Statement by Alex Dressler on the Río Lempa Massacre
The following statement was written in February of 2016 by U.S. journalist Alex Dressler for publication alongside our report on the March 1981 Río Lempa massacre. With director Frank Christopher, Dressler produced the Oscar-nominated documentary In the Name of the People, available in its entirety via YouTube.
I have carefully read the six documents released by the U.S. State Department which contain information relevant to what I have referred to in the past as “the Rio Lempa massacre.” Since I was the first reporter on the scene in March 1981, hours after the killings took place, I appreciate this opportunity to provide some more details about the incident and what I discovered than have previously been published. I do this in the hope that a more accurate picture of the events can emerge, than has so far been the case, especially as reflected in the released State Department documents.
On March 18, 1981, Chris Leplus, a cameraman, and I were in Santa Rosa de Copan, a small town in Honduras, within driving distance of the border with El Salvador. I was on leave from my job as the Latin American affairs correspondent for The San Diego Union to film a documentary about the guerrillas of El Salvador. We were in the offices of the Committee of Solidarity with the Peoples of Central America (COSPUCA), interviewing Fausto Milla, a local priest. In 1980 Milla denounced a massacre of Salvadoran peasants at the Rio Sumpul. Milla was telling me about his arrest and interrogation by Honduran authorities for denouncing the massacre, when he received a telephone call from La Virtud, a Honduran village on the Salvadoran border, near the Rio Lempa, which separates the two countries.
Milla hung up the phone. He was visibly shaken. He told me that the caller urged him to hurry to La Virtud, that another massacre was taking place. This time at the Rio Lempa.
La Virtud was already crowded with Salvadoran refugees living in tents. Several foreign relief organisations were providing services to the refugees, especially health and sanitation.
“My contact said hundreds of people, women and children, were trying to cross the river and that the Salvadoran army was killing them,” said Milla. “He said the Honduran army was also participating.”
Although it was late in the evening, we decided to drive to La Virtud. We drove all night in Milla’s four-wheel drive, along narrow, pitch-black, mountainous roads, wondering what we would find when we got to the border at sunrise.
At La Virtud we met Father Milla’s contact. Together, we walked to Los Hernandez,. Where many of the newly-arrived refugees were gathered. What we found when we arrived in the village in the early morning light was hundreds of traumatized campesinos, peasants, camped out under trees, along dusty paths. The makeshift clinic operated by Medecins sans Frontieres was crowded with the wounded. Most of the patients had been shot, or wounded by mortars. One woman appeared to have been shot in the jaw. She covered it with a bloody rag. The hills echoed with the sound of crying children.
Father Milla and I interviewed as many eyewitnesses as we could. By mid-morning a small group of refugees approached us. They wanted us to go with them back to the river, to help them find survivors. One man said he lost his son while crossing the river. Since I was a journalist from the United States, they thought, I could protect them from Honduran soldiers or Salvadoran death squads known to operate in the area. If they went alone, they said, they risked being killed.
Father Milla , Luplus and I agreed to accompany the handful of men and women to the river.
At the river we came across a little girl named Segunda. She must have been about eight or nine years old. She was lying near a path, moaning. A woman was sitting next to her. Her aunt. As I stood in front of Segundo, I saw that she had been wounded by a heavy caliber bullet. Her hip had been torn open. It was filled with maggots. The aunt was afraid to go deeper into Honduras to ask for help. She was afraid she would be shot. So they had stayed under a tree for hours on end.
While the refugees who accompanied us made a makeshift stretcher to bring Segunda to the clinic at La Virtud, Milla and I walked down to the river. Both banks were strewn with clothes and discarded tools. On the Honduran side we came across the body of what appeared to be a pregnant woman. She had been shot in the head. We heard dogs barking. I looked up toward the Salvadoran side of the river. A dog was eating the body of a little girl. I threw a stone across the river. It had no effect. Walking around I picked up a spent shell. It was of a heavy calibre.
