Justice Finally Comes for Perpetrator in Thirty-Year-Old Crime

Justice Finally Comes for Perpetrator in Thirty-Year-Old Crime

One of those who ordered killings of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador convicted in Spanish court.

BY  The Progressive, September 15, 2020

See original story here.

El Salvador’s Cold War Martyrs

The original article may be found here.

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.

Release the Jesuit Tapes

Original article can be found here.

by Thomas Long & Frank Smyth

The FBI Has Videotaped Testimony That Accuses the Salvadoran Army of Killing Six Jesuits—and Proves the U.S. Knew in Advance

SAN SALVADOR—American officials in both San Salvador and Washington claim that they have cooperated “intensely” with the investigation into the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter last November. Yet even though State Department officials finally yielded to pressure from Congress to turn over the sworn testimony of a U.S. military adviser—who said he knew of the murder plan in advance—they have continued to withhold key evidence. For 10 months the FBI has kept a videotape of the adviser’s testimony, which suggests there was a conspiracy to murder the Jesuits that included several top Salvadoran army officers, in their Washington headquarters.

Two weeks ago U.S. Embassy officials delivered to a Salvadoran judge three cursory sworn affidavits given by U.S. Army Major Eric Warren Buckland to the FBI in January. But they did not turn over the videotape or a transcript of a detailed discussion between Buckland and FBI examiner Paul Cully.

The recorded discussion is vital. Cully based his own conclusion that Buckland had prior knowledge of a plan to kill the Jesuit priests on the videotaped interview. It also contains information that Buckland recanted—with only a sketchy explanation—one week later.

“There is no way to analyze his statements and his supposed retraction without having the videotape—or at least a transcript—to know exactly what he said and what he was trying to recant,” said Antonio Cañas, a senior political analyst at the Jesuit-run University of Central America.

American officials have yet to explain why this evidence has not already been volunteered to investigating Salvadoran authorities. In fact, U.S. officials in San Salvador have received strict instructions from Washington not to comment on Buckland’s testimony at all.

Nevertheless, the videotape was entered into evidence at FBI headquarters in Washington. Logged, according to official FBI documents, under case title “Shooting of Six Jesuit Priests,” subject “Murder,” it has been “maintained” at the Polygraph Unit, section GRB, Suite 2, under the file number #00116093 PQ1X0.

“Why is the Embassy being so fucking tight-lipped?” asked a non-American Western official, who has been independently monitoring the investigation. “Somewhere somebody is lying through their back teeth within the U.S. hierarchy.”

According to Jesuit academic Michael Czerny, “The United States government from very early on has been acting in a very irregular if not criminal manner.”

Major Buckland has offered two clearly conflicting stories. First he said he had prior knowledge that senior officers were planning to murder the priests. Then he said that he only learned of the Jesuit murders after the fact.

But his recantation is less than weak. “It’s absolutely nonsensical,” said one Western diplomat. In both versions, Buckland says that some time before the Jesuits were killed he accompanied a senior Salvadoran army officer, Colonel Carlos Avilés, to the country’s military academy to “solve a problem” with the school’s director, Colonel Guillermo Benavides. Benavides was later charged with ordering the Jesuit murders.

Buckland says he shared a close working and personal relationship with Colonel Avilés, his Salvadoran counterpart in developing psychological operations for the war. He also says that Avilés was his chief source of information on the murders. According to both Buckland’s original and revised testimonies, on the day of their visit to the academy, Avilés was acting as a special envoy of then army chief of staff Colonel René Emilio Ponce.

In a sworn handwritten statement given to the FBI on January 11, Buckland says Avilés told him that Benavides, the military school’s director, and other unnamed officers were planning to kill Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the University of Central America and the most prominent of the murdered priests. The adviser says he waited while Avilés went to talk with Benavides:

“Aviles appeared very uncomfortable about talking to Benevides. Upon returning to the vehicle Aviles called me back to the vehicle and told me that he had to work something out; ‘Colonel Benavides is from the old school, he liked to handle things in his own way, in the old style.”…

“Benevides told Aviles that Ella Coria [sic] was a problem. Aviles told me they wanted to handle it the old way by killing some of the priests. I asked what happened when you (Aviles) talked to him. Aviles told me that Benavides was old school and was still the ‘rammer.’ ”

In his January 18 retraction one week later, Buckland describes the same visit in even greater detail. He recalls, for instance, Avilés telling him “about the fine quality of the bread baked at the military school.” At the same time, however, Buckland curiously claims not to remember anything about his conversation with Avilés concerning Benavides—which was, according to the adviser’s own testimonies, the purpose of the trip:

“After we both got into the vehicle, I asked him words to the effect of what was going on and I do not remember his reply or specifically what “we talked about.” According to this revised version, the major still claims Avilés told him about Benavides’s involvement in the murders—but on another occasion, six weeks after the crime took place.

