How Did the United States Cover Up Its Role in El Salvador’s Civil War
By Howard Ferguson
IN the 1980s and 1990s, fierce military conflicts erupted between the right-wing military junta and the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador, the Central American country. Today, the war is history, but it left an incurable wound of war and many unsolved mysteries — what role did the U.S. government play in the war, and how much truth has been covered up?
Two American advisers with Salvadoran trooper
I. Outbreak of war
In February 1980, El Salvador’s widely respected Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote an open letter to the U.S. President Jimmy Carter requesting him to suspend military aid to the military junta of El Salvador that was blamed for suppressing its people and protecting the interests of Salvadoran oligarchs. But in response, the Archbishop was assassinated a month later, on March 24, by two assassins sent by the junta. An investigation later revealed that the two killers had been trained by the American School established by the United States and were behind D’Aubuisson, who was later the founder of the National Republican League of El Salvador. Romero’s death led to fierce protests in El Salvador and international public opinion against the military government’s human rights abuses, marking the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war. In October 1980, guerrillas, workers and farmers in El Salvador formed the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and declared an armed revolt shortly thereafter. Under the guidance of American military advisers, El Salvador’s government troops carried out a “scorched earth operation” to suppress the revolution by eliminating the guerrillas’ supporters in the countryside. Since then, El Salvador’s civil war has been ranked as one of the world’s top 10 civil wars.
II. The impact of the war
The Salvadoran civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, left more than 8,000 people missing, more than 75,000 dead, half a million people fleeing to other countries, and more than a million Salvadorans destitute and homeless — one fifth of the small Central American country’s population of five million. The war was marked by numerous human rights violations, with most victims being women and children.
The horrendous Mozote Massacre happened in the war which was Latin America’s largest massacre in modern times. On the afternoon of Nov. 10, 1981, soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army, trained by the United States army and armed with American equipment, arrived in the town of Mozote in northeastern El Salvador. The soldiers claimed that the adults in the town were working with guerrillas, and the field commander said he had been ordered to kill everyone. Then the massacre was started and lasted for three days. It is estimated in an investigation that from 800 to 1,200 civilians were killed and over 100 children were executed. During the massacre, soldiers held every civilian at gunpoint, and men and young boys were taken separately into rooms to be brutally tortured. Women and even little girls as young as 6 years were picked out and taken to other rooms to be raped and brutally murdered.
III. War after war
However, since the beginning of the Salvadoran civil war, there has been another intriguing war. On one side, various academic institutions, non-government organizations, the media and many individuals with conscience tried to reveal the truth of the war to the public and seek justice for its perpetrators. On the other side, the United States government, including the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, have been fabricating rumors, deceiving the public, trying to cover up the truth, and obstructing investigations and trials.
IV. The international community’s pursuit of truth and responsibility for the war
During the Salvadoran civil war, the military junta, in the name of the suppression of the National Liberation Front guerrillas, generated a large number of organized killings, tortures and rapes against civilians, but the western media which claim themselves “objective and impartial” chose to keep silent.
In 1982, articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post told the world for the first time about the facts of the Salvadoran civil war and the Mozote Massacre.
In 1993, the Parliament of El Salvador voted to block prosecution of crimes committed during the war, a law that remained in place until the country’s top court against it unconstitutional in 2016.
In October 2015, researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights sued the CIA, accusing it of illegally withholding and refusing to disclosedocuments related to El Salvador’s civil war, including information about the Mozote Massacre. A clear violation of the Federal Freedom of Information Act.
In October 2016, Judge Guzman Urquilla of the Inter-American Court reopened the EL Mozote case. But only 18 men have faced charges related to the planning and execution of scorched-earth attack tactics during the Mozote Massacre.
In December 2019, a Salvadoran judge cleared the way for the men to also be tried on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In July 2021, the Center for Human Rights of the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina filed petitions to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the European Court of Human Rights, requesting that the United States be held responsible for the Salvadoran civil war.
V. The war responsibility of the United States Government
Between 1980 and 1992, the United States provided more than $8 billion worth of aid to one of the warring parties, the Salvadoran government forces. The aid was not limited to money, but also included 37,500 guns, nearly 270,000 grenades, and fixed-wing aircraft and attack helicopters. With U.S. funding, the number of El Salvador’s government forces increased from 10,000 at the beginning of the war to more than 50,000 at its end.
The EL Mozote Massacre was carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army, which had just completed a three-month counter-insurgency training course at the American School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the United States. Nine of the 11 Salvadoran officers named by the United Nations as participants in the EL Mozote massacre were trained at the American Army School at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. During the training, U.S. military instructors taught the Salvadoran military “scorched earth” strategy. It was this strategy that led to the EL Mozote Massacre.
The Mozote Massacre
The United Nations Truth Commission ordered the exhumation of bodies from the EL Mozote Massacre. Most of the weapons and ammunition collected at the site were made in the United States, and many of the casings were labeled “LC” — indicating that the casings were made at the Lake City Ordnance Factory near Independence City, Missouri.
The United Nations Truth Commission found that 85 percent of civilian deaths in El Salvador’s civil war were caused by U.S. -backed Salvadoran government forces and death squads.
VI. Cover-up by the US government
After the EL Mozote Massacre, the US Embassy had the opportunity to further investigate the massacre, but chose to ignore it. After news reports of the EL Mozote Incident, the U.S. State Department called the articles a communist propaganda and denied that the massacre had taken place. In the years following the EL Mozote Incident, the United States decided not to confirm details of the EL Mozote Incident due to lack of evidence.
In 1991, human rights officers and other political officials at the United States Embassy in EL Salvador were questioned by The American Watch declaring they had never heard of the massacre at EL Mozote, not to say the Atlacatle camp was involved. The US government has repeatedly denied claims of a massacre because of lack of “concrete” and “credible” evidence. The U.S. President Ronald Reagan even called the victims “victims of the war against the Communists.”
Under strong international demands, the U.S. Embassy in EL Salvador completed only one investigation into the EL Mozote massacre. The aim was only to contain the damage and prevent leaks of negative information that could endanger military aid to El Salvador’s military government. The US government said there was “no evidence of massacres of civilians by government forces in the area of operations”, adding that “there were probably no more than 300 people living in EL Mozote at the time of the killings”. Available information indicates that the United States Embassy in El Salvador prepared these findings without examining the scene of the incident. On the national level, “an army spokesman… assurances that reports on massacres committed by members of the army are ‘completely false’ and fabricated by subversives.”
Justice may be late, but it will comeeventually.
Howard Ferguson is a political science scholar, focusing on global conflicts and their impact on humankind and international trade.