

The judges reviewed their names with care and attention. They traveled the space with solemnity.


El Mozote massacre victims memorial. Image:

The El Mozote memorial was the first point of the walk, which lasted about three hours and included a visit to the Mozote health center, the construction of the community school and a stretch of paved street. All these works were part of the measures ordered in the sentence that the State should ー and must ー comply with for the victims and families of the El Mozote massacre for the crimes against humanity that were committed there.

However, 6 years after the ruling of the Inter-American Court, El Salvador still drags historical debts. Of the resolution, it has complied with only one of the measures: the repeal of the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace. This was a great obstacle to overcome so that the crimes against humanity committed there would be investigated and tried.

Despite this, 37 years after the "scorched earth", the State of El Salvador not only owes them reparation, but also truth and justice. "The facts have already passed, but the sequels are still there, the promises of reparation are not yet fulfilled", confirmed the blankets raised that day in the square, by inhabitants of El Mozote and its surroundings. After the events in December, the fate of several generations changed drastically and permanently.

Following the repeal of the Amnesty Law in 2016, the investigation into the El Mozote massacre and surrounding places was reopened. As a result of the investigation, 18 members of the Armed Forces were accused of committing serious human rights violations. Another 13 soldiers had been charged for their participation in the operation, but by the date of the hearing, they had died. 

As of today, no one has been punished for the serious human rights violations committed in these communities and the judicial process is still under investigation. In El Salvador, death has come before justice.

During the Court's visit, survivors of the massacre and those leading the criminal process denounced the enormous obstacles that this trial faces. Some of these obstacles include the lack of support from the highest authorities of the State and the refusal of the Ministry of Defense to disclose essential information for the case.

Dorila Márquez was one of the survivors who raised these complaints to demand justice. After 37 years, talking about the facts still breaks her voice. Of course, because during the attack she lost her father and mother, her pregnant sister, her 11-year-old brother, her 7-month-old niece and her 1-year-old nephew. That slight tremor is quickly replenished: living and carrying that memory has never stopped Dorilla, who keeps telling her story. She insists that she does not want El Salvador to forget it.

"What I have suffered, I do not want future generations to suffer. It is very terrible to know that one´s family has been taken away from them in these circumstances. That's why I do not get tired of talking and denouncing, because I do not want them to do it again. These injustices can not be silenced, that is why we are always asking for justice," affirms the woman, who is also president of the Human Rights Promotion Association of El Mozote, which brings together the victims of the massacre.

Like her, dozens of victims and family members of the El Mozote massacres and surrounding places have persisted for more than three decades to keep alive and beating the memory of what happened in that square.

They have nit died, they are with us 

The tour continues through different points of El Mozote. The few advances are rights that the State must guarantee to its entire population: health, education, work, housing.

The authorities parsimoniously present the only health center in the town. There is only one ambulance, which also does not start, and only one psychologist to serve all the communities.

A little further on is the school, which is 6 years behind in its construction. It is in the early stages, without even a definitive opening date. Meanwhile, the children of the community attend another primary school. To continue their studies, however, they must leave El Mozote and travel the long distances that separate them from the nearest high school.

At the end of the tour, the members of the Inter-American Court sat down to listen to the latest arguments of the State, the victims and the organizations that represent them. The State has not adopted the necessary measures to guarantee the return of the people who were forced to move after the destruction of their communities.

"It's not easy for me to be here, but I have the right to speak, not only for my family, but for all the families. We do not want this cruel massacre to go unpunished," said María del Rosario López, a survivor of the massacre, with unbreakable strength.

The conversation lasted an hour longer than planned, the demands of the community were many. The visit of the Inter-American Court ended after that meeting, between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon.

At the end, the members of the Court, State officials and journalists began their trip back to San Salvador. The families of El Mozote returned to their homes.

In the afternoon, there was no music in the square, the photo exhibitions were removed, the families left the monument. There were no longer officials interested in telling stories, nor journalists looking to document them.

For a moment El Mozote was tinged with the oblivion and silence that has threatened it for so many years. It was only an instant: oblivion was fought with memory, as well as the survivors of the vivid horror in El Mozote for more than three decades.

Some women continued to sell their crafts at the edge of the plaza; Two blocks away, a group of young people gathered at the House of Culture and Historical Memory to paint their walls. In the distance a child was crying, a lady was laughing.

In the center of the square, at the foot of the monument and without visitors, a phrase filled the chest of those who read it: "they have not died, they are with us, with you and with all humanity".

The massacres of El Mozote and nearby places marked the history of El Salvador, of Latin America and of hundreds, thousands of people. They stained it with pain, silence, blood and impunity. Today the rubric is the same as 30 years ago in a country that recognizes what happened, but that pushes the source for these deaths as battles between gangs; that sees in violence a modus operandi in the face of so much inequality.

However, even with the ghost of oblivion stalking their memories, despite the difficulties of revisiting so much darkness and dehumanization, the survivors of El Mozote continue resisting to mark a new history. They do not want to erase the old one, but to endow theirs with struggle, dignity and truth, in the eyes of the country and the world.

It is the story of their feet that never tire of walking towards the courts; of their skin that supports long walks under the sun; of their brave hands that point to the places where the events took place; and their voices that replenish quickly after breaking. They do everything, tirelessly, to demand justice and to make sure that no one has to live through what they faced ever again.

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