In explaining the switch, Buckland implies that his initial version was given under duress, and that he became confused during the FBI examination. But it does seem odd that Buckland could have invented the information that Benavides wanted to murder Father Ellacuria—and even write it down himself—and then recall nothing a week later. What’s more, Buckland’s first account is rich, in its particulars, with little hint of confusion under stern FBI examination. It seems unlikely, for example, that Buckland could have remembered all the details like the little-known nickname, “the rammer,” when Benavides is more commonly referred to by fellow officers as “Virgin Boots.”

U.S. officials back up Buckland’s claim that he lost control of his faculties in his initial testimony—even though the veteran Green Beret and army Special Forces Psychological Operations major was under routine questioning as a friendly witness.

Even more convincing, a lie detector test directly contradicts Buckland’s retraction. In answer to the question, “Did you have prior knowledge that the Jesuits would be killed?” Buckland said no, and the polygraph indicated “deception,” according to official FBI documents.

Based on this and the subsequent videotaped interview, FBI examiner Cully concludes: “Buckland admitted that he obtained prior knowledge that the [priests at the university] were going to be killed, specifically Ellacoria [sic], through conversations with Colonel Avilés. According to Major Buckland, Colonel Avilés told him of the intent of certain officers of the El Salvadoran Army to conduct a military operation against the University of Central America. Major Buckland became aware of this information several weeks before the Jesuits were murdered.”

But Colonel Avilés, Buckland’s main source, denies telling the adviser anything. Avilés denies even his former friendship with Buckland—a relationship of which both Salvadoran and Americans were well aware. Indeed, Avilés claims that he was not even in El Salvador when the alleged trip took place.

Buckland, in his initial statement, says the pair made the visit “approximately 10 days before the killings (circa November 6, 1989).” But in his later version, the adviser says the trip was made in late October, recalling that Avilés left for vacation at the beginning of November.

Colonel Ponce, on whose orders Avilés was allegedly sent to the military school, also denies knowing of the murders in advance. He bases his denial on a selectively narrow reading of Buckland’s testimony (Ponce has since been promoted to the military’s top post as minister of defense).

Last month Ponce sent a letter to Massachusetts congressman Joe Moakley, who chairs a special task force on the investigation. Ponce points out that Avilés passport indicates he was not in El Salvador in early November. “That should be sufficient to demonstrate with facts the falsehood of Major Buckland’s declaration,” he says in the letter.

Only Buckland’s revised testimony, which U.S. officials now claim is the truth, establishes the date of the visit in late October.

The newest revelations do not mark the first time Avilés and Buckland have given widely disparate versions of their activities together. Buckland first came forward in early January, telling his superiors that Aviles informed him in December that the military school director had ordered the killings. Avilés categorically denies revealing any information.

Both men were given lie detector tests at that time. Congressman Moakley and other officials concluded that it was the Salvadoran colonel who was lying.

Avilés would have had good reason. To be branded a snitch within the most exclusive and powerful men’s club in El Salvador—the senior officers’ corps—is akin to blowing the whistle on the Mafia. At the very least, “his career is over,” said one Western official. Not surprisingly, Avilés has since said he’s planning to retire.

“It is a very grave sin among them [to snitch],” said a chief prosecutor from the office of the Salvadoran attorney general. “But they can’t get rid of him now, because it would be too obvious.” Portions of the affidavits which Buckland does not retract reveal that both men feared for their lives because of what they knew of the murders.

The many inconsistencies between Buckland’s original and revised testimonies clearly indicate that key pieces of the puzzle are still missing. For one thing, much of the information he recants in his revised affidavit never actually appeared in his previous sworn statements.

