EDITOR’S NOTE: Fifteen years ago on Nov. 16, six Jesuit priests and two others were murdered in San Salvador by the Salvadoran army for their outspoken stance in defense of the poor. Now, legal and legislative efforts to justice to victims of El Salvador’s civil war are picking up steam, especially in the United States, which armed, trained and educated many death squad members.
By Mary Jo McConahay
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
On an early morning 15 years ago in San Salvador, a handful of reporters walked cautiously into the walled garden of the Jesuit university residence and saw the bodies of four well-known priests lying dead on the grass. Inside were the bodies of two more priests. A few steps below the garden, in a room where they had asked to spend the night to avoid a city raked by fighting, lay the bodies of the priests’ housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter, riddled with bullets, the mother fallen partly over the girl as if in protection when army gunmen burst through the door.
The Jesuits had researched causes and effects of the 12-year civil war, publicly suggested poverty and lack of political space were at its roots, and had called for a negotiated solution. Their deaths shocked the world and helped spur an end to the conflict.
Today, despite the passage of time, calls for accountability for crimes committed in the Salvadoran conflict are re-emerging outside the country, including in the United States.
Nineteen of the 24 accused assassins attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., which still trains Latin American officers; today, many are from Colombia. This week, thousands of students and other activists descend on Fort Benning for an annual procession and protest against training officers who return to countries with questionable rights records, and to commemorate rights victims. A bill to close the school, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, counts 130 congressional supporters, including nine Republicans.
The Jesuits’ murders are among a series of new, high-profile cases aiming at legal redress and punishment of former U.S.-backed authorities. A seemingly dauntless network of low-paid rights workers, lawyers and victims bring cases not only in Central America, but in U.S. towns where one-time officers and death squad operatives now live, often comfortably. The history of the El Salvadoran conflict, which lasted over a decade until 1992, is being documented in a way it has never been. Legal precedent is being created, and a new generation exposed to one of the most bloody faces of the Cold War era.
The trials are part of a global movement that began in l998 when Spain charged Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet with murder, torture and kidnapping, insisting egregious human rights crimes fall under a universal jurisdiction not limited to the countries where they were committed. In El Salvador, where courts have not held abusers accountable, the United States supported a brutal Salvadoran military with money and advisors against leftist rebels. Seventy-five thousand died, mostly civilians, until a negotiated settlement in l992.
In September, a federal judge in Fresno, Calif., ruled a former Salvadoran air force captain living in Modesto was liable for $10 million in damages for involvement in the 1980 daylight murder of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. A key trial witness was the driver of the getaway car, also now residing in the United States, who said he had carried out 15 other death squad missions. In 2002, a West Palm Beach jury named a former El Salvadoran Defense Minister and a former Director of the National Guard responsible for the torture of three Salvadorans now living in the United States, and awarded them $54.6 million. Both generals had retired to south Florida in l989, the year the Jesuits were killed. An unsuccessful 2000 Florida court effort to name the generals responsible for the rapes and murders of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980 in El Salvador is under appeal.
“Having our cases opened here will help open other cases there in El Salvador it’s still forbidden to talk about the atrocities,” says Carlos Mauricio, a plaintiff in West Palm Beach. Now a San Francisco high school teacher, Mauricio was captured while giving a class in animal nutrition at El Salvador’s national university in 1983, accused of being a guerrilla and tortured by government forces for three weeks. In San Salvador, Maria Julia Hernandez, director of the diocesan Legal Aid Office, which reported closely on abuse during the conflict, told local press the Fresno decision “without any doubt contributes to opening to road to justice in El Salvador.” She called upon the government to re-start prosecution of the Romero case.
Over 2 million El Salvadorans live in the United States, many who fled the war, and among them are witnesses finally ready to speak of the past. “It could be the passage of time, or their consciences, or possibly a persuasion that a United States court is honest and that justice will be done, so that they don’t put themselves at risk for nothing,” says Sandra Coliver, director of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, which brought the California and Florida cases.
The history of the Jesuits’ case is a litany of refusals to prosecute and references to an amnesty that effectively shelters military rights abusers. Director Benjamin Cuellar of the University of Central America Human Rights Institute said another case being heard internationally of two sisters ages 3 and 7, last seen when soldiers captured them during an operation in l982, may affect the government most of all. In San Jose, Costa Rica, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is likely to issue a December decision that El Salvador must pay damages and admit guilt, the first against it for the forced disappearance of at least hundreds of children during the war. The government has accepted the court’s jurisdiction and is bound to accept the judgment.
Cuellar said taking the Jesuits’ case abroad “is a door we may knock on,” but that it is “dangerous” to continue without cases being resolved inside the country itself. “Justice here remains the same. That’s the reason the war started in the first place the poverty, lack of political spaces and impunity.”
Mary Jo McConahay is a Pacific News Service editor who covered the war in El Salvador in the 1980s.