God's Politics

God's Politics

Ryan Beiler: Evangelicals and the El Mozote Massacre

This past week has been a blur of activity with the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, but I didn’t want to let the passing of Rufina Amaya go unmentioned on this blog. If that name is unfamiliar to you, Amaya was the sole survivor of the worst single massacre in modern Latin American history. A recent Washington Post article by Alma Guillermoprieto, one of the journalists to originally document the atrocity, recounts Amaya’s testimony in chilling detail:

An army officer who was a friend of her husband’s, she said, had told the villagers early in December not to worry about a coming offensive against the guerrillas, because El Mozote, which had a large evangelical population, was not known to be subversivo, or subversive.

But the troops returned. Acting on orders, they separated the villagers into groups of men, young girls, and women and children. Rufina Amaya managed to slip behind some trees as her group was being herded to the killing ground, and from there she witnessed the murders, which went on until late at night. An army officer, told by an underling that a soldier was refusing to kill children, said, “Where is the sonofabitch who said that? I am going to kill him,” and bayoneted a child on the spot. She heard her own children crying out for her as they met their deaths. The troops herded people into the church and houses facing a patch of grass that served as the village plaza. They shot the villagers or dismembered them with machetes, then set the structures on fire. At last, believing they had killed all the citizens of El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets, the troops withdrew.

I’m personally compelled to memorialize Amaya and El Mozote for three reasons:

1) When I visited El Mozote and other sites of atrocities in El Salvador as a college student in 1997, the resounding theme from survivors was to tell these stories so that people never forget what happened, and especially for gringos, that we know what crimes our government supported through its military aid.

2) Lest you should assign these horrors to ancient history, look no further than Colombia, the recipient of the most U.S. military aid in Latin America (third in the world), where it is now more clearly documented than ever that right-wing paramilitary death squads have been operating in close cooperation with the very military our government supports. Then, as now, that flow of aid is dependent on human rights ceritification, a highly politicized process that resists hearing the testimony of peasants caught in the meat-grinder of counterinsurgency warfare. Reading Guillermoprieto’s article alongside recent reports from Colombia, I’m overcome by vertigo-inducing deja vu.

3) One detail that has always struck me about El Mozote is that the villagers had been told that because they were evangelicals – generally perceived as apolitical, and not liberation theology-inspired “subversivos” – they would be spared. That they were massacred anyway is a stark reminder that apolitical piety is no protection from the principalities and powers. Though innocent farmers, they were, in Guillermoprieto’s words, “simply fodder in one of the last battles of the Cold War.”

The lesson for Christians seeking to love our neighbors as ourselves is that we are inextricably linked to the policies and actions of our government, and are vulnerable to their consequences whether we choose to engage them or not. So, whether the issue is military aid to Latin America, the war in Iraq, or violence in our own neighborhoods, let us engage those powers, with Christ as our model of sacrificial love; rejecting both the violence of Zealots and the superficial public piety of Pharisees.

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered 27 years ago tomorrow, was a shining example of that kind of faith, which can also get you killed. Below are the final paragraphs of the homily delivered the day before his death at the hands of assassins, two of whom received training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas:

I would like to appeal in a special way to the men of the army, and in particular to the troops of the National Guard, the Police, and the garrisons. Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God should prevail that says: Do not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of the dignity of the human person, cannot remain silent before so much abomination.

We want the government to seriously consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: Cease the repression!

Ryan Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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Carl Copas

posted March 23, 2007 at 10:35 pm

Ryan, coincidentally this week I’ve been reading Greg Grandin’s “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.” Grandin wrote a fine book on El Mozote, “The Last Colonial Massacre.” Thank you for your thoughtful piece.

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posted March 23, 2007 at 11:34 pm