What’s more, the FBI examiner’s report draws heavily on evidence that has never been made available to Salvadoran judicial authorities. The most complete record of what Buckland may have known and when he knew it is likely to be found in the videotaped FBI interview.

The Bush administration has never been notably openhanded about information concerning the Jesuits’ murder. The January affidavits were released only after Congressman Moakley publicly complained in mid-October. The Salvadoran judge on the case has now asked for the videotaped interview; U.S. officials refuse to comment on the matter, saying they have not yet received a formal diplomatic request.

Such behavior leads Jesuit leaders and other observers to question the administration’s true intentions. “The U.S. Embassy did not provide the evidence, and they have not yet explained why,” said Father Jose Maria Tojeira, the Jesuit Provincial for Central America. “They are either inept, or acting in bad faith.”

Sources say that Buckland’s January testimony was “discovered” by U.S. officials in San Salvador in late September. Yet they refuse to say who in the federal government might be responsible for their mysterious discovery or even which agency channeled the evidence from the FBI headquarters in Washington to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. They also fail to explain why it took nearly a month to pass the evidence to Salvadoran authorities— at the same time that they deny that Moakley’s prodding played any role.

Non-American officials and other observers say that the U.S. government’s blatant discrepancies warrant an inquiry. “There are too many agencies involved,” said one Western diplomat. “They [should] be called to testify under oath.”

Officials of the Jesuit university agree.

“There has always been passive complicity [by U.S. officials] in human rights abuses in the past; now the complicity has become active,” said the university’s Cañas. “It is not only a question of how far does this complicity reach, but where did it begin?”

The Truth Will Out

San Salvador — The official purpose given for Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson’s visit here two weeks ago was to express support for negotiations between El Salvador’s U.S.-backed government and the leftist guerrillas. But the real reason the ranking state department policymaker for Latin America traveled to El Salvador was to give a scathing lecture to the High Command of the Salvadoran Army over their suspected involvement in the murders of six Jesuit Priests last November.

Aronson gave the High Command a dressing down that differed markedly from his public comments on the U.S. ambassador’s lawn. Sources present at the meeting said Aronson lambasted the assembled officers about the Jesuit investigation, and demanded that those responsible be brought to trial.

U.S. officials here admit to being terrified at what they might find if they press the government to get to the bottom of the case. They have begun to realize that not only a few lower-ranking officers, but several members of the senior High Command may be complicit in planning the murders. U.S. officials also fear the embassy’s favorite son, armed forces chief of staff Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce, may be involved.

So far, no definitive evidence to link specific senior officers to the actual ordering of the crime has come to light — presumably because individual officers have closed ranks to protect one another. But a mounting body of evidence points increasingly to the complicity of the High Command.

Military intelligence sources as well as Catholic Church officials say that prior to the Jesuit murders, the military conceived of “Plan Djakarta” a term coined after the brutal 1965 anti-communist campaign in Indonesia that led to the wholesale slaughter of leftists and ethnic Chinese in that country. Sources say the military’s Plan Djakarta, which was developed in the midst of the major offensive by leftist guerrillas last November, targeted dozens of prominent religious, labor, and other popular leaders for assassination. The Plan Djakarta strongly suggests that the Jesuits were not killed in isolation, but as part of a broader, preconceived plan.

Under strong pressure from Congress, the [George H. W.] Bush administration has been forced to make the infamous massacre of six Jesuit priests and two women a test case for U.S. policy. But various diplomatic and other sources say the Salvadoran military High Command is actively blocking the investigation. Unless the crime is successfully prosecuted and its “intellectual authors” within the military are tried, U.S. officials admit they will have little remaining justification to defend against serious cuts in U.S. aid.

It’s now become apparent that the dilemma has frozen U.S. policy in its tracks. At the very least, even if Ponce was not involved in the killings, given his sway over the rest of the rest of the High Command, diplomats suspect the chief of staff is collaborating in a cover-up. The High Command’s failure to demand accountability in the case demonstrates that U.S. attempts to “professionalize” the Salvadoran Armed Forces have been in vain. Though it has been financed and supported by U.S. tax dollars over the past 10 years, the Salvadoran military is now thumbing its nose at its backers, and the senior officers that currently dominate the High Command have become Washington’s Frankenstein — or Noriega — in yet another Central American nation.

