La Quesera Massacre: Declassified documents open window into US awareness of wartime atrocities

Recently declassified US government documents released to the UW Center for Human Rights by the US Department of State permit a glimpse into behind the scenes discussions of atrocities at a key moment in the Salvadoran armed conflict.

The documents, from October and November 1981, declassification of some of which was previously refused on national security grounds, show that high-ranking US officials had detailed knowledge of the massacre of unarmed civilians during an October military campaign in the departments of Usulután and San Vicente. When the newly-released documents are analyzed alongside others released previously, a more complete picture of the US response to these killings – including the notorious massacre of La Quesera – emerges. The record shows that:

  • US officials were eyewitnesses to attacks on unarmed civilians by a Salvadoran helicopter pilot, a fact reported to the highest levels of the US government.
  • Ambassador Deane Hinton and colleagues reacted with grave concern to reported atrocities, issuing strongly worded admonitions to the Salvadoran counterparts that future US support could be threatened should such incidents continue.
  • At the same time, Hinton took steps to counter the manipulation of information regarding atrocities by journalists they view as sympathetic to the rebels.
  • Despite knowledge of these events, plans to finance the Salvadoran military at historic levels continued apace.

The release of these documents matters, even thirty-four years later: today, survivors and human rights advocates are still searching for more than a dozen children disappeared in the context of this military operation, some of whom were given in adoption to foreign families and may have grown up without knowing their birth families are still looking for them. Additional information about this military campaign may aid in the healing process.

Furthermore, the fact that some of these documents were previously withheld on national security grounds, but are now released to the public, shows that the time has come for greater transparency about past violence. It is our hope that the publication of these documents can further efforts at seeking truth, justice, and reparations for crimes against humanity committed in El Salvador.

The context

While the politically motivated violence that characterized civil war-era El Salvador was well underway by late 1981, the months from October through December saw an unprecedented shift in the state’s counterinsurgency tactics. By this point in the war, brutal retaliation for opposition to the regime was widespread in both cities and the countryside; both those affiliated with guerrilla activity and those active in peaceful civil society organizing were targets. Yet most of these abuses had been committed by the security forces and aligned death squads; large-scale military invasions of rural communities, and the major massacres they engendered, had been limited until late 1981.

These documents reveal the reactions to the first of these massive incursions, a late October sweep into the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután and San Vicente, reportedly led by some 1200 troops from the Atlacatl battalion and a combined force of 1600 others, including soldiers from the 5th Infantry Brigade in San Vicente and the 6th Infantry Brigade in Usulután[1]. Prompted by the FMLN’s destruction of one of the country’s most important bridges on October 15, 1981, the military launched a full-scale assault on the surrounding areas. The sweep’s name – Operation Encirclement (Operación Envolvente) – alludes to the tactics used: a cordon of troops concentrated the population in a contained zone, within which they were subjected to aerial bombardment, mortar fire, and attacks by ground troops over the course of many days. The series of mass killings that took place are known as the massacre of La Quesera, since many fled to a place by that name; estimates of the number of dead range from 350 to 500[2]. Killings were accompanied by the destruction of crops, homes, and livestock; mass rapes were also reported. The Catholic Archbishopric’s human rights office Socorro Jurídico Cristiano reported that during the invasion, troops shouted, “You are the ones who give food to the guerrillas. Now the guerrillas are going to die of hunger because they won’t have anyone to feed them.”[3] This would appear to confirm the fears of Amnesty International, who had warned just months earlier in a letter to then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig that US assistance would likely be used to punish civilians “simply because they inhabited certain strategically important areas where guerrillas were believed to have been active.”[4]

Indeed, this sort of collective punishment of the civilian population in areas of known guerrilla activity was described by the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador as an inherent part of the state’s “scorched earth” strategy: “Everything confirms that these deaths fell within a pattern of conduct, a deliberate strategy to eliminate or terrorize the peasant population of areas where the guerrilla was active, in order to deprive the latter of this source of supplies and information, as well as the possibility of hiding or blending in among the population.”[5]

Following on the heels of the bloody October invasion of Usulután and San Vicente, the military launched a second similar operation in November in northern department of Cabañas; again, a massive invasion and cordoning subjected the local population to sustained assault over the course of multiple days. In this context, on November 14, 1981, dozens of civilians were killed as they attempted to break through the military cordon at a place called Santa Cruz; this massacre is documented in the UWCHR’s 2015 report, God Alone Was With Us.

