Today is another of those sad anniversaries that mark the passage of the years since the end of El Salvador's civil war. Thirty-five years ago today, armed soldiers of the Salvadoran military stopped the van carrying four US churchwomen, took the women to a remote place, raped and murdered them. Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, lay missionary Jean Donovan and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford had been devoting themselves to caring for the poor in a country spiraling into armed conflict. Their deaths became a symbol of the savage lengths to which the Salvadoran state would go to preserve its privileges of power. They joined the ranks of the martyrs of the struggle for justice in El Salvador.
The UN Truth Commission Report following the war describes the basic facts:
Shortly after 7 p.m. on 2 December 1980, members of the National Guard of El
Salvador arrested four churchwomen as they were leaving Comalapa International
Airport. Churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were
taken to an isolated spot where they were shot dead at close range.
Two of the four murdered churchwomen, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, worked in
Chalatenango and were returning from Nicaragua. The other two had come from La
Libertad to pick them up at the airport.
The arrests were planned in advance. Approximately two hours before the
churchwomen's arrival, National Guard Deputy Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres
Alemán informed five of his subordinates that they were to arrest some people who
were coming from Nicaragua.
Colindres then went to the San Luis Talpa command post to warn the commander
that, if he heard some disturbing noises, he should ignore them, because they would
be the result of an action which Colindres and his men would be carrying out.
Once the members of the security forces had brought the churchwomen to an isolated
spot, Colindres returned to his post near the airport. On returning to the place where
they had taken the churchwomen, he told his men that he had been given orders to kill
The next morning, 3 December, the bodies were found on the road. When the justice
of the peace arrived, he immediately agreed that they should be buried, as local
commissioner José Dolores Meléndez had indicated. Accordingly, local residents
buried the churchwomen's bodies in the vicinity.
The United States Ambassador, Robert White, found out on 4 December where the
churchwomen's bodies were. As a result of his intervention and once authorization
had been obtained from the justice of the peace, the corpses were exhumed and
taken to San Salvador. There, a group of forensic doctors refused to perform
autopsies on the grounds that they had no surgical masks....
The Commission on the Truth finds that:
1. The arrest and execution of the churchwomen was planned prior to their
arrival at the airport. Deputy Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán carried out
orders of a superior to execute them.
2. Then Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, Director-General of the
National Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar,
Commander of the Zacatecoluca military detachment, Colonel Roberto
Monterrosa, Major Lizandro Zepeda Velasco and Sergeant Dagoberto Martínez,
among other military personnel, knew that members of the National Guard had
committed the murders pursuant to orders of a superior. The subsequent coverup
of the facts adversely affected the judicial investigation process.
3. The Minister of Defence at the time, General José Guillermo García, made no
serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation of responsibility for the
4. Local commissioner José Dolores Meléndez also knew of the executions
carried out by members of the security forces and covered them up.
5. The State of El Salvador failed in its responsibility to investigate the factsYou can read biographies of the four women at this link from the InterReligious Task Force on Central America and watch this short video put together by Maryknoll:
thoroughly, to find the culprits and to punish them in accordance with the law and
the requirements of international human rights law.