The “Double Nickel” — Special Forces in El Salvador

Editors Note — In the Part One , read it in the September issue of the Sentinel.

By Greg Walker (ret), USA Special Forces

7th grp beret

The war that never should have been – Massacre at El Mozote

“Mrs. Amaya said the first column of soldiers arrived in El Mozote on foot about 6:00 p.m. Three times during the next 24 hours, helicopters landed with more soldiers. She said soldiers told the villagers they were from the Atlacatl Battalion. ‘They said they wanted our weapons. But we said we didn’t have any. That made them angry, and they started killing us. Many of the peasants were shot while in their homes, but the soldiers dragged others from their houses and the church and put them in lines, women in one, men in another.’ It was during this confusion that she managed to escape.

“She said about 25 young girls were separated from the other women and taken to the edge of the tiny village and she heard them screaming. When asked why the villagers hadn’t fled, Mrs. Amaya said, ‘We trusted the army.’ From October 1980 to August 1981, there had been a regular contingent of soldiers in El Mozote, often from the National Guard. She said they hadn’t abused the peasants, and that the villagers often fed them.”

“Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvadoran Village,”
The New York Times, Raymond Bonner, January 1982

Why Did They Have to Kill the Children?

Maj. Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera, second in command of the Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Battalion, was frustrated. He’d just ordered the men under his command to begin killing the children of El Mozote. They’d shown little hesitation in the killing of adult and elderly men in the village, and no hesitation at all in leading away the young girls, most between 12-to-15, whom they gang-raped, then butchered.

But the children, the ninos and ninas, they were now a problem. Major Cabrera was a true believer. The only good communist was a dead communist. And one dead communist child was one less future communist guerrilla the Salvadoran Army would have to fight.

El Mozote was a limpieza operation — a “cleaning up” of the communist guerrilla presence and control in the Department of Morazán. The Atlacatl Battalion was newly reformed and devoid of American Special Forces combat advisers. Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, the battalion commander, was going to fight the guerrilla armies of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)—one of the two primary political parties in El Salvador—his way.

Atlacatl was to be the Einsatzgruppen. Just like the Nazi “deployment units” raised by Heinrich Himmler — the founder and overall commander of the SS during World War II—the Atlacatl was the mobile killing unit of the Salvadoran High Command. Special tasks included the execution of communist party functionaries, FMLN and Catholic church officials, and FMLN political officers; as well as men, women, and children in those areas the military command deemed under the control of the guerrillas.

“Everything points to the fact that if ‘civilians’ of Catholic and evangelical affiliation died in the battle that took place in the El Mozote hamlet, were they linked to the activities of the terrorist group ERP [People’s Revolutionary Army]? The answer is yes, and this is what the report from the Department of State of the United States of America explained: El Mozote is located about 25 kilometers north of San Francisco Gotera, the capital of the department of Morazán. El Mozote hamlet was in the heart of the zone under constant siege by the ERP insurgents.

“The investigation confirms that the settlers of the El Mozote hamlet were collaborating, voluntarily or involuntarily, with the insurgents. The report also revealed that the insurgents mobilized their supporters within the area of influence in the north of Morazán to harass the military units of the Armed Forces while they were advancing in the area. The insurgent forces had been permanently re-established in the El Mozote village since August 1981.” “Mountains of Morazán: The Muda Verdad of El Mozote,” Charly Monterrosa, 

“We Carried Out a Limpieza There” — Colonel Domingo Monterrosa

Major Cabrera, like his commander, believed in leading from the front. Ordering an infant to be brought to him, he held it in hand while unsheathing his bayonet with the other. Amid a cascade of gunshots, young girls’ screams, and the smoke and stench of tiny homes burning, Cabrera threw the baby skyward, and speared it as the tiny body fell back to earth.

This wanton act of murder was attributed to U.S. Special Forces advisors over the years; a mixture of FMLN wartime propaganda and myth. It would take years to counter this allegation, an echo of North Vietnamese propaganda circulated during that war meant to discredit and diminish the presence and effectiveness of “The Green Berets” as they decimated the NVA and Viet Cong on a daily basis.

“Fog and friction are hard truths of war. Another hard truth is that the inevitable first casualty of war is the truth itself. El Mozote was a tragic consequence of the higher purpose that America was pursuing in El Salvador at the time…” — Dr. Todd Greentree, former political officer, El Salvador.

“Saigon had fallen just a few years earlier, but after Nicaragua, the US was not going to lose another country to the Soviet Union and Cuba in Central America. President Carter found aiding the Salvadoran government extremely distasteful, and his ambassador, Robert White, was an emotional human rights crusader, especially after the four churchwomen were raped and murdered on his watch. Yet, it was Carter who authorized lethal assistance to the Salvadoran military in one of his last decisions before leaving office in January 1981. 

Knive from El Salvador

(Photo courtesy the Greg Walker Collection)

“Reagan inherited El Salvador as his first foreign policy crisis. He eventually embraced counter insurgency but was initially more concerned to reassure Americans that El Salvador was not going to become another Vietnam. This was the source of the agreement with Congress to limit military trainers to 55 and to prohibit combat advisors from the field. As the first US trained and armed, equipped RRB, Atlacatl was under a microscope. Worse, shortly after they went out on their first big operation and committed El Mozote, Reagan was due to certify to Congress that the ESAF was taking measures to improve human rights. If the [U.S.] Embassy had unequivocally verified the massacre and US officials had testified that the [Salvadoran] military was responsible, Congress would have had to cut aid, even though they knew perfectly well it would have meant game over.” — Dr. Todd Greentree, letter to the author, May 26, 2021

Politically the war in El Salvador was never about democracy, or nation-building, or human rights. Despite public claims otherwise the Reagan Administration wanted, indeed was demanding, a full military victory over the communist insurgents. This while at the same time using El Salvador as a staging area for supporting what would become known as the Contra War in Nicaragua. For Special Forces in specific the politics were neither here nor there. Our job was to take the fight to the FMLN guerrillas and either bring them to the bargaining table in the understanding they would never win a military victory or dismantle their war-making machine to the degree the Salvadoran Military would utterly