And in December, the Atlacatl again headed up the now-notorious march into Morazán, where approximately 1000 civilians are believed to have been killed in a multi-day spree at El Mozote and surrounding villages, often cited as the deadliest massacre in the modern Americas. While the massacre at El Mozote was strenuously denied by US officials[6]; news of its precursor in Usulután was apparently considered credible by the same individuals, who chose to respond with strong words behind the scenes while funneling increased support to the army carrying out the killings.

What the documents show

In response to the UWCHR’s request for information pertaining to the October operation in Usulután and San Vicente, the US Department of State released six documents (link here to all 6 with document descriptions). An analysis of these permits several observations.

First, the documents offer a window into how US officials tracked acts of violence, and what they missed as the country around them descended into terror. Documents 1 and 3 are examples of the weekly bulletins compiled by the US Embassy during this period based on reports in the Salvadoran media. C05861539 “Violence Week in Review” for October 10-16, for example, notes the guerrillas’ destruction of the Puente de Oro bridge, amid other incidents of violence overwhelmingly attributed to the left; this is unsurprising, given the fact that at this time Salvadoran media was entirely controlled by the government, and yet formed the sole source for the US Embassy in these weekly tallies. The biases inherent in such a system are underscored in C05861533 “Violence Week in Review” for October 24-30; here the Embassy reports that violence “returned to the relatively lower levels the country had experienced over the past two months,” suggesting an improvement in levels of violence even as the mass killings took place.

Second, the documents speak loudly to concern about media coverage of violence. Civil society groups and some international media did learn of the massacres in Usulután; C05861538 offers an example of its mention amidst other reported abuses in a paid ad published in Costa Rica’s La Nación, which the Embassy characterized as “Black Propaganda Against the United States.” While this text is offered without further comment, likely because its source is transparent in its sympathies with the FMLN and hence not deemed credible, Documents 2, 5, and 6 show the Embassy’s concern with media coverage of statements made by Bishop Rivera y Damas about the killings in Usulután.

In C05861532 on November 4, Ambassador Hinton reports that news agency UPI had published a Spanish language article on November 2 charging the armed forces with the deaths of innocents in Usulután and attributing statements to Bishop Rivera y Damas, who answered questions from the media, including a UPI journalist, following his November 1 homily in the Metropolitan Cathedral. Upon reviewing a transcript of the Bishop’s remarks, Hinton states that the Bishop acknowledged civilian deaths but did not comment on who was responsible; UPI’s coverage, he concludes, is a “distortion” of what was said. c05861531 reveals Hinton’s response: on November 9, he suggested to the Bishop that “he was being exploited by the international press” for propagandistic effect, particularly when giving spontaneous responses to journalists’ questions rather than prepared homilies. “I suggested,” Hinton writes, “that he might wish in future to decline to answer such questions.”

Third, perhaps the most interesting dimension of these documents is the internal back-and-forth they reveal about credible reports of large-scale civilian deaths in Usulután. This is best appreciated when these newly-released documents are placed in context with other documents already declassified from the same period. Taken together, the records reveal considerable awareness, and corresponding concern, on the part of Embassy officials about the massacre.

Some of this information refers to an October 17 incident in which US personnel were aboard a helicopter whose pilot apparently fired on civilians fleeing the massacre. According to multiple sources, two majors of the US Army Corps of Engineers, one US military advisor, and a USAID engineer were being flown by a Salvadoran pilot to inspect the damage to the Puente de Oro when this incident occurred[7]. A previously declassified October 22, 1981 telegram  from Ambassador Hinton to Secretary of State Haig reports on this same incident, noting that Hinton had spoken “bluntly” with high-ranking Salvadoran military officials about this “flagrant lack of fire discipline,” expressing grave concern that “such actions recruit insurgents.”

