The 1981 El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador

   On December 10 and 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military (Atlacatl Battalion) detained and systematically executed virtually all of the men, women and children in the small northern village of El Mozote. The men first were tortured and then executed. Then the women were killed. Finally the children were killed. Over 200 of the victims subsequently were identified plus many others who were not so identified. This happened as part of the military’s “Operacion Rescate” that sought to eliminate the guerrilla presence in the area and that also committed massacres in other villages at the same time.[1]

In late January 1982 information about the massacres started to become publicly available, and protests began. The Salvadoran government, however, “categorically denied” that a massacre had taken place and did not conduct any judicial investigations of the events.

Over eight years later (1990) criminal proceedings were commenced in El Salvador, and in November 1992 court-ordered exhumations started. By September 1993, however, there were no identifications of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre, and the trial court, therefore, dismissed the case. Thereafter there was no appeal of that dismissal. Thus, no one was ever convicted for this crime.

These horrible crimes have reverberated ever since then. The Truth Commission for El Salvador in 1993 delivered its report on the massacre. In 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human rights (IACHR) made a preliminary decision in a case about the massacre, and in 2011 it referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court). And this year, 2012, the Salvador President made an important statement about the crime.

Truth Commission

The Truth Commission for El Salvador in its April 2003 report found “full proof” that Atlacatl Battalion  soldiers “deliberately and systematically killed . . . more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population” of the village. There was “sufficient evidence” that these troops committed other massacres at the same time in nearby other villages. Names of the officers in charge were given. The Commission’s findings on what happened at El Mozote were aided by its retention of an international forensic team that conducted exhumations at the village and by its interviewing eyewitnesses. These efforts constituted a major advance in establishing the truth of the most egregious crimes.

In addition, the Truth Commission found that the Armed Forces High Command “repeatedly denied” that a massacre had occurred and that Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia (“full evidence) and Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff General Rafael Florez Lima (“sufficient evidence”)  had initiated no investigation of the matter. Finally, the Commission found that the President of the Supreme Court “had interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.”

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In October 1990 the Oficina de Tutela Legal of the San Salvador Archbishop’s Office filed a petition with the IACHR alleging various human rights violations by the State of El Salvador in connection with the massacres in El Mozote and five other nearby villages.[2]

The government did not seriously challenge the allegations as to what happened in the villages. Instead, it asserted that (a) the case was not admissible to the IACHR because the petitioners had not exhausted their remedies in the country; (b) there was a criminal investigation precipitated by a complaint that was not made until 1990; (c ) the investigation proceeded properly despite great external difficulties caused by the war; (d) the case properly was dismissed in accordance with the General Amnesty Law; and (e) and the petitioners had failed to appeal that dismissal.

In March 2006 (16 years after the filing of the petition), the IACHR issued a report determining that the petition was admissible, i.e., eligible for further proceedings. The parties (petitioners and the government) were proper parties under the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition alleged violations of the Convention occurring within the territory of a party to the Convention after it had become such a party. Most importantly for admissibility, the exception to the requirement for exhaustion of domestic remedies was satisfied: the systematic violations of human rights in the country made it impossible to file a complaint prior to 1990, appeals of dismissals based on the General Amnesty Law were not necessary, and the state had the responsibility to initiate criminal proceedings based on the Supreme Court’s recognition or creation in 2000 of possible exceptions to that Law and had not exercised that option. In reaching these conclusions, the IACHR relied, in part, on the Truth Commission Report.

Apparently sometime before March 2011, the IACHR issued its decision on the merits apparently concluding that El Salvador had violated various provisions of the American Convention on Human rights, but this decision is not available on its website.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

 On March 11, 2011, the Commission referred this case to the Court. The Commission’s press release about this referral stated:

  • “Due to the application of the General Amnesty Law for Consolidation of the Peace, as well as repeated omissions on the part of the Salvadoran State, these grave acts [at El Mozote and other surrounding villages] remain in impunity. To this day, the massacres have not been clarified judicially, nor have appropriate sanctions been imposed, despite the fact that a significant number of the persons responsible have been identified through various sources. Some exhumations were performed in subsequent years, but these did not lead to a reopening of the investigations, despite repeated requests made to the relevant authorities. The case was sent to the Inter-American Court . . .  because the Commission deemed that the State had not complied with the recommendations contained in the report on the merits.”

Presumably the Court will be holding a hearing in this case and thereafter rendering a decision on the merits.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’ Statement About El Mozote

El Mozote Memorial
President Funes @ El Mozote

January 16, 2012, was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Salvadoran Peace Accords. On that date President Funes went to El Mozote where he made an important speech about the massacre, He publicly acknowledged that Atlactal Battalion soldiers committed the massacre and apologized on behalf of the State for this atrocity. He asked for forgiveness for what he called “the biggest massacre of civilians in the contemporary history of Latin America.” (A video of the speech in the original Spanish is on the web.)

Funes said there could be no true peace until there is justice to provide compensation to victims and penalties for perpetrators. He also announced the following in response to the massacre:

  • He asked the Attorney General to review existing legislation and propose amendments or new laws to allow criminal sanctions to be imposed on those who participated in the worst human rights violations. Funes also noted that the Salvadoran Supreme Court already had decided that the General Amnesty Law did not protect those guilty of war crimes and could not be used to self-amnesty those who were in charge of the military during the period 1989-1994 (government officials from the Arena political party).
  • Funes instructed the Armed Forces to stop honoring former officers who were linked to this massacre, including Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, who was the commander of the Brigade involved.
  • Funes also requested political parties and others to stop honoring people who could be linked to such violations, which was interpreted as a message to the ARENA political party to stop honoring its founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson, and to the FMLN party to do likewise with Shafik Handal.
  • The government will conduct an investigation to identify all victims of the massacre.
  • The government will create a National Reparations Program for Victims of massacres and other human rights violations.
  • The government will declare El Mozote a cultural center.
  • The government will establish a community health clinic for El Mozote.
  • The government will assist agricultural production in the area, construct paved roads and improve potable water service, build a lodging house for elderly people without families and provide computers to the local school.

This presidential statement at El Mozote went far beyond the previous apology Funes had made for the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the one for the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.

[1]  This preliminary factual statement is based upon the Truth Commission Report  and Mark Danner’s  The Massacre at el Mozote . The mandate and procedures of the Truth Commission were discussed in a prior Post.

[2]  Background about the IACHR is set forth in a prior Post.


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

2 thoughts on “The 1981 El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador”

  1. Comment: Inter-American Court of Human Rights Considers El Mozote Case

    On April 23, 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held a hearing in a case against the State of El Salvador over the 1981 massacre at El Mozote. The Court’s President said it would issue a decision by the end of the year. An attorney for El Salvador stated that the State would comply with the Court’s decision.

    Ramos, El Salvador claims respond slaughter at El Mozote, La Pagina (April 23, 2012),; Dalton, El Salvador in the dock for the slaughter of El Mozote, El Pais (April 24, 2012),

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