El Mozote Case Study
By Stanley Meisler


This case examines foreign coverage of a wartime episode when reporters have to test their powers of observation and verification. It raises the issues of one-sided information, the role of an editor and a news organization’s relationship with government.


In 1981, at the height of the Cold War, the new Reagan Administration rushed arms and funds to the army of El Salvador in a determined campaign to prevent the country from falling to leftist rebels the way Nicaragua had during the Carter Administration. Sensing the whiff of a possible new Vietnam, editors assigned correspondents and stringers there to find out what was going on. Watching the rebels in action was an obvious story, and American reporters repeatedly asked leftist contacts in the capital of San Salvador and elsewhere to arrange for them to travel with the revolutionary guerrillas. "As I remember it," says Ray Bonner of the New York Times, "I wanted to go in with the guerrillas. I think every reporter down there wanted to go in with the guerrillas. How could you not want to go in with the guerrillas?"

Both Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, a stringer for the Washington Post, had received separate invitations from the guerrillas in December 1981 to enter Morazán, a province in northeastern El Salvador largely under rebel control. But the rebels called off the visits before the two reporters arrived. The Salvadoran Army was mounting a massive offensive against the guerrillas in Morazán. This was not the time for the guerrillas to entertain foreign correspondents.

Soon after New Year’s Day 1982, Bonner, back in New York, received word from the rebels that they were extending the invitation once more. He and freelance photographer Susan Meiselas, who had won international acclaim for her photographs of the Nicaraguan Civil War, prepared to fly to Honduras to enter Morazán together.

New York Times and Washington Post reporters regard themselves as competitors. But dangerous assignments like coverage of the wars in Central American foster camaraderie among foreign correspondents. Just before departing New York, Bonner phoned Guillermoprieto in Mexico City. "Ray said he would hate himself for telling me," she recalls, "but he finally said he was going in." G uillermoprieto was shocked. No one had reached her to reinstate her invitation. " I got berserk," she says. She sought help from Mexican journalists who had contacts with the guerrillas in Morazán. Those contacts had helped her set up the aborted trip in December. "I picked up all the threads," she says. Three days after Bonner telephoned, she received word from the guerrillas that they would allow her, too, into their territory. Guillermoprieto flew to Honduras, relieved yet fretful about Bonner’s head start.

Neither correspondent had much news experience in those days. Bonner, then 39, was a former Marine officer, San Francisco lawyer, assistant district attorney, Nader’s Raider and law instructor who had decided a few years earlier to seek a career in journalism. He had set out for Latin America and, as he puts it, "started bumming around." As a free lance, he attracted attention at the New York Times with some dispatches from Bolivia. The Times soon found itself short-handed in Central America because its veteran Mexico City correspondent Alan Riding had received death threats from right-wing extremists in both El Salvador and Guatemala. Bonner, asked to string in those two countries, arrived in San Salvador just before Salvadoran National Guardsmen executed four American nuns near the airport in early December 1981. "I got there on Sunday, the nuns were killed on Tuesday," he says, "and the rest is history." Within a month, the Times hired him as a reporter. He was assigned to the metro staff in New York but spent most of the year on loan to the foreign desk, heading in and out of Central America.

Guillermoprieto, then 32, was not yet a staff reporter for any publication. During the past two and a half years, she had worked as a stringer for a London newsletter, the Guardian and, since mid-1981, The Washington Post. Operating out of Mexico City, where she was born and raised, Guillermoprieto was bilingual, able to speak and write both English and Spanish fluently.

The editors had no hesitation about approving the trips into rebel territory. Bonner says he received "the usual caution — We don’t want you to do this if you don’t think it’s safe. Be careful, et cetera, et cetera." But Bonner had no intention of canceling his trip out of fear. Bonner, in fact, had long ago shrugged off the fears of working in the city of San Salvador. Despite the obvious hatred of him by right wing extremists, he would jog by himself every morning. "I used to say they would never kill a New York Times reporter," he recalls. "Then, I’d think, wait a minute. They killed four nuns. Why do I say that?"

