Remembering Río Lempa: FOIA Documents Released to Mark 35th Anniversary of Massacre

Newly declassified US government cables reveal that State Department officials were aware of the massacre of civilians by the Salvadoran military on the banks of the River Lempa in March 1981.

Today, March 17, 2016, marks the 35th anniversary of the Río Lempa massacre – one of countless mass killings during the Salvadoran armed conflict that has yet to be fully investigated. In remembrance of its victims and solidarity with its survivors, and with the intention of contributing to the consolidation of historical memory about crimes against humanity committed during the Salvadoran armed conflict, the UW Center for Human Rights is today releasing a set of six newly-declassified US government documents that shed light on this massacre. The documents reveal that:

  • US officials were aware of the killings of civilians by state forces at the Río Lempa; they did not disagree with the facts reported by journalists and human rights groups, nor dispute the responsibility of the Salvadoran forces for these deaths. They did, however, object to the use of the term ‘massacre’ to describe them.
  • US and Salvadoran officials were more concerned with how such accounts were being manipulated for political gain by guerrilla sympathizers than with how to prevent their repetition.

These findings do not contradict what is already known about US officials’ reactions to other known atrocities during the Salvadoran conflict; indeed, they resonate strongly with Mark Danner’s conclusions from his landmark reporting of the US cover-up of the massacre of El Mozote, where US officials carried out a sham investigation and sought actively to deny the existence of what is today considered to have been the most deadly massacre in the post-Conquest history of the Americas. Interestingly, they sound a slightly different note than the documents recently released about the October 1981 massacre of La Quesera – a case in which, behind closed doors, US officials considered accounts of atrocities to be credible, even as they publicly continued to channel assistance to the Salvadoran regime. But taken together, the record reveals a disturbing complacency with evidence of widespread and deliberate killings of civilians under counterinsurgency.

These documents were released to UWCHR pursuant to requests filed under US federal law. In addition to the documents themselves, we base our analysis here on documentary evidence of the massacre, including filmed testimony taken by journalists in the weeks following its occurrence, written testimony provided by survivors, and in-person interviews with survivors and witnesses in Santa Marta and the United States, and accounts provided by journalists and human rights workers during the war.

The Context

The March 1981 killings at the Río Lempa took place at a time of rapidly escalating rural violence in El Salvador; for their survivors, they constitute a turning point in the war. On January 10, the FMLN guerrillas launched their “Final Offensive,” sparking active combat in multiple areas of the country. While 1980 had been a year of brutal repression for urban and rural protest movements, and selective, if relentless, violence against suspected guerrilla sympathizers, large-scale mass killings were still rare. Indeed, the May 1980 massacre of an estimated 600 people at the Sumpúl River was the only known example of such tactics prior to the March 1981 killings at the Río Lempa.

Beginning on March 7, 1981, according to Salvadoran media reports citing official sources[1], the Salvadoran military launched a series of operations throughout the national territory making use of newly-arrived Huey helicopters from the United States. Bombings, howitzer attacks, and mortars were reportedly used to pound suspected insurgent strongholds in Suchitoto, Arcatao, San Miguel, Las Vueltas, Conchagua, and other areas. In the municipality of Villa Victoria, Cabañas, heavy fighting reportedly began in the predawn hours of March 15, involving troops from the Second Military Detachment in Sensuntepeque as well as reinforcements from other detachments and the Air Force[2].

By this point in the conflict, community members were well familiar with the pattern of selective repression, particularly targeting catechists, community activists, and others actively supporting the incipient guerrilla struggle. As one survivor, María Isidora Leiva, explains in sworn testimony provided to the Fiscalía General de la República in 2013, “During the armed conflict, we had to flee because of the harassment of the military from the Second Military Detachment in Sensuntepeque, who carried out operations in the area that started to intensify in 1980. …They attacked the nearby hamlets that were populated by people with scarce resources like us, burning houses, assassinating people, stealing whatever they could get their hands on, chasing those of us who fled from that barbarity… it was a form of repression against all the people who began to organize themselves to demand social justice in response to the things that were happening in the country at that time.” Residents learned to escape the advancing troops by going on “guindas,” fleeing their homes on foot and taking refuge in the surrounding brush, often for days or weeks at a time until danger passed; at first, only men had to flee, since they were suspected of being guerrilla supporters in ways that women were not. As the conflict deepened, however, women too were targeted[3]. And when the mass invasion of March 1981 came, it marked a still more dangerous chapter, since the troops arrived in such numbers that taking temporary refuge in the hills was no longer enough.

