EL SALVADOR - Inside a dimly lit garage, sweating from the heat of the flat-top grill before her, Sofía Romero Pereira shapes the dough in her hands. She lays down pupusas — Salvadoran stuffed corn cakes — and the sizzle creates a symphony broken only by the occasional laughter from diners telling jokes.
More customers chat outside the garage’s open wooden doors, waiting for their orders under the flickering streetlights.
Romero’s house is a short walk from the town plaza, where the memorial stands.
This is El Mozote, a village in the northeast region of El Salvador. This is the place Romero, 58, first called home. This, she said, is where 32 of her relatives — including her parents, her grandmother and some of her siblings — were massacred.
Approximately 1,000 men, women and children, including infants and the elderly, were slaughtered by a Salvadoran battalion in El Mozote and surrounding villages over a period of days in December 1981. The soldiers were trained by the U.S. and came with American rifles.
It was near the start of the country’s civil war, with the right-wing military government fighting leftist guerrillas.
The bodies were exhumed 11 years later, providing the grim evidence of an atrocity initially covered up by the Salvadoran military and its U.S. allies to guarantee further American assistance, said Terry Karl, emeritus professor of political science and Latin American studies at Stanford University. Nearly 25 more years passed before a trial began, where Karl serves as an expert witness. Now into its fourth year, the proceedings will extend into 2021.
As efforts continue to hold accountable those responsible for the massacre, a debate carries on over what the United States owes, if anything, for its part in the civil war, which claimed at least 75,000 lives.
For survivors like Romero, living on the land where her loved ones were buried, justice remains out of reach.
Over four decades and various administrations, the United States developed a military relationship with El Salvador.
In the 1950s, it did so to isolate a neighboring Guatemalan regime perceived as hostile, according to Hector Lindo-Fuentes, a historian and professor emeritus at Fordham University. The U.S. provided military aid and training to the Salvadoran army, helping to tilt the internal balance of power, he said.
After the Cuban Revolution, in 1959, that military relationship intensified. The Kennedy Administration introduced programs to assist Central American armies in containing communism and local counterinsurgency, Lindo-Fuentes said.
In 1979, following the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, U.S. military aid in El Salvador increased again. Advisers were sent to train Salvadoran soldiers and officers, including those later responsible for the massacre at El Mozote: the Atlacatl battalion.
In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration gave the U.S. Southern Command a more prominent role in managing concerns over internal conflicts in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua. The command, now based in South Florida, oversees military operations in Latin America.
By late November 1981, 19-year-old Romero had been assaulted by soldiers, she said. The military had already massacred civilians, and a strong guerrilla presence existed in the region.
She begged her father to get the family out of El Mozote. On Nov. 27, she said, he took her, her 15-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister to the town of San Miguel. She remembers her father leaving Dec. 5 to harvest the corn crops he had in the village. He planned to bring the rest of the family back with him.
On Dec. 9, Óscar Romero, a 17-year-old living near El Mozote, said he was threatened by soldiers to serve as their guide through unmarked paths into the village. They were armed with M16 rifles, he said.
They arrived on Dec. 11, then let him go. By the time he made it home, he could see a plume of black smoke rising in the distance, emanating from El Mozote.
By Dec. 15, Sofía Romero had grown anxious that her father had not returned to San Miguel. She headed out to the village, desperate to see what had taken him so long. But villagers on the way convinced her not to keep going, telling her about the massacre. She was warned not to say she was from El Mozote, for fear soldiers would snatch her away.
Later accounts from witnesses, as reported by former New Yorker writer Mark Danner, described the horrors in detail: men beheaded, women raped, children with throats sliced open. Bodies, livestock and houses burned.
Those in neighboring villages weren’t spared. Rosario López from La Joya felt something bad was coming. She had told her mother that she wanted God to end her life right then.
She remembers her mother’s response: “Look mija, she told me, you shouldn’t wish for death when God doesn’t send it your way, because that’s a sin.”
“That was the 8th of December,” López said. “On the 11th, they were all murdered.”
López, her husband and children survived by hiding for years in the hillside, leaving La Joya right before the onslaught.
By the time Agapito Santos and Paul Morgan with the U.S. Army arrived in El Salvador in the mid-1980s, they had heard about El Mozote. Both men are now retired and living in St. Petersburg.
Santos went to help with the Salvadoran military’s logistics system, advising them on how to better operate while also serving as a conduit for military sales with the Department of Defense. Morgan worked in intelligence, providing Spanish-speaking soldiers for quarterly training with the six Salvadoran brigades, including the one with the Atlacatl battalion.
Neither man could discern at the time who was to blame for the massacre.
“We didn’t know who the good guys or who the bad guys were,” Morgan said.
Morgan, who had served in Vietnam, said he tried to impart the lesson to Salvadoran troops that the best way to take care of the enemy was to treat them kindly.