Like Alan Riding of the Times, Guillermoprieto no longer traveled to San Salvador because of right-wing death threats. But she does not even recall discussing safety when she talked about the impending trip to guerrilla territory with Jim Hoagland, the assistant managing editor for foreign news, and Karen De Young, the foreign editor. In Guillermoprieto’s mind, there was simply no question that the story was worth the risks involved. Though she might find herself in extreme dangers, she understood that these were "the rules of the game." She does recall asking whether the Post would pay for her gear as well as her airfare. "I was a stringer," she said. "Stringers get treated like dirt." The Post agreed to pay for her gear.

On the Scene

Reports of a massacre by the Salvadoran Army were spreading before Bonner and Guillermoprieto entered Morazán. The Rev. William L. Wipfler, the director of the human rights office of the National Council of Churches in New York, telegraphed U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton for "confirmation or otherwise" of the reports of a massacre. He also left a message for Bonner in the Mexico City office of the New York Times. The message never reached Bonner. Radio Venceremos, the voice of the rebels, which had shut down during the government offensive, resumed broadcasting in late December and issued its first massacre account — a highly emotional one — on Christmas eve. Salvadoran President José Napoléon Duarte, in a national broadcast a week later, denounced the massacre story as "a guerrilla trick."

Despite these public accusations and counteraccusations, Bonner and Guillermoprieto, outside El Salvador at the time, were so preoccupied with arrangements to enter Morazán that neither recalls knowing anything about the massacre before meeting the guerrillas. Bonner and Meiselas checked into the Maya Hotel in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Their instructions were to go to a designated coffee shop and look for a contact carrying a Time Magazine. They did not find him in the coffee shop but wandering on the road nearby. The contact led them by car on January 3rd to a mountainous area near the border of El Salvador. "We removed our trousers, then held our shoes above our heads while crossing a wide river," Bonner would write a few years later. "…I was scared. I flashed back so many years earlier, to when I had been in Vietnam and how patrols were ambushed at night. Our Salvadoran escorts were so poorly armed…that I knew they would be no match for an army patrol." There would be three night marches before they reached rebel-controlled territory.

Guillermoprieto checked in at the Maya Hotel a few days later. While waiting two days for an escort, she walked up and down the hills of Tegucigalpa in what she now calls "a desperate attempt to get into shape." She later followed the same arduous and dangerous route as Bonner and Meiselas with escorts resentful that they had to endanger themselves by guiding a third journalist. Fording the wide river in her bikini underwear bottom, she slipped, ruining her camera and damaging her pack. After three nights of walking, she came to a rebel camp where Bonner and Meiselas were waiting to take the route back to Honduras.

"They were going out as I was coming in," she says. "I was jealous and envious and enraged about being scooped. But I didn’t realize they had the story." After talking with Bonner, in fact, she felt better, for he seemed excited about seeing the guerrillas in combat. "I was interested in seeing how their society was organized," she says. "I wasn’t that interested in combat."

On her first day in rebel territory, the guerrillas led her to El Mozote and nearby villages. Guillermoprieto came upon awful sights that had shocked Bonner and Meiselas a few days earlier. The "sickly sweet smell of decomposing bodies" pressed the air.

The two American journalists and the American photographer saw dozens of bodies beneath the rubble of the village and lying in nearby fields. They found little children’s bodies rotting in the charred ruins of adobe houses. The village church was in ruins. An array of bones lay in the burned sacristy. Skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column and countless other pieces of bone poked out of ruble. They found charred bones in two of the burned houses of the village. These scenes, photographed by Meiselas, would appear in the Washington Post and the Sunday magazine of the New York Times. "By the end of the day," says Guillermoprieto, "I realized that something untoward and unspeakable had taken place."

In a nearby refugee camp, Guillermoprieto, like Bonner, interviewed Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of the El Mozote massacre. Guillermoprieto also interviewed two survivors from attacks on other villages. Aside from these eyewitnesses she interviewed a dozen other civilians who told her that their relatives had been killed by the Salvadoran soldiers. In all, Bonner said he interviewed thirteen peasants who told him that Salvadoran soldiers had killed their relatives. Both Bonner and Guillermoprieto were allowed to interview the civilians without the presence of guerrillas. The rebel soldiers also gave the reporters their version of events, and Guillermoprieto said that an American working in the area also described what he believed had taken place. Bonner said that he, too, had met an American, whom he identified as Joe David Sanderson. According to Bonner, Sanderson was killed in combat a few months later. Bonner also received a list from some villagers with the names of 733 peasants killed by the Salvadoran army. Bonner was told that the survivors had compiled the list.

