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Abroad at Home; The Whole Truth
Read other reviews for "The Massacre at El Mozote"

By Anthony Lewis December 06, 1993

THE MASSACRE AT EL MOZOTE
A Parable of the Cold War
By Mark Danner
Illustrated. 304 pages.
Vintage Books/Random House. Paperback, $12.

Once in a rare while a writer re-examines a debated episode of recent history with such thoroughness and integrity that the truth can no longer be in doubt. Mark Danner did just that in a long article that took up most of last week's issue of The New Yorker. Mr. Danner's subject was the massacre in December 1981 in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote. Over the years politicians and journalists have differed bitterly about what happened there -- who did the killing, indeed whether there was a massacre at all. The argument is over now. After the Danner report, no rational person can doubt that Salvadoran Government forces carried out a massacre. They killed hundreds of people in El Mozote and other hamlets nearby: men, women, children, infants. They killed with a savagery that is hard even to read about. Chepe Mozote was 7 years old at the time, one of a group of children taken by the soldiers to a playing field near the school. He told Mr. Danner: "I didn't really understand what was happening until I saw a soldier take a kid he had been carrying -- maybe 3 years old -- throw him in the air and stab him with a bayonet. They slit some of the kids' throats, and many they hanged from the tree. . . . The soldiers kept telling us, 'You are guerrillas and this is justice. This is justice.'

"Finally, there were only three of us left. I watched them hang my brother. He was 2 years old. I could see I was going to be killed soon, and I thought it would be better to die running, so I ran. . . ."

The killers were from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion. Their commanders, making a drive through territory where rebel forces had been, decided to kill everyone on the theory that the local population had nurtured the rebels. In fact, El Mozote was a stronghold of evangelical Christians, who were fiercely anti-Communist.

A month after the massacre, in January 1982, guerrillas guided two reporters and a photographer to El Mozote: Raymond Bonner of The New York Times, Alma Guillermoprieto of The Washington Post and the photographer Susan Meiselas. The reporters wrote stories of the bodies and destruction they saw, and The Times published harrowing pictures by Ms. Meiselas.

Reagan Administration officials denounced the massacre reports as false. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal attacked the reporters as "credulous" victims of Communist propaganda. (Mr. Danner notes dryly that The Journal's long editorial took no note of the fact that the correspondents they criticized had actually been at the scene, and no note of Ms. Meiselas's photographs.)

Drawing on newly released documents and his own follow-up interviews, Mr. Danner traces how the U.S. Government's misleading denials of the massacre were created.

After the newspaper stories, the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador sent two men to investigate the alleged massacre: Todd Greentree, a young embassy official, and Marine Maj. John McKay. They got to within a few miles of El Mozote, but the Salvadoran Government forces taking them would go no farther.

Both men were convinced, from talks with refugees nearby, that something terrible had happened. Major McKay told Mr. Danner he could feel "this tremendous fear." Mr. Greentree said he concluded that "there probably had been a massacre."

But they had no firsthand evidence, and that was what the embassy cable to Washington said: "No evidence could be found to confirm that Government forces systematically massacred civilians." The Reagan Administration used that line to deny the massacre stories. Its interest was not in truth but in getting Congress to continue military aid to El Salvador.

The U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, cabled the State Department on Feb. 1, 1982, that his views should not be distorted -- that though he had no confirmation he did think "something happened" in El Mozote. This cable, found by Mr. Danner, was of course not disclosed at the time.

Some of the Americans who denied the massacre have come to regret their actions and said so. Others, politicians and editors, have been unrepentant. I hope they will read Mr. Danner's report. They might try to read aloud, to their families, the passages about the killing of the children of El Mozote.

© 2017 Mark Danner