The High Command remained politely silent during Aronson’s address, and at the end gave him an ovation. But sources present said they doubted that his words were well heeded. One observer said, “It was like telling sharks not to eat sardines.”

Wearing a standard dark-blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, the assistant secretary looked a little out of place before the camouflage-clad Salvadoran High Command, according to one observer present. “He was like a Dutch uncle,” he said. “But I don’t know if they got the [message].”

Aronson’s visit came in the wake of heavy pressure from U.S. officials here. Diplomats say the embassy’s military attaché, Colonel Wayne Wheeler, has lobbied the High Command almost daily to cooperate with the investigation. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the case, U.S. ambassador William Walker — conscious that his own diplomatic future may be hanging on the outcome — recently gave what officials described as the “toughest speech of his 30-year career.” But the High Command didn’t budge. Aronson was called in to up the ante.

Five soldiers and three junior officers have been charged with carrying out the murders, and Colonel Guillermo Benavides has been charged with ordering them. But diplomats and other observers here are almost unanimous that Benavidcs, who has been referred to as “Virgin Boots” could not have ordered a crime of such magnitude on his own. “I know Benavides,” said a senior U.S. official directly involved in the case. “I don’t believe he did it,” he said flatly.

For a time, U.S. officials entertained the thought that the lower-ranking officers charged in the assassination of some of El Salvador’s most prestigious Catholic clergy and respected academic critics on their own. But both the severity of the crime and the number of troops involved make that highly unlikely. Besides, the High Command’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation puts that scenario further in doubt. “Why would a lieutenant decide to do that?” said a non-American Western diplomat. “It had to come from higher up.”

Speculation revolves around two now well-known meetings. The first took place in the High Command headquarters the evening of November 15, just hours before the Jesuit murders. The second occurred in the military’s National Directorate of Intelligence (which shares facilities with the CIA) several hours after the deaths. Earlier this year, military sources told reporters that officers at the first meeting decided to use air power to put down the mounting guerrilla offensive, and to try to assassinate suspected rebel leaders in the capital. Sources also said that at the second meeting, officers clapped in approval upon hearing of the Jesuits’ deaths.

One Salvadoran Army officer present at that second meeting, Colonel Pineda Guerra, took issue with his fellow officers for applauding, according to diplomatic and military sources. Pineda argued that the Jesuit murders were a mistake, and predicted that the case would be a terrible scar on the military as an institution. Other officers, especially Colonel Guzman Aguilar, argued that the Jesuits deserved what they got. “[Pineda] made a real impression on people present,” said a U.S. official — implying that either American officials or sources were also represented.

But it still remains unclear who ordered the killings — and who knew about them, and when. On the morning the Jesuits were killed, Army soldiers raided the headquarters of the Lutheran Church and were also seen at the homes of several other antigovernment politicians and activists. All but the Jesuits had already gone into hiding. That the actions all occurred at about the same time led to speculation among Church officials and others that the military had drawn up a list, identified to the Church as “Plan Djakarta.” Several members of the High Command confirmed the existence of the Plan Djakarta, according to an individual with long-standing access to the military and official intelligence information. The purpose of the list was “to decapitate” the antigovernment movement, he said. “There were lots of religious and other people on it.” When asked how many, he said, “at least a hundred.”

El Salvador’s Catholic archbishop, Rivera y Damas, told an audience in Europe that he believes his name and that of Auxiliary Bishop Rosa Chavez were included: “Bishop Rosa Chavez and I could have died too on that night (the Jesuits were killed). Our names were on the list of Plan Djakarta, whose aim was the physical elimination of all of those of us who denounce human rights violations and the system of injustice here in El Salvador.”

“What we do know, we have from sources which the Archbishop sees as worthy of belief,” Rosa Chavez later told an American reporter. “The plan you mention did exist.” Two days after the Jesuits were killed, El Salvador Attorney General Eduardo Colorado sent a letter to Pope John Paul II, warning him that the bishops were in danger. The Salvadoran AG encouraged the Pope to temporarily withdraw the bishops for their own protection.

