Back in the 1980s, when Elizabeth Warren was still a Republican and Reagan Administration officials were making AIDS jokes at press conferences, the United States government was fighting a dirty war against leftists in Central America. While the history of CIA death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador still profoundly affects American politics — most of the Central American refugees at the southern border are fleeing the violent society that was the inevitable result of the Cold War — I doubt one American in a hundred would recognize the name “Raymond Bonner.” For all of the talk on social media about “privilege” I can’t think of a better example than this. Not only do people in the United States get to forget atrocities carried out by allies of the American government. We don’t even have to. Most of us never hear about them in the first place.
Early in January of 1982, a Marine Corps veteran and New York Times staff writer named Raymond Bonner was invited by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front to visit the village of El Mozote in the Morazán Department or Northeastern El Salvador. While Bonner would later be smeared by the Reagan Administration for traveling with the leftist rebels, it’s clear that the FMLN had nothing to hide. Quite the contrary, they wanted the New York Times, and the entire western media, to understand what had happened the previous month, an atrocity at least twice the size of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.
On December 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Battalion, led by officers trained in the United States at Fort Benning, Georgia, entered the village of El Mozote looking for suspected leftist rebels. In the kind of counterinsurgency campaign that very few people in the United States have experienced, or have even tried to imagine, the soldiers began rounding up in the villagers in the town square. They separated the men, women, and children, and preceded to get to work torturing the men, raping the women and girls, and, and conducting summary executions. Over the next two days, over 1000 people were dead. To give some sense of perspective, in 1943, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis killed 340 people in Lidice, a small town in Czechoslovakia most of us are probably (well hopefully) familiar with from high school history.
After Raymond Bonner filed his story about the massacre on January 27, 1982 with the New York Times, he was subjected to a ferocious right-wing backlash led by none other than Elliot Abrams, an Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration and currently Donald Trump’s “Special Representative for Venezuela.” Bonner was not only labeled an “activist journalist,” he was accused of collaborating with the rebels to inflate the casualty list. The United States embassy in San Salvador argued, for example, that “no more than 300 people lived in El Mozote.” William A. Henry III of Time Magazine revived an old Vietnam-era talking point. “An even more crucial if common oversight,” he wrote, “is the fact that women and children, generally presumed to be civilians, can be active participants in guerrilla war.” Eventually pressure from the Reagan Administration pushed the New York Times to reassign Bonner to the financial desk in New York City. As New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis later wrote, the New York Times and other major newspapers got the message, and immediately toned down their criticism of Reagan’s counterinsurgency campaign in Central America.
Over the next few decades, after it was too late to matter, the press began a detailed investigation into what happened at El Mozote, eventually proving that Raymond Bonner had been right all along. In the early 1990s, a United Nations Truth Commission traveled to the site and dug up hundreds of skeletons, the size of many of which indicated they had belonged to small children. A detailed article in the New Yorker by Mark Danner described the efforts of 4 forensic scientists from Argentina, who also confirmed the original reporting by Raymond Bonner. The New York Times, denying that pressure from the Reagan Administration had ever had any affect on their coverage of the Civil War in El Salvador, declared Bonner “completely vindicated.” In 2011, the Salvadoran government issued a formal apology.
Finally, three days ago, the Salvadoran general to whom most of the officers commanding the Atlacatl Battalion reported, at long last came out and admitted it. “Yeah. We did it.”
According to a United Nations report, soldiers tortured and executed nearly 1,000 residents of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in the Morazan department, 180 kilometres (112 miles) northeast of San Salvador, as they searched for rebel fighters in December 1981.
At a court hearing in the eastern town of San Francisco Gotera in Morazan, Bustillo testified he had had no part in the operation which he said was conducted at the behest of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the feared Atlacatl Battalion.
Elliot Abrams, of course, faced no consequences for his attacks on Raymond Bonner and remains a part of the Trump Administration.