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Discoveries underline need for truth commission

In December 1981, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion in El Salvador killed, as conservative estimates put it, between 700 and 926 civilians in a massacre that took on the name of one of the remote villages, El Mozote, where the slaughter occurred.

At the time, Thomas Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs and others in the government, dismissed the reports by Ray Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermopietro of The Washington Post. “There is no evidence to confirm that [Salvadoran] government forces systematically massacred civilians … or that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the 733 or 926 victims cited in the press.”

Enders’ comments fit the Reagan administration policy on Central American issues at the time. It was a policy fueled by flights of ideological fantasy. Far closer to the truth, of course, were not only those news reports but the significant body of testimony and insight that came out of the religious and social justice community, much of which ran in the pages of NCR during that era.

And the truth keeps emerging 20 years later. Most recently a team of three Argentinean forensic scientists began unearthing a mass grave in a mountain village of La Joya, about 125 miles northwest of the capital of San Salvador.

La Joya is one of the six villages where troops gunned down women, men and children.

According to an Associated Press account, the forensic scientists working on the project, which had been suspended for seven years for lack of funds, have found new mass graves and discovered new pieces of skulls and bones of men, women and children. The remains in one grave included those of four children and a pregnant woman.

Newspaper reporters and human rights activists who kept calling attention to such atrocities were often vilified by the government, conservative religious groups and even some in the media.

Substantial documentation by human rights organizations and by the United Nations, however, makes it clear: U.S. policies and U.S. training of troops from Central America contributed significantly to awful episodes of torture, assassination and other human rights abuses in the region.

Last year, President Clinton made a brief apology in Guatemala for the U.S. complicity in the horrors that occurred during that country’s civil war. The new discoveries at El Mozote remind us that much more must be done in the way of apology and full disclosure by the U.S. government.

Truth commissions in Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America have helped those cultures to come to a certain honest, if not perfect, understanding of the horrors that occurred. We need our own truth commission and full disclosure of the CIA, military and other government agency documents that will shed full light on our role in Central America in recent decades. As much as any of those other countries, we need to take steps to understand our role in their suffering and to seek pardon and reconciliation.

We cannot expect accountability from others around the world for acts of violence and terror if we are not willing to scrutinize ourselves.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000