The Trojan Horse

by John Lamperti


If Colonel Domingo Monterossa had read more classical mythology, he might be alive today. In that case he would, or should, face trial for one of the most atrocious war crimes of the 20th century. But instead Monterrosa himself has been mythologized--both by the armed forces of El Salvador and by their enemies and victims, the FMLN guerrillas and the people of Morazan province.

Lt. Colonel José Domingo Monterossa Barrios, perhaps more clearly than most of us, showed the world two faces. One was that of the good soldier, risen to command from humble beginnings, skilled and brave in combat, beloved by the men he led. Born in 1940 in the town of Berlin, Usulután Department, Monterrosa graduated from El Salvador's military academy in 1963 and was appointed second lieutenant that same year. A laudatory page on the web site of the Salvadoran Armed Forces says that he was one of the first commanders of the Parachute Battalion, that he fought with distinction in the 1969 "soccer war" with Honduras, and that he was alway accompanied by his German Shepherd dog "Hurricane" until the dog died in a training accident when his parachute failed to open. Among other special courses, he attended the U.S. Army's "School of the Americas" in 1966. More importantly, the Armed Forces' tribute says that Monterrosa was "an officer who was always at the side of his troops, human, friendly, sharing their hardships. He always maintained high morale in his units and enjoyed the respect and confidence of his companions in arms and his superiors." The brief biography adds that Colonel Monterrosa was the first commander of the "rapid response battalion" ATLACATL, an elite unit created, trained and equipped by the United States in 1980. Later he became commanding officer of the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the position he held "at the moment of the tragedy" in 1984. On the same web page you can listen to "The Ballad of Domingo Monterrosa" celebrating his "heroism" and service to the fatherland.

The name "El Mozote," once a village in Morazan department in northeast El Salvador, does not appear on the Army's web site. It was there that this good soldier, so admired by his men and well liked by the U.S. military advisors, in command of the Atlacatl battalion, wrote his page in the annals of world atrocity. That story should not be forgotten.

In El Mozote and neighboring small villages, between December 10 and 13, 1981, the men of the Atlacatl murdered in cold blood at least one thousand men, women and children. There was no combat there; these civilians were not even guerrilla sympathizers. Most of them were Protestants, politically conservative and supporters of the government, who believed they had good relations with the Salvadoran military. For that reason they had ignored warnings from the FMLN that they should evacuate their homes before the coming army sweep through the area. Some people even arrived in El Mozote from other towns, thinking that they would find a safe haven there until the fighting was past.

The murders were carried out deliberately. First, men were tortured for information that they did not have, and then killed. Most of the women were repeatedly raped before being murdered. Hundreds of children came last. A little boy who escaped saw his two year old brother hung from a tree by a soldier. A survivor--from El Mozote itself there was only one--heard some soldiers saying that they didn't want to kill the children; their lieutenant told them they themselves would be shot if they didn't obey orders. This woman, whose name is Rufina Amaya Marquez, lost her husband and four children in the massacre. While hiding to save her life, she heard her own children among many others screaming for help as they were butchered. Finally, all the buildings of the town were burned, and with them the bodies of hundreds of victims wounded and dead.1

The troops were not out of control. Their commanders, including Col. Monterrosa, were present during the operation, which was done at their orders. Why? There is only one answer: it was terrorosm. If even people such as these, whom the army knew did not support the guerrillas, were slaughtered, what must happen to villagers who did help the FMLN? Years later reporter James LeMoyne heard as unguarded answer from Monterrosa himself. "Yeah, we did it," he said. "We killed everyone. In those days I thought that was what we had to do to win the war. And I was wrong."2

It is worth repeating that the rapid response (counter insurgency) battalion Atlacatl was organized, trained, and equipped by the United States. The unit's preparation was begun in 1980 and completed early in 1981. The Atlacatl and its commander continued to be favored by U.S. military advisors in El Salvador.

Two U.S. journalists, Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, visited the massacre site shortly after the crime was committed; their descriptions were published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The U.S. Embassy, after an aborted and cursory inquiry, reported that it had no evidence that an atrocity had happened. Washington then participated with its Salvadoran allies in covering up the massacre; in doing so it had the help of the Wall Street Journal, among others. Bonner was pulled out of the country by the Times soon after his articles appeared. U.S. policy toward El Salvador was not affected by news of the atrocity, and the Reagan administration routinely "certified" to Congress that the human rights situation there was improving.