Ryan, great article! I hope it’s OK for me to add another dimension to war crimes in Central America: WAR CRIMINALS IN THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION: Eliott Abrams, President George W. Bush appointed Abrams to the post of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council on 25 June 2001. Abrams was appointed Special Assistant to the President and the NSC’s Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs on 2 December 2002. Abrams clashed regularly with church groups and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, over the Reagan administration’s foreign policies. They accused him of covering up atrocities committed by the military forces of US-backed governments, such as those in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and the rebel Contras in Nicaragua. In early 1982, when reports of the El Mozote massacre of civilians by the military in El Salvador began appearing in U.S. media, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote “were not credible,” and that “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas. The massacre had come at a time when the Reagan administration was attempting to bolster the human rights image of the Salvadoran military. Abrams implied that reports of a massacre were simply FMLN propaganda and denounced US investigative reports of the massacre as misleading. He later claimed Washington’s policy in El Salvador a “fabulous achievement.” When Congress shut down funding for the Contras’ efforts to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government with the 1982 Boland Amendment, the Reagan administration began looking for other avenues for funding the group. Congress opened a couple of such avenues when it modified the Boland Amendment for fiscal year 1986 by approving $27 million in direct aid to the Contras and allowing the administration to legally solicit funds for the Contras from foreign governments. Neither the direct aid, nor any foreign contributions, could be used to purchase weapons. Perhaps guided by the new provisions of the modified Boland Amendment, Abrams flew to London in August 1986 and, using a fake name, met with the Bruneian defense minister to solicit a $10 million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei. Ultimately, the Contras never received this money because Abrams inadvertently provided the wrong Swiss bank account number to the Bruneians. In 1993, members of the Salvadoran Truth Commission testified about the El Mozote massacre in a congressional hearing of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee. Chairman Robert Torricelli, Democratic Senator from New Jersey, vowed to review for possible perjury “every word uttered by every Reagan administration official” in congressional testimony on El Salvador. Abrams denounced Torricelli’s words as “McCarthyite crap”. Documentation eventually emerged proving that the Reagan administration had known about El Mozote and other human rights violations all along. Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the time of the 2002 Venezuelan coup d’ tat attempt. From 1983 to 1986, Reich established and managed the inter-agency Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD). It reported to the State Department, but congressional investigations later determined it reported directly to Reagan’s National Security Council aide Colonel Oliver North in the White House. The OPD collaborated with Central Intelligence Agency propaganda experts and Army psychological operations specialists to disseminate what it called “white propaganda” designed to influence public opinion and spur Congress to continue to fund the Reagan’s administration’s military campaign against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Reich was never charged with breaking Congress’s ban on aid to the Contras. John Negroponte, Ambassador to the United Nations, 2001-2004; Ambassador to Iraq, 2004-2005, Director of National Intelligence, 2005-2007 From 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. During this time, military aid to Honduras grew from $4 million to $77.4 million a year, and the US began to maintain a significant military presence there, with the goal of providing a bulwark against the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which had overthrown the Somoza government and then created a state with close ties to both Cuba and the Soviet Union. The previous U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Jack Binns (who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter) made numerous complaints about human rights abuses by the Honduran military under the government of Policarpo Paz Garc a. Following the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, Binns was replaced by Negroponte, who has denied having knowledge of any wrongdoing by Honduran military forces. .

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kevin s.

posted March 24, 2007 at 12:33 am

Chavez will make everything alright, eventually.

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posted March 24, 2007 at 2:00 am

We Americans should work together to solve our own domestic problems before we ever again meddle with local democracies in Latin America. America’s democracy has been shamed in the eyes of the world by the ugly American Bush administration. We’ve got a lot of work to do before we can shed our ‘Yankee Imperialist!’ image in Latin America. So for the time being, I’ve stopped worrying too much about Chavez in Venezuela. The more Uncle Sam leans on Chavez, the nastier he’ll become. Just like Castro. We desperately need some intelligent diplomats instead of more ugly Americans. Diplomacy is a lot cheaper than war. It’s legal and moral too. .

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posted March 24, 2007 at 6:20 pm

The first lesson I draw from this story is that more people have suffered death at the hands of their own government than any other cause. Why do governments kill their own people? I happen to know the son of a former Salvadorian politician. After the coup this politician fled the country with his mistress, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. They managed to escape and found refuge in the US. What is it about political power that will cause a man to leave his own son to be slaughtered? Why is it that so many people believe the natural corruption of political power can be restrained and that American politicians are not subject to the same influence? Why do we believe that political maneuvering can be good? The best and most effective action for Christians to take is to work for the limiting of government power as much as possible, and to assume responsibility for caring for the least of these themselves. Nathanael Snow

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Deno Reno

posted March 24, 2007 at 6:28 pm

The Bush Administration undoubtedly believes that the IRAQ war is a “Fabulous Achievement”; As well as the Presidents latest Latin American Juncket must be considered another “Fabulous Achievement”.?!

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Carl Copas

posted March 24, 2007 at 8:51 pm

kevin s: “Chavez will make everything alright, eventually.” What does Chavez have to do with El Mozote? Or is the implication that if you are critical of U.S. policy in Central America, then you’re an apologist for Chavez?

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Joseph Tracy

posted March 24, 2007 at 10:37 pm

What has Chavez actually done that is so bad, beside mocking the warmonger Bush who supported a coup against his elected government? Or maybe his sin is sending more poor kids to school than ever went under the wonderful US puppets? Perhaps it is health care for the ordinary citizens? What was it? Tell me again I forgot?

