The Salvadoran Town That Can’t Forget

The Salvadoran Town That Can’t Forget

The Salvadoran Town That Can’t Forget

Will exhumations bring the survivors of the El Mozote massacre together, or tear them apart once again?


El Mozote was a ghost town. When people 
began returning in 1992, at the end of El Salvador’s civil war, skeletons and land mines protruded from the soil. Weeds enshrouded ruins. The church was rubble, the fields fallow, and the school caved in by a bomb. The village’s social fabric lay in shreds as surely as its leaders lay in shallow graves. Over the course of three days in December 1981, Salvadoran Army soldiers trained and armed by the United States had machine-gunned, machete-slashed, bayoneted, and burned to death more than 1,000 civilians in El Mozote and six surrounding villages as part of a scorched-earth strategy to root out leftist guerrillas. The survivors had spent a decade in caves and refugee camps, and now they were coming back.

Rosario and her four surviving siblings gathered in La Joya—a village down the mountain from El Mozote—to divide up their dead parents’ land. Soldiers had massacred their mother, two of their sisters, and 20 other relatives. The meeting was tense and inconclusive, and a few years later, Rosario and her sister Francisca fought over a tiny piece of hilltop property. (Francisca requested that I not use her real name in this article.) Rosario volunteered in the Catholic Church, while Francisca had become evangelical. Rosario’s son had died fighting for the rebels, while Francisca’s brother-in-law had served in the military. Each blamed the other for not being able to save their mother. As the years went by, they became known as the rival sisters who lived within shouting distance but rarely spoke.

Rosario and Francisca are “the rule, not the exception,” among victims of human-rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war, says Spanish psychologist Sol Yañez, who teaches at Central American University, a Jesuit school in the capital city of San Salvador. In 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted a decades-old petition from Tutela Legal, the human-rights office of the Catholic Church, against the Salvadoran government for committing, covering up, and failing to investigate the El Mozote massacre. Yañez was asked to serve as an expert witness. Over the course of 12 months, going door-to-door in the mountains, she interviewed 211 people—survivors and relatives of those killed—and led over a dozen group sessions and two community assemblies. Yañez has doe-like eyes, wears overalls and sensible shoes, and is quick to offer a shoulder to cry on. People in El Mozote opened their doors and offered her coffee, but many were too afraid to talk. Getting people to the group sessions was nearly impossible. Yañez had never seen a community so divided.

In April 2012, Yañez accompanied Rosario and two other women who’d survived the massacre to the 
Inter-American Court in Ecuador. It was their first time on an airplane. Rosario, who is barely five feet tall, wore a blouse and a flowered skirt, her gray hair in a braid down her back. She stared straight ahead as she told the judges how she, her husband, and their three young children fled to a cave above La Joya when they heard gunfire, and how they hid in the ravine for six years, surviving on sugarcane and turtles. When she finished speaking, a judge asked why she’d chosen to endure such hardship rather than descend the mountain to a nearby town. Rosario’s voice shook as she answered. “We were afraid that they’d kill us like they killed the rest of my family,” she said. On the way back to El Salvador, airport-security officers pulled a knife out of Rosario’s carry-on. “How else am I going to protect myself?” she said.

Yañez told the judges that a majority of the victims showed signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and physical illnesses triggered by trauma. “Ninety-five percent think about the massacre every day, even now after 30 years,” she said. “Eighty-five percent have nightmares and recurring dreams about what happened.” If that’s true, then around 200 people living within a mile of each other have thought about the worst day of their life for 12,892 consecutive days.

In the months and years following the massacre, families and friends were flung to far corners of the country, where they lived isolated, fearful lives, often under the thumb of the military. Keeping to oneself and trusting no one were survival skills, and these behaviors lingered when the survivors began returning to their villages after the war. “Everything collective was tainted by the massacre,” Yañez said in an interview.

Yañez told the court that people in El Mozote and surrounding villages needed two things to begin the healing process: justice and reparations. They needed justice in order to regain their trust in the country’s institutions, and they needed reparations—including psychological treatment—to regain their trust in other people. On October 25, 2012, the court ordered El Salvador to reinvestigate the massacre, compensate the survivors and family members, and implement a far-reaching development program to reverse three decades of economic and social decay. The government dawdled, first under President Mauricio Funes, then under President Salvador Sánchez Cerén (both from the left-wing FMLN party). They checked minor requirements off the list—a health clinic, a documentary called Memory of the Fireflies—but steered clear of pushing for a new investigation, citing an amnesty law and the lack of funds.

