Eight Dead in San Salvador PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Saturday, 22 January 2011 15:52

In November 1989, San Salvador was a war zone. FMLN rebels were holed up in the northern slum of Mejicanos, and reports were circulating that they had taken over police barracks and were digging trenches.  Government jets bombarded the city, as gunships and helicopters added to the fire. Without food and water, and with buildings being blown to bits around them, ten thousand of the hundred thousand residents of the slum fled.  Sacundo Guareado, the rebel leader, announced that the rebels would continue the fight until they forced the government to negotiate a settlement, or to abdicate.

Early on the morning of November 16, thirty men in military uniforms climbed the wall that surrounds the campus of the Jesuit Jose Simeon Canas Central American University and snuck into a dormitory where a number of Jesuit priests were sleeping. Mark Danner reported several years later that the “roused five Jesuit priests from sleep, ordered them to lie with their faces against the ground, and emptied automatic weapons into their brains. Before they departed, the soldiers killed a sixth priest, the Jesuits’ cook, and her fifteen-year-old daughter. The scene they left behind — the obliterated skulls of the priests, the green lawn soaked in blood and brains, the fantastically redundant number of spent cartridges — was one of spectacular carnage.”

Catholics around the world condemned the killings. “They were assassinated with lavish barbarity,” was the way the Jesuit leader of Central America put it, and John Paul II called the murders an “act of appalling violence.”

Initially, it was not clear whether the priests had been killed by government forces or by FMLN guerillas, who considered the priests traitors to their revolutionary cause. Newspapers around the world reported that government “death squads” were leading suspects, and the Jesuits of the University shared the suspicion.  Yet, the murdered priests had once been allied with the rebel movement, but had recently begun to call for an end to violence. A note was found close to the bodies that claimed the killers were “bringing justice to people who are beginning to betray us.”

Salvadoran authorities performed ballistics tests and analyzed the handwriting on the note, which Jesuit priests turned over to police. The handwriting led the government to a lieutenant in the government forces.  As Danner writes, “though the soldiers made a halfhearted attempt to scrawl a few leftist slogans, it would very shortly become clear that those who had done this work were the men of the Atlacatl,” the same Batallion implicated in the El Mozote massacre at the beginning of the 1980s.

It was not the first time the government of El Salvador had been implicated in the murder of Christians. Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed during mass in March 1980, and in December of the same year three nuns and a Catholic lay worker were kidnapped and raped, their bodies found later in a burned-out van near the International Airport. In 1984, four national guardsmen and their commander were convicted of the crimes. Throughout this period, of course, the US was providing massive aid to the El Salvadoran government in their struggle against the communist insurgency.

In the US, the Bush Administration immediately and unequivocally condemned the murders, and urged President Alfredo Christiani to make a full inquiry. When Christani visited the US, one of his first remarks was a promise to get to the bottom of the incident. In 1990, the Bush administration reduced aid to El Salvador, accusing the military high command of trying to block a full investigation and of covering up the military’s involvement.

Eventually investigators on the Jesuit murder case concluded that the massacre was the work of Col. Guillermo A. Benavides Moreno, who directed El Salvador’s military academy. In 1991, Moreno, along with several accomplices were arrested, convicted of terrorism, and sentenced to long prison terms.

In the end, President Cristani freed Moreno’s group under a general amnesty. Human rights groups and Jesuits from the University, further, continued to complain that Cristani knew about and could have prevented the murders. Despite pressure from the U.N., Christiani’s army continued to harbor officers and soldiers that had been involved in death squads.

It was imperfect, for sure. But it, like the El Mozote massacre, provides an important lesson about American international activism. Put aside the larger question of whether the US should have been supporting the Salvadoran government. When Salvadoran soldiers cruelly murdered defenseless priests, the US government instantly and vigorously intervened, and used some of its considerable leverage to force the case to trial. If the El Mozote massacre warns us that Christians cannot be kneejerk patriots or partisans, the Bush I Administration response to the University massacre reminds us that the US does deploy its awesome power in the service of justice.

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Andrew Lohr (Registered) 2011-01-24 23:07:45

For the purposes of these articles in pointing out horrible evils and a somewhat helpful response it may be OK to "Put aside the larger question of whether the US should have been supporting the Salvadoran government," and you may not plan to consider that question, but "Put aside..." asks readers to ignore something rather relevant and important. Refer to a discussion somewhere else by someone else? Write "I'm putting aside" rather than ask us to put aside? (We might want to consider your material within the context of the larger question, rather than "Put aside.") The plotter against Hitler killed a few people; should we put aside what they were against (and perhaps for)?
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