Her Family Survived the El Mozote Massacre. Now She’s Fleeing El Salvador’s Gangs.
Marta Amaya's family lived through the infamous El Mozote massacre, referenced in Congress this week. Their survivors' settlement money has made them a target all over again.
Marta Maritza Amaya was seated at the back of the bus, gazing through the window at the sunset over the green mountains of Morazán, in northern El Salvador. It was March 2017. Back in the 1980s this poor area was a war zone, ruled by the Revolutionary People’s Army (ERP in Spanish).
Marta’s bus stopped at the detour to Arambala village. It was here, in December 1981, that Salvadoran troops—trained and funded by the U.S., which backed the ruling junta—headed down that very detour in the direction of El Mozote, Marta’s hometown.
Back then, leftist guerrilla troops roamed clandestinely in almost of all the towns in northern Morazán. An army operation—allegedly to capture the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos, and other military targets—turned into the worst massacre of the Salvadoran civil war. At El Mozote and other nearby villages, 988 civilians were killed; at least 553 of the dead were minors and at least 433 were children no older than 12. Four of those kids were Marta’s older brother and sisters.
The cover-up of the massacre at El Mozote still reverberates decades later. This past week, Representative Ilhan Omar reminded the U.S. Congress of the role that Elliot Abrams played in the aftermath of the slaughter, when he called early claims of the killing “communist propaganda.” To this day, Abrams, President Donald Trump’s new special envoy for Venezuela, hasn’t recanted his claims. To be fair, Abrams was just one more gear in a U.S. government machine that chose to overlook human-rights violations in El Salvador as part of its Cold War ideological crusade.
All these years after the massacre, there are still people looking up for their family members. On Feb. 14, judge Jorge Guzmán and Dr. Silvana Turner conducted an exhumation to seek the remains of María de la Paz Pereira, 32, her husband, and her five children. The expedition was prompted by the discovery by farmers of old clothes and some bones. Mrs. Turner, a member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, concluded that the bones were of animal, not human, origin, and that there was no point in digging them up, despite the presence of the clothes and shoes.
At El Mozote, El Salvador was for Marta’s family a killer in olive green, with rifles and military boots that murdered her brothers and sisters. But in 2017, El Salvador was for Marta a man who got on the bus, sat next to her and squeezed his legs against hers. “You are the daughter of Rufina,” he began.
That title, Rufina’s daughter, has accompanied Marta her whole life. Her mother, Rufina Amaya, survived the military operation at El Mozote and was a main witness to the carnage, which had twice as many victims as the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war.
Of the man on the bus, Marta can only recall two details: “a military-type backpack he carried on his legs, and red eyes.” Red like the eyes of a person who is very mad, as she tells it. At first she tried to ignore him. But his words haunted her: “You are the daughter of Rufina Amaya. I know you’re getting money because of El Mozote. I know where you work…”
Marta hadn’t been born when her mother told the truth about the December massacres at El Mozote, La Joya and other five nearby villages to reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post, which published their stories in January 1982. “Salvadoran Peasants Describe Mass Killing,” read one headline. “Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village,” blared another.
Rufina Amaya’s testimony described how Salvadoran troops arrived in the village and started shooting people in their homes. Others, they dragged outside from the sanctuary of the churches. They separated the men from the women and children, and then mowed both groups down, killing her husband, four of her children, and hundreds of others. “It was a great massacre,” Rufina told the Times. “They left nothing.”
“Dozens of decomposing bodies still were seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields,” noted the Post on Jan. 27, 1982.
Guerrilla groups told the Times that 3,000 rebels had fled the area ahead of the army. “We didn’t think they would kill children, women and old people, so they remained,” one man said, noting that the junta killed his mother, his sister, and his sister’s two children, both under the age of 9. He also claimed the military had slaughtered a 3-day-old baby.
Later, Rufina expanded on the military’s ruthlessness at El Mozote. “I was on the line with my four kids. The oldest was nine, Lolita was five, the other girl was three and the baby girl was only eight months... At five in the afternoon, they pulled me and other 22 woman. I stayed the last in line. I was breastfeeding my girl when they took her out of my arms. When we arrived to Israel Márquez’s house, I could see a pile of dead people and they were machine gunning them. The rest of the woman held on to each other screaming and crying. I kneeled down thinking about my children. In that moment, I turned and headed for an apple tree. I hid in the bushes and used my toe to push down a branch so my feet wouldn’t be seen,” said Rufina, in her memoir Luciérnagas in El Mozote.
