El Mozote and the School of Assassins

by Eric Ginsburg

I was young. Too young to realize how ridiculous my partially dreadlocked hair looked. Young enough that I didn’t have my driver’s license. But I still remember the dusty room and how surreal it felt, listening to her recount what had happened and wondering how many times she had told the story.

I remember how she looked, standing there in the doorway of her house in rural el Salvador. Rufina Amaya was a lot shorter than me, even back then when I was in high school, and she hugged each one of us as we left. I can still feel her arms holding me around my neck.

Rufina Amaya was the only survivor of one of the most brutal massacres during el Salvador’s civil war in the ’80s. The military dictatorship, which was heavily backed by the United States, fought a long war against their own people, who formed the united guerrilla front known as the FMLN.

To crush the FMLN, the military government sought to cut off any support they could receive, and a number of times they did so by wiping out entire towns. The Atlacatl Battalion learned the tactic at the School of the Americas.

Originally located in Panama, the School of the Americas is a training camp for Latin American military personnel, and its graduates are responsible for some of the most atrocious human rights violations in recent history. In many cases, the school’s graduates are serving the goals of the country that created it, and that’s the whole point: to enforce the political and economic interests of the United States’ elite.

In 1984, the school was moved to Fort Benning, Ga., about eight hours southwest of here on the border of Alabama.

Ten years ago, the school was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but everyone still calls it the SOA, or alternately the School of Assassins. After listening to Amaya, it’s easy to see why.

The Atlacatl Battalion murdered nearly 900 people at el Mozote, and Amaya was able to hide and escape the army’s wrath after seeing her husband beheaded and hearing her children screaming for her. (Later, Mark Danner would write a comprehensive book called The Massacre at El Mozote, which provides more details) After we met with her, just another one of the countless times she retold her story before passing away, we got back on our bus and went to el Mozote. A memorial sits in the center of the town, and many of the buildings riddled with bullet hole pockmarks are intact. Under our feet, bits of bone were still mixed in with the dirt.

I stood at the edge of one of the old buildings, staring in through where the window used to be. I was speechless and felt weak, and just kept thinking back to Amaya’s face. As we had sat in her new home, small children ran in and out of the room, and I just kept thinking that her kids were killed not far from where I stood.

Today, there is a well in the town built with funds from US AID. We trained the soldiers who massacred your people and funded your military government with no regard for their death squads… but here, have a well.

It’s not hard to find evidence of the US legacy in this small Central American country. After all, their currency is the dollar, and the capital is packed with chains like Subway. In the state of Cabanas, where we stayed the preceding few weeks, we visited Sensuntepeque and actually saw the stars and stripes flying over the central plaza.

Years later I returned to el Salvador as part of a study abroad program traveling through the region. Both trips stopped at different massacre sites — along the Rio Sumpul, outside Suchitoto and at the University of Central America in the capital where six Jesuit priests and two others were killed.

But long before I traveled to el Mozote, before I entered preschool, a dedicated group of people had created the School of the Americas Watch. The goal was simple: to educate people about the government’s continued imperialist role in Latin America and work to shut the school down.

Every year, the SOA Watch organizes a massive demonstration outside Fort Benning, usually drawing a crowd of 15-20,000 from all over the country for a weekend of demonstrations, workshops and remembrance of the graduates’ victims. Twice as a college student I helped organize a caravan down from Guilford College, the second time meeting up with friends from as far as Minneapolis with whom I studied abroad.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the el Mozote massacre on Dec. 11, and with the annual demonstrations against the School of Assassins Nov. 18-20, I am reminded of the bomb craters I’ve stood in, the commemorative rose gardens, the remains of helicopters in museums and remains of people in the ground.

Reminded of Rufina Amaya’s impossible strength, and her arms around my neck.

Every year as people gather at the SOA, I am reminded of my role in all of this. The SOA is funded with our tax dollars, and while the nation’s economic and political imperialism mostly benefits a few, it is our responsibility, as Mother Jones once said, to “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”