CJRColumbia Journalism Review

January/February 1993 | Contents


It was the reporters' word against the government's

by Mike Hoyt
Hoyt is associate editor of CJR.

EL MOZOTE, El Salvadore, Oct. 20 -- In a small rectangular plot among the overgrown ruins of a village here, a team of forensic archeologists has opened a window on El Salvador's nightmarish past. . . . Nearly 11 years after American-trained soldiers were said to have torn through El Mozote and surrounding hamlets on a rampage in which at least 794 people were killed, the bones have emerged as stark evidence that the claims of peasant survivors and the reporters of a couple of American journalists were true.

So begins Tim Golden's October 22 New York Times story, which describes the unearthing of skeletons by forensic experts working in what was once a collection of rural villages in northern El Salvador. A similar article, by Douglas Farah, appeared the same day in The Washington Post. Reporters from both papers had been the only journalists to report on the 1981 massacre, and both Raymond Bonner of the Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Post paid a price for their coverage, which drew immediate fire from Reagan administration officials and others on the political right. To Bonner and Guillermoprieto, and to photojournalist Susan Meiselas, who traveled to El Mozote with Bonner back in 1981, the belated confirmation of what they knew to be true was both welcome and disturbing, bringing back strong memories of the grisly scene they came upon at the end of a long walk through Morazan province, a guerrilla stronghold.

It was shortly before Christmas in 1981 that soldiers from the elite American-trained Atlacatl Battalion conducted a search-and-destroy operation around El Mozote. A few days after they entered the area, the guerrillas' clandestine radio station began to broadcast reports of a massacre of civilians in the area. Reporters started pushing the guerrillas, officially called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, for proof. "There wasn't a reporter there [in El Salvador] who didn't want to go in with them," Bonner recalls.

The rebels, who had a sophisticated sense of how to use the media, offered guided behind-the-lines tours to reporters from America's two most important newspapers. Bonner and Meiselas were the first to go in, in early January. The journey involved traveling through government-held territory. Bonner remembers fording a river, carrying his clothing over his head, under a full moon. Meiselas says that what she most vividly remembers about their arrival in El Mozote was the sound, or the lack of it: "A very haunted village. Nothing moving. A plaza with a number of destroyed houses. And total silence."

In his story for the Times, Bonner reported seeing "the charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams, and shattered tiles," and more bodies along the trail leading into the village and at the edge of a nearby cornfield, including bodies of women and children.

Guillermoprieto arrived at the village a few days later, with another band of rebels. She wrote of "dozens of decomposing bodies still seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields, despite the month that has passed since the incident." In what had once been a white-washed church, "countless bits of bones -- skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column -- poked out of the rubble."

"The difficulty I had at the time," says Meiselas, "was finding visual evidence of what had occurred. The bodies were dispersed. The burial sites, we didn't have any clues to where they were. We couldn't confirm the numbers."

The numbers the local peasants were reporting were staggering. They gave Bonner a list of 733 names, mostly children, women, and old people, who they said had been murdered by government soldiers. The lead paragraph of his January 27 article read: "From interviews with people who live in this small mountain village and surrounding hamlets, it is clear that a massacre of major proportions occurred here last month," and the piece went on to cite a great deal of circumstantial evidence tying the killings to the army.

Guillermoprieto's lead was slightly more cautious: "Several hundred civilians, including women and children, were taken from their homes in and around this village and killed by Salvadoran Army troops during a December offensive against leftist guerrillas, according to three survivors who say they witnessed the alleged massacres."

Both reporters spoke to a woman named Rufina Amaya, who said she had escaped in the confusion and hisden in a tree. When the soldiers came, she said, they lined up the villagers and "took our money, searched the houses, ate our food, asked us where the guns were, and went away. We were happy then. 'The repression is over,' we said."

