The Dead Tell Their Tales

Trees and weeds hide the ruins of adobe homes in the abandoned village of El Mozote, but it's no secret where the bodies lie. "The army blindfolded men and tied their hands behind their backs," recalls Rufina Amaya, who returned to Morazan province this year, more than a decade after what may have been the bloodiest massacre in El Salvador's civil war. "They shot them all near the chapel entrance." She tells of hiding behind a tree when the soldiers rounded up the village women; children were herded into a parish priest's house. "Mommy, they're killing us," one of her own four children cried. Propaganda? That's what U.S. officials said when her account was first reported. But last week forensic anthropologists recovered the bullet-riddled skulls of 42 children from the ruins, and they've only begun to dig. Said an onlooker: "They can no longer say there was no massacre here."

The world has changed so much that the dispute already seems a distant memory. In 1981, a newly elected Ronald Reagan put holding the line against communism in El Salvador at the top of his foreign-policy agenda. He committed $100 million in fresh military and economic aid, part of it to create the Atlacatl Battalion, a rapid-deployment force trained to win what the Green Berets called a "low-intensity conflict." Congress, meanwhile, was pressing the administration to make El Salvador clean up its human-rights record so that Raymond Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of The Washington Post reported that the battalion had massacred nearly 800 people in El Mozote, it was a threat to be parried. "No evidence," said a top official at State. "Overly credulous," said The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Recalls Bonner: "[My reputation] was not just challenged but clobbered." Among human-rights activists, El Mozote became shorthand for the Salvadoran Army's freedom from accountability for even the most egregious abuses.

Was there a cover-up? A peace agreement signed last January between the Salvadoran government and the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front is at last making it possible to assemble the physical evidence. Under pressure from human-rights activists, a judge ordered the exhumations-two years after one of the victims' relatives formally accused the Atlacatl Battalion of the killings. The digging is being supervised by four Argentine specialists who will present their findings to a so-called Truth Commission set up under the peace agreement to look into the most serious abuses of the war. The commission, appointed by the United Nations, is to present its full findings in January. But the early results-the skeletons' sizes and the fact that bullet casings were found among them-support Amaya's original account, investigators say.

Inevitably, unearthing such evidence raises questions about the Reagan administration's handling of the case. "It was hard to tell if [officials] were dishonest or distorted [by ideology], said Rep. Gerry Studds, who confronted the administration about El Mozote. "But either way, the victims of that kind of attitude are sticking up from those graves right now." Thomas Enders, Reagan's assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, told a House sub-committee at the time that El Mozote's peasants were trapped between government forces and guerrillas. He and other administration officials called the casualty reports inflated and blamed the guerrillas for not moving the peasants away from battle. The State Department's own inquiry was perfunctory; officials sent to investigate merely overflew the massacre-site and never talked to civilian witnesses. But Enders, now an executive at Salomon Brothers in New York, denies that there was any cover-up. "We did express skepticism because we were unable to confirm the reports," he said. "That province was held by guerrillas and it was very hard to enter." He added that the exhumations are "really a hopeful sign that El Salvador is finally coming to terms with these issues."

It's doubtful, though, that the government will do much about what the investigators are finding. President Alfredo Cristiani says the record of who commanded the 1981 operation at El Mozote is missing. The government has never called the Atlacatl Battalion to account-even after several members confessed to murdering six Jesuit priests during the guerrillas' 1989 offensive in San Salvador. A year after that, a U.S. Army adviser could still joke: "We always had a hard time getting the Atlacatl soldiers to take prisoners instead of ears." Under the terms of the peace accord, the unit was to have been disbanded by Oct. 15; the government has left it intact, saying the guerrillas aren't demobilizing quickly enough. Modern forensic medicine will paint a gruesome picture of just how the victims died in El Mozote. But it may be years before El Salvador has the kind of civil society that can punish atrocities.