The Jesuits’ deaths make it inconceivable that they would not have been on the list. The testimony of one the lieutenants charged with killing them is also telling. According to the testimony recorded by El Salvador’s Fourth Penal Court, Benavides told three of his subordinates, “This is a situation where it’s them or us; we’re going to begin with the ringleaders. And within our sector, we have the university and Ellacuria [the most prominent of the murdered priests) is there.”

Nevertheless, judicial authorities have not even begun to seriously investigate the High Command. Actually, fewer than a dozen officers have provided even peripheral testimony in the case. Ponce, for example, took responsibility for ordering a search of the Jesuits’ residence less than three days before they were killed. But he has only provided a judge with prepared statements, limited largely to the search itself. Only one senior officer besides Benavides has been called before the judge. Other key senior officers whom diplomats strongly suspect, such as Vice-Minister of Defense Juan Orlando Zepeda, have yet to be even seriously questioned. El Salvador’s Fourth Penal judge, Ricardo Zamora [no relation to leftist politician Ruben Zamora] is genuinely pursuing leads. But his efforts are, predictably, limited mostly to the execution of the crime, not to who gave the order.

The investigation itself has taken a number of strange turns. “Every time they get one thing straight, they come to something else,” said a non-American diplomat. “They keep incriminating more people.” The burning of more than 7O log books from the Military Academy — which might have indicated who directed the unit that killed the Priests — is one example. Military officers said that all the books from 1989 were burned as standard routine, though the books for 1987 and 1988 are, oddly, still on file.

In another bizarre twist, Judge Zamora ordered the arrest of Lieutenant Colonel Camilo Hernandez for having allegedly ordered the books to be burned. But three weeks passed before Hernandez was actually arrested, and consigned to a judge. The High Command says it was a misunderstanding; a non-American Western diplomat independently monitoring the case describes the military’s attitude toward the investigation as a “joke.”

Other diplomats say the Bush administration has wanted to get — or has needed to get in order to pacify Congress– at least one officer above Benavides to take responsibility for ordering the assassinations. But the problem is whether one senior officer can be singled out from the rest. “They were looking for one other name besides (Benavides),” said a non-American diplomat. “They (thought) someone higher up was involved, but what if they were all involved?”

The War Next Door

Original story can be found here.

The slaying of six Jesuits was only the most recent reminder that El Salvador is one of the few remaining countries where the price of thought can be death.

San Salvador – Several months ago a friend invited me to his sociology class. “Come on,” he said, “we’re going to see a movie.” Beaches, starring Bette Midler, was the day’s discussion subject.

Students milled about the auditorium, many in Levis and Reeboks. With a Coke and popcorn in hand, I felt as close to home as a foreigner can feel in El Salvador.

Entre Amigos –- “Among Friends” –- is how the movie title was translated into Spanish. Readers may be familiar with the plot: two young girls meet by chance in California and build a friendship that stretches to New York and lasts for life.

When the lights came on, a tall man in a long graying beard took his place in front of the class. He spoke in a deep raspy voice.

“What does it mean to be friends?” he asked paternally. “What does it mean to have a friendship?”

But the discussion soon took its own track. “What is the meaning of friendship,” asked one woman, “in the midst of war?”

The more sober theme dominated the rest of the session. In El Salvador, even the most delightful film can offer only transitory escape from violence.

The bearded man was sociology professor Segundo Montes. SJ. Like other Jesuit professors at the University of Central America Jose Simeon Canas or UCA (pronounced “ooka”), much of his coursework was devoted to exploring El Salvador’s “national reality.” Integration of the war and friendship themes was likely part of this plan for that session.

Both Montes and his fellow Jesuit and colleague Ignacio (Nacho) Martin-Baro were immensely popular among students. The last time I saw them was in October, at an UCA-organized conference on the Salvadoran military. That day I spoke with both. We needed to exchange ideas. Segundo, Nacho and I were to speak on a joint panel at an upcoming Latin American conference in Miami.

But I made this trip alone. In Miami I saw next to two empty chairs adorned with flowers.

Before daylight on November 16, in the midst of a major military offensive by leftist guerillas, U.S.-trained and equipped army soldiers surrounded and entered UCA’s grounds. They marched six Jesuit priests, including Segundo and Nacho, into a grassy courtyard in their nightclothes. The Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were shot repeatedly with automatic weapons at point-blank range.

