Return Home

Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador

UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, Report, 15 March 1993, in UN Secretary General, Letter to the President of the Security Council (S/25500), Annex. (PDF link)


C. Massacres of peasants by the armed forces

2. Sumpul River (1980)


On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazán, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place. The following day, 11 December, after spending the night locked in their homes, they were deliberately and systematically executed in groups. First, the men were tortured and executed, then the women were executed and, lastly, the children, in the place where they had been locked up. The number of victims identified was over 200. The figure is higher if other unidentified victims are taken into account.

These events occurred in the course of an anti-guerrilla action known as "Operación Rescate" in which, in addition to the Atlacatl Battalion, units from the Third Infantry Brigade and the San Francisco Gotera Commando Training Centre took part.

In the course of "Operación Rescate", massacres of civilians also occurred in the following places: 11 December, more than 20 people in La Joya canton; 12 December, some 30 people in the village of La Ranchería; the same day, by units of the Atlacatl Battalion, the inhabitants of the village of Los Toriles; and 13 December, the inhabitants of the village of Jocote Amarillo and Cerro Pando canton. More than 500 identified victims perished at El Mozote and in the other villages. Many other victims have not been identified.

We have accounts of these massacres provided by eyewitnesses and by other witnesses who later saw the bodies, which were left unburied. In the case of El Mozote, the accounts were fully corroborated by the results of the 1992 exhumation of the remains.

Despite the public complaints of a massacre and the ease with which they could have been verified, the Salvadorian authorities did not order an investigation and consistently denied that the massacre had taken place.

The Minister of Defence and the Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff have denied to the Commission on the Truth that they have any information that would make it possible to identify the units and officers who participated in "Operación Rescate". They say that there are no records for the period.

The President of the Supreme Court has interfered in a biased and political way in the judicial proceedings on the massacre instituted in 1990.


Village of El Mozote

On the afternoon of 10 December 1981, units of the Atlacatl Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion (BIRI) arrived in the village of El Mozote, Department of Morazán, after a clash with guerrillas in the vicinity.

The village consisted of about 20 houses situated on open ground around a square. Facing onto the square was a church and behind it a small building known as "the convent", used by the priest to change into his vestments when he came to the village to celebrate mass. Not far from the village was a school, the Grupo Escolar.

When the soldiers arrived in the village they found, in addition to the residents, other peasants who were refugees from the surrounding areas. They ordered everyone out of the houses and into the square; they made them lie face down, searched them and asked them about the guerrillas. They then ordered them to lock themselves in their houses until the next day, warning that anyone coming out would be shot. The soldiers remained in the village during the night.

Early next morning, 11 December, the soldiers reassembled the entire population in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked everyone up in different groups in the church, the convent and various houses.

During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men in various locations. Around noon, they began taking out the women in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them. Finally, they killed the children. A group of children who had been locked in the convent were machine-gunned through the windows. After exterminating the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings.

The soldiers remained in El Mozote that might. The next day, they went through the village of Los Toriles, situated 2 kilometres away. Some of the inhabitants managed to escape. The others, men, women and children, were taken from their homes, lined up and machine-gunned.

The victims at El Mozote were left unburied. During the weeks that followed the bodies were seen by many people who passed by there. In Los Toriles, the survivors subsequently buried the bodies.


The Atlacatl Battalion arrived at El Mozote in the course of a military action known as "Operación Rescate", which had begun two days earlier on 6 December and also involved units from the Third Brigade and the San Francisco Gotera Commando Training Centre.

The Atlacatl Battalion was a "Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion" or "BIRI", that is, a unit specially trained for "counter-insurgency" warfare. It was the first unit of its kind in the armed forces and had completed its training, under the supervision of United States military advisers, at the beginning of that year, 1981.

Nine months before "Operación Rescate" took place, a company of the Atlacatl Battalion, under the command of Captain Juan Ernesto Méndez, had taken part in an anti-guerrilla operation in the same northern zone of Morazán. On that occasion, it had come under heavy attack from guerrillas and had had to withdraw with heavy casualties without achieving its military objective. This setback for the brand new "Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion" made it the butt of criticism and jokes by officers of other units, who nicknamed it the "Rapid Retreat Infantry Battalion".

The goal of "Operación Rescate" was to eliminate the guerrilla presence in a small sector in northern Morazán, where the guerrillas had a camp and a training centre at a place called La Guacamaya.

Colonel Jaime Flórez Grijalva, Commander of the Third Brigade, was responsible for overseeing the operation. Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, Commander of the Atlacatl BIRI, was in command of the units taking part.