From their separate interviews and observations, Bonner and Guillermoprieto, who did not consult each other afterwards, put together more or less the same basic account of what had happened:

In mid-December, a few weeks before the American reporters entered Morazán, the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army had destroyed the village, killing almost everyone there. The Atlacatl was an elite, 1000-man battalion trained in counterinsurgency and rapid deployment by U.S. Special Forces military advisors. The Atlacatl, commanded by Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, was taking part in a Salvadoran Army search-and-destroy offensive in northern Morazán, an area largely in the hands of the rebels.

The Atlacatl soldiers marched into the village of El Mozote in the late afternoon of December 11. The village had fifteen to twenty mud brick homes around a square with a church and a small building that served as a kind of sacristy. The villagers did not regard themselves as rebel supporters, and some government soldiers had assured a local businessman that no villager would be harmed if all remained in their homes.

The Atlacatl soldiers, however, pounded on the homes and forced everyone to come out and lie down on the square in the darkness. After an hour and a half, the villagers were allowed to go back into their homes. "We were happy then," Rufina Amaya told Guillermoprieto. "`The repression is over,’ we said."

But before dawn the next day, the soldiers forced everyone back into the square. After a few hours of standing, the soldiers separated the men from the women and children and herded the men into the church. The women and children were put into a single home.

The soldiers beat and interrogated the men and then led them blindfolded from the church in small groups. At noon, the soldiers pulled young girls and women out of the house and took them to the hills outside the village, raping and killing them. The soldiers returned for the older women, marching them in small groups to another house where soldiers waited to shoot them. Some soldiers hesitated about killing children. But their officers berated them. Mrs. Amaya told Bonner she heard her nine-year-old son scream, "Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me."

After the carnage, the Atlacatl Battalion burned down the buildings of El Mozote and moved on. Rufina Amaya, who had heard the screams of her husband and other children as they were murdered, managed to slip away. Both before and after the massacre, the soldiers killed civilians in other villages. But no other village suffered a slaughter as massive and as near complete as El Mozote. Hundreds of civilians had died.

Guillermonprieto’s Report

Guillermoprieto felt that she had to get her story out right away. It was not so much the fear of being scooped. But she was sure that, if Bonner’s story appeared on the front page of the New York Times and hers reached the Post more than a day later, the editors would cut it and place it inside. "I was desperate," she says. "I was going to lose this story. It was going to be on page 17 in four paragraphs." What had happened, she believed, was a monstrosity, and she wanted everyone in Washington to take notice.

After gathering more detail from villagers and guerrillas on the second day, she sat down and wrote the story in closely packed script on seven pages of her notebook. She rolled the pages into a plastic film canister and persuaded a young rebel courier to take it to Tegucigalpa. Her plan to get the copy to the Post involved several simple but crucial steps. "Miraculously, it worked," she says. Following her instructions, the courier phoned an American radio journalist in Tegucigalpa. He picked up the canister and, heeding the plea on the handwritten copy, dictated the story to the Post.

The Editing Process

Guillermoprieto’s visit was cut short a few days later when the guerrilla commander informed her that he could no longer guarantee her safety. It was probably time to go anyway. She had banged a leg on a rock, and it was swelling. "When I got back to the Maya Hotel in Tegucigalpa," she says, "I was a nightmare. I had this enormous purple leg. I called the Post and asked, ‘When did the story run?’ And Karen (Foreign Editor De Young) said we were waiting to talk with you."

This upset Guillermoprieto . She felt that "they didn’t believe the story. Both Jim (Assistant Managing Editor Hoagland) and Karen thought I was overwrought and got too emotional and was too sympathetic to the guerrillas. What happened was so unbelievable that they didn’t believe it." There was only one consolation. She had not been scooped by Bonner. No story of his on the massacre had yet run in the Times.

