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?”