As a result, after two days of attack by air and ground troops, many fleeing peasants gathered on March 17 near the village of Peñas Blancas, in the Municipality of Victoria, Cabañas, where guerrillas offered to accompany them in a run for the nearby border with Honduras. The first of these fleeing villagers arrived at the Lempa River which divides the two nations, near a spot known as Piedras Coloradas, in the early morning hours of March 18. But the river, reportedly some 25 to 50 feet deep and 35 feet across, posed a challenge for even the strongest swimmers; for many of those who arrived on its banks already exhausted from days on the run, it seemed impassable. Photographs of the scene provided to journalists by representatives of the guerrilla forces who accompanied the mass flight depict the thousands who congregated on the banks. These photographs were reproduced in 1985 in the Oscar-nominated documentary In the Name of the People. The scene was also depicted in an April 17, 1981 photo-essay in the French magazine Paris Match.

A crowd gathers on the banks of the Río Lempa. Photo still from the documentary “In the Name of the People” (1985).

As the day advanced, however, troops arrived at the scene—on both the Salvadoran and Honduran sides of the border—and fired on the peasants as they attempted to cross. A helicopter and two planes also reportedly flew over repeatedly opening fire, spraying bullets into the river. In the chaos, countless bodies were carried downstream in the rapid current, some perishing from bullet wounds, others victims of the river itself.

Planes fly over the Río Lempa. Photo still from the documentary “In the Name of the People” (1985).

María Isadora Leiva recalled,

“It was March 18 and we were concentrated in Peñas Blancas, civilians from all the hamlets and villages of Cabañas, to flee towards Honduras. There were some 6000 of us. My mother was in a bad way and needed me. They told us that we had to help the old people, the children, the pregnant women and the injured – there were many of them because the Army had been chasing us and they were under orders to annihilate us all or push us to the Lempa River so we’d drown there. The helicopters were also machine-gunning the area. The Army was close and the bullets whizzed by. They cornered us on the banks of the river and we had to throw ourselves into the water, whether we could swim or not. Those who could swim looked for long sticks, bamboo poles to help others across, and they also strung a rope from one side to the other to help us, but many got tired halfway across and drowned. I could swim a little bit, but just when I reached the other side a grenade exploded. I thought it was the last day of my life. Many died that day, I don’t know how many, but there were hundreds of people, children, and elderly people.” [4]

As the New York Times reported in June 1981,

“The mass killing at the Lempa River four miles from here on March 17 took place in the presence of doctors, priests, relief officials and surviving refugees now housed in three encampments in this muddy town. Those attacked as they crossed the river were mostly women, children and aged. They could not have been mistaken for guerrillas by the Salvadoran helicopter pilot who flew so low that witnesses say they could study his face.” [5] The Times estimated some 200 had perished, a figure later repeated by other sources; the river’s removal of remains makes impossible a more precise accounting.

People attempt to cross the Río Lempa. Photo still from the documentary “In the Name of the People” (1985).