On 9 December, clashes took place between Government troops and the guerrillas. That same day, a company of the Atlacatl BIRI entered the town of Arambala. They rounded up the population in the town square and separated the men from the women and children. They locked the women and children in the church and ordered the men to lie face down in the square. A number of men were accused of being guerrilla collaborators. They were tied up, blindfolded and tortured. Residents later found the bodies of three of them, stabbed to death.

In Cumaro canton as well, residents were rounded up in the main square by Atlacatl units on the morning of 10 December. There, however, no one was killed.

There is sufficient evidence that units of the Atlacatl BIRI participated in all these actions. In the course of "Operación Rescate", however, other mass executions were carried out by units which it has not been possible to identify with certainty.

In all instances, troops acted in the same way: they killed anyone they came across, men, women and children, and then set fire to the houses. This is what happened in La Joya canton on 11 December, in the village of La Ranchería on 12 December, and in the village of Jocote Amarillo and Cerro Pando canton on 13 December.

Subsequent events

The El Mozote massacre became public knowledge on 27 January 1982, when The New York Times and The Washington Post published articles by Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, respectively, reporting the massacre. In January, they had visited the scene of the massacre and had seen the bodies and the ruined houses.

In the course of the year, a number of human rights organizations denounced the massacre. The Salvadorian authorities categorically denied that a massacre had taken place. No judicial investigation was launched and there was no word of any investigation by the Government or the armed forces.

On 26 October 1990, on a criminal complaint brought by Pedro Chicas Romero, criminal proceedings were instituted in the San Francisco Gotera Court of the First Instance. During the trial, which is still going on, statements were taken from witnesses for the prosecution; eventually, the remains were ordered exhumed, and this provided irrefutable evidence of the El Mozote massacre. The judge asked the Government repeatedly for a list of the officers who took part in the military operation. He received the reply that the Government did not have such information.

The results of the exhumation

The exhumation of the remains in the ruins of the little building known as the convent, adjacent to the El Mozote church, took place between 13 and 17 November 1992.

The material found in the convent was analysed by expert anthropologists and then studied in minute detail in the laboratories of the Santa Tecla Institute of Forensic Medicine and of the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal Acts by Dr. Clyde Snow (forensic anthropologist), Dr. Robert H. Kirschner (forensic pathologist), Dr. Douglas Scott (archaeologist and ballistics analyst), and Dr. John Fitzpatrick (radiologist), in collaboration with the Argentine Team of Forensic Anthropologists made up of Patricia Bernardi, Mercedes Doretti and Luis Fondebrider.

The study made by the experts led to the following conclusions:

1. "All the skeletons recovered from the site and the associated evidence were deposited during the same temporal event ...". 351/ The physical evidence recovered in the site excludes the possibility that the site could have been used as a clandestine cemetery in which the dead were placed at different times.

2. "The events under investigation are unlikely to have occurred later than 1981". 352/ Coins and bullet cartridges bearing their date of manufacture were found in the convent. In no case was this date later than 1981.

3. In the convent, bone remains of at least 143 people were found. 353/ However, the laboratory analysis indicates that "there may, in fact, have been a greater number of deaths. This uncertainty regarding the number of skeletons is a reflection of the extensive perimortem skeletal injuries, postmortem skeletal damage and associated commingling. Many young infants may have been entirely cremated; other children may not have been counted because of extensive fragmentation of body parts". 354/

4. The bone remains and other evidence found in the convent show numerous signs of damage caused by crushing and by fire.

5. Most of the victims were minors. The experts determined, initially, after the exhumation, that "approximately 85 per cent of the 117 victims were children under 12 years of age", 355/ and indicated that a more precise estimate of the victims’ ages would be made in the laboratory. 356/

In the laboratory, the skeletal remains of 143 bodies were identified, including 131 children under the age of 12, 5 adolescents and 7 adults. The experts noted, in addition, that "the average age of the children was approximately 6 years". 357/

6. One of the victims was a pregnant woman. 358/

7. Although it could not be determined with certainty that all the victims were alive when they were brought into the convent, "it can be concluded that at least some of the victims were struck by bullets, with an effect that may well have been lethal, inside the building". 359/

This conclusion is based on various factors:

(1) A "large quantity of bullet fragments [were] found inside the building ...". 360/ "Virtually all the ballistic evidence was found at level 3, in direct contact with or imbedded in the bone remains, clothing, household goods and floor of the building". 361/ Moreover, "the spatial distribution of most of the bullet fragments coincides with the area of greatest concentration of skeletons and with concentrations of bone remains". 362/ Also, the second and third areas of concentration of bullet fragments coincide with the second and third areas of concentration of skeletons, respectively.

