Morazán Department, el Salvador - December, 2011

Visiting El Salvador

The Story of Rufina Amaya, 1943-2007

The Commemoration

The Museum of the Revolution

Other Photos


It was late in the afternoon December 10, 1981, when the troops of the Atlacatl Brigade marched into the hamlet of el Mozote.

The US trained and funded "Rapid Reaction Brigade" had at least 8 officers who were graduates of the US School of the Americas.

People had poured into el Mozote from miles around because they heard there was going to be a major offensive. The word had gone out that everyone who sought refuge in el Mozote would not be harmed. Almost all the people there were women, children or elderly.

The soldiers ordered everyone to crowd into the houses. Because of all the people who had come in from the countryside, the houses were jam packed.

As a full moon shone over the hamlet that night, nobody slept. Frightened, hungry children cried and fussed. An attempt to light a candle to cook food brought harsh warnings. Automatic gunfire and laughter went on throughout the night.

Before dawn broke, the soldiers began herding the people out of the houses and into the plaza. After being assembled in the plaza, they were seperated into two groups. Men and older boys were led into the church, women and all the children into a house across the street.

Then they began to systematically murder and rape until everyone in the village was dead..... except one.

Mark Danner writes of the story of the lone survivor, Rufina Amaya.

" "Now the women began to hear shouting from the church. 'We could hear them yelling - the men,' Rufina (in the house of Alfredo Marquéz) says. 'They were screaming,"No! No! Don't do this to us! Don't kill us."'

When she heard the screams, Rufina, who together with her children had been sitting on a bench with her back to the front wall of the house - the wall facing the church - climbed up on the bench so she could look out a small window high up in that wall. Through the window she saw soldiers leading men from the little whitewashed church - blindfolded men whose hands were bound behind them. Each pair of soldiers led five or six men past the house of Alfredo Marquez and took them out of the hamlet in different directions. After a time, she saw her husband in one group, and as she watched, along with young Cristino, who had climbed up next to her, eager to see what was happening, they both saw him - Domingo Claros, twenty-nine-year-old woodcutter, husband of Rufina and father of Cristino, Maria Delores, Marta Lilián, and Maria Isabel - bolt forward, together with another man, in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. But there was nowhere to run. The men of the Atlacatl leveled their M-16s and brought both men down with short bursts of fire. Then the soldiers strode forward to where the men lay gasping on the ground, and unsheathing their machetes, they bent over them, grasped their hair, jerked their heads back sharply, and beheaded them with strong blows to the backs of their necks.

"I got down from the bench and I hugged my children to me," Rufina says. "My son was crying and saying over and over, 'They killed my father.' I was crying. I knew then that they were all being taken away to be killed. I just hugged my children to me and cried."

... "All morning you could hear the shots, the crying and the screaming," Rufina says. In the house of Alfredo Marquéz, some of the children had become hysterical, and no one knew how to calm them. Cristino begged his mother tearfully to take them out of the house, lest they be killed, as he had seen his father killed. Rufina could do nothing but point helplessly to the guards and try to calm him. None of the women knew what would happen next. "We just cried and hugged one another."

Around mid day a group of soldiers came into the house. "Now it's your turn, women," one of the soldiers said. They were going to take the women out now in groups, the soldier explained, and then, he said, the women would be free to go to their homes, or down to Gotera, or wherever they liked.

With that, the soldiers began picking out, one by one, the younger women and the girls, and pulling them toward the door. "The girls would hang on to their mothers, and the soldiers would come in and just grab them from their mothers," Rufina says. "There was a lot of screaming and shouting. Everyone was screaming, "No! No! Don't do this!" But the soldiers would hit the mothers with the butts of their rifles, and they would reach behind and grab the girls and pull them along with them."

From the house of Alfredo Marquéz, the soldiers marched the group of young women and girls - some as young as ten years old - out of the hamlet and up onto the hills known as el Chingo and La Cruz. Before long, the women in the house could hear screams coming from the hills.

The guides on el Pinalito, nearby, also heard the screaming. "We could hear the women being raped on the hills," the Perquin man told me. "And then, you know, the soldiers would pass by, coming from there, and they'd talk about it. You know, they were talking and joking, saying how much they liked the twelve year olds."

In the midst of this, one or perhaps two helicopters - accounts differ, as they do about many details of the story - touched down in the plaza in front of the church, and a number of officers climbed out. From his vantage point on the hill, the guide says, he recognized the distinctive figure of an officer he had seen several times before: Colonel Jaime Ernesto Flores Grijalba, the commander of the third Brigade, in San Miquel, who was widely known as El Gordo (the Fat Man). Among the officers accompanying colonel Flores was one famous figure, a small but charismatic man whom the soldiers of the Atlacatl proudly pointed out to the guide: Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, their beloved commander.

...the soldiers returned to the house of Alfredo Marquéz. "I was still sitting on the bench with my kids," Rufina says. "When they came back, they began seperating the women from their kids. They pulled the mothers away, leaving the children there crying. They took one group of women and then, in a while, they came back and took another. That was the saddest thing - little by little, the mothers disappeared, and the house became filled mostly with crying children."

Rufina found herself in one of the last groups. "It must have been five o'clock. There were maybe twenty of us. I was crying and struggling with the soldiers, because I had my baby on my chest. It took two soldiers to pull the baby from me. So when I came outside into the street, I was the last in the group. I was crying and miserable, and begging God to help me."

The soldiers marched the women down the main street. They passed the house of Marcos Díaz on the right and, on the left, that of Ambrosiano Claros, where Rufina and her family had spent the previous night. Ambrosiano Claros's house was in flames. "I saw the other houses burning, and I saw blood on the ground. We turned the corner and walked toward the house of Israel Marquéz. Then the woman at the head of the line - we were in single file - began to scream. She had looked through the door and seen the people in the house."

