Sunday, November 16, marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America. It is one of the emblematic cases of the impunity with which El Salvador's military literally got away with murder of innocent civilians during the country's twelve year civil war.
From the UN Truth Commission Report prepared in the year after the 1992 Peace Accords:
Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Director of the Military College, met with the officers under his command....Colonel Benavides told them that he had just come from a meeting at the General Staff at which special measures had been adopted to combat FMLN offensive, which had begun on 11 November. Those present at the meeting had been informed that the situation was critical and it had been decided that artillery and armored vehicles should be used.
Those present at the meeting had also been informed that all known subversive elements must be eliminated. Colonel Benavides said that he had received orders to eliminate Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.
Colonel Benavides asked any officers who objected to the order to raise their hands.
No one did....
In the early hours of 16 November 1989, a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the Pastoral Centre, which was the residence of Jesuit priests Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice-Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; and Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, all teachers at UCA.
The soldiers tried to force their way into the Pastoral Centre. When the priests realized what was happening, they let the soldiers in voluntarily. The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into the back garden and lie face down on the ground.Many articles are being written about the anniversary of the assassinations. On such article is by Congressman Jim McGovern in Huffington Post. As a Congressional staffer, McGovern participated in the investigation into the Jesuit murders being led by Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley. McGovern writes:
The lieutenant in command, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, gave the order to kill the priests. Fathers Ellacuría, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by Private Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Fathers López and Moreno by Deputy Sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas. Shortly afterwards, the soldiers, including Corporal Angel Pérez Vásquez, found Father Joaquín López y López inside the residence and killed him. Deputy Sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo shot Julia Elva Ramos, who was working in the residence, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos. Private José Alberto Sierra Ascencio shot them again, finishing them off.
The soldiers took a small suitcase belonging to the priests, with photographs, documents and $5,000.
They fired a machine gun at the facade of the residence and launched rockets and grenades. Before leaving, they wrote on a piece of cardboard: "FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN."
As part of our investigation, I was deeply upset to find that 19 of the 26 members of the unit that killed the priests and women had received U.S. taxpayer-paid military training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). In addition, the Atlacatl Battalion received specialized training from U.S. Special Operations just two days before the operation to murder the Jesuits happened. At the time, it was just the latest atrocity in El Salvador committed by Salvadoran troops who had received extensive U.S. military training in-country and at the SOA. These include the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen; the 1981 murder of two U.S. labor advisors and the director of the Salvadoran agrarian reform program; the 1981 massacre at El Mozote; and the 1983 massacre at Las Hojas indigenous cooperative, to name but a few of the best-known cases.Jesuits worldwide are remembering the victims. From Twenty-Five Years After a Massacre, Jesuits Reflect on the Meaning and the Martyrdom by William Bole:
“It’s the witness of their lives that matters,” [Father Douglas Marcouiller, SJ], said. “The case is important. But the focus shouldn’t be primarily on the people who pulled the trigger, or the ones who gave the orders. It should be on the martyrs and their commitment to the Gospel, the kind that leads us to defend the lives of the poor today, going forward.”Since the Amnesty Law passed in 1993 has prevented prosecution of the figures in El Salvador's High Command who gave the orders, the pursuit of justice has now been taken to a court in Spain. Although the Spanish court indicted twenty former Salvadoran military officers and Spain made an extradition request, El Salvador's Supreme Court has ruled that they will not be extradited. You can read details about the case at the website of the Center for Justice and Accountability.
For the 25th anniversary, the online periodical El Faro has a special section on the case of the Jesuits. Some of the reporting includes an admission by Mauricio Colorado, the Salvadoran Attorney General in 1989, that he pressured the prosecutors under him not to do anything which would implicate the High Command of the Salvadoran military.
El Salvador continues to fail to grapple with the legacy of the human rights abuses committed by its government and military during the civil war. The victims continue to demand justice, and impunity continues to reign supreme in the country.