With recent changes in Eastern Europe, El Salvador now remains one of the few places in the world where ideas are genuinely dangerous. Segundo, Nacho and the other Jesuits were targeted to be killed precisely because their ideas were powerful and persuasive.

Segundo, for example, was a noted critic of human rights abuses. He also had done extensive research on refugees created by El Salvador’s 10-year civil war between the U.S.-backed government and the leftist guerillas.

Nacho was chairman of UCA’s psychology department as well as an astute political and military analyst. He also administered a public opinion poll run out of UCA. It explored Salvadorans’ views on subject such as the economy and the war.

Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ, UCA’s rector, who also died that night, was another compelling figure. “The truth is the truth is the truth,” I remember him telling an audience packed with students some years ago. Editor of UCA’s main journal, Estudios Centroamericanos or “Central American Studies,” he was a prolific writer and a powerful critic of both the Salvadoran government and U.S. policy toward it.

In interviews with the foreign press, he and Nacho often told both Salvadoran and U.S. officials what they didn’t want to hear:

“Ideology…had a lot to do with the American involvement in this civil war,” said Nacho. “And unfortunately, you Americans have invested here during the last eight years [$3.2 billion] of your tax-payers’ dollars; just to have in this country more destruction, more death–-and no more democracy, no more peace, no improvement for the majority of the Salvadoran people; just with the obsession of militarily defeating the rebels, militarily putting an end to the so-called advancement of, or the expansion of, communism.”

Nacho, Ellacuria and all the Jesuits at UCA advocated a negotiated settlement to the war, as opposed to a military victory by either side. The Jesuits strongly criticized the United States for pursuing a military solution. They also took issue with claims by U.S. officials that EI Salvador’s civil war was foreign inspired.
“The problem of this country is not a problem of communism or capitalism,” Nacho went on. “The problems of this country are problems of very basic wealth distribution, of very basic needs. Now more than 60 percent of our adult population doesn’t have a job. Can you imagine–how are our people able to…survive without a job?”
The Salvadoran government and military had long equated popular demands to change such conditions with subversion. This is why, argued the Jesuits, EI Salvador’s guerrilla movement was born.

“When in this country you ask for satisfaction for those needs,” said Nacho, “you become a subversive–and you are a subversive. Why? Because if you want to satisfy those basic needs, you have to change the social system. You have to change the regime. But then you become a ‘Communist.’ Then you become a rebel. Then you become a revolutionary. And then you have to be repressed. And you are repressed. And there you have… the civil war.”

The Jesuit killings have received more attention than any Salvadoran crime since the 1980 slaying of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. But over the past decade, over 70,000 Salvadorans–more than one percent of the country’s population–have been killed. According to the human rights office of the country’s Catholic archbishop, the vast majority of victims were assassinated by either the Salvadoran military or allied rightist death squads. They were killed on suspicion of being “subversives.”

Let me offer one family’s story.

In October I interviewed an inspirational young woman, Tatiana Mendoza. Her father was a leading member of EI Salvador’s early democratic opposition movement, before it was driven underground. He and several colleagues were killed when army soldiers raided their offices in 1980.

A decade later, Tatiana, his 21-year-old daughter, was a union organizer who worked with women’s groups. She had recently been detained on charges of being a “subversive.” During her ordeal, Tatiana told me, she was raped by a military guard. Although a court-appointed doctor confirmed her claim, in EI Salvador an attempt to charge a soldier with rape is laughable.

Two weeks after I interviewed her, Tatiana was killed by a bomb. An attacker had placed it in the cafeteria of her trade union office. Two generations of activists; two deaths. The story of Tatiana’s family is the story of her blood-drenched country.

For Nacho and the other Jesuits, such violence was part of daily life. Some of his more recent interviews carried a sense of foreboding. ‘There is an environment,”‘ I remember him saying, “of the possibility of being killed any moment of the day.”

Nacho also did not equivocate about [he likely source of the threat. “As long as [he armed forces in this country are over and above the law, as long as the armed forces [are] a corruptible and corrupt institution, as long as the armed forces have within its ranks … terrible human rights violators, you cannot expect to have in this country peace, to have democracy, and to have [least of all] justice.” Nacho said these words in his last known interview, one week before he was killed.