Rufina hid all night almost side by side with the soldiers who had killed her family. At around 1 a.m., she crawled between some calves and dogs through the fields all the way to an apple plantation. In one of the best-known, most heart-rending details of her testimony, Rufina recalled the screams of her children:
— Mama, they are killing us! Mama, they are choking us. Mama, they are stabbing us!
Rufina hid eight days in the wild, vowing that she would live to tell the tale. A week later she encountered what was left of her family, relatives who survived because they weren’t in El Mozote when the military struck. Two weeks after that, at a guerrilla-protected camp, she gave an interview to three journalists: Susan Meiselas, Alma Guillermoprieto, and Raymond Bonner. After that she fled to Arambala and, finally, to Colomoncagua refugee camp in Honduras. Three years later, in that refugee camp, Marta Maritza Amaya was born.
The American government, as well as the Salvadoran junta, denied the massacre had ever occurred. But years later, formerly classified intelligence and diplomatic documents revealed that Ronald Reagan’s officials knew far more about the Central American death squads, and the El Mozote massacre, then they let on. Meanwhile, just days after the stories ran about the massacre, President Reagan certified that the Salvadoran government was complying with human-rights requirements, clearing the way for Congress to approve more aid for the junta and keep the anti-communist policy there in place.
While the U.S. has not apologized to the victims of El Salvador’s civil war—like President Barack Obama did in Argentina, expressing regret for past U.S. policies to those who suffered during its “dirty war”—American administrations have started addressing the junta’s bloody past. Since 1994, it has released classified documents about El Salvador’s war—and, more recently, the American ambassador in San Salvador, Jean Manes, criticized the actions of her predecessors. “In the early 1980s there were heated disputes in the U.S. Congress over defunding foreign military aid to the Salvadoran government due to allegations of human rights violations,” reads a cable that Ms. Manes sent to over a dozen federal offices in June 2017. “In November 1981, the Department of Defense issued the ‘Woerner Report,’ which gave a sunny description of the Salvadoran military and praised the high command’s reluctance to punish misconduct or extreme violence in favor of supporting loyalty.”
The cable addressed directly the massacre in which Marta’s family was slaughtered. “Soon after the El Mozote massacre, the Embassy reported that there was no evidence to confirm that civilians had been systematically killed and downplayed the gravity of the killings,” the document states.
Some have argued that the U.S. habit of interfering in Central American countries a few decades ago is directly related to the current situation in those countries, helping to create the conditions that produce caravans. “American influence was very large and it’s not recognized for a number of reasons. One of them is that if you recognize it, what should you do about it? Specially with current problems,” says Angelina Snodgrass, director of the Center for Human Rights from the University of Washington. Snodgrass has been working to declassify documents from the Salvadoran civil war in the U.S. since 2011.
But information is not the only step the U.S. has taken to right the wrongs of the past. In 2016, the government deported General José Guillermo García, former minister of defense in El Salvador, for alleged human rights violations. García is now on trial in El Salvador, the highest-ranking military officer so far to answer for the crimes at El Mozote.
Though the courts have not yet convicted any former military leaders, the El Mozote victims and their families have been awarded some economic compensation for the war crimes. In 2012, El Salvador’s government was convicted of perpetrating, hiding, and denying justice for the massacre by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights and ordered to pay economic compensation to the victims. Through May 2017, the government had paid $1.8 million dollars to El Mozote relatives.
As for the daughter of Rufina Amaya, Marta gave everything to a country that only gave war to her family, forced her mother into exile, stole from Marta herself, taught her the indifference of institutions and finally, forced her to flee again. Rufina returned to El Salvador at the end of the 1980s, a couple of years before the war ended. In 1990, Rufina became the main witness in the trial for El Mozote, which was stopped when a broad amnesty law was passed in 1993.
Even though Marta Maritza Amaya didn’t suffer through the massacre, she is considered an indirect victim, according to the parameters that the Interamerican Court gave in its sentence. She’s a victim who has earned the right to be compensated. The sum that was set for direct relatives, as a gesture to recognize their immense loss, was $10,000.