The delay in publishing Guillermoprieto’s story was less an issue of belief than of cautious editorial practice. Since De Young had covered the Nicaraguan Civil War and other Central American stories as a highly regarded correspondent, she and other Post editors were sensitive to the need in Washington to produce full evidence in any story exposing the brutality of the armies of anti-communist dictatorships in the region. Without such evidence, the stories would be dismissed as left-wing propaganda.

Hoagland took the phone to talk with Guillermoprieto. "Jim spent an hour grilling me," she says. "God bless him, he was convinced." As Hoagland recalls the hour-long conversation, "We wanted to go over the details that had to be explained…It was not an unbelievable story to me. But we had to ask the basic question that all editors ask — How do we know that?" After the talk, he says, "I was satisfied that we had shown the scope of what we knew." Even though there was a possibility the Post would be scooped by Bonner, Hoagland says he had no intention of running the story until he had talked with Guillermoprieto and satisfied himself about the evidence.

The story was heavily edited by De Young. Guillermoprieto, who now writes for the New Yorker, says she tends to write at length and take time before getting to the heart of a story. She believes that the first half of her story was incoherent and that De Young mostly used the second half. After conferring with her, De Young and Hoagland inserted a key paragraph. It stated that the rebels had invited her to the province two weeks after their radio station had broadcast reports of the massacre. "It was clear that the guerrillas’ purpose was not only to demonstrate their control of the region," the paragraph said, "but also to provide what they said was evidence of the alleged massacre in December." Hoagland says readers need to know "when you are in a situation where you are dependent on your hosts for food and lodging and, in fact, your life."

After her talks with Hoagland and De Young, Guillermoprieto slept for a day. She felt feverish but wrote quickly, finishing a series of articles on life behind guerrilla lines. The story already in the hands of her editors was published in the Post on Wednesday, January 27, with the headline: "Salvadoran Peasants Describe Mass Killing: Woman Tells of Children’s Death."

Datelined Mozote, the Post story began:

"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.

"Reporters taken to tour the region and speak to survivors by guerrilla soldiers, who control large areas of Morazán Province, were shown the rubble of scores of adobe houses they and the survivors said were destroyed by the troops in the now deserted village community. Dozens of decomposing bodies still were seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields, despite the month that has passed since the incident.

"In Washington, Salvadoran Ambassador Ernesto Rivas Gallont said, ‘I reject emphatically that the Army of El Salvador’ was engaged in ‘killing women and children. It is not within the armed institution’s philosophy to act like that.’ He acknowledged that the ‘armed forces have been active in that part of the country,’ particularly during a December offensive against the guerrillas, but said that their actions had ‘definitely not been against the civilian populations.’

"The survivors, including a woman who said her husband and four of her six children were killed, maintained that no battle was under way during the second week in December when the alleged massacre took place…"

Bonner’s Report

Although the Times had already published the start of the Bonner series, his first article did not discuss the massacre. There was nothing by Bonner to match the Guillermoprieto story in the first edition of the Times for that day.

Bonner flew to Mexico City to write a series on life behind guerrilla lines. He did not rush out a story on the massacre but included it as the second piece in his series. He sent it to the New York Times as one in a batch of three articles. His fourth would follow. "I was so green and naïve in journalism that I didn’t know what I had," he says. "I didn’t know what impact it would have."

Craig Whitney, then deputy foreign editor of the Times, edited the series. After the first piece was published, he worked on the massacre story and then, much like Hoagland and De Young at the Post, set it aside, assuming he could talk with Bonner about it the next day. "The reporting was there," he recalls. "The next step was making sure by asking the obvious questions. How do you know it happened? What is the evidence? How do we know how many people were killed?" But Whitney received a call at home that evening informing him that Guillermoprieto’s story had appeared on the front page of the first edition of the Post. "I said run the story," says Whitney. "I edited it and talked with Ray on the phone, and it ran. It ran on Page 1. There was never any doubt that he had the basic facts." Bonner says "the story probably had a fair amount of editing because it probably needed it. I wasn’t an experienced writer at that time."

The story appeared on the front page of the final edition of the New York Times on Wednesday, January 27, the same day that the Guillermoprieto story appeared on the Post’s front page. The headline read: "Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village."

Also datelined Mozote, the Times story began:

"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.

"In some 20 mud brick huts here, this reporter saw the charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams and shattered tiles. There were more along the trail leading through the hills into the village, and at the edge of a nearby cornfield were the remains of 14 young men, women and children.