What the woman had seen was thick pools of blood covering the floor and, farther inside, piles of bloody corpses - the bodies of the women who only minutes before had been sitting in the house with them, waiting.

"The first woman screamed, 'There are dead people! They're killing people!' and everyone began screaming. All down the line the women began resisting, hugging one another, begging the soldiers not to kill them. The soldiers were struggling with them, trying to push the women into the house. One soldier said, 'Don't cry, women. Here comes the Devil to take you.' "

Rufina, still at the end of the line, fell to her knees. "I was crying and begging God to forgive my sins," she says. "Though I was almost at the feet of the soldiers, I wasn't begging them - I was begging God. Where I was kneeling, I was between a crab apple and a pine tree. Maybe that was what saved me. In all the yelling and commotion, they didn't see me there. The soldier behind me had gone up front to help with the first women. They didn't see me when I crawled between the trees."

The crab apple tree - which still stands, next to the ruin of Israel Marquéz's house, a gnarled and twisted an old crab apple as one can imagine - was within about fifteen feet of the house. "I couldn't move, couldn't even cry," Rufina says. "I had to remain absolutely still and silent. The whole group was still outside the house - the women grabbing one another and hugging one another and trying to resist. Finally, the soldiers pushed some of them into the house. I couldn't see inside, but I started hearing shots and screams."

Finally, when the screams and gunfire had stopped, some of the soldiers went off. A few minutes later, they returned, pushing along the last group of women, and now Rufina heard the sequence - the cries of terror, the screaming, the begging, and the shooting - all over again. After a time, those sounds ceased. In the sudden silence, scattered shooting and fainter screams could be heard echoing from the hills. A few feet from where Rufina lay hidden behind the tree, nine of ten soldiers laid down their guns and collapsed wearily to the ground.

"Well, all those old bastards are dead," one said. "Go ahead and burn the house."

... The soldiers watched the fire and talked, and Rufina, frozen in her terror a few feet away, listened. "Well, we've killed all the old men and women," one said. "But there's still a lot of kids down there. You know, a lot of those kids are really good-looking, really cute. I wouldn't want to kill all of them. Maybe we can keep some of them, you know - take them with us."

"What are you talking about?" another soldier answered roughly. "We have to finish everyone, you know that. That's the colonel's orders. This is an operativo de tierra arrasada here - a scorched earth operation - "and we have to kill the kids as well, or we'll get it ourselves."

... Meanwhile, the soldiers sat and gazed at the burning house. Finally, one stood up. "Well, no witches came out," he said. "There are no witches. Let's go see what kind of food they have in that store."

With that, the other men got to their feet, picked up their rifles, and trudged off. A few minutes later, Rufina could hear, from the store of Marcos Díaz, "bottles clinking - you know, as if they were drinking sodas."

The fire was still burning furiously, but the big crab apple tree, which some miracle had kept from igniting, shielded Rufina from the heat. Over the crackling of the fire she could still hear, coming from the hill called La Cruz, the screams of the girls. Now and again, she heard a burst of gunfire.

After a time, when the soldiers seemed to have finished drinking their sodas, Rufina heard crying and screaming begin from the house of Alfredo Marquéz: the screaming of the children. "They were crying, "'Mommy! Mommy! They're hurting us! Help us! They're cutting us! They're choking us! Help us!"

"Then I heard one of my children crying. My son, Cristino, was crying, 'Mama Rufina, help me! They're killing me! They killed my sister! They're killing me! Help me!' I didn't know what to do. They were killing my children. I knew that if I went back there to help my children I would be cut to pieces. But I couldn't stand to hear it, I couldn't bear it. I was afraid that I would cry out, that I would scream, that I would go crazy. I couldn't stand it and I prayed to God to help me. I promised God that if He helped me I would tell the world what happened here."

*Italics are quoted from "The Massacre at El Mozote" by Mark Danner, Vintage Books 1993

A Visit to el Salvador

Rufina's Story

The Commemoration

The Museum of the Revolution

Miscellaneous Photos

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A young boy stands beside the church in el Mozote.

An el Mozote family in their pupuseria with guide Enrique.
As we sat on the bank of the Rio Sapo 30 years later, tears flowed from Enrique's eyes
as he told me what he saw when he returned to the area after "Operacion Rescate".

Rufina Amaya Marquéz
Survivor and loyal witness to the truth.
"Why am I going to be afraid to tell the truth? It was reality what they did and we have to be strong to tell it."


The memorial at El Mozote with names of the victims on the wall in back.

Rufina Amaya's grave is at left in front of the cross.

The plaque reads, "They have not died. They are with us, with you and with all of humanity."

This is the site on the east side of the church where the Sacristy was located.

Mark Danner writes: "Rufina could not see the children; she could only hear their cries as the soldiers waded into them, slashing some with their machetes, crushing the skulls of others with the butts of their rifles. Many others - the youngest children, most below the age of twelve - were herded into the sacristy, pushing them, crying and screaming, into the dark tiny room. There the soldiers raised their M-16s and emptied their magazines into the roomful of children."

The plaque on the stone pedestal reads, "In this place in 1992, the remains of 146 persons were found,
140 of them less than 12 years old. All of them are buried here in the monument.

"We must liberate our brother peasant slaves from the communist terrorism in the hills of the north of the country."

School of the Americas graduate Domingo Monterrosa, Commander of the Atlacatl battallion.

The store of Marco Diaz. One of the few remaining original buildings. It is riddled with bullet holes.

This is the area where Rufina Amaya hid from the soldiers.
It is 17 years since Mark Danner spotted the famous crab apple tree.
Some crab apples still grow here but the exact location is hard to pin point.