Dec 9, 2021 - World

The massacre at El Mozote, 40 years later

A man reads the names of the victims of the El Mozote, El Salvador, on a memorial commemorating the massacre.

A memorial of the El Mozote massacre of civilians accused of aiding guerilla members during the Salvadoran civil war. Photo: Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

El Salvador marks the 40th anniversary this weekend of one of the worst massacres in Latin American history, amid renewed allegations that a U.S. military adviser witnessed the killings and fears that the related trial of Salvadoran military will be left by the wayside.

Why it matters: Nearly one thousand unarmed civilians, half of them children, were killed in El Mozote and nearby towns in 1981 by a Salvadoran army unit that had been trained by U.S. forces.

  • It remains the largest single state massacre in the modern history of the Americas, perpetrated during a period marked by civil wars and dictatorships.

The intrigue: A Stanford University professor testified during the trial earlier this year that a U.S. Army sergeant major witnessed the massacre.

  • Bruce Hazelwood, a military advisor in El Salvador who is now retired, denies the allegations. He told Vice News “there is no recollection on my part of ever speaking with anyone about the incident, official or unofficial.”
  • Axios’ attempts to reach Hazelwood were unsuccessful.
  • The U.S. Army has not responded to requests for comment.

Context: The trial has had several inconsistent starts for decades. A year after the 1992 peace agreements ended the Salvadoran civil war, the country’s congress declared an amnesty and the case was archived.

  • The Salvadoran Supreme Court voided the amnesty law in 2016, and the El Mozote trial was the first to restart.

What’s next: The trial’s future is uncertain, however. The presiding judge in the five-year-old trial was forced to retire in September, and no replacement has been formally named.

  • Jorge Guzmán Urquilla, 61, had to leave the bench after a law proposed by President Nayib Bukele was passed that set 60 as the age limit for all judges and prosecutors. About 200 left their posts as a result.
  • Supreme Court justice Óscar López has suggested the El Mozote trial might have to restart from the beginning, once a new judge is brought in.
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