• Following years of repression under military dictatorship, a coup d'etat in El Salvador in 1979 sparked a brutal, twelve-year civil war. The subsequent assassination of human-rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero and the murder of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980 drew world attention to the political oppression and violence in that tiny country.

     

    In the U.S., the newly elected President Ronald Reagan was determined to limit what he perceived as leftist influence in Central America following the popular insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in neighboring Nicaragua, and the administration supported the Salvadoran junta with military and economic aid throughout the 1980s.

     

    During this time, death squads associated with the military terrorized civilians, sometimes massacring hundreds of people at a time. All told, the war cost the lives of 75,000 civilian noncombatants.  

     

     -Kristen Lubben, Editor of In History, 2008

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    There was persecution of FECCAS (Cristian Federation of Salvadorean Peasants) and UTC (Peasants Work Union). UTC was active in Arcatao, my brother was a leader, though he was not a peasant but he fit in well. The terrorist organization Mano Blanca was organized by Gen. Medrano who was going after people from the left or fighters at that time. He painted white hands on houses where leaders or members of these organizations lived. My brother found this sign on his door.

    They were saying that in San Vicente the priest was killed and that it  would be like that with everyone. The white hands would warn them that they could be murdered.
    I am sure that the white hands on my brothers door were painted in August 1979.

    En Arcatao my brother was the first one to be murdered, he also chose to stay and was killed on the 14th of October 1979.

    - Zoila Menjivar, from an interview with Susan Meiselas, December 2016

     

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    In Arcatao, too, there were outrages, made by the National Guard. They killed Ernesto Menjivar, captured Elias Pineda because they heard him mourning the death of
    Mr. Menjivar. They  also captured Antonio Miranda Tenquesque and Meliton Martinez and the three of them appeared dead.

    Again, on Tuesday another group arrived to encircle the town and to intimidate surroundings cantons; in Las Lomas they captured the young Santiago Ayala, who also was found dead. An helicopter and other military contingents were spreading fear. On Wednesday at 8pm, arbitrarily they broke into the Arcata Convent and started searching. It is not known if they respected their belongings.

    - Transcription excerpt by Mgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero where he mentioned the events in Arcata, October 21st, 1979

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  • On the night of December 2, 1980, four women of the Maryknoll church were in a van on their way from the San Salvador airport when Salvadorean National Guardsmen stopped their vehicle. The four women -- Sister Maura Clark, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel and church worker Jean Donovan -- disappeared. 

    Susan and the Associated Press photographer John Hoagland were speaking with villagers in the area where the nuns disappeared when they met a peasant who described being instructed to bury the "four White women," that he found in a nearby field. On December 4, the bodies of the missing women were discovered in a field 5 miles from the nearest paved road, and 10 miles from the airport. When the bodies were exhumed, it was discovered that the four women had been brutally beaten and raped before being killed. A local judge had ordered their burial without informing the press.

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    When news of the Maryknoll murders became public, the U.S. goverment was pressured to investigate. Initial investigations were accused of white-washing details of the crime, and eventually the United Nations established a Truth Commission to determine who was responsible and who had been involved in the attempted cover-up. In 1984, several low-level Salvadorean National Guardsmen were convicted and two Salvadorean Generals were sued in U.S. Federal Courts by the women's families.

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  • The first generation of Salvadorans suffered the somnabulism of the revolt's aftermath. Throughout the next five decades, the United States provided economic aid, military aid, and training to the Salvadoran government. High-ranking officers bought expensive homes, fine automobiles, retirement haciendas. The second and third generations awakened to the nightmare's recurrence. In the violence of hunger, despair grew volatile: in blood hosed from the plaza after fixed elections, in the arms of those who carried the dead from the streets, in the mother whose chlidren starved, in the father whose long work in the fields was never enough.

    -Carolyn Forché, from El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, 1983

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  • In December 1981, soldiers of the Salvadoran Army’s select, American trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the village of El Mozote, where they murdered hundreds of men, women, and children, often by decapitation. Although reports of the massacre - and photographs of its victims - appeared in the United States, the Reagan administration quickly dismissed them as propaganda. In the end, El Mozote was forgotten. The war in El Salvador continued, with American funding.                    