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posted March 25, 2007 at 3:04 am

Nationalizing industries is a dangerous political step that will limit foreign investment and will destroy Venezuela’s bond rating, making it difficult for them to borrow. Chavez has not done anything dreadful to my knowledge, but his ideology has dangerous long term consequences which will impoverish and enslave his citizens. Nathanael Snow

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Joseph Tracy

posted March 25, 2007 at 6:58 am

The Venezuelan economy seems to be doing pretty well. Chavez got 65% of the vote with a 70% voter turnout in the recall. I remember all the right wing predictions on that one. Such voter participation is unimaginable in the US. Why should’nt Venezuelans enjoy more of their oil money; this is a natural resource and community property. Why don’t you aim your criticism of socialist/capitalist mixed economies with strong social safety nets at the countries of Europe.

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the contrarian

posted March 25, 2007 at 10:49 pm

“Nationalizing is a dangerous political step that will limit foreign investment and destroy Venezuela’s bond rating, making difficult for them to borrow…” Really? Chavez must be saying: Now I’m scared! Memo to Nathaniel Snow: Chaves has greenbacks up the kazoo. So much so that he loaned Argentina 9 billion so they could pay off the IMF… Your statement sounds as if it came right off the very board of directors of that institution. That same kind of predictions were cast in relation to Argentina not following the IMF’s recipe. Of course, the total opposite happened. Furthermore, if there’s a poster child case to debunk the croc that “nationalizing is a dangerous political step” look no further than the Chilean Copper mines that were nationalized by president Allende and never contested by the military junta nor their following democratic administrations. Murderous and Nazi they may have been, but they were not idiots. Now, in a resource scarce world the copper mines are securely in the hands of the Chilean people, as they well should. Every other country bears the same right to its own resources. It sure is though, a dangerous political step in that the corporate interests that are displaced will not sit iddle… “but his ideology has dangerous long term consequences that will impoverish and enslave its people” Gee whiz, Nat you see danger all over the place! To date, what has impoverished and enslaved the people the most are the economic policies preached and imposed from Washington through the IMF that have made possible a massive transfer of resources to the developed world. All of that has been possible because of corrupted governing elites in each country. And if somebody is not corruptible, well, something may happen in midflight…as it happened to Torrrijos. Now, for the record, Chaves is far from the ideal of a statesman. And if he really goes into a Soviet style socialism, then, you ‘re right it would be no good. But I doubt that that’ll be his goal.

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posted March 26, 2007 at 5:03 pm

I lived in El Salvador…very long time ago..i saw everything i need to see..i personally almost got killed..i run away..i had to leave my parents and my whole family and came to USA in 1981..that was just the begining of the war in el salvador..i wasn’t a militian of any political party..i remember the guerrillas and the goverment they were recrutining youngs guys some of them they were 12 or 13 years old for God sakes..and even the goverment they star going to the middle school and get them out the classroom…and those kids they never come back to their homes..that was horrible all those kids they were shaking like you never seen had to beleive me i was scared too..that is why i’m here..i made my life married had 3 kids and so i just had some remembrance of my home little country “EL SALVADOR” a true story..i had though make my life a personal MOVIE but i don’t think other people wants to know about me..what i been thru..i was smart enough i went to school here in USA to learnd English i can read and write much good as you see i typing i love so much my life and my childrens..long story of my life.. i really hope somebody read long TRUE PATRIOTS SALVADOREANS.. that i always be! they call us a nickname “GUANACOS”

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posted March 26, 2007 at 5:38 pm

So why do evangelists support, with great ferver, presidents who kill innocent people by the hundreds of thousands? Are evangelists really that stupid? Are they in on the potential oil money that is wrecking Iraq? Evangelists are as guilty as the death squads. Some of the evangelical leaders live like oil sheiks or kings with their own private airports and universities right here in the US. They should wake up and see the light, but a rich man is usually blind to goodness. The philosophy of these evangelists bear no resemblance to the lessons I learned in Sunday school. They are arrogant bastards like their favorite politicians.

