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The curfew broke after dawn. But the massacre took place in the middle of the night. The high command of the Salvadoran armed forces, who were receiving a million dollars a day in U.S. aid, made their decision near midnight. They had been on the defensive over the past four days and nights, as Marxist guerrillas took over and held poor as well as wealthy neighborhoods throughout the capital city. The strength of the rebel offensive took Salvadoran and U.S. officials alike by surprise. El Salvador’s military leaders chose to strike back by bombing –not the wealthy– but the poor barrios being held by guerrillas, and by targeting civilians whom they accused of being guerrilla collaborators. They decided to start that night by murdering their most vocal critics.
The massacre made news worldwide. Six Jesuit university priests wearing their bloodied night clothes and lying dead on the campus grass, along with their housekeeper and her daughter who were also murdered nearby as they held each other. But it was only the second story of the day, as by then the main headline was the falling Berlin Wall.
East German authorities began letting their own citizens cross over into West Berlin in the evening of November 9, 1989. Two days later, leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo MartÍ National Liberation Front launched not only the largest rebel offensive of El Salvador’s long civil war, but what still stands as perhaps the most sizeable insurgent offensive in Latin America. Thousands of Marxist combatants infiltrated and took up positions in the largest cities across the small Central American nation, and held their ground in many cases including various parts of San Salvador for up to ten days.
The Cold War was visibly ending in Europe, but fighting in the name of ideology was still ongoing in much of the “periphery,” to use the euphemistic parlance of academic experts. The Jesuits were murdered twenty years ago on November 16, as Germans on both side of the Berlin Wall were still literally knocking it down. The Jesuits were Europeans, too, who had migrated from the Basque country of Spain to El Salvador in the early 1960s. There they founded a Jesuit university intending to educate the children of the nation’s Catholic elite but to also encourage them to embrace a sense of service.
The university rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., was a priest who sometimes made students chuckle when he would seemingly forget the words on the rare occasion, usually at a university event, when he would give mass. But he was also among Central America’s most influential liberation theologians whose philosophy might be summed up by his book of the same name, Converting the Church into the Kingdom of God, although reading it one thinks it could have subtitled, Making the Church Work for the Poor on Earth.
Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., who was also slain on the university lawn, was the head of the university’s psychology department. He was an accomplished theorist, but his main concern was to document and find ways to treat the trauma that was spreading through Salvadoran society as a result of the then-ongoing war. He also called the Army soldiers who were about to kill him and his colleagues a slang term for carrion, according to residents who overheard the murders from houses just over a fence from the Jesuit residence. Afterward, one soldier popped open a can of beer.
Segundo Montes, S.J., headed the university sociology department. He and his staff not only documented human rights abuses along with the refugees that were being created by the war, but he befriended one mountainous, rural community in Eastern El Salvadoran whose members renamed the town in his name after the murders. He also knew how to reach his more well-off, urban students and would even show Hollywood films like “Beaches,” which was translated as “Friends” in Spanish, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. “What is the meaning of friendship,” asked Montes, “in war?”
But the Salvadoran Army didn’t murder the university priests over what they taught their students. No, the nation’s U.S.-backed military commanders most likely killed them because the Jesuits led by Ellacuría had consistently advocated a negotiated end to the nation’s long civil war. While hardliners on both sides had long sought to completely eradicate the other, Ellacuría was among the first to point out that negotiations leading to a peace accord was not only the only way to end the fighting, but to also save the nation’s overwhelmingly poor population from more needless suffering.
Ellacuría, while he had been in danger before like many others, starting receiving a slew of threats along with insinuations singling him out as early as 1985. By then the war seemed to be at an impasse, and the political space for students, trade unionists, farm workers and others to demonstrate their grievances again seemed to be opening. Ellacuría began writing about “a third force” between the two warring sides that could help pave the road to negotiations.
By the late 1980s, the new U.S. weaponry and training provided to government forces had improved the military’s performance, but the Marxist insurgency only seemed to be growing stronger as well. The issue seemed to be, how long might the war go on? The leftist guerrilla leadership clandestinely left El Salvador for the first time in nearly a decade in 1988. Visiting Mexico, Nicaragua, and nations in Western Europe, they learned that Marxism around the world was on the wane, and began listening to many sympathetic voices encouraging them to accept the idea of a negotiated settlement.
But the FMLN leaders, who each represented one of five distinct revolutionary parties, decided that they would need to fight first and launch an offensive to demonstrate their strength and try and compel the Salvadoran military to the negotiating table. Who knew that the rebels would end up launching one of the largest offensives by a Marxist insurgency the world had ever seen less than 48 hours after the Berlin Wall started falling?
The Salvadoran Army found itself surrounded by guerrillas dug into positions among the civilian population. The government then led by President Alfredo Cristiani of the right-wing and formerly death squad-linked ARENA party simply stopped talking to the press as the President and his spokesmen took cover. The U.S. embassy began holding daily press briefings to try and fill in the gap.
Early in the morning of November 16, members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion awoke the six Jesuits from their sleep, forced them outside and shot them with automatic weapons. Another of the leading priests, Jon Sobrino, S.J., survived as he happened to be away that night from the Jesuit residence. The soldiers killed the housekeeper and her daughter in order to try and eliminate any witnesses.
With the Salvadoran government unwilling to comment, U.S. Ambassador William Walker decided to provide a narrative to the press. He suggested that it was the guerrillas who had killed the Jesuits. Indeed there was no love lost between at least some of the rebel commanders and Ellacuría, as he was also critical of many guerrilla actions and abuses. But no motive Ambassador Walker suggested made sense. A U.N. truth commission later established that the decision to murder Ellacuría and other leading Jesuit priests had been made by consensus at a meeting of the high command presided over by Chief of Staff René Emilio Ponce.
On the first anniversary of the murders, dozens of Catholic cardinals from around the world came to a ceremony on El Salvador’s Jesuit university campus. Wearing their customary red caps, they participated in the mass that marked the martyrs’ deaths. This month on the twentieth anniversary campuses from Boston College to the University of Central America in El Salvador will mark their deaths.
Of course the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter hardly died alone. At least 70,000 people died in El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, many if not most at the hands of rightist death squads or military forces. El Salvador is only one of many so-called peripheral nations where the warm blood of many was shed in the Cold War.
Frank Smyth, who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, The Village Voice, The Economist and other outlets, is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador. He is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Communication at American University.