Elliott Abrams, who was recently appointed as the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, was squirming in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday while being questioned by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota).

In one exchange that’s since been shared thousands of times on social media, Rep. Omar grilled Abrams about the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. That particular atrocity was carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, a death squad trained in the U.S. at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Because El Salvador’s military junta had the backing of the United States, Abrams downplayed the massacre at the time, saying the killings were being “significantly misused, at the very best” by left-wing guerilla fighters in their civil war against the Salvadoran military regime.

“More than 800 civilians, including children as young as two years old, were brutally murdered by U.S.-trained troops. During that massacre, some of those troops bragged about raping 12-year-old girls before they killed them,” Omar said. “You later said that the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a ‘fabulous achievement.’ Yes or no, do you still think so?”

“From the day that President [José Napoleón] Duarte was elected in a free election, to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy,” Abrams responded. “That’s a fabulous achievement.”

“Yes or no, do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?” Omar again asked.

“That is a ridiculous question,” Abrams said.

“Yes or no?” Omar again asked.

“No! I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack,” Abrams said.

Abrams is a former convicted criminal (eventually pardoned by George H.W. Bush), having been found guilty of withholding information from Congress in the 1990s relating to the Iran-Contra scandal. But as President Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Abrams frequently covered for far-right governments backed by the Reagan administration in Latin America.

The El Mozote massacre was a particularly bloody chapter in Latin American history, and took place in Reagan’s first year in office as his offensive against leftist Latin American governments escalated. Abrams was confirmed to his position in the summer of 1981, roughly six months before the massacre.

In 2018, The New York Times reported on a provincial judge’s trial in El Salvador, in which retired Salvadoran military officials were brought up on charges of war crimes. Some survivors of the atrocity described the acts they witnessed, and the aftermath of the carnage.

In December of [1981], the Salvadoran army began a campaign to flush out insurgents from the northern hills of eastern Morazán province…[T]he operation began with an aerial and artillery bombardment of El Mozote before the soldiers marched in on Dec. 10 and began interrogating villagers about the guerrillas.

The following morning, they ordered everyone into the town square, separating the men and women, and shoving the children into a small building known as the convent alongside the village church.

Throughout that day, the soldiers methodically executed everyone in the village. They killed the children last, firing a barrage of bullets into the convent and then setting it aflame. An exhumation more than a decade later found the remains of at least 143 victims in that building. The average age was 6.

The same day, the soldiers continued on to La Joya, a hamlet tucked along a valley, where they hauled people out of their homes, shot them and set fire to their houses.

Aside from his role downplaying the brutality of the El Mozote massacre, Abrams also encouraged Guatemala’s far-right dictator to slaughter Indigenous peoples in the country’s Ixil region. In 2017, when Abrams was being considered for a top diplomatic post in the Trump administration, The Nation described in detail how Abrams sought to deter human rights officials from interfering in General Efraín Ríos Montt’s “acts of genocide,” as described by the United Nations-backed Commission for Historical Clarification.

“As the mass killings were taking place, Abrams fought in Congress for military aid to Ríos Montt’s bloody regime. He credited the murderous dictator with having ‘brought considerable progress’ on human-rights issues,” wrote The Nation’s Eric Alterman. “Abrams even went so far as to insist that ‘the amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step’ before demanding that Congress provide the regime with advanced arms because its alleged ‘progress need[ed] to be rewarded and encouraged.’ ”

Now, as the special envoy to Venezuela, Abrams is arguably in a similar position to cover for more potential mass killings by U.S.-backed forces, especially now that Venezuela is accusing the U.S. of secretly shipping weapons to anti-government forces to be used in “terrorist actions.”

In another testy exchange in Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Omar questioned Abrams on whether or not he would again enable the massacre of civilians for the sake of regime change in Venezuela. Abrams refused to give a direct answer.

“Yes or no, would you support an armed faction with Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believe they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?” Omar asked.

“I’m not going to respond to that question,” Abrams said. “I’m sorry, I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply.”

Watch the exchange below:


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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