For that compensation, for the money the State gave her for having massacred her family, for being the daughter of an El Mozote war-crimes victim, Marta was robbed and extorted in El Salvador.
In 2008, a computer containing Rufina’s documents, photos, and videos—all information that Marta didn’t have a backup for—was taken from her house. “They entered my house but I was asleep. I didn’t feel anything because my bedroom was separated from the rest of the house,” she said. “There were a lot of valuables in the house: a stereo, a TV, a DVD, that sort of things. But they only took the computer,” said Marta.
Then, in 2014, Marta was extorted over the compensation money.
The guy who extorted her sounded like a gang member, she said.
“He started telling me he was asking for money because I had tipped off one of their homeboys,” says Marta. She told the person on the other end of the phone that she didn’t know what he was talking about. She hung up. But he called her again. “He said to me that they had information, that my number had called the emergency line 911 to tip off the police on some of them, that I had talked to the police,” she says. The area where she lived in El Salvador was controlled by the MS-13 gang. President Donald Trump has portrayed all of the asylum seekers from Central America as criminal or gang members. But the reality is, many of the asylum-seekers are victims of gangs.
Marta was astounded by the level of details that the man had on her life. “He told me he knew where I lived, where I was, he even told me where I worked, and where my boyfriend worked. He told me where my kid and my nephew went to school. He even mentioned the museum we ran. They must have thought I had money from the compensations.”
Marta was so scared that she removed the chip from her cell phone and broke it. Then she filed a police report with the Attorney General’s office in Morazán. They launched an investigation, putting Marta’s name on a list of protected witnesses and victims of gang violence—but in practice, this only meant that her real name was obscured with an alias in legal documents. They also told her that the harassing call had come from the prison of Usulután, but urged her not to worry. And that was it.
Salvador Martínez, the chief of press at the AG’s office, said that, many times, people file complaints about gang activity only so they can use them in immigration proceedings. But that’s far from the truth. El Salvador is a country where many must pay extortion money—called “rent”—to gangs so they can work: truck drivers, small entrepreneurs like grocery-store owners, big telephone or beverage companies. Ernesto Vilanova, president of the National Council of the Small Enterprise, an organization with around 8,000 associates, told the investigative news magazine El Faro that in 2017, some 450 of his affiliates, victims of “rent,” fled the country for the United States.
In 2016, the AG’s office received 288 complaints every month about extortions, or nine a day. In 2017, that number fell to 186 a month, or six a day. In 2018, there were 135 cases reported a month, four a day. But with extortion, you can’t entirely trust the numbers, because so many victims are scared to complain.
Marta got lucky. After breaking the chip from her phone, the calls ceased. Her luck would last until March 2017, on that bus approaching the detour to El Mozote.
By March 2017, the news about the reopening of the El Mozote trial had become one of the biggest stories in El Salvador. Marta was a recurring face in the national and international press. The man who threatened her on the bus reminded her just how risky it was to talk about the case.
“He told me to stop talking about El Mozote because it was none of my business, which was in the past. He told me they were waiting for the money that I was to receive so I could give it to them,” Marta says.
“I didn’t say a word to the man after he told me all of those things. But I felt something pointy at my right side,” Marta said. She thought it was a knife. “That’s when I felt really scared. I thought: ‘This is it.’ He told me that they were going to kill me if I didn’t stop talking and quit my job,” she said. “He told me they were well-informed, that they knew I received the money. Besides, he asked me if I had noticed them when they visited my home. My mind went back to some events and I remembered how I heard steps on my home or someone banging on the doors…”
The man stepped off the bus in El Mozote and said his goodbyes: “Remember what I said and know we keep you under watch.”
Marta stayed on the bus until she reached the town of Joateca, ran home and locked herself in until the next day, when she had to go to her work, as a laboratory technician in a medical clinic.
That’s when she decided she’d had enough of El Salvador. “When this happened, I suspected, but wasn’t sure, that I was pregnant. After that I confirmed it and I vowed not to risk my baby’s life if I was under surveillance. It was not only my life but from other being,” said Marta, over the phone from New York, where she now lives and works as a babysitter.