Yvonne Dilling, a US nurse who was working with Salvadoran refugees in Honduras at the time, confirmed in a 2014 interview with UWCHR that she witnessed the crossing on March 18, having gone to the river with religious workers from the humanitarian camps to help people cross; she ferried countless children to safety on her back. In her later book In Search of Refuge, Dilling describes the scene:

“The helicopter made swoop after swoop. This time, several people had remained in the river. Instead of running up the bank they had jumped into the water and were hanging on to the ledge of lava rock. Each time the helicopter made a swoop, they ducked under water. The soldier in the helicopter was incredibly intent on killing people. Over and over again he lay a path of machine gun fire only a foot away from the people in the water. Once he swooped so low that he almost touched the tree tops above us. One little boy was killed. I saw him jump into the water with an arc of bullet holes in his back. He was flailing his arms, still trying to swim while blood was streaming all across his back. Then the water carried him downstream.” [6]

US journalist Alex Dressler arrived on the scene the next day with Father Fausto Milla, a Honduran priest; in a 2013 interview with UWCHR, he described the scent of decaying remains, the sight of a dog eating the body of a small girl, and the discovery of a surviving child whose injuries made it impossible for her to move.

“People said that at least 200 people were killed. I could only document 50 deaths that I was able to corroborate using multiple sources, so I am very confident that at least that number were killed, probably many more. Most people seemed certain that the total was more than 200. They were all people coming from Cabañas. Santa Marta and villages around there. The military was doing a hammer and anvil attack of guerrilla-held villages. …You could tell the people supported the guerrillas by the way they spoke about them. … The people from around Santa Marta described them as compañeros and spoke about them as protecting them. They (the peasants I spoke to) were totally unarmed, they were not combatants. In a guerrilla-controlled area the access to weapons is tightly controlled and civilians would only very rarely have had weapons of any sort. I am certain all of those people were unarmed civilians. They were all ages, especially many women and children.” [7]

Read a 2016 statement by Alex Dressler about his experience documenting the aftermath of the Río Lempa massacre, and watch the 1985 documentary In the Name of the People, directed by Frank Christopher and produced by Dressler.

Dressler was the first to break the news of the killings with an article in the San Diego Union Tribune. But the New York Times [8], Los Angeles Times [9], and San Francisco Chronicle [10] all covered the killings as well, citing interviews with Salvadoran survivors and international relief workers who witnessed the attacks. The LA Times also quoted the director of the Honduran UNCHR office, Charles-Henry Bazoche, as confirming that, “a Salvadoran helicopter machine-gunned the refugees as they were trying to enter the country.” [11] Human rights organizations from Amnesty International [12] to the Latin America Working Group also reported on the killings. LAWG, for example, wrote in a June bulletin that, “On March 15, the Salvadoran military, employing a force of 1500 soldiers and members of ORDEN, surrounded 9 insurgent-controlled towns in the province of Cabañas. There were approximately 10,000 civilians in the area when the attack began. After 3 days of fighting, guerrilla units managed to break through the government encirclement. Before retreating, the insurgents organized the evacuation of some 7-8000 women, children, and elderly. As these refugees tried to cross the Río Lempa into Honduras, two Salvadoran jet fighters and a US-supplied helicopter bombed and strafed them while Honduran and Salvadoran ground troops fired from both sides of the river. At least 50 people were killed by drowning or in direct hits before the fleeing peasants could reach safety.” [13] In 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission concluded that between 20 and 30 people were reported killed and a further 189 reported missing in the events of March 17-18, 1981 at the Río Lempa. [14]

Tragically, this was the first of a series of massacres experienced by communities in the municipality of Victoria. UWCHR has also researched the November 1981 massacre of Santa Cruz, which affected many of the same families and individuals. Today, many of the survivors live in the community of Santa Marta, Cabañas, and have participated in demanding a legal inquiry into these killings. In 2013, Dolores Bonilla and Concepción López filed sworn criminal complaints with the Fiscalía General de la República, the investigating body of El Salvador’s legal system. To this date, there has been no discernable progress in the investigations of these cases.