The UCA Jesuits were full participants in the Salvadoran community. In addition to teaching and writing, they were active at the grassroots and shared a commitment to the poor.

Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, SJ, was another of the murdered men. He ran a program–“Faith and Happiness”–which worked in poor areas with base Christian communities: small groups of local individuals who meet to worship and read scripture.

Despite his death, other UCA Jesuits continue similar work. One, Jon Sobrino, is not only a leading interpreter of liberation theology, but is also active with El Salvador’s base Christian community movement, whose members receive constant threats and other forms of intimidation from the armed forces. Another, Jon Cortina, does his pastoral work in Chalatenango, one of the most war-torn provinces in the country. He recently moved there from UCA to live and work among newly rebuilt peasant communities.

Most of these priests, including Segundo, Nacho and Ellacuria, were born in Basque country in Spain, and later became naturalized Salvadoran citizens. But most of the younger Jesuit seminarians who have been studying under them are native Salvadorans. The seminarians are spread throughout the country. Almost all live and work among poor communities.

Segundo, who had several seminarians under his tutelage, not only studied refugees but frequently traveled to their places of repatriation. He encouraged them to organize themselves to defend their rights and to find ways to improve their conditions. Nacho also worked closely with peasant and labor-based “popular organizations,” as well as community self-help groups.

Nacho and I knew one such refugee community well. Called “Community of the Cross,” it is not far from UCA, on vacant land between lanes of the country’s largest highway. Its 500-odd squatters live in mud and split-bamboo shacks with roofs of tin.

Children with faces mottled by chickenpox and bellies bloated by amoebic infection rush to greet a stranger. They are likely to call any foreign male they come to know. Padre.

People there say that Nacho came every once in a while to say Mass. “Padre Nacho is with us,” one woman, Martha, told me.

Martha later said she was angered by Nacho’s death, but not surprised. Like many others, Martha knew at firsthand the effects of repressive violence. She and her two sons had been taken, interrogated and physically abused by government soldiers two months earlier–again on suspicion of “subversion.”

Martha said she knew who was responsible for killing the Jesuits–this, before government officials admitted military involvement in the case. “The ones who need to be punished,” she said, “are the [ones running the country].”

Martha must have had better insight than U.S. officials here. Nearly up until the time that army involvement in the case was made public, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador William Walker tried to convince Congressional leaders in Washington that leftist guerrillas and not army soldiers were responsible. U.S. officials also questioned the credibility of a key witness in the case, seriously straining relations with the Catholic communities in both countries.

Maria Julia Hernandez, a tough little woman who directs the Catholic human rights office, said she’s not surprised by this behavior. “I don’t know if they are aware of it or not,” she said, “but U.S. Embassy officials have the ability to deceive themselves, and to never hit the mark [on human rights] in EI Salvador.”

Some U.S. officials–speaking privately–seem to agree. “If we can have 55 military advisors,” said one, “why can’t we have 55 human rights officers?” The Jesuit case has disillusioned many U.S. officials need to put a good face on the case in order to ensure continued Congressional approval for military and economic aid. But when confronted, some admit they no longer believe in what they’re doing.

Many Congressional leaders have also lost faith. The idea that an army trained, financed, and advised by the United States would commit such a crime proved too much for them. A bipartisan task force looking into the slayings recently visited EI Salvador. By the time members finished their investigation, they were openly questioning whether senior Salvadoran military officers were trying to cover up the murders; whether the killings were “the actions of a few renegade military figures or whether, in fact, they stem from attitudes and actions that go to the very heart of the armed forces and other major institutions in this country.”

The evidence doesn’t look good for the armed forces. For years army officers had accused the UCA Jesuits of being allied with the guerrillas. Last April, then Army Intelligence Chief Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda accused the Jesuits of running guerrilla operations out of the university.

For several days prior to the murders, the armed forces radio program broadcast threats against the UCA Jesuits. “Anonymous” phone-in callers were encouraged to express their views. The army aired repeated demands for the Jesuits’ deaths in revenge for the offensive by leftist guerrillas. Approximately five hours before the killings, the military high command held an emergency meeting. Military sources quoted in The Washington Post and elsewhere said the officers present decided to use greater air power to put down the guerrilla offensive and also decided to attempt the assassination of suspected guerrilla leaders in the capital city.