Then, on April 5, 2015, a convoy of government trucks rolled down the valley into La Joya, churning up dust. Rosario heard the rumbling and imagined the trucks were filled with soldiers and machine guns, as they had been three decades earlier when they left a thousand bodies in the ground. As she tried to calm herself down, her phone rang and a government prosecutor explained that these trucks were filled with investigators and shovels. They were coming to dig the bodies out.

In 1972, a levee broke at a coal mine in West
 Virginia and 132 million gallons of sludge water tore through the Buffalo Creek valley, killing 125 people and washing away thousands of homes. Sociologist Kai Erickson was hired by the victims’ lawyers to study “the human wreckage left in the wake” of the flood, and his research helped win $13.5 million in civil damages. As Erickson wrote in his 1976 book, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood, he found evidence of what he called “collective trauma.” Unlike disasters that spurred camaraderie—World War II, the September 11 attacks—the flood swept away not only physical belongings, but also relationships, routines, tradition, and trust. A community cannot grieve together if there is no community left.

The Spanish psychologist and Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró would have understood the concept of collective trauma, though he probably didn’t come across Erickson’s work. Martín-Baró was teaching at Central American University when civil war broke out in El Salvador in 1980, and he wrote extensively about its “psychosocial” effects. “In a society where the use of violence to resolve problems has become habitual, human relations have become dormant,” he warned in a 1984 article. Reawakening them would require the work of many psychologists when the war ended.

That came nearly a decade later, following a failed rebel offensive and the assassination of six Jesuit priests—including Martín-Baró—by the same army battalion that had committed the El Mozote massacre. Both sides realized that neither side could win. After two years of negotiations, the Salvadoran government and guerrilla leaders signed a peace accord on January 16, 1992, ending the war and beginning the much-harder process of knitting society back together.

Foreign-policy experts used to mention El Salvador as a shining example of truth and reconciliation—proof that public exposure and reckoning can heal a society torn apart from within. Mortal enemies stopped killing one another; left-wing rebels entered politics, and the right-wing security apparatus was replaced by a civilian police force made up of equal numbers of ex-guerrillas and ex-soldiers. A United Nations–appointed Truth Commission spent six months investigating “serious acts of violence” that had occurred since 1980 that required “an urgent public knowledge of the truth,” and the exhumations in El Mozote uncovered the skulls of 143 individuals, nearly all of them children. But five days after the Truth Commission released its report in March 1993, the Salvadoran Congress passed a blanket amnesty law that extinguished the possibility of justice for relatives of the 75,000 civilians killed (most by government soldiers and right-wing death squads), the 1.5 million people displaced, and the hundreds of thousands of victims of other atrocities during the 12-year conflict. A local judge archived the nascent investigation into the El Mozote massacre, and then-President Alfredo Cristiani prescribed the postwar policy that persists to this day: “Forgive and forget.”

Left-leaning Salvadorans often blame the amnesty law—and the resultant suffering—on the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which controlled Congress at the time. In reality, both sides agreed on the law before the final peace accords were signed. “We chose peace over justice,” said Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, who represented the military in the peace talks. “Amnesty was the only way to ensure that when we came down from the mountains, the government wouldn’t throw us in jail,” said Salvador Samayoa, who represented the guerrillas. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrilla organization that became a left-wing party after the war, has controlled the executive branch since 2009, but it has done little more than ARENA did to challenge this policy of impunity. So while hundreds of former military officials in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have been jailed for war crimes, and a former Guatemalan dictator was tried for genocide, El Salvador stands out for the fact that almost no one has faced punishment for crimes committed during its civil war.

People no longer talk about El Salvador as a model for truth and reconciliation. Political polarization has repeatedly brought the country to the brink of fiscal crisis—it appears the two sides simply transferred their conflict to the political arena—while gang violence has once again made El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world. At the El Mozote village fair in January 2015, three alleged gang members beat a 22-year-old to death with a rock. He was the first of several gang victims buried that spring. The community was still reeling when workers arrived three months later to start digging up the bones of massacre victims.

On April 14, 2015, in a clearing the size of a 
small baseball diamond, a short man with a pistol tucked into his skull-print belt was interrogating a middle-aged woman who’d traveled hours to ask the government to add her father’s grave site to the exhumation list. Prosecutors and detectives moved between a cow pasture, where they were cordoning off a pit with crime-scene tape, and a white-and-peach-colored house, where they were dismantling a stone well.

