As Massacre Survivors Seek Justice, El Salvador Grapples With 1,000 Ghosts

“Massacre in El Salvador,” a collaboration with Frontline and ProPublica, tells the story of the worst massacre in recent Latin American history, and why a final reckoning is at risk.

Salvadoran military officers accused of ordering a massacre that left 1,000 people dead have been investigated in recent years, but their trial, and a final reckoning, may now be in jeopardy.

The 1981 rampage, perpetrated by soldiers trained and equipped by the United States, took place in and near the village of El Mozote. More than half the victims were children. Despite investigations, courtroom maneuvering and decades of pleas by survivors, no one has ever been held responsible.

High-ranking military officers accused of ordering the slaughter were investigated in recent years, but their trial, and a final reckoning, may now be in jeopardy.

This collaboration by Retro Report, Frontline PBS and ProPublica revisits El Mozote. New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner was one of the first journalists to uncover evidence of the massacre, along with the photographer Susan Meiselas. His reporting was roundly – and wrongly – assailed at the time by the Reagan administration, but history has borne out the truth of his first-hand accounts.

Then, a few years ago, a judge in El Salvador began an investigation to determine who should be held accountable. For a time, there was a sense that there might be a resolution in the search for justice by the men and women who had somehow managed to survive.

But the president of El Salvador wants his country to move into the future by forgetting the past. Now a trial of officers accused of ordering the massacre is in jeopardy.

Related: Remembrance of a Massacre — El Mozote: Foreward by Raymond Bonner, photographs by Susan Meiselas First-Hand Account: Lessons From the El Mozote Massacre by Clyde Haberman The High Price of Doing Journalism in El Salvador by Nelson Rauda In El Salvador, a Journalist Faces New Limits. ‘We Want to Continue Shedding Light. Transcript in Spanish

For teachers
  • Writer and Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Brian Truglio
  • Editor: Sebastián Diaz
  • Associate Producer: Katherine Wzorek
  • Associate Producer: Meral Agish
  • Associate Producer: Jessica Alvarenga

For Educators


This 26-minute video looks at the Cold War in Latin America that extended far beyond the Cuban missile crisis into Latin America. The U.S. policy of containment led to increased tensions with communist guerilla groups during the 1970s and 80s. This sent Latin American nations into turmoil, and civilians often suffered most from the brutality of these conflicts. This activity asks students to examine primary sources, analyze evidence and evaluate a case study within the context of the Cold War in Latin America.

Lesson Plan 1: Massacre in El Salvador

Students will learn about the Cold War in Latin America, with a focus on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador.


Students will:

  • Examine the El Mozote massacre from multiple perspectives using multiple sources
  • Analyze forensic evidence to understand the conclusions of the UN Truth Commission’s report on the El Mozote massacre
  • Write a reading response that situates the El Mozote massacre in the larger context of U.S. Cold War policies and actions in Latin America
  • Study the photojournalism of Susan Meislas and collaborate as photojournalists to evaluate the role of photographic evidence in modern historical events.
Essential questions
  • What were the causes, effects, and significant details of the El Mozote massacre?
  • How can we use photojournalism to understand historical events at which photojournalists were not present?
  • How can forensic evidence be used to corroborate or disprove interpretations of historical events?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5:Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.8:Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9:Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
    • D1.5.9-12.Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in the sources, the types of sources available, and the potential uses of the sources.
    • D2.Civ.11.9-12.Evaluate multiple procedures for making governmental decisions at the local, state, national, and international levels in terms of the civic purposes achieved.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.10.9-12.Detect possible limitations in various kinds of historical evidence and differing secondary interpretations.
    • D2.His.12.9-12.Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.
    • D2.His.16.9-12.Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 8: 1945-1980