Still No Justice for Priests in Notorious El Salvador Massacre 20 Years Later

Human Rights

On November 16, 1989, an elite unit of the Salvadoran military entered the gates of the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador. When they left, six priests lay dead, along with their housekeeper and her teenage daughter.

I reported on the murders that year, for the local Wisconsin community radio station, WORT. The killings took place at a time when the capital city was in the midst of the largest offensive to date in El Salvador's decade-old civil war -- and the U.S. government was supplying about "supplying over $550 million dollars per year in aid to the Salvadoran government -- about one quarter of it directly to the Salvadoran military." The city was totally militarized, with an army base not far from the Jesuit university campus itself, but in spite of this, attempts were being made to blame the killings on the FMLN rebels -- a sign was even planted near the bodies claiming that the priests were executed by the guerrillas as spies.

During the war years, many Church leaders who were proponents of Liberation Theology were targeted by the right-wing forces for taking a stand on the side of the poor. Most famous of these was Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed March 24, 1980 while celebrating mass in San Salvador. Members of the Jesuit order in particular were considered by the military and the ruling party to be the intellectual leaders of the guerrilla movement -- which was, in fact, an army of Salvadoran peasants. Of the 26 soldiers cited in a 1993 United Nations report as having participated in these massacres, 19 were graduates of the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Since its founding, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 soldiers and police officers from a variety of Latin American countries, many of whom were later accused of torture and other human rights violations. Activists, and several members of Congress, have worked to try and defund the school, seen by many as a relic of the Cold War, but the doors remain open at an annual cost of about $7.5 million taxpayer dollars. Since 1990, protests at the SOA have taken place every year at the time of the anniversary of the murder of the the six Jesuit priests and the women who supported them. Their deaths are symbolic of the more than 75,000 Salvadorans killed during the war between 1980 and 1992.

This past weekend, I stood in the rose garden of the same university campus where the Jesuits were killed. The roses, originally six red and two yellow, were planted to commemorate the murders -- killings that led Maryknoll priest Father Roy Bourgeois to found the peace group School of the Americas Watch ( This coming weekend, on November 22nd, more than ten thousand people are expected to march in protest outside the gates of WHINSEC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, as the SOA has been renamed, to mark the 20th anniversary of the murders.

The killings in San Salvador may ring familiar to Americans who recall that era, but documents that were released a few years later revealed a level of complicity within the U.S. that has been largely ignored in the press. When the murders of the Jesuit priests were falsely blamed on FMLN rebels, the U.S. Embassy helped perpetuate the lie through numerous "off-the-record" assertions. Here in the United States, Reed Irvine, founder of the rightwing media watch group called "Accuracy in Media," was trumpeting the message that "these guerrillas like killing priests." In an appearance that November in Madison, WI, Irvine cited the report of two investigators that had viewed the bodies -- Dr. Robert Kirschner and forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow, both well known for their investigative work on remains from massacres. Irvine claimed that Kirschner and Snow believed the bodies had been shot, but not mutilated. I immediately contacted both men and interviewed them. It turned out that by the time they had been allowed to view the bodies, they were already scrubbed and placed in a morgue.

An American Jesuit priest, Father Joe Mulligan, whom I had met a few years earlier while working in Nicaragua, had been in San Salvador for the funeral of the vicitims of the massacre. It was a roll of 35mm film that he brought back to the U.S. hidden in his suitcase that provided these investigators a more accurate picture of that morning. I obtained a copy of the film and made 8x10 color prints, and, with a colleague, went to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Madison, where we had an expert in military wounds help us analyze each photo. The pictures were incredibly graphic (the same images later shocked readers of the Catholic Herald newspaper as national outrage over the murders grew here in the U.S.). They showed the bodies in situ and clearly illustrated the events of that morning. The priests had been shot, some still in their bedrooms or studies, and dragged to the courtyard outside, where their brains were systematically blown out. The wounds to the housekeeper and her daughter were more brutal and of a sexual nature.

I sent copies of the photos and the military surgeon's analysis to Drs. Kirschner and Snow, then called them back for a follow-up interview. Indeed, they agreed, this was certainly more than they had been able to seen in their initial visit. "I agree with you," Dr. Snow told me, "shooting out a priest's brains…is a form of mutilation." It was this fuller view of the context of the murders that made it into the final independent investigative report produced by Drs. Snow and Kirschner for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Another thread in the saga of the killings was the story of another witness, a neighbor named Lucia Barrera de Cerna, who had seen men in military uniforms in the courtyard during the killing of the priests. She and her husband were taken, ostensibly for protection, to the Miami office of the FBI where they were interrogated with such intensity that she eventually recanted her original testimony out of fear. Present throughout the four days of interrogation was the political officer from the U.S. Embassy, Richard Chidester. Lucia and her husband were later taken under the care of Father Paul Tipton, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, who wrote about their ordeal in an op-ed in the New York Times. I interviewed Tipton during this period, later contacting the FBI field office in Miami that had conducted the interrogation. The agent there told me little, except for the fact that the FBI was, and had been, operating in El Salvador. But any questions about the case led only to a referral to the State Department. When I called them, I only received a curt "no comment."

A trial was held in 1991, but even those members of the military who were convicted, on strong evidence, were given amnesty in 1993 (pushed through by Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani following the signing of the 1992 peace accords). It seemed like justice would never be done in this case, like so many others of that period. But on November 13, 2008, nineteen years after the killings, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability and the Spanish Association for Human Rights filed a criminal suit in Spain against former Cristiani, charging him with covering up crimes against humanity, and 14 former members of the army in connection with the murder of the six Jesuits (most of whom had been born in Spain). Salvadoran President Antonio "Tony" Saca, a member of the same ARENA party as Cristiani, told reporters in November 2008 that "reopening wounds of the past is not the best formula for reconciliation." Similar words came from Salvador's Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle who said, "Opening this case in another country's courts won't help the process of domestic reconciliation," He went on to emphasize that the case had no place in the Spanish court, stating "El Salvador's affairs should be resolved in El Salvador." But in May of 2009, the Spanish court began the trial, although choosing not to include the U.S. organization, nor the charges against former President Cristiani at this time.

Times have changed a great deal in El Salvador. Last March, a candidate of the FMLN party was elected overwhelmingly to the presidency. Mauricio Funes took office in June, and has begun the slow and fitful process of instituting reforms. One of these has been to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of the Jesuits with a "public act of atonement" for mistakes by past governments. Meanwhile in the U.S., last month Congress passed a joint resolution, authored by Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass) honoring the Jesuits and their work in El Salvador. (McGovern himself received an honorary doctorate in Human Rights from the UCA this past weekend, honoring, in part, his work to keep this case in the memory of the people of the United States.)

I remember standing in that courtyard at the UCA in San Salvador ten years ago, having just returned from a visit to a community radio station in the town of Victoria near the Honduran border. I looked down and I could see vividly where each body had been that November morning. But I could also see images of everyday Salvadorans rebuilding their country after a brutal civil war; opening new spaces and creating a new, more just, society. A new El Salvador, at peace, requires addressing the crimes of the past, and building forward into the future.

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