The man, Israel Ticas, was famous in San Salvador for diving into dark holes and emerging with decomposing gang-violence victims. He worked for the attorney general’s office but was a software engineer by trade and had no training in excavating decades-old graves or interviewing trauma victims. “Is this the first time you’re testifying?” he barked, squinting at the woman through his sunglasses. “How many of your relatives were killed in the massacre? Are you sure? What were their names?” The woman fingered the rosary around her neck and recited her dead family members’ names for the third time that day.

From a psychological standpoint, the logic behind exhumations is twofold. First, it’s an evidence-gathering method that supports victims’ testimony and refutes those who deny the crime occurred. Second, it’s a humanitarian measure that gives families a body to bury and communities an occasion to mourn. But as Yañez told the Inter-American Court, exhumations are only healing if the process prioritizes the victims’ psychological well-being—so it was worrisome that prosecutors in La Joya were treating family members as if they were suspects.

Yañez was out of the country—neither she nor the family members had been notified in advance about the dig—so when the victims’ lawyers demanded some kind of emotional support, the government sent undergraduate psychology majors. One of them stood with Rosario above the well where the bodies of her nieces and nephews had been thrown. Forensic workers pulled out tablecloths and hammocks—in which the bodies had been wrapped—and peeled away the blood-stained tatters of child-size clothing until all that was left were a half-dozen miniature skeletons suspended in a thick cylinder of dirt. As Rosario stared down at the bones, the psychology student joked with a prosecutor. They were laughing about a man in the news who’d almost killed his mother-in-law while trying to shoot an armadillo.

The next day, Francisca showed up to the cow pasture where her mother and youngest sister were buried, and stood across the pit from Rosario. They didn’t acknowledge each other. A prosecutor was interviewing Rosario, and when he finished, she asked, “Will you return the bones to me or to my sister?” Francisca stayed silent. It wasn’t clear that the prosecutors or psychologists realized who she was. They talked only to Rosario, who was leading La Joya’s fight for justice, while Francisca tried to avoid attention. Still, she was upset the government hadn’t asked her permission to exhume. “The Bible says we are made from dust, and when we die, we become dust again,” Francisca explained to me a few days later. She was concerned that given the crumbling state of the remains, fragments of her relatives would be lost.

Heat and humidity hung over the valley, and the smell of rotting mangoes filled the air. Tensions were high: Lawyers for the victims had filed a petition to suspend the exhumations, citing psychological damage, and when the lead prosecutor found out, he marched into the grave site, knocked over a candle, and ordered the place cleared: “Psychologist, journalist, anyone who’s not an immediate family member—get out!” He mumbled something about how the crime scene was getting contaminated. One by one, Rosario, Francisca, and the other locals slipped under the crime-scene tape and left.

A storm was coming, and as the workers hustled to pack up their equipment, a Canadian anthropologist pulled me aside and spoke to me in English. She was concerned about the technique Ticas was using to extract the bones, an “artsy” method that involved carving away most of the dirt from a group of skeletons so they rested on thin soil pedestals, rather than exhuming layer by layer as she’d been taught to do. The skeleton tableaus that Ticas produced were impressive, but the pedestals were not sturdy and left the bones exposed to the elements, which could damage DNA evidence, she said. Thunder rumbled. “It’s odd that they scheduled the exhumations for the rainy season,” she added, rushing off.

Minutes later, heavy sheets of rain flooded the valley, spilling over the riverbanks and seeping under the edges of the plastic tarps covering the graves. It was as if something in the universe couldn’t take any more digging.

The next day, the judge who had authorized the dig suspended it and ordered the government to get its act together—above all, by providing psychological treatment to family members before, during, and after the exhumations. “I thought I was helping the community, but I ended up making things worse,” he told me.

Yañez returned that summer to find many of the families
fighting over money, fighting over bones, and confused over where the government had taken the remains and what it was doing with them. Prosecutors maintained an aggressive stance toward the victims they were supposed to represent. They tried to yank Yañez from her expert role.

Months passed without news from the DNA lab. At one point, its director was arrested on corruption charges; his successor discovered samples missing from the massacre remains. When the government finally identified the first few bodies in February 2016, it held a ceremony, invited the press, and sat Rosario at the table of honor without acknowledging her siblings. Francisca watched from the back of the crowd. A process that was supposed to be healing was turning out to be dysfunctional, conflictive, and traumatizing—an example of a lesson that Yañez teaches her psychology students: “Never open a wound you can’t close.”