The men who had accompanied us made a makeshift stretcher and carried Segunda. As we headed back to Los Hernandez, we approached a house. A Honduran soldier, a sergeant, stood near the door. I opened the gate and walked up to him. I told him we were taking the wounded girl to be treated at Los Hernandez. He shook his head and told me we couldn’t take her any farther. When I asked why not, he said, “She’s probably the daughter of a Communist guerrilla leader. She can die.” I replied that we were going to take her to Los Hernandez, whether he gave us permission or not. “No,” he said. “That will not happen.” I insisted. “You can shoot me if you want,” I said, furious at his lack of humanity. “But what do you think happened to the Nicaraguan National Guardsman who killed the American journalist, Bill Stewart? It caused an international furore. Do you think he was decorated? Or maybe he got a bullet in the back of the head from his superior? Go ahead and shoot me, but we’re taking this little girl to be treated.” I walked back to the trail. Stupidly, I started counting. I thought if I reached the count of 10, I would not be shot. Luckily, nothing happened.
Nearly a year later I was back in the area. I asked about Segunda. She was well known in the camp at La Virtud. We were reunited. I was glad to see that her wound had healed nicely. She was laughing and playing with her friends.
From interviews I was able to document that at least 50 persons, mostly women and children, had been killed. Eyewitnesses said they were shot at from both the Salvadoran side and the Honduran side. After turning Segunda over to doctors I clandestinely met with a Salvadoran guerrilla who had accompanied the refugees into Honduras. He gave me audio recordings and rolls of black and white film. They contained further evidence, he said, of the massacre.
Within days I appeared on ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel, presenting the evidence I had gathered about the massacre. His production people developed the rolls of film I had been given by the guerrilla. To my surprise I saw photos of Segunda lying under the same tree where we had found her. No one was held accountable. No one took responsibility for the murder of innocent woman and children.
Howard Lane, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, told a Union reporter who phoned him about the matter, “The stories of massacres depend on your point of view in telling them.”
When I returned to The San Diego Union, I was told that the newspaper no longer had the budget to send me back to Central America. I quit on the spot. The Union was often labelled as one of the most conservative newspapers in the United States, ardent supporters of Nixon and Reagan. My days at the paper must have been numbered as soon as Reagan became president.
While several of the six documents released by the State Department confirm that thousands of Salvadoran refugees crossed into Honduras because of an attack on guerrillas by the Salvadoran military, they downplay any human rights violations. Such allegations, the cables insist, were made by pro-guerrilla solidarity organisations. All of the cables deny that the Honduran military took part in the incident.
I would like to comment on the cables.
Document CO5655046 refers to a March 26  article in La Prensa Grafica, a Salvadoran newspaper. The article carried a denial by the Salvadoran armed forces that a massacre had taken place at the Rio Lempa and criticized me personally for publishing the story, which appeared in The San Diego Union on March 25. The cable states that “the denial went on to suggest that ‘many foreign journalists deceive their readers, radio listeners and television [sic] watchers in order to justify their remaining in El Salvador.’” The article further stated, according to the embassy cable, “that any military participation by Honduran forces would be ‘unusual and unnecessary.’”
From the cable it is not clear whether I was denounced by a Salvadoran armed forces spokesperson or by La Prensa Grafica. Neither case would surprise me. During this period both local and foreign journalists were often the victims of repression by the armed forces and death squads, not only in El Salvador but also in neighboring Guatemala. According to Freedom of Expression in El Salvador (2004) by Lawrence Michael Ladutke, “The Salvadoran state and its allies systematically repressed freedom of expression by targeting journalists and media outlets that denounced human rights violations.” Both local and foreign journalists were killed by death squads and the armed forces during the war. That would hardly be motivation for foreign journalists to “deceive their readers, radio listeners and television [sic] watchers in order to justify their remaining in El Salvador.’”
The cable goes on to state that a member of the OAS observer team, based in San Salvador, had visited La Virtud on March 25. While “he saw evidence of a new influx of refugees which he believed resulted from a sweep northwards from Victoria by Salvadoran forces and clashes with guerrillas involved in that he said, however, that interviews with people in this area failed to produce any remarks concerning a dramatic “massacre.”
I find the statement about the member of the OAS observer team who visited La Virtud especially curious. It seems to be a play on words. What in the eyes of the OAS observer would constitute a “dramatic” massacre? There were literally thousands of survivors of the incident in and around La Virtud on March 25. Many of them were still there nearly a year later, when I returned to La Virtud with a film crew. I had no trouble interviewing survivors who told me their horrific stories.