    - Mark Danner from The Massacre at El Mozote, 1994

     

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    There were bodies and parts of bodies. We saw about twenty-five houses destroyed around Arambala and Mozote. My strongest memory was this grouping of evangelicals, fourteen of them, who had come together thinking their faith would protect them. They were strewn across the earth next to this cornfield, and you could see on their faces the horror of what had happened to them.  - S.M.

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    What I was able to see when I was standing on the bench looking through the window was that they had everyone blindfolded and handcuffed. They took them out by groups, when they took out the group with the father of my children and brought him to this side, that was when I sat on the bench and cried… I was with my kids, I grabbed them and hugged them crying, but I didn't tell them anything, they stayed inside  the house where we were… they took my children from my arms. I had a baby on my chest and 2 soldiers took them all...

    I was afraid, and with fear and braveness also told the truth, I pushed myself because of my children. They died and I had to speak or say something, I couldn't do anything when they were dying. So I motivated myself and that is how I told the truth. I denounced and declared for my children and for all those children that cried out for their mothers. They did not deserve to die.

    - Rufina Amaya, excerpts Published by Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, El Salvador on Jan 24, 2014, and EMA-RTV Agencia de Noticias Locales Y Ciudadanas de Andalucía on May 3, 2012


     

     

     

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    After this massacre it was notorious the amount of people that joined to fight because after that, they said what else we can do rather than struggle and fight, so the expected result didn't happen, they could not end with either the population or the guerrilla. We can say that the massacre was made because the guerrilla was there, but the fact that the guerrilla was there did not justify such a massacre because the population as we know according to international law they always have their rights and they should be respected.

    - Rogelio Poncel, excerpts Published by Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, El Salvador on Jan 24, 2014, and EMA-RTV Agencia de Noticias Locales Y Ciudadanas de Andalucía on May 3, 2012

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    When we passed through El Mozote we made an effort to convince people, we could perceive that something bad would happen. But people were not willing to leave because they would lose their houses, their belongings, their animals. It takes a lot of effort to have those things and they really cared for them, and also they thought nothing will happen. But the army did do the massacre.

    After a few weeks we went back...I remember the panorama, all destroyed, and it was a pretty town, it was a hamlet but with the size and profile of a town… very pretty but everything was destroyed. It smelled of death and there were people who were not completely buried yet. It had a huge impact on me. I had arrived one year before to El Mozote to preach, to talk about hope, to tell the people that the war would be a hard time, but it would end and then we would live in a different country. And precisely where I preached and talked of hope, the massacre happened.

    -El Faro, "Cuando le apuntan, el cristiano tiene derecho a defenderse, a apuntar también", 2014

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    I came back after the Peace Agreement, around 6 months after...there were only 4 houses in El Mozote, you could not get in, you had to get in breaching with a stick or something similar.

    We hoped to find only 5, but we found 15, another complete family. The members of my family were only 5: My mom, my dad, two sisters - one was 18 months and the other 5 years old, and my brother who was 10. My father was 50 and my mother was 45.

    -Orlando Marquez, from an interview with Susan Meiselas, El Mozote, El Salvador 2016

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    I was wondering around for 2 hours, I barely remember, when I came back it wasn’t really easy, coming back to where you were born and grew and not finding your family, and trying to make a new life again wasn’t easy.

    -Orlando Marquez, from an Interview with Susan Meiselas, El Mozote, El Salvador 2016

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    The burst covered us with leaves, I was holding up one kid and the other one was grabbing my skirt because he was 5 years old. I was raising my hand so they could see that we didn’t have anything and my  husband who was wearing a hat raised his hand with the hat to show them that we didn’t have any weapons. But bursts continued, so I told my husband I would not walk anymore, they are going to kill us anyway.

    I want to keep working really hard until the last exhumations are done, for the good of the families that are waiting.

    -Dorila Marquez, from an interview with Susan Meiselas, El Mozote, El Slavador 2016

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    The main challenge that we faced was that there was nothing in the place that identified  what happened. During one of the meetings in preparation for the commemoration we took the decision to build a monument to give significance to the events. This action was as important as a military action because it would guarantee that the civilian massacre was true.

    The only material available was iron laminate, it was a simple way to delineate a simple family structure (a man, a woman and their two kids). During the night with the help of a team to solder it was welded together.

