Digging for the Truth

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Review of 'The Massacre at El Mozote', Mark Danner, Granta £8.99

It is December 1981, at the height of the Cold War. In a remote corner of El Salvador a two year old boy is hanged by Salvadoran soldiers. He is one child among more than 100 who have been massacred, alongside women and men, young and old. In this book, republished by Granta in a new series called 'Classics of Reportage', Mark Danner, a staff writer for the New Yorker and contributor to the New York Review of Books, tells the story of what happened in El Salvador when an elite Salvadoran army unit trained by US Special Forces carried out one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history.

He describes how two young reporters travelling separately were taken to the site which guerrilla fighters and civilians described as the scene of the massacre. At the same time the US government was debating delivering more aid and support to the Salvadoran government in its war against the Soviet Union and left wing movements. Both articles made front-page news in the New York Times, written by Raymond Bonner, and the Washington Post, written by Alma Guillermoprieto. This was deeply embarrassing for the US government and President Reagan, who was determined to win the Cold War. A series of denials from both the US and the Salvadoran governments followed. According to the authorities the massacre was described as a propaganda coup by the guerrillas because the evidence collected by the journalists was limited.

The US government went so far as to deny that any credible evidence existed, and issued a 'certification' that the Salvadoran government was making 'significant efforts to comply with internationally recognised human rights'. So Reagan gave more aid to the regime.

And so it stood for a decade, until a forensic team went to the site of the massacre and began to unearth the remains of the crime. In 1991 the Tutela Legal List, which is described by Danner as 'the most thorough accounting of those who died', contained 767 people.

Using newspaper articles (which include an eyewitness testimony from the only survivor, Rufina Amaya), a report by the United Nations Truth Commission on the human rights abuses during the Salvadoran civil war, official documents released by the Clinton administration and his own reportage, Danner presents us with a vivid reconstruction of what happened in El Salvador. Moreover, it highlights the extent of the policies of the US in the Cold War, where in order to fight against an 'evil' ideology and state (the Soviet Union) it was only too happy to financially as well as logistically support undemocratic regimes in Latin America. One can think of other times in other places to see that US strategies haven't changed much.

The book also explains how hard it is for journalists to report a controversial foreign story with one-sided information, in this case a story which contradicted the official US line on El Salvador at the time, not only because it can be dismissed as propaganda, but also because of how the mainstream media is tied to the ruling classes.

Granta's 'Classics of Reportage' are very timely as the 'war on Communism' has been replaced by the absurd 'war on terror'. Mark Danner showed with his last book Torture and Truth about Abu Ghraib (as did Socialist Worker's report on the destruction of Fallujah published last February) that there are still journalists and radical newspapers that dare to tell what is really happening.