"In separate interviews during a two-week period in the rebel-controlled northern part of Morazán Province, 13 peasants said that all these, their relatives and friends, had been killed by Government soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion in a sweep in December.

"The villagers have compiled a list of the names, ages and villages of 733 peasants, mostly children, women and old people, who they say were killed by the Government soldiers. The Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, which works with the Roman Catholic Church, puts the number at 926…"

Bonner’s story did not have a paragraph like the one in the Post story stating that the guerrillas had invited him in so that he could look at the massacre site. But, though almost all of the evidence in his story implicated the Salvadoran Army as the perpetrators of the massacres, the Bonner story did say, "It is not possible for an observer who was not present at the time of the massacre to determine independently how many people died or who killed them."

Although Bonner was too inexperienced to realize the impact that his story would have in Washington, he now feels that his inexperience was probably an advantage. "I was not journalistically trained," he says. "I wasn’t trained in the culture of the New York Times and I wasn’t trained even in the culture of journalism. I f I did a good job… I sometimes wonder how much of that was because I did not have journalistic training. I think I’d be much more cautious in what I wrote today, and I’m not sure it would be better…I had no idea what the impact of the New York Times was…Maybe that was good because I just wrote what I saw."

Guillermoprieto expected the stories to have more of an impact than they did. "I was surprised at the lack of world outrage," she says. "By my standards, what I had hoped for, there was no impact. I felt as if I were in a nightmare when you try to scream and have no voice."

Reactions Back Home

The stories on the front page of the two most influential newspapers in the country upset and embarrassed the Reagan Administration. They appeared a day before President Reagan sent Congress his certification that El Salvador was "making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights." he certification — required by law as a condition for continued military aid — was ludicrous if the stories were true.

In San Salvador, Ambassador Deane Hinton, who had already assured the National Council of Churches that he had no reason to believe that reports of a massacre were true, sent Todd Greentree, a political officer, and Maj. John McKay, a military attaché, to investigate. Greentree and McKay flew over El Mozote but, since it was in rebel territory, never set foot in it. On the ground, where they were joined by Deputy Chief of Mission Kenneth Bleakley, they interviewed refugees but mainly in the presence of Salvadoran soldiers. The conclusions of the embassy officers, sent to the State Department in a cable over Hinton’s signature, were cautiously put together.

"Although it is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote," the cable said, "it is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle…nor is there any evidence that those who remained attempted to leave. Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone." There was a good deal of ambiguity in the cable, but it clearly blamed the rebels for leaving civilians "in the path of battle." This implied, of course, that they were killed by chance in battle and not by the deliberate act of bloodthirsty, abusive soldiers.

Citing the investigation by the two embassy officers and repeating the words of the cable, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders told both a Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee and a House Appropriations Subcommittee a week after publication of the stories that "there is no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone." Enders also said that the number of dead civilians could not possibly have reached Guillermoprieto’s estimate of several hundred or Bonner’s of 500 to 700 since government records list the population of El Mozote as only 300. This ignored the fact that both correspondents had reported that the massacres occurred in more villages than just El Mozote.

The administration’s belittling of the news accounts soon led to a right-wing campaign against the reporters, especially Bonner. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal, citing as evidence the paragraph that the Post editors had inserted in Guillermoprieto’s story, said that Bonner had clearly taken part in "a propaganda exercise" and "there is such a thing as being overly credulous." The presence of the "propaganda" paragraph in the Post story deflected the attack from Guillermoprieto, and the Journal did not criticize her directly. But that did not mean it believed her account. Much of the American press in El Salvador, according to the Journal, was following a Vietnam War-style of reporting "in which Communist sources were given greater credence than either the U.S. government or the government it was supporting." But Bonner seemed the main culprit. The editorial accused Times editors and reporters who had defended Bonner of closing "ranks behind a reporter out on a limb."

The attacks intensified. George Melloan, who had contributed to the editorial, went on the televised McNeil-Lehrer Report to say that "obviously Ray Bonner has a political orientation." The conservative newsletter Accuracy in Media castigated Bonner for carrying on "a propaganda war favoring the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador." Ambassador Hinton, in a breakfast with Washington reporters in June, dismissed Bonner as an "advocate journalist."