The Declassified Documents

The six recently-declassified US documents pertaining to this massacre allow a window into US policy towards El Salvador at a critical time of intensifying conflict. When the accounts of the killings at the river broke in the news, Reagan’s team was yet to be in place at the Embassy in San Salvador[15], a fact which may explain the relative dearth of Embassy commentary on the massacre. Yet the issues at stake were high on the administration’s agenda: after the guerrillas’ campaign, President Carter reinitiated military assistance to El Salvador despite its prior suspension over human rights concerns, and in the early days of the Reagan administration multiple efforts were afoot to increase its volume and scope. After announcing an additional $20 million of emergency military assistance to El Salvador[16], Reagan insisted at a news conference that such aid was “helping the forces that are supporting human rights.”[17] And the same day as relief workers gathered bodies from the river banks after the massacre, Secretary of State Alexander Haig requested further funds for El Salvador, testifying before Congress that the Salvadoran regime was committed to human rights[18].

In this context, the documents suggest a number of observations. First, the documents show that diplomatic officials in San Salvador and in Tegucigalpa acknowledged that killings of civilians had occurred along the river. Survivors’ accounts are in fact corroborated in the documents – with the notable exception of violence by Honduran forces, which is repeatedly denied by the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa. For example, a March cable entitled “New Refugee Massacre Alleged,” included confirmation by the local UNHCR director that Salvadoran gunships fired on the refugees, as reported in the LA Times. A later background paper summarized the events as follows:

“The Río Lempa incident took place in March 1981. Four to five thousand Salvadoran civilians were caught in a sweep operation and, with guerrilla forces apparently covering their movement, pushed towards the border pursued by Salvadoran helicopters, surveillance planes and ground units. They were fired on by Salvadoran forces up to and while crossing the Lempa River into Honduras. …Eight bodies were reportedly found on the Honduran shore of the Lempa, but the circumstances of their deaths are not known. The number of dead on the Salvadoran side is anybody’s guess. …The accusations against Honduran military are largely if not entirely unfounded; charges directed against the Salvadoran forces may not be without substance.”

Second, although there appears to be little dispute that Salvadoran forces fired on fleeing civilians, US officials seem remarkably complacent about this fact—strikingly so, given that aid to El Salvador had been suspended just months before on human rights grounds. One explanation for this could be the assumption that because these civilians hailed from areas known to support the guerrillas, they constituted a legitimate military target, although such practices are explicitly prohibited under international humanitarian law. For example, C05655047 notes that the “incident appears to reflect recent GOES operations to clear guerrilla strongholds in neighboring Chalatenango and Cabañas departments. There appears no doubt operations were carried out right up to, and possibly beyond, Honduran border. [Text redacted] response by coordinating committee, which is guerrilla-controlled propaganda arm, suggests fair degree of success by GOES military.” In response to reports of atrocities, the use of the term “success” and apparent unconcern for civilian lives is noteworthy.

Relatedly, the documents include strenuous objections to the use of the word “massacre” to describe these events (and the preceding massacre at the Sumpúl River in May 1980). Even as the deaths are not disputed, attempts to describe them in such terms are dismissed as guerrilla propaganda. A March 27 cable from the US Embassy in San Salvador titled “Alleged Refugee Massacre” reported the response of Salvadoran military officials to Dressler’s article, including the allegation that “many foreign journalists deceive their readers, radio listeners and televizion [sic] watchers in order to justify their remaining in El Salvador.” The same document references comments by an American member of the OAS observer team whose inquiries about the massacre on a later visit to the refugee camp “failed to produce any remarks concerning a dramatic ‘massacre.'” The author’s final observations on this matter remain classified; even 35 years after the events in question, the US State Department claims full declassification of this cable would compromise US intelligence.

Lastly, these documents further confirm a trend noted in other documents about wartime atrocities previously released to the UWCHR: at a time when Salvadoran media was entirely state-controlled, US diplomatic officials made considerable effort to manipulate the reporting of foreign journalists—the only independent accounts of the war. As noted above, interim Ambassador Chapin refers to inquiries made by US officials visiting the refugee camp; yet this effort seems extraordinarily ineffective when contrasted with the considerable information about the incident successfully gathered by reporters and human rights organizations. Not only is such information documented in the US press accounts cited above, but in the comments of European journalists at a Ambassador Hinton’s first press conference on June 1, transcribed in C05655050 After several reporters’ questions revealing detailed knowledge of the March massacre at the Río Lempa, Hinton warns the press corps that “I suspect that you, ladies and gentlemen, exaggerate the down side. I’m not saying there isn’t a down side… but I suspect maybe it is a little exaggerated. You can ask your own consciences how you write your stories.”