(2) "Of 117 skeletons identified in the field, 67 were associated with bullet fragments. In 43 out of this subtotal of 67, the fragments were found in the areas of the skull and/or the thorax, i.e., parts of the body where they could have been the cause of death." 363/

(3) "In at least nine cases, the victims were shot inside the building while lying in a horizontal position on the floor. The shots were fired downwards. In at least six of the nine cases mentioned, these shots could have caused the victims’ deaths." 364/

(4) "Direct skeletal examination showed intact gunshot wounds of entrance in only a few skulls because of the extensive fracturing that is characteristically associated with such high-velocity injuries. Skull reconstruction identified many more entrance wounds, but relatively few exit wounds. This is consistent with the ballistic evidence that the ammunition involved in the shootings was of a type likely to fragment upon impact, becoming essentially frangible bullets. Radiologic examination of skull bones demonstrated small metallic densities consistent with bullet fragments in 45.2 per cent (51/115).

In long bones, vertebrae, pelvis and ribs there were defects characteristic of high velocity gunshot wounds." 365/

As the ballistics analyst described, "two hundred forty-five cartridge cases recovered from the El Mozote site were studied. Of these, 184 had discernible headstamps, identifying the ammunition as having been manufactured for the United States Government at Lake City, Missouri. Thirty-four cartridges were sufficiently well preserved to analyze for individual as well as class characteristics. All of the projectiles except one appear to have been fired from United States-manufactured M-16 rifles". 366/

(6) At least 24 people participated in the shooting. 367/ They fired "from within the house, from the doorway, and probably through a window to the right of the door". 368/

An important point that emerges from the results of the observations is that "no bullet fragments were found in the outside west facade of the stone wall". 369/

The evidence presented above is full proof that the victims were summarily executed, as the witnesses have testified.

The experts who carried out the exhumation reached the following conclusion: "All these facts tend to indicate the perpetration of a massive crime, there being no evidence to support the theory of a confrontation between two groups". 370/

For their part, the experts who conducted the laboratory analysis said that "the physical evidence from the exhumation of the convent house at El Mozote confirms the allegations of a mass murder". 371/ They went on to say, on the same point: "There is no evidence to support the contention that these victims, almost all young children, were involved in combat or were caught in the crossfire of combat forces. Rather the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that they were the intentional victims of a mass extra-judicial execution". 372/

Action by the Commission

Before the Commission on the Truth began its work, the Director of the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) brought a motion before the judge hearing the case to have qualified foreign experts appointed.

The Commission on the Truth, from the moment it was set up, took a special interest in having the exhumation conducted under conditions that guaranteed the necessary scientific rigour and impartiality.

The Commission also reviewed the available publications, documentation and court records. It took testimony directly from eyewitnesses and was present at the exhumation site.

The Commission wrote three times to the Minister of Defence and once to the Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff requesting information about the units and officers who took part in "Operación Rescate", and about any orders, reports or other documents relating to that operation that might be in the archives. The only response it received was that there were no records for that period.

Special mention must be made of the interference in the case by the President of the Supreme Court of El Salvador, Mr. Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro. When on 17 July 1991 representatives of the Legal Protection Office asked the trial judge to appoint qualified foreign experts to conduct the exhumations, he told them that this would require the approval of Mr. Gutiérrez Castro. It was not until nine months later, on 29 April 1992, after ONUSAL stepped in, that he proceeded to appoint them.

On 16 July 1992, when the members of the Commission on the Truth went to see him, Mr. Gutiérrez Castro said that the exhumation ordered by the trial judge would prove that "only dead guerrillas are buried" at El Mozote.

A few days later, the court hearing the case ruled that its appointment of foreign experts was not valid without a complicated procedure of consultation with foreign Governments through the Supreme Court of Justice, with the result that the exhumation was on the point of going ahead without the presence of such experts.

On 21 October, Mr. Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro came to the exhumation site and, in giving his opinion on how future excavations in the zone should be carried out, said that care should be taken not to "favour one of the parties" (presumably the Government and FMLN) "because of the political implications of this process, which override legal considerations".


There is full proof that on 11 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote, units of the Atlacatl Battalion deliberately and systematically killed a group of more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population that they had found there the previous day and had since been holding prisoner.

The officers in command of the Atlacatl Battalion at the time of the operation whom the Commission has managed to identify are the following: Battalion Commander: Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios (deceased); Commanding Officer: Major Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera (now Colonel); Chief of Operations: Major José Armando Azmitia Melara (deceased); Company Commanders: Juan Ernesto Méndez Rodríguez (now Colonel); Roberto Alfonso Mendoza Portillo (deceased); José Antonio Rodríguez Molina (now Lieutenant Colonel), Captain Walter Oswaldo Salazar (now Lieutenant Colonel) and José Alfredo Jiménez (currently a fugitive from justice).