Shortly after the murders, a second meeting took place in the military’s intelligence complex, which shares facilities with the CIA. An army officer interrupted the meeting to announce the Jesuits had been killed. According to military sources present, the attending officers clapped in approval.

Nevertheless, only one army officer present at the first meeting has been charged with the crime. Many non-American Western diplomats here believe other senior officers were involved in planning the murders.
Preliminary treatment for accused Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides doesn’t offer much cause for hope that justice will be served. He is being held in a luxury apartment at the headquarters of the National Police. The “prisoner” has also been seen at a military-owned resort hotel on the Pacific Coast.

I was in a small parish in San Salvador the morning of November 16. It was the fifth day of combat since the guerrilla offensive had begun. An orphanage, called Mary, Mother of the Poor, had been hit by a grenade. Young Jesuit seminarians were evacuating civilians under heavy fire. One of them stopped to tell me that Ellacuria and the others had been killed.

I felt relatively little on learning this shocking news. My senses were numbed by the wanton violence I had seen over the previous days. The most extraordinary experience of many was watching a government’s helicopters and planes strafe, rocket and bomb its own people. On the second day of fighting, I saw a helicopter fire a rocket at a mud and split-bamboo shack. I can still see the victims–a mother and her decapitated daughter.

Many similar incidents occurred. The Jesuit murders are only the most celebrated in a series of atrocious acts. Leftist guerrillas share in the blame. Their worst violation was to discourage or even temporarily prevent people from leaving combat areas, in order to use them as a deterrent against government air strikes. But both human rights groups and international monitoring organizations cite army soldiers as the most consistent and flagrant offenders. One of the most inexcusable crimes was not allowing the International Red Cross and other relief groups to evacuate wounded from battle areas–out of fear they might unknowingly treat “subversives.”

The violence of November has left the country scarred. Most UCA students, for instance, who come from EI Salvador’s wealthier classes, seem generally repulsed by the killing of some of their most prestigious and popular professors. But indicative of the country’s mood, few are willing to express their views. According to several students I’ve talked to, most will keep their feelings private rather than admit them even to each other.

UCA’s academic programs have been scaled back. Several professors have fled the country in fear. At least one senior editor and writer for UCA’s journals barely missed encountering a death squad of heavily armed men in civilian clothes at his home. He has now taken refuge in another Latin American country.

Many lesser known Salvadorans have fled as well. Jesuit seminarians have arranged visas for people who feel particularly targeted to flee to Canada–it is not possible to obtain such visas from the United States. But others have been smuggled into the United States illegally by the religious-based sanctuary movement.
But most Salvadorans don’t have the luxury of flight. For them, violence is a recurring agony to be endured.

Nevertheless, there is some reason for hope. In the wake of the November offensive, an increasing number of players on all sides of the conflict have come to see that a negotiated settlement, rather than a military victory, would indeed be the best solution. The slain Jesuits certainly believed this. It is worth noting that as a community the Jesuits believe that the most efficacious way to bring about genuine negotiations is to cut U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government and army.

I was recently invited to a base Christian community meeting. It took place in one of the areas I had reported from during the fighting, the same community in which I had learned of the UCA massacre.

A family had invited me to commemorate a previous tragedy–the ninth anniversary of their son’s death. In 1981, along with 25 other young men from his community, he had been dragged from his home and shot by army soldiers.

A Christian catechist, brother of the murdered man, led the ceremony. After a short reading he asked, “What is the fruit of his death?”

“Well,” said a peasant woman, addressing the mother, “the fruit of his death is in the children you still have.”

“But,” responded another, “we are all children of God. The fruit is in all the children, all of us. ”
But the mother had a different answer: “For me, I cope with his death by giving to other children who have no one else.” A seemingly frail woman, the mother, since her son’s death, has tenaciously managed a home for children abandoned or orphaned because of the war. “I had a choice,” she said. “I could have gone into despair. But I decided to make something good come out of it.”

It’s possible there may be no negotiations in EI Salvador–and no cuts in U.S. aid. I wonder, what then would be the fruit of the Jesuits’ deaths?

Frank Smyth lived in El Salvador during the 1980s, serving as a radio report for CBS News and reporting for The Village Voice and other publications.