Despite the evidence of human rights abuses in El Salvador and the complicity of the Honduran army, the US government maintained its military support for both regimes throughout the 1980s. In October 1981—less than a month after a cable from the US Embassy in Honduras downplaying the massacre reports C05655908—another massacre took place on the banks of the Río Lempa, when as many as 500 civilians were killed at La Quesera. Yet, the Reagan administration spent an estimated $1 million a day in aid to El Salvador’s repressive government throughout its eight-year term. [19] The Honduran army, including the infamous Battalion 3-16, which ‘disappeared’ more than 184 persons, saw a precipitous jump in US military aid from $4 million to $77 million between 1981 and 1985. [20] These documents provide a partial window into the counterinsurgency logic that permitted officials to recognize mounting civilian deaths at the hands of state forces yet reject those who denounced such abuses as guerrilla sympathizers.


Date: 25 March 1981
From: US Embassy Tegucigalpa
To: US Secretary of State
Subject: New Refugee Massacre Alleged

Cable claiming:

  • Unnamed local UN High Commission for Refugees official saw no evidence of refugee mistreatment in Honduras
  • Press sources saw bodies which appear to be those fleeing refugees in Río Lempa
  • Guerrilla supporters are “playing” the attack as a massacre for propaganda purposes
  • Allegations of refugee mistreatment at hands of Honduran forces are false

Date: 27 March 1981
From: US Embassy San Salvador
To: US Secretary of State
Subject: Alleged Refugee Massacre

Cable discussing:

  • A press report in which the Salvadoran Armed Forces deny a “supposed massacre” across Río Lempa and suggest that foreign journalists are deceiving audience to justify remaining in El Salvador.
  • An unnamed OAS observer whose visit to La Virtud on March 25 “failed to produce any remarks concerning a dramatic ‘massacre'”.

Date: 21 April 1981
From: US Embassy San Salvador
To: US Secretary of State
Subject: USG Cooperation in Surveying El Salvador-Honduras Border

Cable discusses security concerns over US assistance in mapping the El Salvador-Honduras border. It expresses doubt that areas along the border where “atrocity stories” circulate, such as Río Lempa, would be secure enough for US army helicopters to carry out ground survey operations.

Date: 17 June 1981
From: US Embassy Tegucigalpa
To: US Secretary of State
Subject: Visit of State Department Officers on Refugee Affairs

Cable discussing:

  • The need to relocate Salvadoran refugees in Honduran village communities into camps as a means to ensure greater control over food supplies and movement.
  • The response of Honduran government to concerns by the UN High Commission on Refugees over the treatment of refugees.
  • Conversation with Col. Gutierrez, one of the leaders of the military junta, during which Gutierrez accused the UN HCR and relief workers of being sympathetic to or actively aiding Leftists.

Date: 25 June 1981
Agency: US Secretary of State
Subject: Ambassador Hinton’s Press Conference June 1, 1981

Complete text of Ambassador Hinton’s first press conference at US Embassy in San Salvador. Hinton, the first Reagan-administration appointee to the post, is responding to questions from journalists. He explains that:

  • Washington “consider[s] the junta and the government of El Salvador as a friendly government under attack and we will […] urge […] that they conduct themselves with a minimum of security excesses or abuses.”
  • Members of the military junta and the US government do not condone abuses by security forces.
  • The military junta is a “reform-minded government” defending itself from guerrillas and is being supported with arms by the US for this effort.
  • Leftist guerrillas in El Salvador are being helped by outside government forces which seek to take over the country.