Exhumations are inherently painful. They force people to relive their worst memories and see their loved ones transformed into lifeless piles of bones. But they also offer an opportunity to redefine traumatic memories within a new context of safety and support, says Jack Saul, a New York–based psychologist who specializes in collective trauma. He described exhumations in Guatemala in which Catholic and indigenous religious leaders led healing rituals for the local community. “If you can be held by the community and know you’re safe, you can let go of some of the fear and horror attached to that place and that memory,” he explained.

I told Saul about the exhumations in La Joya. “They did everything wrong,” he said. “People need to have a sense of agency. These kinds of processes aren’t successful if they’re not driven by the community.”

But truth and reconciliation at the national level is rarely about the victims. In the immediate aftermath of a civil war, the priority is to keep the various sides from killing one another; the desperation for peace almost always trumps justice. Years later, when a subsequent government decides to take on the past—
because of social pressure, diplomatic sanctions, or new crises arising from the failure to address the earlier ones—practical decisions must be made about what will help the country more: going after retired generals involved in the civil-war-era massacres (in El Salvador’s case), or prosecuting the corrupt politicians and brutal gang leaders whose crimes are causing so much 
suffering now.

On July 13, 2016, El Salvador’s Constitutional Court struck down the 1993 amnesty law, delivering a rare victory to human-rights groups and those who see the amnesty as the country’s original sin. But politicians from both parties disavowed the decision, stressing the need for a new amnesty law to keep the peace. (More than a few ex-combatants-turned-politicians have a personal interest in ensuring that no one goes to prison.) For a few days, San Salvador was tense. Warplanes circled overhead, and FMLN supporters marched in the streets, accusing the court of orchestrating a coup. When I called Rosario the day after the decision, she said she was glad the high court had recognized the victims’ suffering, but added that she didn’t want any soldiers to go to jail. Most people in El Mozote don’t; they want an apology and a better future for their children.

The decision may have gotten the ball rolling on financial reparations: The government has distributed more than $2 million to victims (though the maximum that any individual has received is $20,000), and in January, President Sánchez Cerén named a government commission to launch a “social development program” for El Mozote and surrounding villages. Whether or not the commission delivers paved roads, university scholarships, and an old-folks’ home, as locals have requested, it has succeeded as a distraction from the stalled legal process. In September, Judge Jorge Guzmán reopened the case against 13 military officers accused of participating in the massacre, but he decided not to order their arrest.

It was hoped that 18 months of preparation, three suspensions, and increased public scrutiny would motivate the government to take more care with the next round of exhumations. And there were some improvements in place when they started last November: Ticas was gone, as were some of the more offending prosecutors. Three members of the renowned Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team oversaw the dig, which took place during the dry season. Licensed psychologists were on hand.

But tensions remained between the local residents and prosecutors, who once again failed to get proper consent from all family members. The Salvadoran government was learning what all governments learn again and again: It is far easier to break something than to put it back together.

El Mozote is still a ghost town, its inhabitants haunted by the past. The community comes alive once a year on the massacre’s anniversary, a macabre hybrid of funeral and fair, with popcorn carts, “Never Again” T-shirts, and teary speeches. For the 35th anniversary last December, the government went all out. Cameras swarmed as victims paraded past with 21 child-size coffins (they’re cheaper than standard-size), and the vice president flew in by helicopter to instruct the local residents on how to forgive their wartime foes. He didn’t mention the exhumation pits and crime-scene tape just yards from the podium.

When the ceremony was over, the coffins were loaded into pickup trucks and driven down the mountain to La Joya, where Rosario’s older brother was hosting the wake. The men placed the coffins on tables, the women made coffee, and Rosario scrambled to find a priest after the first one canceled. Relatives and neighbors hugged and cried and joked about how they hadn’t seen each other since the last funeral.

Francisca stayed home—she was planning an evangelical service for the following morning. Along with a dozen or so family members, she watched the sky turn orange, then purple, then dark blue. She waited for her husband to return home. She waited for a neighbor to drop off tamales. Then she waited for the sky to turn black.

Finally, at around 9 pm, she made her way down the dirt road to her brother’s house. For the first time in months, all five siblings were together. Rosario and Francisca didn’t exchange a word.

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