* * * * *

In 1984 the guerrilla commanders in Morazan decided that Monterrosa had become an intolerable threat. By this time he had been promoted to the command of the Third Brigade, which made him the top military leader in the eastern sector of the war. He had also reconsidered the policy of atrocity, and had begun trying to win the support of peasants in the war zones. The FMLN wanted him dead--primarily because he was their most dangerous and capable enemy. But justice for the butcher of El Mozote was also in their thoughts. The story has been told in two fascinating books about the guerrilla broadcasting station "Radio Venceremos."3 Mark Danner's account of the El Mozote atrocity also describes how Monterrosa met his end. His death, unlike that of his civilian victims, came swiftly and unexpectedly.

The radio station itself had become a major factor in the conflict. Monterrosa hated Radio Venceremos, both because it denounced his war crimes and because it had operated for years within territory that his soldiers claimed to control. The station's nightly broadcasts were a continuing demonstration of the survival and strength of the FMLN. The broadcasts really came, as they claimed, from "somewhere in Morazan"--although the government and the armed forces insisted that the station was located in Nicaragua. Pride might be Monterrosa's main weakness, thought Joaquín Villalobos and the other rebel commandantes. They knew he longed to destroy their radio, and they decided to let him have it. As a gift. And like the famous wooden horse of the ancient Greeks, there would be something unexpected inside.

Radio Venceremos had a spare transmitter, one they had used in the past. It was big enough to conceal eight sticks of dynamite. Technicians installed two detonators, one radio controlled and the other activated by air pressure--if the altitude was more than 300 meters it would go off without any other signal. The plan was for a small FMLN unit to carry the transmitter near where army troops were patrolling. They would then be "discovered" by the government soldiers, exchange fire, apparently suffer some casualties, and be "forced" to abandon the transmitter in order to carry away their wounded comrades. The troops would surely carry their prize back to camp for the Colonel's inspection and pleasure.

It didn't happen quite as planned--but close enough. The patrol had not ventured as far from base as it had reported, and the guerrillas had to get uncomfortably close to coax the government soldiers into a fight. Still, they managed to "lose" their transmitter in a sufficiently convincing fashion. Blood from a rooster helped persuade the enemy that they had wounded some of the FMLN fighters and forced them to retreat without their precious radio equipment.

The day after the "capture" of their transmitter was one of stressful waiting for the FMLN forces and especially for the people of Radio Venceremos. It was painful to have to skip their nightly broadcast, and comrades from around El Salvador and abroad wondered if the station had really been silenced at last as the government-controlled radio and press triumphantly claimed. Even the Voice of America echoed reports of the "victory." When anxious messages reached the rebel broadcasters, they could only reply that "We'll explain later." In the meantime Army radio transmissions monitored by the guerrillas showed that the government forces had no doubt about their accomplishment. Although the troops had not captured the broadcasters themselves, they admitted, still they were certain that Radio Venceremos was no more.

Monterrosa convened the national and foreign press to come to San Miguel to inspect his prize. He himself and the captured transmitter were still in the northeastern town of Joateca, not far from the site of the capture and not far from El Mozote. The colonel loaded his trophy into his personal helicopter and took off for the press conference. As the aircraft passed over nearby guerrilla positions soon after takeoff, it exploded into a ball of flame. Parts of the machine, and presumably some molecules of Monterrosa's body, fell to the ground near El Mozote itself--to mingle with so many remains already there.4 His successor in command of the Atlacatl died with him, along with five other battalion commanders. Monterrosa had called them all to Joateca to help him celebrate, and the only one missing was the chief of the U.S. military advisors.

But the ones who did celebrate were the guerrillas of the FMLN. Joaquín Villalobos told them to have a big party. But, he said, "We aren't going to celebrate the death of a man. We're going to celebrate the people who'll live now that he's gone!"

* * * * *

Five years later, it was a unit of the Atlacatl that murdered six Jesuit priests and two women helpers at the Central American University, a widely denounced crime that helped turn the U.S. Congress against further funding for the war. The Atlacatl battalion was disbanded in 1992 under the terms of the peace treaty that ended the eleven year conflict.



1) The story of El Mozote has been told in the United States in two books: Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote (New York: Vintage, 1994), and Leigh Binford, The El Mozote Massacre (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1996). Danner's report was first published in The New Yorker magazine.

2) Danner, op cit, page 152.

3) José Ignacio López Vigil, Las Mil y Una Historias de Radio Venceremos. (San Salvador: UCA editores, 1991); 6th edition, 1994, pages 316-338. Published in translation as Rebel Radio: the story of El Salvador's Radio Venceremos by Curbstone Press and the Latin American Bureau in 1994. Another account of the guerrilla radio and of part of the Salvadoran civil war was written by one of the key members of the Venceremos staff: Carlos Henríquez Consalvi, La Terquedad del Izote (Mexico City: Editorial Diana, 1992. The author was the "Santiago" of Radio Venceremos.

4) Wreckage of a military helicopter claimed to be that of Monterrosa's fatal flight is on display in a small museum in Perquín, near the site of all these events.

Go Back