The attacks were too furious to be ignored in the Times newsroom. "There were all kinds of aspersions on Ray as a person and as a reporter," recalls Whitney, soon promoted to foreign editor. "…They (the administration) and their friends were really vicious about Ray and quite unfair. We probably applied more rigorous standards to his stories after then. But criticism makes me contrary and more determined than ever to get the story into the paper."

In August, seven months after the El Mozote stories were published, Managing Editor A. M. Rosenthal withdrew Bonner from Central America and assigned him to the business section in New York. Rosenthal insisted at the time and continues to maintain today that the relatively inexperienced Bonner needed more training as a journalist and more understanding of the way the New York Times works. The reassignment, however, was interpreted in some journalistic circles as a repudiation of Bonner and a surrender to pressures from the Reagan Administration.

This interpretation infuriates Rosenthal. Citing the Times’s history of defying Washington — especially its publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon Administration, Rosenthal says, "The Times has a pretty good record. Why in God’s name should we become whores for Ray Bonner?" He says any suggestion that he punished Bonner for writing the El Mozote story "is a lie."

But Rosenthal, who covered communist Poland as a young foreign correspondent and had the reputation of a tough Cold Warrior, acknowledges that he may have been worried about Bonner’s attitudes toward the Salvadoran government and toward the Salvadoran rebels. "As a matter of fact," he says, "I had doubts about a large part of the press corps." It was no accident that he hired Shirley Christian of the Miami Herald as a Times correspondent after she wrote an article in the Columbia Journalism Review denouncing American reporters for favoring the leftist Sandinista rebels during the Nicaraguan Civil War. While the need for training was the primary motive for reassigning Bonner, Rosenthal continues, "I’m not saying we were not worried about his articles. He’s a good reporter, but he’s not Jesus Christ Almighty."

Bonner agrees that he was not reassigned because of State Department pressure over the El Mozote story. A colleague informed him that Rosenthal told several Times editors and reporters at a private meeting, "If I have to choose between Bonner and the State Department, I’ll take Bonner." But Bonner believes that Rosenthal regarded communism as a far greater threat to Central America than brutal, repressive regimes and was troubled by correspondents who spent what Rosenthal regarded as too much time exposing the tactics of these regimes. Rosenthal, according to Bonner, was probably more upset by Bonner’s favorable view of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua than by the El Mozote story. Bonner says that three of his Nicaragua stories were never published.

The reassignment may have chilled El Salvador coverage. Reporters, according to Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review, became "wary of provoking the embassy." "If they can kick out the Times correspondent," said one foreign correspondent in San Salvador, "you’ve got to be careful." A New York Times correspondent heading off to Latin America told Bonner, "I’m not going to get caught in the same trap that you did." The whole episode, said another Times foreign correspondent, "had an intimidating effect on the foreign desk."

Bonner took a leave of absence to write a book on El Salvador and then resigned from the Times in 1984. He became a free lance writer working mainly for The New Yorker. In the 1990s, after Rosenthal retired as executive editor and began writing a column, Bonner returned to the Times as a contract writer and then as a staff correspondent assigned to Washington in 1999.

The Post rewarded Guillermoprieto by promoting her to a full-time job in Washington as a reporter. But the promotion did not work out well. "The whole thing was hexed from the beginning," she says. Her mother took ill and soon died. After the excitement of covering Central America, she had to cover suburban Maryland for the metro desk. Instead of reporting wars, she had to report on fires breaking out in middle class American homes. She felt a kind of culture shock. "It was a complete mismatch," she says.

She also felt "there was a ring of mistrust around me" because of her Salvador stories and the attacks on her by the Reagan Administration. The Post in those days was subject to a continual barrage of criticism from the White House. "There was tremendous pressure on us during the Reagan Administration," says De Young, the foreign editor. "People in the White House would complain to high executives at the Post about the correspondents covering Central America. That led to an air of mistrust. You know, if you call someone a leftist often enough, some of it sticks. But, having said that, I can not think of a single time that a story was changed or dropped because of pressure from the White House."

