The memories are etched in Melecia del Carmen Casco's face. They show in the deep, thin lines that run across her caramel-colored forehead and in the prominent half-star patterns that surround her small brown eyes. Casco wears a turquoise cotton shirt with matching earrings. Her silver hair is pulled into a tight bun. In the green hills above El Salvador's Lake Suchitlán, she sits in front of her simple home next to a table with a basket full of warm tortillas as her teenage grandson lounges in a nearby hammock. And she begins to remember.
"The people were hidden near the lakeshore," she says. "The soldiers found them there. They started to shoot, and the poor people weren't able to cross the lake..."
In 1979, at the onset of El Salvador's brutal civil war, Casco and her husband, Tránsito, farmed cocoa beans and roses in the tiny village of Copapayo, 45 miles north of the capital. The family survived by frequently fleeing into the neighboring mountains. They lived for months at a time in the forest, emerging only at night and hiding among the rocks when they heard commotion. Sometimes they didn't eat for two weeks.
Casco's son Ramón was a radio operator for a guerrilla group fighting the right-wing military, and on November 3, 1983, he intercepted a transmission: The military was coming. That night Casco and five of her children loaded into a cayuco — a large canoe — and set off for Guazapa, a half-hour away across Lake Suchitlán. Another cayuco joined, but the lake was full of weeds, making it difficult to cross. Several families that had come to the shore decided not to go.
Casco's 15-year-old daughter, Gladys, also wanted to stay. She was skilled at first aid — her mother remembers how she once used her fingers to pull a fish bone from her sister's infected hand — and she wanted to help the villagers. Gladys was a kind girl, her mother says, tall and thin with short blond hair that frequently attracted attention. She always carried a little bottle of perfume and wore colorful skirts and blouses.
Gladys told her mother she would follow soon and asked for some cornflour. "Pero, hija," Casco recalls saying, "in what can I leave it?"
"That's OK," her daughter told her. "When I arrive, you'll give it to me then."
At this point in the story Casco pauses. After several seconds, when she starts again, her voice cracks, and the words barely come. "Y no me olvido..." — "And I don't forget..." — she manages. Then the 68-year-old begins to cry.
Casco has pieced together what happened next like a jagged jigsaw puzzle. The morning after she fled with her family, the Altacatl military battalion — named for a 16th-century native leader and under the command of the much-feared Maj. Domingo Monterrosa — surged into the hills around Copapayo. The American-trained soldiers wore heavy green-brown uniforms and high black boots, with automatic rifles strapped on their backs and machetes hanging at their hips. Looking to kill, they marched through the forest and tracked the villagers like animals. When they caught up with a group of dozens of women and children by the lake, the soldiers murdered several on the spot, leaving the corpses scattered amid the foliage. They rounded up the rest and marched four miles to San Nicolás, another tiny village, where they herded the villagers into a single dwelling and executed them.
Casco's sister Dolores and her ten children were killed in the house in San Nicolás; one nephew survived by playing dead. Between the killing by the lake and the massacre in the house more than 150 villagers were murdered — among them nearly the entire population of Copapayo.
The day after the offensive another of Casco's sons found Gladys' thin cloth backpack on the lakeshore. Inside were a change of clothes — a skirt and blouse — and a tiny bottle of perfume. It's the last Casco knows of her daughter. "The sun rises one day, then another day," she says. "And I'm thinking of her."
After the massacre, the soldiers set the bodies on fire. The military high command, in response to journalists' reports on the bodies, issued a statement boasting of the massacre: "[We] confirm that the army caused about 100 casualties to the subversives during a military operation in early November."
Three decades later, the families of the victims of Copapayo — and the families of tens of thousands of others killed — have never seen any real investigations into the murders. They have never seen any trials for the commanders or compensation for their pain. They have never seen justice.
José García, who was minister of defense, and Carlos Vides, who was director of the national guard, were the two most powerful commanders of the Salvadoran military from 1979 to 1983, when troops killed an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 civilians as part of a 12-year war with leftist guerrillas. Both men settled in Florida in 1989. The next year, the U.S. government granted them political asylum. Now, more than ten years after the men were found liable for torture in a West Palm Beach civil suit, the U.S. government might finally reverse its support and force them to leave: In 2012, a federal judge ordered Vides deported, and in late February, García was also ordered out.