“Indeed, our own officials were witness to a machine gun attack on apparently unarmed civilians by helicopter.”
– Ambassador Hinton, Nov. 7, 1981

On November 7, Hinton cabled Haig to suggest that US officials should raise the issue of fire control procedures in upcoming meetings with Salvadoran General José Guillermo García, then Minister of Defense. Hinton’s cable notes that in the past, few such excesses had been reported, but recent information suggested an escalation: “Indeed, our own officials were witness to a machine gun attack on apparently unarmed civilians by helicopter.” Hinton warned that the “creation of free-fire zones in El Salvador or army-air force behavior as if such zones exist could have gravest consequences for our continued cooperation and our hopes to provide continued US assistance,” suggesting a need for “blunt talk” with García during his Washington visit. A November 14 document from the Department of State to the US Embassy in San Salvador  reported that such a conversation was had with García, who indicated that he understood.

However, newly-declassified C05861534 – previously withheld on national security grounds – offers another window into Hinton’s mounting concern. This document reports that on November 9, Bishop Rivera y Damas told Ambassador Hinton and Salvadoran Foreign Minister Chavez Mena of “brutal army tactics” during the recent operation in Usulután, which he suggested had killed “at least 200 civilian non-combatants,” including the widespread deaths of women and children. The following day, Hinton asked Chavez Mena his view of the Bishop’s statements, and Chavez reportedly confirmed that his own sources were telling him similar things: “two of his bodyguards had lost brothers living in the area of the sweep who were nothing more than simple campesinos with no political interests. … Even he and his fellow Hacienda police officer were repelled by the level of violence. The [foreign minister] recognizes full well the impact on world opinion of such events as they become public knowledge, as in part is already the case in the Usulután operation.”

There is no evidence of an attempt to deny what transpired, as was done just months later in response to public revelations about the killings at El Mozote. On the other hand, there is also no evidence of an attempt to discern responsibilities or initiate an investigation of any sort. What’s more, there is no suggestion that such reports – while apparently deemed credible – dissuaded Hinton or other US officials from continuing in their plan to support the Salvadoran war effort. Indeed, as these discussions transpire, a November 6 Department of State document  expresses intention to move forward with a $25 million loan to finance purchase of M-16 rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, ammunition, and vehicles, including possibly helicopters, for the Salvadoran military; despite the Salvadoran government’s noted nonpayment of a previous loan, the present support must be provided under “the most lenient repayment terms possible.”

Why this matters

The release of this information is important, even this many years after the fact. First, while the information contained in these cables remains incomplete, the details embedded here complement existing information and corroborate testimony by survivors of this operation. Access to this information is a basic human right, and constitutes a necessary step in ensuring access to truth, justice, and reparations in cases of crimes against humanity.

It is also a vital step toward healing. As Salvadoran human rights group Asociación Pro-Búsqueda has documented in its painstaking efforts to reunite families separated by the violence of the war, over a dozen children were disappeared in the context of the killings in Usulután and San Vicente. Some are known to have been given in adoption to other families, both within El Salvador and beyond; in a few cases from La Quesera, children –now adults– have been located who were abducted in the massacre[8]. In others, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered the state of El Salvador to undertake an exhaustive search for the missing children, providing public access to files containing information that is relevant to the case and other forms of reparation[9]; in failing to comply even minimally with these requirements, El Salvador is flouting its responsibilities under international law.

In early 2015, University of Washington faculty and students met with family members whose children went missing in the massacre of La Quesera, and who continue to search for them to this day. Releasing full information about this military campaign may make it possible for these grieving families and others like them to learn the truth of what happened – and where possible, reunite with loved ones for the first time in three decades.

