President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, has a ‘special’ history in the Central American isthmus, which has led some US legislators, like Ilhan Omar (D-MN) to question his fit for the role. This week, archaeologists are in El Salvador at the site of the El Mozote massacre, where thirty eight years ago US-trained Salvadoran military personnel murdered nearly 1,000 civilians. The connection? At the time of the massacre Abrams was the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and allegedly used his power to cover-up the El Mozote massacre.
Thirty-eight years after he lost his mother, five siblings, and five nieces and nephews during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, Santos Alvaro Pereira still breaks down in tears when he recalls their murder.
Pereira’s relatives were among nearly 1,000 civilians – including 533 children – who were slaughtered by US-trained troops in and around the village of El Mozote in December 1981.
Eighteen former army officers now face trial for crimes against humanity and other charges related to the massacre.
This week, the memory of El Mozote – and the legacy of US cold war-era intervention in Central America – was evoked in Washington DC as the Democratic representative Ilhan Omar grilled Donald Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, about US policies in Latin America.
But for survivors of the massacre, the pain has never gone away.
On Thursday, Pereira, 59, had hoped to finally learn the whereabouts of his sister Maria, her husband, and their five children – murdered at the ages of 10, nine, seven, five, and three – when forensic experts investigated a potential mass grave at the village.
A court had ordered the exhumation after a local resident, Florentín Ramos, 26, and his father noticed children’s clothes and bone fragments in the topsoil when they went to plant cacao trees.
As the team of anthropologists sifted through the dirt on a hillside outside the village, Pereira said through sobs that he still hoped to give his relatives a proper burial.
But after about an hour, the Argentinian forensic expert Silvana Turner, who led the exhumation, said that bones at the site were not human.
Pereira hardened when he heard that the day would bring no answers. “We have to keep looking,” he said.
“We want justice.”
The massacre came in the early stages of a civil war between leftwing rebels and the US-backed government that eventually claimed 75,000 lives – most at the hands of state forces, according to a United Nations truth commission.
At El Mozote, soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion – an elite counterinsurgency unit trained, armed, and funded by the US – lined up, interrogated, tortured, and executed villagers. They started with the men before turning to the women and children, gang-raping women and girls.
The army also burned houses and crops as part of a “scorched earth” campaign against guerrilla strongholds, where all villagers were suspected of collaborating with the rebels.
An amnesty law passed shortly after the 1992 peace deal shielded the perpetrators from prosecution for more than two decades. The supreme court declared the blanket amnesty unconstitutional in 2016, opening the door to bring civil war-era human rights crimes to trial. El Mozote now serves as a test case.
“[The trial] could transform Salvadoran society by saying that crimes against humanity and grave violations are human rights will not go unpunished,” said El Salvador’s deputy human rights ombudsperson, Carlos Rodriguez, standing beside the exhumation site. “This would send an important message to current and future governments.”