But the soldiers returned the following morning and, according to Amaya, began methodically separating the people into groups and killing them in various ways. Amaya told the reporters that the soldiers killed her husband, her nine-year-old son, and her three daughters, aged five, three, and eight months. The soldiers set piles of bodies on fire, she said, then left, some of them speaking of witches that they thought might fly out of the flames.

Accuracy in Media, the conservative press watch organization, later charged that either the newspapers or the reporters had conspired to hold their stories until late January, just before President Reagan was required -- in order to continue the flow of money and arms to El Salvador -- to certify that the country's military forces were making progress in human rights.

Both reporters deny the charge. Bonner says he was with the rebels for nearly two weeks, after which he went to Mexico and wrote five stories about them. He did not write the massacre story first, he says, adding that it "was not held for political purposes."

"That story," Bonner goes on to say, "was the beginning of the end of my career at The New York Times."

As Tim Golden observed in a November 1, 1992, piece in the Sunday Times Week in Review section, "the magnitude of the atrocity seemed to be matched by the baldness of the official response. Army and government leaders said no such massacre had taken place. Official of the Reagan administration . . . derided the reports as gross exaggerations."

Indeed, shortly after Bonner and Guillermoprieto's stories ran, Thomas Enders, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, attacked them before a congressional committee, saying that although there had been a firefight between the army and the guerrillas in the area, "no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians." President Reagan accordingly certified that the Salvadorans were "making a concerted and significant effort" to end "the indiscriminate torture and murder of its citizens." (Later that year a House Intelligence staff report revealed that the embassy officials sent to investigate the massacre "never reached the towns where the alleged events occurred.")

Elements of the press soon joined in the attack on the story. Leading the attack was The Wall Street Journal, which in early February devoted its entire editorial column to a critique of U.S. press coverage of El Salvador, singling out Bonner as being "overly credulous," and accusing the Times of closing ranks "behind a reporter out on a limb." William A. Henry III of Time weighed in during March: "An even more crucial if common oversight is the fact that women and children, generally presumed to be civilians, can be active particpants in guerrilla war. New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner underplayed that possibility, for example, in a much-protested Jan. 27 report of a massacre by the army in and around the village of Mozote."

Guillermoprieto came under less fierce attack, perhaps because, she suggests, "between the Post and The New York Times, the Times is more important. So they went after Ray." Still, at one point, a Reagan official wrote a letter to the Post claiming that Guillermoprieto had once worked for a communist newspaper in Mexico, her birthplace. She says she never worked for any newspaper in Mexico, and told that to editor Ben Bradlee when he questioned her in the newsroom.

"The price I paid," she adds, "and that all reporters in El Salvador in those critical and brutal years of the war paid, was a loss of confidence in themselves, and the besieged feeling of always having it be our word against the state department." The result, she believes, was that certain editors lost their trust in her. The argument against much reporting critical of a crucial ally in Central America, she says, "was not 'No, the evidence is not there,' it was 'No, you are a leftist sympathizer.'"

Karen DeYoung, Guillermoprieto's boss at the time, now the Post's assistant managing editor for national news, says that, while there was "a fairly constant drumbeat" of criticism of Central American coverage form high-level people in the White House, the State Department, conservative think tanks, and so forth, "it didn't influence what we were doing at the Post."

At the Times, meanwhile, Bonner's reporting continued to draw the ire of the administration. In June 1982, after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee proposed cutting $ 100 million in military aid to El Salvador, U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton traveled to Washington to try to prevent the cutback. While he was there, he went out of his way to attack Bonner, particularly over the reporter's stories about the failure of El Salvador's land-reform program. Bonner is an "advocate journalist," he told other Times reporters at a breakfast meeting. "He does not hide the fact that he's engaged in advocacy journalism."

Accuracy in Media, which was taking regular shots at Bonner, finally devoted an entire late July edition of its AIM Report to him. "During the June 17th meeting between the two top officials of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Sydney Gruson," the newsletter reported, "and the two top officials of AIM, Reed Irvine and Murray Baron, Mr. Irvine made the statement that Mr. Bonner had been worth a division to the communists in Central America." The issue included some artful insinuation about Bonner's political sympathies, noting that he had once worked for Ralph Nader, omitting that he had been a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, and all but calling him a communist agent.

