Monday, March 19, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

On March 9 The New York Times ran an obituary on Rufina Amaya who died at 64 in El Salvador, of a stroke, the previous Tuesday. We should all remember the ordeal experienced by Ms. Amaya at the hands of troops specifically trained by U.S. Special Forces.

We read in the papers today that the U.S. plans on the “Salvadorization” of the Iraqi counterinsurgency as a way to bring about an American victory. In fact, The New York Times Magazine in a 2005 article (May 01) revealed that the Iraqi counterinsurgency was being advised by an American who led the Special Forces in El Salvador in the 1980s.

What can Iraqi civilians expect to face? Well, here is the story of Rufina Amaya and her village, El Mozote, and what happened to her and it at the hands of the American trained troops. This information is all publicly available on the internet (Wikepedia, articles from the The New Yorker, New York Times and Washington Post, among others).

The Atlacatl Brigade was the first “Rapid Deployment Infantry Brigade” in the Salvadorian army. It was trained by the U.S. and was supposed to destroy the peasant liberation movement fighting for bread and land against the Salvadorian oligarchy and its American supporters (the FMLN).

On the night of December 10, 1981 the Atlacatl Brigade took over the remote village of El Mozote. The Brigade thought that FMLN members might sometimes be getting food and shelter in the village, but they had no proof.

On the morning of the 11th the Brigade decided to put its training to work and make an example of the people of El Mozote. They decided to kill the entire population of the village (about 900 people including peasants from the countryside who came to stay in El Mozote out of fear of the Atlacatl Brigade in the field. The population was unarmed.

The men were separated from the women and children and publicly executed, many were beheaded (not an Iraqi invention). Then all the girls and women 12 years old and up were killed, many were first raped. Finally all the children under 12 and the babies were taken into the village church and then shot and bayonetted.

The next day, the 12th, the Brigade went to the nearby village of Los Toriles where they lined up the population and shot them down. Back at El Mozote there was one survivor, Rufina Amaya, who had been able to hide. She heard her own small children screaming in fear as they were killed by the U.S. trained counterinsugency troops.

She lived to tell the world what had happened. The U.S. of course defended the Atlacatl Brigade. The Reagan administration played down the reports that were published in The Washington Post and New York Times. Elliott Abrams, the same Elliott Abrams that now works for the Bush administration, told the Congress that the reports of the killings were not believable.

The bulk of the mass media followed the Reagan line. Time magazine suggested that if there were dead children we should remember that children can support our enemies the guerillas. No one was ever punished and the Atlacatl Brigade continued in the field carrying out its mission which culminated in 1989 with the murder of six Jesuit priests their cook and her daughter.

Peace accords were signed between the government and the rebels in 1992 and a general amnesty was proclaimed. However, a 2000 court ruling stripped the amnesty protections from the sort of massacres that were perpetuated by the Atlacatl Brigade but so far no one has been brought to justice.

Rufina Amaya has died. She will no longer awaken in the night to the screams of her children. The Special Forces have moved on to train the Iraqi counterinsurgency. Elliott Abrams has moved on to serve another president who wages wars against other third world peoples. It will be Iraqi mothers now who will face U.S. trained forces.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at

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