“You’re not going to get anywhere by killing these people, because they’re poor people who are trying to change things,” he said. “You know, some of them are really bad communists, but not most of them.”
Chato Vargas, a right-wing Salvadoran legislator and a former military leader not involved in El Mozote, said he recalls Morgan from his work in the country. When discussing the events of December 1981, Vargas did not deny that something happened, though he said details such as the death count may not be accurate.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Danner of The New Yorker acknowledged that questions remain about what motivated the Atlacatl’s attack on the village. A retired Salvadoran general testified earlier this year that he didn’t know what had motivated the now-deceased battalion commander to give the order, Reuters reported. But the general thought perhaps it was “some instance of madness.”
All Romero knows is that her relatives, including her 1-year-old adopted brother and her 94-year-old grandmother, had to be unarmed.
As the civil war raged on, Romero raised her two siblings in San Miguel.
One day, on their way to church, they were approached by a soldier they knew to be the godson of one of their uncles. He was in the Atlacatl. He recounted everything he saw that had happened to their relatives, but he claimed he didn’t do anything, simply watched.
He asked for their forgiveness.
At that moment, Romero wanted to take his life.
“The only thing I said to him,” she said, “was that may God forgive him.”
She could not.
In 1992, at the war’s end, an Argentine forensics team unearthed some of the bodies of the Mozote victims, as well as those found in villages nearby, drawing renewed international attention to the massacre. Their overwhelming evidence -- including the bullet casings and the predominance of children’s bodies -- all served to confirm that it was a massacre and not a battle, as some had claimed, Danner said.
But any hopes of holding anyone accountable were thwarted by an amnesty law passed in 1993. It shielded fighters on both sides from criminal and civil charges for any war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict, said Manuel Escalante Saracais, deputy director of the Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la UCA in San Salvador.
Passed by the military-allied legislature of the time, the amnesty law attempted to suppress memories of the war for future generations, said Karl, the Stanford professor.
While efforts were made to undo the law, it wasn’t until 2016 that the country’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. A trial began that year.
Members of El Salvador’s legislature, meanwhile, continue to try and reinstate an amnesty law.
The Salvadoran military has refused a judge’s order to hand over documents for the trial, an act supported by President Nayib Bukele, historian Lindo-Fuentes said. The U.S. also has yet to hand over documents requested by the judge.
The U.S. effectively bankrolled the Salvadoran civil war, said Lindo-Fuentes. In 1984, for instance, the U.S. provided more than $200 million in military aid to El Salvador.
“It would have been impossible for the Salvadoran civil war to last so long and to be so brutal without the enormous amount of military and economic aid, as well as political and diplomatic support provided by the U.S.,” he said.
American military support in El Salvador remains strong, including defense department-funded security assistance.
The U.S. sends over 100 service members on a yearly basis to El Salvador to conduct “security cooperation activities,” including subject-matter expert exchanges and mobile training teams, according to Jose Ruiz, spokesman at U.S. Southern Command in Doral.
“El Salvador, through its armed forces, is a strong partner for the United States in regional stability, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations,” he said.
U.S. Southern Command also provided El Salvador with over $1.8 million in pandemic relief.
Morgan, the former Army colonel, still looks back at how the U.S. involvement played out in the Salvadoran civil war. During the Reagan years, he said, there was hope that a lot could be accomplished in El Salvador.
“We’re going to fix all these problems, and quite honestly, we didn’t fix many of them,” he said. “But I think we thought we could.”
Millions of Salvadorans were displaced as a result of the war, leading to a mass migration toward the U.S. A subsequent reliance on remittances has further linked the countries economically.
Violence continues to drive Salvadorans north, though this time because they’re caught between gangs that originated in the U.S. and law enforcement officials seeking to combat them.
Romero has three children living in Houston who are undocumented. Knowing how the U.S. armed and trained Salvadoran soldiers, she believes the least the country could do is facilitate the citizenship process for immigrants like her children.
As for what should be done with those who evaded punishment all these years for their roles in the massacre, all she can hope for, she said, is that they meet their fate with God. To her, his justice is the highest.
In 2010, Romero returned to live in El Mozote, fleeing gang violence that had erupted in San Miguel. The village is quiet now, peaceful. The people here are mostly farmers, growing corn crops and sugar cane and raising cattle. Clucks, barks and moos fill the air.
And yet, Romero doesn’t like to go out much, especially not to the church in the plaza.
Her grandmother used to go to church every day to pray. Her father served as the sacristan.
She remembers tranquil days at home with her mother, feeding their hens. She remembers where all the old houses stood and who lived where. She remembers Christmases, festivals and birthdays.
The memories are painful, she said.
The villagers erected a memorial to those lost. The names of the dead cover a wall behind the silhouette of a family. Attached to the sculpture lies a plaque.
“They have not died,” it reads.
“They are with us, with you, and with all of mankind.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.