    All this effort could not be completed if the monument did not get to its destination. The monument to the victims of Mozote was erected with a wooden stick, which stood as a witness for months.

    "Footprint Memory" by Fatima Argueta, January 2017

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    In October 2012, the Inter-American Court found El Salvador guilty of committing the massacre, covering it up, and failing to investigate after the war. The Court ordered the government to re-open the case, punish the perpetrators, and compensate victims’ relatives. The ruling has brought tokens of government aid to El Mozote—instruments for the cultural center, plaques for the memorial—but more importantly,  it has united the splintered community of family members.

    This July, in an unexpected twist, El Salvador’s Supreme Court declared the amnesty law unconstitutional. In September, a judge re-opened the archived case against the massacre’s culprits. Government investigators have spent the past month exhuming graves—among them, the shallow hole in Cerro Pando where Ramírez buried his five relatives—though political resistance and legal obstacles abound.

    This year, for the first time since 1993, a Salvadoran judge opened a case against 13 military officers accused of participating in the massacre. But the judge, Jorge Guzmán, decided not to order the officers’ arrest, raising questions about his intent to pursue unbiased justice. Guzmán claims he lacks sufficient evidence, but over the past month, investigators have exhumed the remains of at least 43 individuals in seven separate graves. Their reports will be added to the case file, alongside evidence of 36 skeletons exhumed in April 2015, 143 skulls excavated in 1992, and the remains of several hundred people unearthed between 1993 and 2011.

    - Sarah Esther Maslin,  "Remembering El Mozote, the Worst Massacre in Modern Latin American History," The Nation, Dec 2016

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    Ramírez, now 74 years old, paced back and forth. He took his straw hat off and put it back on. "I don't konw if they'll still be here after all these years," he said.

    - Sarah Esther Maslin, "Remembering El Mozote, the Worst Massacre in Modern Latin American History," The Nation, December 2016

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    The first stage is the pre-mortem stage, when we collect all the information. Then we develop the next stage of field study or archeology with the exhumations and the gathering of the remains associated with biological and non-biological evidence.

    After we finish with the field research stage we start the lab stage. This stage is long because of the fragility of the remains, we have to manipulate them very carefully. Once we start taking samples is for the genetic process — this is also a very complicated process because these are very old remains and getting genetical information sometimes is possible and sometimes not — this also takes a lot of time.

    One problem is at that time the registration of the people in the town halls wasn't very detailed, and it was worst with the kids. The Fiscalia responded very humanely when we told them what the problem was with the kids who we don't have any information about. And their response from the legal side was that if the community becomes responsible, we can give the remains to them so they have a dignified burial even though there is no way to know who they might really be.

    This means not denying that someone was there, even though we don't know who this person was. They existed, lived and were there and are going to be treated with dignity and be buried with the rest who died back then.

    - Saul Quijada, from an interview with Susan Meiselas, December 2016

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    The Interamerican-Court established the right to compensation for survivors. It could be the son, or in case of his death with so much time having past, the grandson of the victim has the right to inherit the compensation. But then the process is difficult because they have to accept inheritance and present the documentation that proves the family's link with the victim.

    The problem is how to prove the validity of inheritance, for example, the documentation. Sometimes there is no death or birth certificate, and not having access to that makes it more difficult to prove the link with the survivor.

    DNA has been a problem because when the first exhumations were done in ‘93 they gathered bones, but they didn't do DNA tests.

    - Ovidio Maricio Gonzalez of Tutela Legal, December 2016

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    Maria Julia had the vision to leave enough strong forensic and scientific evidence, that is why we believe that some justice will happen in the future because in none of the cases of the Truth Commission and other serious violations was there justice. There was no one arrested or taken to trial in these cases, and we know there are thousands of them.

    - Alejandro Lening Díaz Gómez, Assocation of Human Rights: Tutela Legal, El Mozote, El Salvador 2016

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  • In 1983, at the height of the civil war in El Salvador, thirty international photojournalists covering the conflict contributed to a project to raise awareness about the crisis. They believed that these images, if more widely seen, could facilitate a deeper understanding of the situation in El Salvador and prompt a crucial dialogue about the conflict and America's role in it.                                

    - Kristen Lubben, Editor of In History, 2008