In a similar description of the atmosphere, Hoagland, the assistant managing editor, says it was not unusual for some editors to feel suspicious about the reporting of a correspondent in the field. "It was sort of like what happened in newsrooms during the Vietnam War," he says. "There is a difference between the Washington view, based on what editors hear from officials, and the view of reporters in the field who see the problems and failures of U.S. policy." But Hoagland believes that he defended Guillermoprieto against the doubts of some editors and that he had a duty to defend her. "I defended someone who had risked her life for us and given us a scoop," he says.

After two years, Guillermoprieto won an Alicia Patterson fellowship for travel in Europe and then accepted a job with Newsweek as its Latin American correspondent. She left Newsweek in 1987 to write a book and then became a staff writer for the New Yorker.


Guillermoprieto and Bonner were vindicated 11 years after the publication of their dispatches on the massacres.

As part of the accords that ended the Salvadoran Civil War on December 31, 1991, the U.N. Secretary-General appointed a Truth Commission to record the violations of human rights during the war and identify the culprits who perpetrated them. The commission comprised former Colombian President Belisario Betancur as chairman, former Venezuelan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart, and Thomas Buergenthal, an American law professor who once headed the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.

The Commission issued its report in March 1993. In the section on El Mozote, the commissioners concluded that "more than 500 identified victims perished at El Mozote and in the other villages." They added that "many other victims have not been identified" but gave no estimate of their number.

There was "full proof," the commissioners said, that units of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion "deliberately and systematically killed…the entire civilian population that they had found there." The commission added that there was "sufficient evidence" that the soldiers "massacred the non-combatant civilian population" in several nearby villages both before and after the El Mozote slaughter.

The commission’s conclusions were based heavily on the findings of forensic experts. A team of four Argentine forensic anthropologists dug up and examined the bones in El Mozote and then passed the material on to a team of four American doctors in San Salvador for a forensic examination.

The most damning evidence was exhumed in the sacristy. The Argentines found the skeletal remains of 143 bodies there. Of these, 131 were of children under the age of 12. The evidence showed that many of the victims were lying on the ground when shot from above by the killers standing in the door and by the windows. The bullets uncovered were U.S. government ammunition for U.S. government M16 rifles. The forensic experts concluded that the evidence "confirms the allegations of a mass murder." "There is no evidence to support the contention," the experts went on, "that these victims, almost all young children, were involved in combat or were caught in the crossfire of combat forces." The Truth Commission condemned the El Mozote massacre as "a serious violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law."

In all, the Truth Commission received 22,000 complaints of human rights abuses during the war. In contrast to what the Reagan Administration had insisted about rebel exaggerations and rebel killings, the commissioners said that the victims attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the army and other agents of the state, paramilitary groups allied to the government, and right-wing death squads.

After the Truth Commission published its report, Secretary of State Warren Christopher appointed a panel to examine "the activities and conduct" of the State Department during the war. The panel was made up of I. M. Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland, and two distinguished former foreign service officers, George S. Vest and Richard W. Murphy.

The panel was generally kind to the State Department. It concluded that "within the parameters of overall U.S. policy, the Department and Foreign Service personnel performed creditably — and on occasion with personal bravery — in advancing human rights in El Salvador." But the panel found a few exceptions, and El Mozote was the main one.

The panel criticized Assistant Secretary of State Enders for failing to make clear to Congress that the two U.S. embassy officers had not set foot in El Mozote during their investigation. The department was chastised for going even further than Enders in trying to discredit the Bonner and Guillermoprieto stories in its correspondence with members of Congress. Although Ambassador Hinton had cabled Washington in February his suspicion that "something happened that should not have happened and that it is quite possible Salvadoran military did commit excesses," the State Department still insisted in July that it had "no evidence to support allegations of large-scale massacres." That went even further than the testimony of Enders that they had no evidence "to confirm" the massacres.

The panel said that the reports of the massacre had clearly called for "an extraordinary effort" by the State Department to investigate what had happened. But none was mounted. "The Embassy does not seem to have been inclined to press," the panel said, "and Washington preferred to avoid the issue and protect its policy then under siege." The panel concluded that U.S. statements on the case were wrong and "undermined the Department’s credibility with its critics — and probably with the Salvadorans — in a serious way that has not healed."