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When I first learned about the 1981 Massacre in El Mozote, I was 20 years old. In 1998 I made my first trip to El Salvador, a trip that would change my life, setting the course of and context for my vocation. Under the auspices of the small but committed Anglican/Episcopal Church of El Salvador, I witnessed poverty for the first time and learned about El Mozote and other atrocities committed during the Salvadoran Civil War, which was funded by the U.S. government to the tune of $1 million a day. I was also inspired by individuals of faith who had firmly planted themselves on the side of the gospel and of the poor, no matter the cost.

The Rev. Amy Zuniga

The Rev. Amy Zuniga

El Mozote was the worst massacre committed in the Americas in modern times; more than 1,000 civilians were slaughtered by government troops. El Mozote was emblematic of a strategy of state terror against the civilian population orchestrated at the highest level of the Salvadoran military and government.

From 1980 to 1984, elite military battalions, trained and advised by the United States, perpetrated a scorched earth campaign in rural areas perceived to be supportive of the guerrilla army. The goal was to exterminate everyone, or as the grotesque euphemism of the day went, “take water away from the fish.” Entire communities were massacred, young and old were tortured, mutilated; women raped and murdered; children disappeared.

In a rural mountainous area in the eastern part of El Salvador, Morazán, which saw heavy fighting between the government and the guerrilla army during the war, the peasants heard a rumor that there would be a large government military operation in their area, and that they should congregate in the local village of El Mozote.

Children's Garden, El Mozote, El Salvador

A group of children gather in a rose garden adjacent to a church in El Mozote, El Salvador, the site where government troops, supported by the U.S. government, massacred more than 1,000 people in December 1981.

About a thousand civilians congregated there for safety, more than doubling the population of the tiny town. On the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1981, infantry marched into town, helicopters dropped more soldiers, and the military took the town. The army had started the rumor in order to congregate the dispersed rural population and exterminate them more easily. After interrogating and incarcerating the villagers in their homes, the next morning soldiers began rounding up the citizens, men to one area, women to another, children to another. The men were tortured and killed, the women were systematically raped and killed, and the children were all killed, in a room off the side of the church, including babies as young as a few months old.

Rufina Amaya, the only survivor of the massacre in the village, who escaped by hiding behind a cow, reported having heard the children screaming, “Mommy, they’re killing us!” She lost her husband and all four of her children that day. Sixty percent of the civilians killed in El Mozote were minors. After killing the inhabitants, the soldiers set the town on fire. Over the next few days they proceeded to do the same in the surrounding villages, but as word of the El Mozote massacre spread, many more escaped.

A visit to El Mozote memorial

Dorila Marquez, from the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in El Mozote, left, and Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, right, light a candle in front of the memorial in El Mozote during McGovern’s Dec. 2, 2017 visit.

Two U.S. reporters broke the story in the New York Times and Washington Post in January 1982, but they were quickly discredited by the administration which needed to continue to justify its heavy Cold War investment in the Salvadoran military. After the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992, the United Nations Truth Commission oversaw the exhumation of El Mozote by Argentinian forensic scientists and condemned the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Military for this war crime.

Because of an amnesty law passed in 1993 by the ARENA (far-right party) government, those responsible for the El Mozote Massacre were never held accountable for their actions in their own country, until now. The Salvadoran Supreme Court overturned the amnesty law in 2016, allowing the case to be re-opened.

I visited El Mozote with my family in 2008 while living and working in El Salvador. My first son was 8 months old. Our tour guide was a relative of people killed in the massacre, and she told the story, not only of the horrific events of that day, but of the struggle for recognition, for remembrance, and for justice among those who were left behind (those who fled to other areas, many to refugee camps across the border in Honduras).

In 1998, when I first traveled to El Salvador, El Mozote was reportedly abandoned, and I had pictured it in my mind as a ghost town in a desert wasteland. After what had happened, I thought, how could there be life there again?

In 2008, when we visited, I was shocked at what we found — in the midst of lush, green mountain forests, a populated community — complete with a public school and small shops. The center of the town, where the massacre had occurred, still had a few abandoned buildings, and the church, though restored, was no longer used for Eucharistic celebrations.

A monument with the words — El Mozote-Nunca Más (El Mozote — Never Again) had been placed over the mass grave. The room to the side of the church where the children had been killed was demolished, and in its place a rose garden was planted. The ages of the children were on plaques on the wall on the side of the church, which was covered with a beautiful mosaic. We finished our tour in the rose garden, and a hush fell over us all, including my infant son, who put out his hand and touched one of the roses.

David Morales, former Ombudsman for Human Rights for the government of El Salvador, has been the legal representative of the victims since he was a young lawyer in the historic human rights organization of the Roman Catholic Church, Tutela Legal. Fresh out of law school, David first presented the case against the military to the court in 1992.

David is now director of Strategic Litigation for Cristosal, a human rights organization born of friendship and accompaniment between the Episcopal/Anglican Church in North American and that of El Salvador. Cristosal and Tutela Legal are prosecuting 17 former high commanders of the Salvadoran military who planned and executed the El Mozote massacre.

The trial has just concluded hearing the testimony of 38 victim survivors and will soon begin the expert witness phase.

Morales, an internationally recognized human rights defender, spoke in Berkeley on Thursday, Feb. 22.

Cristosal is seeking to raise $20,000 to $50,000 in donations above and beyond its traditional base of support in order to pay expert witnesses and fund archival investigations that could prove key to the prosecution. “The generals’ defense is well-funded and though the case is strong against them, they will try to use time and technicalities to wait us out,” said Noah Bullock, executive director of Cristosal. “We need a war chest. They won’t be expecting that.”

The story of El Mozote, the brutal and systematic robbing of 1,000 lives, changed my life. It is the most difficult story I have ever heard or told. It is a horrific story, but as my 2008 visit showed, it is also a story of hope.

The family members of the victims have struggled for years for recognition and justice. They have told the difficult truth about what happened there and have never given up on justice for their loved ones.

The lifting of the amnesty law gives El Salvador a second chance at transitional justice — the period after war during which accounting is given for war crimes, a people’s confidence in its government and in justice is restored, and social cohesion is rebuilt (think Nuremburg trials).

The lack of such a process has led directly to the gang violence and impunity for which El Salvador and the Northern Triangle of Central America are increasingly known. People do not believe their government can help them; they have lost faith in justice and have little hope for a better future. In 2014, 95 percent of homicides committed in El Salvador were unsolved, many unreported.

Winning the El Mozote case is crucial not only for justice for those whose lives were taken 36 years ago, but in order to prove to the Salvadoran people and to the world that justice and peace are possible for El Salvador.

The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, 1314 Spring St. in St. Helena. She and her husband Vince Zuniga served from 2005-2008 as missionaries in the Anglican/Episcopal Church of El Salvador, where Amy was ordained, and their eldest child was born. Amy is currently Vice President of the Board of Directors of Cristosal. She may be contacted at Grace holds Sunday services at 8 and 10 a.m., and a Spanish-language Eucharist the fourth Saturday of the month at 4 p.m.