Date: 22 October 1981
From: US Embassy Tegucigalpa
To: US Secretary of State
Subject: Refugee Situation in Honduras – Background Paper

Cable discussing:

  • The Sumpúl River “incident,” claiming that accounts of the massacre appear “greatly exaggerated.”
  • The Lempa River “incident” in which thousands of civilians were fired on by Salvadoran forces did not involve the Honduran military, but conceding that “charges directed against the Salvadoran forces may not be without substance”.
  • The view that the Lempa River “incident” was the product of “a vigorous disinformation campaign” by guerrilla supporters.



[1] “Further details,” ACAN-EFE (Panama City) broadcast 1833 GMT, March 18, 1981, Foreign Broadcast Information Service.

[2] “Fierce Fighting in Cabañas,” El Mundo (El Salvador), March 17, 1981, p 3, FBIS; “Army Cleanup Operation,” La Prensa Gráfica (El Salvador) March 19, 1981, p 39, FBIS; “Amy Patrol Ambushed,” ACAN-EFE (Panama City) broadcast 1833 GMT, March 28, 1981, FBIS; “Further details,” ACAN-EFE (Panama City) broadcast 1833 GMT, March 18, 1981, FBIS; “Army Report on Cabañas,” La Prensa Grafica (El Salvador) March 18, 1981, p 2, 9, FBIS; “Heavy Fighting Near Honduras,” San José (Costa Rica) Radio Reloj broadcast in Spanish 1730 GMT March 18, 1981, FBIS.

[3] As María Isidora Leiva explained, “The soldiers who did this were accompanied by men dressed in civilian clothing, who they said were members of ORDEN. They came to search for the men in their homes, and when they did not find them they would threaten the women, so the women also later fled because otherwise they would be raped and beaten, and forced to make food [for the soldiers and paramilitaries] while they searched the houses, stole things, and beat, tortured, or raped the other women and the few men who they found.”

[4] For further excerpts from Maria Isidora Leiva’s testimony, see:

[5] Warren Hoge, “Slaughter in Salvador: 200 Lost in Border Massacre,” The New York Times June 8, 1981.

[6] Yvonne Dilling with Ingrid Rogers. In Search of Refuge. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press. 1984. p.47.

[7] Alex Dressler (last name previously spelled Drehsler), interview with Angelina Godoy and Mina Manuchehri, September 7, 2013.

[8] Warren Hoge, “Slaughter in Salvador: 200 Lost in Border Massacre,” The New York Times June 8, 1981.

[9] Vasquez, J. M. (1981, April 2). Refugees describe attack by Salvadoran helicopters. The Los Angeles Times. p. B9.

[10] Volpendesta, D. (1985, December 29). The Plight of the Salvador Refugees in Honduras. The San Francisco Chronicle, p. 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Amnistía Internacional, “Informe de Amnistía Internacional,” pp 6-7 in Boletin Informativo Honduras. Tegucigalpa: Centro de Documentación de Honduras, Noviembre 1982.

[13] Latin America Working Group, “The War Goes On: Counter-Insurgency Tactics…?” pp. 3-4 in Central America Update, Vol II No 6, June 1981.

[14] United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador. (1992-1993). De La Locura a La Esperanza: La Guerra De 12 Años En El Salvador: Informe De La Comisión De La Verdad Para El Salvador. San Salvador, El Salvador: Editorial Arcoiris, 1993, p. 29.

[15] Amb. Robert White had been unceremoniously removed from his post within days of Reagan’s January inauguration, and Amb. Deane Hinton was not to replace him until May; in the meantime, Frederic Chapin occupied the post in an interim capacity.

[16] “Aid to El Salvador,” CQ Almanac, 1981.

[17] “Relatives charge Haig with ‘smearing’ slain nuns,” AP, March 20, 1981.,3849856&hl=en

[18] Famously, Haig went so far as to suggest that the murdered US churchwomen – whose case had led to the suspension of US assistance to El Salvador – had perhaps “run a roadblock” and been killed in an exchange of fire. See article cited above in note 17.

[19] Sullivan, K., & Jordan, M. (2004, June 10). In Central America, Reagan Remains A Polarizing Figure. The Washington Post, pp. 2.

[20] Kinzer, S. (2001, September 20). Our Man in Honduras. The New York Review of Books.