The Salvadoran Town That Can’t Forget


By Sarah Esther Maslin—The Nation—March 30, 2017—

El Mozote was a ghost town. When people 
began returning in 1992, at the end of El Salvador’s civil war, skeletons and land mines protruded from the soil. Weeds enshrouded ruins. The church was rubble, the fields fallow, and the school caved in by a bomb. The village’s social fabric lay in shreds as surely as its leaders lay in shallow graves. Over the course of three days in December 1981, Salvadoran Army soldiers trained and armed by the United States had machine-gunned, machete-slashed, bayoneted, and burned to death more than 1,000 civilians in El Mozote and six surrounding villages as part of a scorched-earth strategy to root out leftist guerrillas. The survivors had spent a decade in caves and refugee camps, and now they were coming back.

Rosario and her four surviving siblings gathered in La Joya—a village down the mountain from El Mozote—to divide up their dead parents’ land. Soldiers had massacred their mother, two of their sisters, and 20 other relatives. The meeting was tense and inconclusive, and a few years later, Rosario and her sister Francisca fought over a tiny piece of hilltop property. (Francisca requested that I not use her real name in this article.) Rosario volunteered in the Catholic Church, while Francisca had become evangelical. Rosario’s son had died fighting for the rebels, while Francisca’s brother-in-law had served in the military. Each blamed the other for not being able to save their mother. As the years went by, they became known as the rival sisters who lived within shouting distance but rarely spoke.