Twenty minutes into the arduous hike from where the gravel road ends and the cliff-edged footpath begins, the ground starts to flatten and the makings of a village come into focus.
Here, in this remote corner of northeastern El Salvador, a green carpet stretches across each home’s threshold and out its back door. Tropical undergrowth twists through the foundations, the former hearths. Banana trees form a canopy overhead, a new sort of ceiling for these humble abodes, abandoned long ago.
Nearly 40 years after the day this remote hamlet ceased to exist, the jungle has seized it for its own.
“Mira,” Raul Pereira called to me, tamping down the unruly vegetation that had overgrown the old trails of Toriles.
“Es una bota.”
As he pulled the black boot from the earth’s vine-laden grip, it dwarfed in his hands — a child’s shoe. The shape was unmistakable, but many of the details were marred; much of the rubber had been melted by fire.
My small Salvadoran crew and I had journeyed to Toriles, the remains of a forgotten Salvadoran village, with Raul — a 14-year-old from nearby El Mozote — to film for an episode of my docuseries, “Watched Pot.”
Raul was there because his father had been — 38 years ago last month, when a battalion of the Salvadoran army marched down that same steep footpath and savagely murdered everyone in these now-ruined houses before setting them aflame. Juan Antonio Pereira was the only one to survive, hiding behind an agave plant.
I was there because 38 years ago, my country was, too. Because the soldiers who killed Juan Antonio’s young children, his wife, his parents and so many others that day were armed by, trained by, funded by and took orders from the U.S. government.
That day was in December 1981, early in the Salvadoran civil war — a bloody, 12-year conflict (1980-92) that killed 75,000 people and displaced a quarter of the population. The war was fought between the country’s oppressive, right-wing government and a liberal uprising instigated by the peasants who worked the land. The U.S. government — worried about a potential “red wave” sweeping over Latin America and beyond on the heels of communist takeover in Vietnam and revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua — quickly backed the Salvadoran army, dispatching advisers, weapons and as much as $2 million per day during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The extermination of tiny Toriles was part of a larger tragedy better known as the El Mozote massacre, consistent with the Salvadoran army’s “scorched-earth” policy encouraged by U.S. training in its School of the Americas in Panama. In December 1981, believing that the area was harboring rebels, Salvadoran government soldiers marched through El Mozote and the surrounding caseríos, systematically killing more than 1,500 civilians — most of them children — in the span of three days, making the massacre the worst in modern Latin American history.
If this sounds like ancient foreign history, it’s not. This past moment in time has direct implications to both the start of Salvadoran mass migration to the U.S. and the current flow of refugees at the heart of one of the most politically divisive debates in Washington.
In the months and years following the El Mozote massacre, hundreds of thousands fled the tumultuous Morazán region during a war that was both heightened and prolonged by U.S. intervention. Many of them landed in Los Angeles. It was there that the now-notorious gang MS-13 was formed, among others. In the early 1990s, when El Salvador was still in a stage of crisis, many members of those gangs were deported by the U.S. government, effectively exporting the violence of those illicit organizations to their home country, where gangs were all but absent as a powerful factor of society before the civil war.
Those gangs, according to researcher José Miguel Cruz, took hold in El Salvador thanks to their U.S. influence and the cultural framework that “allowed them to be respected and admired.” And the violence they brought inspired a new generation of Salvadorans to flee their homes for safety in the United States.
The massacre that wiped out entire bloodlines and regions, acting as a major catalyst for all that followed, has been forgotten by many — not just in the U.S., which regularly practices selective memory, but here in El Salvador, too, where the story of El Mozote was all but illegal to speak of until 2010, when the political party FMLN first came to power. It still isn’t taught in most schools. There is no museum for this moment of history. Children’s boots and other sad relics of that day sit where they last fell, waiting for someone to come and care, to claim them and memorialize them.
Ten years after the massacre, the village of El Mozote was resettled by family members of the dead, whose bones were still lying atop the earth when they arrived.
On Dec. 11, 2019, the community of about 75 held a mass to honor the victims. Children, about the age of many who were killed in the same spot 38 years ago, walked down the aisle of the church, holding candles and dressed as angels. No one from the Salvadoran government was there. No one from the U.S. government was there. No one from the media was there. The pews, instead, were filled with those from El Mozote, and the surrounding areas, too.
In other villages, like Toriles, there was nothing to return to.
Amelia Rayno is a former Star Tribune journalist, currently living and working in El Salvador while filming a new docuseries project exploring food, culture and U.S. imperialism. A fundraiser for the project will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 5, at Able Seedhouse + Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. (Web: ameliarayno.com. Instagram: @ameliarayno.)