Tuesday, December 06, 2011

El Mozote -- the reporters

Third of a series

The story of the El Mozote massacre, as testified to by Rufina Amaya, became known to the world through the reporting of two journalists,   Ray Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post.

News of the massacre had been filtering out of northeastern El Salvador during late December 1981, as the FMLN's radio station, Radio Venceremos told the story.  But as the propaganda vehicle for the guerrillas, the broadcasts lacked credibility.  The FMLN brought Bonner and Guillermoprieto separately into Morazan and to El Mozote where they saw, and then reported, the evidence of a massacre.

Bonner's article appeared January 27, 1982 in the New York Times with the headline Massacre Of Hundreds Reported In Salvador Village.  The article began:
From interviews with people who live in this small mountain village and surrounding hamlets, it is clear that a massacre of major proportions occurred here last month.

In some 20 mud brick huts here, this reporter saw the charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams and shattered tiles. There were more along the trail leading through the hills into the village, and at the edge of a nearby cornfield were the remains of 14 young men, women and children.

In separate interviews during a two-week period in the rebel controlled northern part of Morazan Province, 13 peasants said that all these, their relatives and friends, had been killed by Government soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion in a sweep in December.

The villagers have compiled a list of the names, ages and villages of 733 peasants, mostly children, women and old people, who they say were murdered by the Government soldiers. The Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, which works with the Roman Catholic Church, puts the number at 926.
Guillermoprieto's article appeared the same day in the Washington Post and opened like this:

Several hundred civilians, including women and children, were taken from their homes in and around this village and killed by Salvadoran Army troops during a December offensive against leftist guerrillas, according to three survivors who say they witnessed the alleged massacres.

Reporters taken to tour the region and speak to the survivors by guerrilla soldiers, who control large areas of Morazan Province, were shown the rubble of scores of adobe houses they and the survivors said were destroyed by the troops in the now deserted village community. Dozens of decomposing bodies still were seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields, despite the month that has passed since the incident. 

The newspaper reports came at a critical time for the Reagan administration's support of El Salvador's government.  Congress would only allow additional military aid if the government was improving its human rights record. The day after Bonner and Guillermoprieto's articles appeared, Ronald Reagan sent to Congress the Administration’s certification that the government of El Salvador was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.”

And the Reagan administration proceeded to attack the those reports which would seem to contradict that certification.   From the Columbia Journalism Review:
As Tim Golden observed in a November 1, 1992, piece in the Sunday Times Week in Review section, "the magnitude of the atrocity seemed to be matched by the baldness of the official response. Army and government leaders said no such massacre had taken place. Official of the Reagan administration . . . derided the reports as gross exaggerations."

Indeed, shortly after Bonner and Guillermoprieto's stories ran, Thomas Enders, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, attacked them before a congressional committee, saying that although there had been a firefight between the army and the guerrillas in the area, "no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians." President Reagan accordingly certified that the Salvadorans were "making a concerted and significant effort" to end "the indiscriminate torture and murder of its citizens." (Later that year a House Intelligence staff report revealed that the embassy officials sent to investigate the massacre "never reached the towns where the alleged events occurred.")

Elements of the press soon joined in the attack on the story. Leading the attack was The Wall Street Journal, which in early February devoted its entire editorial column to a critique of U.S. press coverage of El Salvador, singling out Bonner as being "overly credulous," and accusing the Times of closing ranks "behind a reporter out on a limb." William A. Henry III of Time weighed in during March: "An even more crucial if common oversight is the fact that women and children, generally presumed to be civilians, can be active particpants in guerrilla war. New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner underplayed that possibility, for example, in a much-protested Jan. 27 report of a massacre by the army in and around the village of Mozote."
It would not be until the 1992 Peace Accords and the subsequent issuance of the UN Truth Commission Report and forensic investigations that Ray Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto would be vindicated.

For more, read Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War 1980-1983.  Bonner also published a book in 1984, Weakness & Deceit: US policy and El Salvador.

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