Marta told her mom’s story and her own in an asylum application which was filed at the end of March 2018. Then she had to repeat her statement to an asylum officer on May 9, 2018, “an unusually quick turnaround for asylum interviews,” said Ala Amoachi, Marta’s lawyer, from the firm Amoachi & Johnson. Marta found out that she had been granted asylum on Aug. 21, through a letter that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sent her.
Her attorney brought up her case as one in which the threats against Marta and her family were “cumulative and interconnected.” Amoachi said that Marta’s appearance in a series of television interviews related to the trial was a decisive factor in the case.
“The last threat that she received in El Salvador was anonymous, but it was evident from the course of events and from his dialogue that it was connected with the survivors' settlement that Marta was due from the El Mozote case, and with her mother,” said Amoachi. The asylum officer asked for corroboration of Marta’s interviews in the media and some videos were offered as evidence.
The current laws in the U.S. state that a person can ask for asylum only if they can prove they’ve faced persecution or have a reasonable fear based on their political opinions, race, religion, nationality or for being part of an specific social group. Additionally, they have to prove that their country of origin is incapable of protecting them.
“Marta's claim is one of political opinion and the particular social group of her family, as the daughter of her mother Rufina Amaya,” said Amoachi.
The year 2018 was one in which asylum petitions from Central Americans were very high on the American political agenda, especially with the caravans that departed Honduras and El Salvador in October. So it’s remarkable that a Salvadoran refugee from a war that ended 25 years ago received asylum in the U.S. It’s also ironic when you consider the role of American administrations in the 1980s in El Salvador.
The U.S. was heavily involved in the Salvadoran civil war, during Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s administrations. It was Reagan’s policy of “drawing a line in the sand” against Communism which had a definitive influence. And he put his money where his mouth was. Between 1946 and 1979—a 33-year span—the U.S. economic aid to El Salvador totaled $199 million. In the three years between 1980 (the year the war started) and 1982, the aid went up to $354.5 million, according to numbers obtained by journalist Raymond Bonner and published in his book Weakness and Deceit.
Rufina Amaya, Marta’s mother, fled a country where her family was massacred and that was overwhelmed by war; Marta Amaya was born in exile and has now fled a country overwhelmed by violence and criminality, one where victims are defenseless and on the precipice.
In fact, you could point to Rufina and Marta’s story to explain the history that many Salvadorans have lived for the last 40 years. It’s like history is in a loop in this violent country. The civil war that lasted 12 years displaced thousands of citizens who fled and asked for asylum before, in America, Canada, Australia, Honduras and Mexico; now they flee again—some of them in caravans—and ask for asylum from one of the world’s most murderous societies.
Rufina went back to El Salvador towards the end of the war and died in March 2007, without ever seeing justice for that what she dared to denounce in 1982 and then again in 1990, when a trial was started against the former military leaders. Rufina raised her new family and tried to rearrange her life. American governments continued to fund the Salvadoran regime and army until 1992, when the war ended. They were backing a human-rights monster. And evidence has shown that they knew it all along.
Marta, unlike thousands of her countrymen and women, didn’t want to leave, but El Salvador forced her to.
“It’s been hard for me leaving everything behind. I wasn’t rich but I had a stable job, my house. I didn’t have any luxuries but I had enough to make ends meet. I didn’t need to leave my house and go through everything you endure in the U.S.,” Marta says.
Marta decided for years to stay in El Salvador, even though several family members were already in the States. “I never intended to stay here. I had been traveling on a tourist visa to visit my family for three years. They always said to me: ‘Stay here, you’re in danger’. But I refused. How am I gonna leave behind all that my mother fought for? How am I leaving history behind? Nobody will take care of it. So I always went back.”
Besides her job in the clinic, Marta managed a small museum with memories of her mother in Jocoaitique. Marta ran the museum with her sister Fidelia, Rufina Amaya’s eldest daughter. Fidelia survived the massacre because she was staying with other relatives at the time, in a town far away from the military operation. But when Fidelia died, the whole legacy of Rufina’s testimony, that was shared with her sisters, fell only on Marta. Rufina talked through her, and she gave life to the story.
That museum is now closed. There’s nobody left of the Amaya family in El Salvador to take care of it and share Rufina’s story.