There is sufficient evidence that in the days preceding and following the El Mozote massacre, troops participating in "Operación Rescate" massacred the non-combatant civilian population in La Joya canton, in the villages of La Ranchería, Jocote Amarillo y Los Toriles, and in Cerro Pando canton.

Participating in this operation, in addition to the Atlacatl Battalion, were units of the Third Infantry Brigade, commanded by Colonel Jaime Flórez Grijalba (now retired) who was also responsible for supervising the operation, and units from the San Francisco Gotera Commando Training Centre commanded by Colonel Alejandro Cisneros (now retired).

Although it received news of the massacre, which would have been easy to corroborate because of the profusion of unburied bodies, the Armed Forces High Command did not conduct or did not give any word of an investigation and repeatedly denied that the massacre had occurred. There is full evidence that General José Guillermo García, then Minister of Defence, initiated no investigations that might have enabled the facts to be established. There is sufficient evidence that General Rafael Flórez Lima, Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff at the time, was aware that the massacre had occurred and also failed to undertake any investigation.

The High Command also took no steps whatsoever to prevent the repetition of such acts, with the result that the same units were used in other operations and followed the same procedures.

The El Mozote massacre was a serious violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

The President of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador, Mr. Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro, has interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.

The Commission recommends that the competent authorities implement the recommendations made in the experts’ reports (see annex 1).


351/ The convent was - in the words of the experts - a "primary synchronous common grave". Patricia Bernardi, Mercedes Doretti and Luis Fondebrider, Archaeological Report, p. 15.

352/ Archaeological Report, p. 18.

353/ When the exhumed bone remains were analysed, the expert anthropologists were able to identify 117 anatomically articulated skeletons, as indicated in their report. After the laboratory analysis was done, it was possible to identify at least 143 skeletons. See Clyde Snow, John Fitzpatrick, Robert H. Kirschner and Douglas Scott, Report of Forensic Investigation.

354/ Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 1.

355/ The basis for this assertion is "the simultaneous presence of both deciduous and permanent teeth" and "the fact that their primary and/or secondary centres of ossification had not fused" (Archaeological Report, pp. 17-18; cf. ibid., p. 8).

356/ Ibid., p. 18.

357/ Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 1.

358/ "... The remains of a foetus were wedged in the pelvic region, with the head between the two coxal bones and on the sacrum" (Archaeological Report, p. 8). As indicated in the laboratory report, it was determined that the mother "was in the third trimester of pregnancy" (Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 1).

359/ Archaeological Report, p. 16.

360/ Ibid., p. 16.

361/ Ibid., p. 11.

362/ Ibid., p. 11. The report went on to say: "We are referring to grid squares B2, B3, C3 and the south-west corner of C2, where 82 bodies - almost 70 per cent of the skeletons - and 18 of the 24 concentrations of bone remains - almost 80 per cent - were found. In these grid squares, 159 bullet fragments were found: 102 fragments in B3; 13 fragments in B2; 30 fragments in C3; and 14 fragments in C2. In these grid squares, all these bullet fragments were in direct contact with bone remains. In other words, 159 bullet fragments had struck a large proportion of the 82 skeletons and 18 concentrations discovered in this zone."

363/ Ibid., p. 17.

364/ Ibid., p. 16. The report supported this assertion as follows:

"(1) Observation of peri-mortem lesions, together with bullet fragments and holes in the floor underneath such fragments. This observation applies to skeletons 2, 5, 9, 10, 26, 57, 92, 110 and 113, located in grid squares C1, C2, C1, D2, B4, C3, B2, B3-C3 and B3 respectively ...;

"(2) The only way such shots could have produced holes in the floor is by shooting downwards, either straight down or diagonally;

"(3) In the case of skeletons 2, 10, 92, 110 and 57, the bullets which made the holes in the floor were found in the area of the skull; in the case of skeleton 26, in the cervical vertebrae (very close to the skull)".

365/ Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 2.

366/ Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 3.

367/ "24 separate weapons were identified, consistent with at least 24 individual shooters" (Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 3).

368/ Ibid., p. 3. The experts who exhumed the bone remains reached the same conclusion. Cf. Archaeological Report, p. 17.

369/ Archaeological Report, p. 17.

370/ Archaeological Report, p. 18.

371/ Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 1.

372/ They also stated that all their conclusions "are stated with a reasonable degree of medical and scientific certainty" and that they were willing to testify in a court of law regarding these conclusions. See Report of Forensic Investigation, p. 3.