Salvadoran families continue to search for children disappeared during the La Quesera massacre

Secondly, the release of these documents underscores the importance of continuing to pursue access to information about human rights, even in cases where officials have previously claimed that national security concerns precluded disclosure. Document 5 provides an example: in this case, responding to an earlier request for information, federal authorities issued a statement known as a “Vaughn index” which describes the document’s contents and explains the justification for its withholding. Among the justifications provided: “Disclosure of the Ambassador’s confidential comments in the fourth paragraph… could enable foreign elements hostile to U.S. objectives to create friction and misunderstanding that would hamper cooperation between the U.S. and El Salvador in foreign relations in matters of common concern, thereby causing damage to U.S. foreign relations and to U.S. national security.”

This many years after the conflict, however, the State Department has recognized appropriately that such logic no longer holds. Today, both countries’ security interests are best served by the disclosure of information that can assist in efforts at establishing the rule of law. During the war, Ambassador Hinton wisely noted that unchecked atrocities “recruit insurgents”; similarly, today, unchecked impunity abets ongoing violence. As Salvadorans conclude this year with homicide rates approaching wartime levels, the urgency of addressing El Salvador’s inoperative justice system could not be clearer. This cannot happen until all crimes, past and present, are acknowledged and investigated, a process that will require the ongoing collaboration of both governments in providing access to information about grave crimes.


Date: October 22, 1981
Agency: Department of State
Source: UW CHR Freedom of Information Act Request
Title: Violence Week in Review October 10-16

A cable reviewing violence during the week of October 10-16 reports on “the destruction of one of the principal bridges linking eastern and western El Salvador,” providing the following details: “on 10/12 near San Nicolas Lempa, Usulutan, a large number of guerrillas attacked security positions around the ‘Puente de Oro’ bridge with the apparent intent of destroying the structure. Government repulse of the attack resulted in an undetermined number of casualties.”

The cable goes on to report on other violent incidents that week, culminating with the destruction of the Puente de Oro bridge by guerrilla forces:

“On 10/14 in Santa Ana, a firefight between troops and guerrillas was reported, no casualties figures were released.
On 10/14 near the Puente de Oro bridge, Usulutan, terrorists machines-gunned [sic] a bus, wounding two passengers…
On 10/15 in Usulutan department, the Puente de Oro bridge was destroyed by terrorist [sic].”

Date: November 4, 1981
Agency: Department of State
Source: UW CHR Freedom of Information Act Request
Title: Homily for November 1

This cable reports on Bishop Rivera y Damas’ homily for November 1, 1981. Rivera y Damas reported good news, the release of a kidnapped doctor, calling for justice for those imprisoned, and hoping for information about the disappeared. He also addressed the political violence during the week, specifically a death list that emerged in Chalatanango and threats against a relocation camp, demanding an investigation into the events.

After the mass, the cable reports, Bishop Rivera y Damas addresses a question by a reporter about “reports that 132 deaths resulted from an army sweep in Usulutan department” and asked “‘if perhaps a great number of civilians are dying in operations such as this.’”

The cable notes that “[a]t no point, either in the homily or in the session with the reporter, did the bishop accuse the Salvadoran army of murdering peasants under the guise of killing guerrillas…nor was there any mention of U.S. troops much less Green Berets, either by the reporter or the Bishop.”

The cable then explains that a news article and a radio report had mis-reported on the content of Rivera y Damas’ homily, and that according to the transcript of the homily, the Bishop never mentioned US troops or a charged “the armed forces with killing innocent people and then listing them as guerrilla casualties.”

November 4, 1981
Agency: Department of State
Source: UW CHR Freedom of Information Act Request
Title: Violence Week in Review October 24-30

A cable reviewing violence during the week of October 24-30 reports that violence “returned to the relatively lower levels the country had experienced over the past two months. Reported political murders dropped to 71 from last week’s total of 103.” The cable summarizes and quantifies various acts of violence, including several guerrilla actions in Usulután department.

Date: November 6, 1981
Agency: Department of State
Source: UW CHR Freedom of Information Act Request
Title: Black Propaganda Against the United State: Genocide, Bacterial and Chemical Warfare in El Salvador

This cable reports the text of a paid announcement placed in the Costa Rican daily newspaper La Nación on November 5, 1981 by the “Costa Rican Committee of Solidarity with the Salvadoran People.” The announcement denounces “the genocide against the Salvadoran people” and the use of “criminal technology provided by the government of Ronald Reagan.” Specifically, the announcement cites “extermination operations in the department of Usulután against the towns of Jucaran, El Jicaro, El Llano, Bolivar, La Montañita, Corozalito, and in the department of San Vicente in the zone of Chinchotepec volcano”. The announcement also cites the use of weapons including heavy bombs, white phosphorous, agent orange, and “biological warfare methods”.

