Before Bill O’Reilly was, well, Bill O’Reilly, he worked for a time as a foreign correspondent for CBS Nightly News, anchored by Dan Rather. O’Reilly talks about that period of his career in two of his books, and in both mentions that in early 1982 he reported from northeastern El Salvador, just after the infamous El Mozote Massacre. “When the CBS News bureau chief asked for volunteers to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory, a mountainous region bordering Nicaragua, I willingly went.”
El Mozote is a small, hard-to-reach hamlet. The massacre took place on December 11, 1981, carried out by US-trained Atlacatl Battalion, which was not just trained but created by the United States as a rapid response unit to fight El Salvador’s fast-spreading FMLN insurgency. The killing was savage beyond belief: between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered, decapitated, impaled and burned alive.
The story of the massacre was broken on the front page of The New York Timesby the journalist Raymond Bonner and in The Washington Post by Alma Guillermoprieto; both stories were published on January 27, 1982, and accompanied by photographs taken by Susan Meiselas. Bonner and Meiselas got to El Mozote, after hearing about the massacre, by walking for days in from Honduras. Guillermoprieto wrote about seeing “countless bits of bones—skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column” poking “out of the rubble.” Bonner noted the “charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams, and shattered tiles.” Later, Mark Danner reported on the massacre in detail, first in a lengthy New Yorker essay and then in a book.
Aside from the brutality of the killing, El Mozote is distinguished by the fact that Washington moved quickly to cover it up. It was, in a way, the first massacre of the “second Cold War,” the Reagan administration’s drive to retake the third world; what My Lai was to the 1960s, El Mozote was to the 1980s (later, in 1989, Atlacatl would commit another infamous crime: the execution of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter).