The Lost People of La Joya

The Lost People of La Joya

Five years after a massacre, a Salvadoran town still battles for survival against US-backed military forces.


Five years after a massacre, a Salvadoran town still battles for survival against US-backed military forces. A 1981 massacre devastated the small village of La Joya in El Salvador. Five years later, reporters find La Joya’s residents are still being targeted by the army.

La Joya is a place that does not officially exist. It is a hamlet in the rebel-controlled zone of northern Morazan province, El Salvador. About 200 people live there, amid a patchwork of dying cornfields, mescal cactus and the remains of several strafed and bombed farmhouses. They are survivors of a massacre. On December 11, 1981, the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the village of Mozote and some nearby hamlets, killing more than 1,000 people. The survivors fled into the forest.

Five years later they are still in hiding, haunted by the past, pursued by fears both real and imagined. They are convinced that their relatives’ killers are hunting them down to make sure they will never tell the world what happened in Mozote. As proof the army wants them dead, they say they are subjected to constant aerial attacks. The story of the lost people of La Joya is the most dramatic example of the effects of the war on the civilian population of Morazan province. The Salvadoran government considers northern Morazan to be a zone controlled by leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The government maintains that the few civilians left in the area are all F.M.L.N. supporters.

Recently we spent a week traveling in Morazan, talking to the people who live there. Based on what we observed, the government view is incorrect. Indeed, as a result of the general shift in the course of the six-year war, the civilian population, which had practically abandoned the area, is returning. At the same time, the guerrillas have withdrawn some of their forces and no longer claim northern Morazan as a liberated zone. In a shaded hollow at the base of the mountains between El Salvador and Honduras, where the river called Quebrada El Mozote levels out, eight of La Joya’s families live in the open air. They left their homes after the most recent bombing, on Christmas Day last year. We spoke with 27-year-old Albina del Cid, mother of seven, as she sat in a hammock strung between two trees on the river bank. She had lived there since October, she said, after the planes scored a direct hit on her house. Before that, raiding troops had burned it down several times, but she had always managed to rebuild it.

La Joya itself–what is left of it–is a forty-minute walk from the river, halfway up a bomb-scorched hill. The only sign of habitation is the wattle and daub hut that serves as the community store. The men gather there to loaf and talk, sitting on the two long wooden benches outside. An open bit of meadow under a towering tree serves as the village’s plaza. After we arrived, the people still in La Joya met and chose a dozen of their members to tell us the town’s story. It was the first time in five years that any of them had dared speak of the past massacre of El Mozote and the present persecution.

Amanda Martinez, 37, a mother of five, sat on a fallen tree at the edge of the grass and described how her mother, Damasa Martinez, died last July when planes strafed La Joya:

We were in the house when we saw the planes coming, and we left because they were shooting at us. We threw ourselves under a tree, but the planes were low, and the bullets hit her. She cried to me, and I went to her and put her close to me, but she was already dying. One bullet hit her in the back and another broke her right arm.

In a raid last September, Catalina Argueta lost her husband, Leonzo Zaen, when a bomb struck the corner of their house. In October and again on Christmas Day the planes rocketed and machine-gunned the village. No one was killed, but houses were destroyed and crops burned. In November, 15-year-old Jose Cristino Sanchez went to the town of Joateca to sell some mescal rope. A woman who accompanied him brought back the news that he had been murdered by soldiers, who then dumped his body beside the road. This was not his family’s first brush with tragedy. Thirty of his relatives died in the 1981 massacre. Santos Torres, who lost four children in that slaughter, told us why he thinks the people of La Joya continue to be a target: “Our error, perhaps, is that we are poor and we live here.”

La Joya is not the only target. In other communities we visited, the inhabitants told of similar experiences. Sometimes soldiers attack them, sometimes planes and helicopters. The aircraft drop incendiaries and contact bombs, which explode when they strike the topmost branches of trees, scattering lethal wooden shrapnel.

The raids are only one example of the government’s pacification campaign in northern Morazan. To prevent civilians from feeding the guerrillas, the army limits the amount of food and supplies each person can carry into the area to what is considered sufficient for his or her needs. Malnutrition is endemic and health conditions are inferior, even by the standards of poverty-stricken rural El Salvador.

“We were born here, and here we should die” is a phrase we heard repeatedly among the people who are returning to their hometowns in northern Morazan from the refugee camps south of the Torola River, which bisects the province. From the testimony of dozens of civilians living in the nine communities we visited, it is evident that people who left the area in 1981 and 1982 are coming back. Many of them explain that in the city or in the refugee camps everything, even water, is difficult to obtain. Here they have a house, some chickens and a piece of land. Most of them had returned because, as one put it, “At the beginning we thought the war was going to end soon, but now it seems it will go on for a long time.” Another group came back in 1984, hoping that the election of President Jose Napoleon Duarte would bring peace.

These people are trying to rebuild Morazan. In Perquin the school director and his wife recently reopened the school. They have asked the government to send more teachers. The children have had no schooling for five years. Now local women with only a few years’ education are teaching the youngest ones how to read and write.

The people have also created town councils, elected by secret ballot. Some have been functioning for more than a year though most, of them were formed late last year. Local rebel officers say the councils are the beginning of local self-government and insist that they are independent from guerrilla organizations. Council leaders confirm this, adding that although the guerrillas had offered suggestions on how to set them up, the councils are separate from the F.M.L.N.

The civilian population regards the guerrillas with a mixture of support and suspicion. But the dominant mood is exhaustion with the war. The people resent the government for the bombings and for abandoning them. “We are not guerrillas,” they say. “We are people of this land.” Several high-ranking officers of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), the main F.M.L.N. force in Morazan, told us the guerrillas no longer consider the area a liberated zone. The strategy of “a country within the country” has been abandoned, one commander told us. “It is dangerous for the population and impossible for us to defend,” he said. “We want to expand the war throughout the country.” What has caused the change of tactics is the army’s increased troop strength and air support. While maintaining bases in Morazan, the F.M.L.N. has deployed small mobile groups throughout the country, shifting from the classic rural guerrilla strategy to urban warfare.

The F.M.L.N. appeared to maintain a strong presence in the area we visited. The guerrillas live in camps apart from the civilians, though they move freely through the various villages. They have their own political-military commissions, their own sources of food and medicine and their own communications network. The bombings, controls on food and the army raids seem to have been ineffectual against the rebels’ small and flexible organization, which does not offer a fixed target. The only fixed targets are the civilians in the villages.

A few days after completing our tour of the countryside, we interviewed the army chief of staff, Gen. Adolfo Blandon:

Q.: Are you aware that a civilian population lives in a place known as La Joya, near Mozote?
A.: Specifically, I don’t know that place.
Q.: You mean to say you didn’t know people lived there?
A.: How many people do you think are in that place, approximately?
Q.: About 200, old men, women, children and adults.
A.: The terrorists use many tricks. They make a concentration in a place to attract the attention of the armed forces, then they leave the people behind precisely to cause these incidents. They try to take advantage of the situation.

We asked General Blandon about the Christmas Day bombing, which took place during a ten-day truce to which the army had agreed. Blandon could find no orders to bomb La Joya or anywhere else north of the Torola River.

“I don’t think there was anything on that day,” he said. “There was no reason to do that. There was no objective.”

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