Document CO5655047 is a cable that was sent a week after the killings at the Rio Lempa. Its summary states:
Salvadoran anti-guerrilla operations last week produced sudden new influx of refugees into Honduras. Pro-guerrilla “Solidarity Committee” alleges massacre of refugees and joint operations by Salvadoran and Honduran troops. Local UNHCR official (protext) confirms refugee influx but saw no evidence of refugee mistreatment in Honduras. Press source saw bodies, apparently of fleeing refugees, in river which forms frontier. Incident being played by guerrilla supporters as replay of alleged May 1980 “massacre” incident. We believe allegations of refugee mistreatment by GOH forces to be false.
The cable also quotes a source as reporting “continuing good cooperation from local military. Especially in making arrangements to accommodate latest refugee influx.” This last statement contradicts what I found when I arrived at Los Hernandez: the refugees’ fear of being killed by Salvadoran or Honduran soldiers, the contempt the Honduran sergeant had for a wounded little girl, to the point where he wanted her to die, and references in other cables about Honduran soldiers forcing Salvadoran refugees back into El Salvador, where at least two men were subsequently killed.
Document CO5655048. The main points of this cable appears to be that some refugee sites, especially villages, on the Salvadoran-Honduran border provided Salvadoran guerrillas “with easily accessible R&R points” and that some food, although minimal amounts, meant for refugees was being diverted to the guerrillas.
In addition, the cable refers to human rights violations, without calling them that, carried out by Honduran soldiers:
Two weeks ago, GOH soldiers removed three men from the camps and escorted them to and put them across the border. They were subsequently reported dead. The UNHCR formally protested this violation of refugee status to the GOH. The Honduran lieutenant in charge was replaced and a more experienced officer posted. There have been a couple of isolated incidences of HO military forcefully repatriating suspected guerrillas to El Salvador, but the general policy is to deport them to Nicaragua or Guatemala. This incident highlights the latitude given local garrison commanders, but also shows that the GOH is responsible to the criticism of inhumane treatment.
Many, if not most, of the refugees in and around La Virtud appeared to have supported the Salvadoran guerrillas. Some of them were relatives of the guerrillas. They helped to divert food to the guerrilla camps in Chalatenango and Las Cabanas. The camps were also a means for entering and leaving the guerrilla camps. Honduran authorities were aware of this. It made them all the more determined not to all any more refugees onto Honduran territory. It would make sense that they would do all they could to prevent refugees from cross the Rio Lempa, despite what U.S. officials stated in their cables.
Document CO5655049 states “If the situation remains even near what it is today we see nothing but disadvantage in having U.S. Army helicopters operating in an area where “atrocity stories” – eg Rio Lempa, are often circulated.” This suggests that some U.S. officials tried to distance themselves from any actual or reported Salvadoran human rights violations near the Rio Lempa.
Document CO5655050 contains the complete text of Ambassador Hinton’s first press conference at the U.S. Embassy on June 1st. When a reporter asked him about the massacre at the Rio Lempa, Hinton replied, “I mean, as I say, I find it agonizing. These terrible things happen in civil war…We regret any excess, any misuse of any equipment that we provide.”
Was there a massacre at the Rio Lempa? All of the evidence puts to the conclusion that there was, indeed, such a massacre. Not only were there thousands of eyewitnesses – Salvadoran refugees – but also aid workers. A U.S. priest, Father Earl Gallagher of Brooklyn, New York, spent most of March 18 swimming children across the river, while ducking bombs, mortar shells, and bullets. Yvonne Dilling, a 26-year-old refugee worker from Fort Wayne, Ind., also helped to bring children across the river. Yet, according to the released U.S. cables, reports of human rights violations were either grossly exaggerated or outright lies, part of a left-wing conspiracy.
However, a Nov. 7, 1981 cable in which Hinton urged Washington to lean on García [El Salvador’s minister of defense] to stop what he called “a disturbing new aspect of [the] persistent problem of violence” by the armed forces. “It is particularly disturbing to have detailed reports of Salvadoran massacres of women and children along the Rio Lempa and in Chalatenango,” Hinton wrote. “Indeed, our own officials were witnesses to a machine gun attack on apparently unarmed civilians by helicopter.” The cable was quoted in an October 31, 2000 article in The Miami Herald headlined, Envoys wrote of Salvador abuses.
The atrocities at the Rio Lempa took place 35 years ago. Not only are the survivors still waiting for justice, they are waiting for this crime to be even acknowledged.