Then, in August, Bonner's job in El Salvador was suddenly over. He was ordered to return to New York. Bonner subsequently took a leave of absence and later left the paper. Executive editor A. M. Rosenthal maintained that political pressure had nothing to do with the transfer; still, the Reagan administration was surely delighted -- and many journalists felt they had learned a lesson. As Michael Massing pointed out in these pages ("About-face on El Salvador," CJR, November/December 1983), "the episode has made reports wary of provoking the embassy. Bonner's transfer, one reporter says, 'left us all aware that the embassy is quite capable of playing hardball,' and, as a result, 'people treat it carefully. If they can kick out the Times correspondent' -- a perception shared by several correspondents -- 'you've got to be careful.'"

In the intervening years, the Mozote story has been interred in a kind of twilight zone. Officially denied and never investigated, the massacre was resurrected only late last year by a Salvadoran entity known as the Truth Commission. A creation of the peace accords signed by the government and the guerrillas a year ago, the commission was set up to document major abuse cases. The commission is expected to release its findings this winter. On its behalf, forensic experts have been digging at sites in ElMozote and the nearby villages where testimony of surviving peasant suggests they will find large number of remains. The first such site was the house of the parish priest where, according to testimony, children left behind in the original massacre were herded into the basement and stabbed, clubbed, and shot to death. There the forensic experts found thirty-seven skeletons, mostly children's. As The New York Times wrote in an October 26 editorial, "the peasants did not exaggerate."

In the meantime, the three journalists intimately involved in the story have emerged with increased stature. Bonner, who made his views on El Salvador known in a book, Weakness and Deceit, has been writing for The New Yorker since 1988, and has written a book about the politics of wildlife conservation in Africa. Guillermoprieto, after a stint at Newsweek, also wrote a book -- Samba, about music and life among Brazil's poor -- and became a New Yorker staff writer. Meiselas, a Magnum photographer, has gone on to win a number of awards, to contribute to several photography books, and to co-direct two documentary films about Latin America. Last year she was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant, and she is currently working on a project that involves documenting actions taken by Saddam Hussein against Iraq's Kurds during the 1980s.

Bonner says he is grateful that the Times chose to mention him and Guillermoprieto, both in Golden's October 22 piece and in the editorial, titled "The Mozote Horror, Confirmed." Guillermoprieto finds less comfort in the belated vindication. "The fact is that evidence for the massacre existed from the day those stories appeared in the newspapers," she says. "Two journalists from two leading newspaper, traveling independently of each other, provided the same evidence. There were photographic documents, credible sources."

"It was very, very hard to fight the Reagan administration; it's very hard to fight any administration," she adds. "I'm not terribly optimistic. What we see is that administrations are increasingly able to dictate the terms of coverage -- in Panama, for example, in the Iraq war."

On October 22, 1992, the day the Times headline announced SALVADOR SKELETONS CONFIRM REPORTS OF MASSACRE IN 1981, Guillermoprieto was in New York City, where she now lives. "I was in the supermarket," she says, "and I started crying. I never in all my reporting career came face to face with so much evil, and I just felt the pain all over again."

Meiselas was also in New York when she saw Golden's page-one piece. "I knew [the Salvadorans] were trying to document the site, so it didn't come out of the blue," she says. "My only disappointment was that I would very much like to have been in El Mozote when the excavation began. I think history is important to live. El Salvador is in the process of healing, and I would like to witness that."

Bonner was in London in late October, and when he returned to Nairobi, where he has lived for four years, several messages were waiting for him. One, telexed from an old friend at the Times, referred to another recent front-page story -- the pope's reversal of the Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo for saying that the sun and stars do not revolve around the earth: "BONNER AND GALILEO STILL RIGHT AFTER ALL THESE YEARS."