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posted March 26, 2007 at 8:46 pm

When you bring El Mozote, the death squads backed by USA that operated throughout Latin America with total impunity, and amidst the Iraq War… I can only find it somewhat Ironic, that one of the policies Pentagon-Dick Cheney were spearheading was the so called “El Salvador Option”, in other words, a way to utilize death squads in a scorched earth campaign in Iraq immitating the “success” such operation had in El Salvador (hence the terminology with which it was baptized). And seeing how dirty this administration is, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if such was actually happening. Anyway, on a related topic to this horrid mess of US international politics and all their screw-ups (paramilitaries, dictatorships, sabotaging elected democracies, etc.), do you want to know another side-effect of our out of control policies? The narcocapitalist system that exists throughout LA and extends into our borders. Those paramilitary groups were financed by CIA protected drug trafficking, arms dealing, among other things. And to this very day, those networks the drug is transported and the money is laundered into the financial system is operational and in control by the “elites” of Latin American countries. Take Pres. Uribe from Colombia for example, with ties ,and his family, to death squads and cartels. So ask yourself this, how many millions are we investing in this war against drugs, exactly? Is it worth anything, when it was us who set up the network, provide protection to the top dealers? If we are honest about this war on drugs why don’t we distance ourselves from Alvaro Uribe who has traffickers as backers (and majority control of the cocaine/marijuana harvest of that country along with the fake company networks/banks)? On a different issue… Limit government’s powers? For what exactly so corporations can do whatever they want without any regulations just as they do in developing countries (Bechtel-Bolivia, Pacific Rim-El Salvador, to name a few)? What governments actually need is to be have a permament divorce with the “lobbies” that exist, they influence too much government policies already. From health care, to energy, to diet, to wars, every single sphere of our society and daily lives. That is what we need.

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posted March 27, 2007 at 2:38 am

It’s really complicated to separate politics and religion, especially in latin american countries where the raise to power is due to one or the other. lets not be partisan and lets show both sides of the coin, during the Salvadoran war not just the evangelists suffer a great deal but the catholic church suffered greatly, and anybody that was associated with any religious group. You took the risk as being categorized as guerrillas or terrorist group. If not just look at the facts, Monsignor Romero, The Jesuit priests and the 4 American nuns, the Father Rutilio Grande, and many many other people associated with the curch lost their life, not just the evangelist of El Mozote. I was a 10 year old boy back in 1982. I’m from the small town of Tenancingo which became famous after the daugther of President Duarte was kidnapped and realeased there. Our town was masacred several times, forced to flee and wander from town to town just to survive. I witnessed how my neighbor which was a cathecism teacher was dragged from her house to a military truck to never be seen again, and how her children were chased trhough the sugar cane plantation, and how the garbage collecting truck will dump dozens of bodies at the dumping site and a buldozer will come after and bury everything under tons of garbage. Atrocities committed by the government and backed by the US military power. The US military didn’t kill the people they gave the money and arms, logistical and military training. But was our own people who did that. When I say politics and religion are hard very hard to separate, because there is always a hidden meaning or a complicity on both sides to which most people turn the blind eye. This also happened in our town not just in El Mozote. People turn against each other, neighbor against neighbor I know many cases of where the same evangelics were are talking about turn their neighbors in just because they didn’t like’em or because they were catholics or belonged to another religious group. It’s just wrong to use religion and the name of God with the means ot exterminate the people you don’t like. So if we are to talk about abomination lets start deep in our soul and cleanse ourself from the inside out and do good no matter who were have infront of us, because when we die we’ll have to give account of all the good and bad we’ve done on our lives. My heart wrenches everytime I think of the lifeless headless body I stumbled upon at 6am in the morning on a cloudy dark misty day on my way to school. What did he do to deserve such a fate. was it on the name of God, who did that to him.

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posted March 27, 2007 at 1:41 pm

Is it NOT the Democrats, the Left, and Liberals and Progressives, that are fawning all over the Marxist, Communist leaders taking over power in Latin America at this very moment? Hugo Chavez has openly reviled Christians.He declares the righteousness of native religions and stirs the masses to hatred for Christians. He declares war on the “North” Americans, with the ease of Stalin and Hitler.And you Liberals and Progressives are cheering him on and his Marxist movement of totalitarianism. And handing him shovels and guns. Guess who he is going to kill. He and his fanatic followers.

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posted March 27, 2007 at 6:06 pm

Chavez will make everything alright, eventually. kevin s.What makes Kevin’s statement rise from being pathetic to the level of utterly offensive is that the people who were killed at El Mozote were probably theologically and ideologically closer to his way of thinking (minus the snide sarcasm, probably) than the theology and ideology of most people who read and post here. They were simple village folk who took a very literal view of the Bible and were staunch evangelicals. After having interviewed probably more than 100 Salvadorans who were seeking political asylum and having heard the horrific stories, I am saddened to read Kevin’s dismissive attitude, though it does not surprise me as it is consistent with many other things he’s said here.

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