On December 9, after a nearby skirmish with FMLN guerillas, the Atlacatl Battalion sealed off the entire department of Morazan. Most of the villages in Morazan had already been severely depopulated if not completely abandoned, as thousands of people fled the civil war and streamed across the border into Honduras. Those who remained hid in caves and ravines at the first sight of army forces. El Mozote, however, had absorbed scores of refugees from the area and experienced a temporary surge. When the Atlacatl forces entered El Mozote, they placed the entire village under a curfew and vowed to shoot anyone who lef their homes that night. The following morning, the men and women of El Motoze were separated into groups and killed, systematically and brutally. Men were herded into the chapel for brief and tortuous interrogations, after which dozens were beheaded, shot, or eviscerated by knife and bayonet. Soldiers dragged young girls from the village and raped them. The women and children of El Mozote, after hearing their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons being tortured and murdered, were then marched from their homes and gunned down. Men with guns empied their weapons into a room full of children at the home of Alfredo Marquez.
Rufina Amaya Marquez, one of the few survivors of the El Mozote massacre, managed to flee the village and hide in the surrounding trees during the confusion. There, she watched and listened.
Then I heard one of my children crying. My son, Cristino, was crying, 'Mama Rufina, help me! They're killing me! They killed my sister! They're killing me! Help me!' I didn't know what to do. They were killing my children. I knew that if I went back there to help my children I would be cut to pieces. But I couldn't stand to hear it, I couldn't bear it. I was afraid that I would cry out, that I would scream, that I would go crazy. I couldn't stand it, and I prayed to God to help me. I promised God that if He helped me I would tell the world what happened here.When Raymond Bonner of the New York Times reported on the El Mozote massacre in late January 1981, Rufina Amaya got her chance to "tell the world" about the massacre, which took the lives of her husband and three children, the oldest of whom was five.
Among those who refused to believe the words of Rufina Amaya Marquez, however, were John Negroponte, United States Ambassador to El Salvador; officials at the State Department, including Elliot Abrams, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights; the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal; and the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media. These and other American voices refused to give credence to the survivors of Operacion Rescate, accusing Bonner and the Times of exaggerating or distorting the truth and thereby serving the interests of the guerillas. Bonner was eventually removed from El Salvador by his employers, who insisted their decision had nothing to do with adverse pressure from the US government, which would eventually invest $4 billion in support of the Salvadoran regime that organized the murders.
After a concerted effort on the part of the United States and the government of El Salvador to discredit the story, the American Congress renewed and expanded its sponsorship of state terrorism in Central America. El Mozote, meanwhile, lay abandoned while its victims remained unburied.