November 10, 1981
Agency: Department of State
Source: UW CHR Freedom of Information Act Request
Title: Salvadoran Army Tactics

Ambassador Hinton reports on a lunch conversation in which Bishop Rivera y Damas expressed “his concern about brutal tactics during recent operation in U[s]ulutan,” reporting “at least 200 civilian non-combatants killed” including “widespread killing of camp followers – women and children.” Hinton comments that Rivera y Damas “recognizes that they were part of or related to the guerrilla force support networks,” and that the Bishop had spoken to a soldier returning from the operation who stated that “‘hemos limpiado la zona’. (We cleaned up the area).”

Hinton goes on to explain that he asked Foreign Minister Chavez Mena for his opinion on Bishop Rivera y Damas’ account. The Foreign Minister said he had heard corroborating evidence from two of his bodyguards who “had lost brothers living in the area of the sweep who allegedly were nothing more than simple campesinos with no political interests.” Hinton reports that “the stories the individual had told the FONMIN upon his return were ‘bad.’ Even he and his fellow Hacienda Police officer were repelled by the level of violence.”

November 10, 1981
Agency: Department of State
Source: UW CHR Freedom of Information Act Request
Title: The Press and Rivera y Damas

Cable recounts US Ambassador Deane Hinton’s recommendations to Bishop Rivera y Damas regarding media and propaganda impacts of his public statements regarding the conflict. Hinton reports, “I mentioned to Bishop Rivera y Damas my belief that he was being exploited by the international press and that in turn Radio Havana and others were further magnifying his remarks to gain propaganda impact. I complimented him on his balanced presentations in his prepared Sunday homilies and added that most of the damage seemed to be coming from his off-the-cuff subsequent responses to newsmen’s questions. I suggested that he might wish in future to decline to answer such questions and offered to provide him illustrative documentation of what actually happened in press exploitation of one of his impromptu answers. (I have now sent him Radio Havana’s comments on his remarks about alleged army atrocities in Usulután.)” This cable relates to the homily described in Document 2, and refers to the same lunch meeting described in Document 5.


[1] For reports citing official statements on the participation of specific units, see “Heavy Fighting in Jucuarán,” El Mundo 20 October 1981: 28; “Lempa Bridges Area Fortified,” El Diario de Hoy 28 October 1981: 24; “Salvador Commandos Launch Major Offensive,” Globe and Mail October 29, 1981

[2] Based on preliminary investigations, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology team compiled a database of some 376 possible victims; in 2004, they recovered the remains of 39 individuals, and in 2009, of an additional 14. Given the conditions of the terrain and particularly the proximity to the Lempa River, into which eyewitnesses report bodies were thrown out of helicopters during the massacre, it is unsurprising that exhumations yield only a fraction of the remains.

[3] “Boletín Urgente,” Socorro Jurídico del Arzobispado, November 1981, 4

[4] Amnesty International, “Letter to US Secretary Of State Alexander Haig On Possible Impact Of United States Military Assistance To El Salvador on AI Concerns in that Country,” El Salvador Packet, May 11, 1981

[5] Report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12-year War in El Salvador, 1992-1993 (evidence file, tome II, annex 1 to the submission of the case, folio 1208).

[6] Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote, New York: Vintage Books, 1994

[7] James Nelson Goodsell, “Guerrillas push Central American countries into Military Cooperation,” Christian Science Monitor November 5, 1981; UPI “Salvador Commandos Launch Major Offensive,” The Globe and Mail, October 29, 1981, 15

[8] See, for example,

[9] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Caso Rochac Hernández y Otros vs. El Salvador, Sentencia de 14 de Octubre 2014, ver: