Massacre of Jesuits in El Salvador: 20 Years Later

In the early hours of November 16, 1989, one week after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War in Europe, six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter were roused from sleep by US-trained Salvadoran special forces, led outside, and shot to death on the lawn of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in San Salvador.

In the months before their deaths, during some of the bloodiest conflict of a protracted civil war, the Jesuits and their colleagues at the UCA had advocated dialogue between the government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of guerrilla groups, in an effort to bring about what the Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, also an UCA professor, called “a more human and more Christian negotiated solution to the conflict.”

Recognizing that “the most serious matter is the massive, cruel, and unjust poverty of the majority,” the Jesuits of the UCA spoke out against widespread violence and human rights abuses and, Sobrino notes, “continued to unmask the dependency on the USA.” They were neither the first nor the last clergy in El Salvador to pay for their activism with their lives; among many others, Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated while giving Mass a decade earlier. Sobrino would almost certainly have died too, except that he was lecturing in Thailand when the massacre at the UCA took place. In a memoir of his brothers written less than two weeks after their deaths he wrote, “‘They kill those who get in their way,’ Archbishop Romero used to say. And really these Jesuits did get in the way.”

This weekend, thousands gathered at the UCA to mark the twentieth anniversary of the assassinations by honoring the memory of those who died: Ignacio Ellacuría, a philosopher and theologian who served as the university’s rector; its academic vice-rector, the pioneering social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró; Segundo Montes, chair of the sociology department and the university’s human rights institute; theologians Amando López and Juan Ramón Moreno; Joaquín López y López, who worked in the Jesuit-sponsored Fe y Alegría education program for the poor; and their domestic employee Julia Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Celina, who had sought refuge inside the Jesuit dormitory that fateful night because of heavy fighting in the capital. Somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 Salvadorans are believed to have died during the civil war, and they too are acknowledged as presente.

In what has become an annual tradition, students on Saturday decorated the main street of the university’s campus with alfombras, elaborate murals made of colored rock salt. One shows two child-like figures with broken shackles trailing from their legs passing through a gate labeled Liberación, Dignidad, Justicia [Liberation, Dignity, Justice]. Celina Pinada, 30, who is studying accounting at the UCA and helped to design the mural, explains that it represents the struggle to escape from various forms of oppression—sickness, violence, poverty. Another alfombra depicts a campesino, “a victim of conflict, or of this latest catastrophe,” says Eduardo Maciel, alluding to the landslides that killed nearly 200 and displaced more than fourteen thousand Salvadorans last week. The figure is splayed on the pavement, as if injured or dead, but Maciel, 25, an Argentinian studying theology at the UCA, explains that it can also be interpreted as in the process of resurrecting. It represents “new life, hope,” he says.

In the evening, the campus fills up with students, campesinos, and others who come yearly to pay their respects by participating in a candle-lit procession. Marching in two single-file lines they sing together:

El pueblo siempre recuerda y jamás podrá olvidar
El crimen que cometieron los que no quieren la paz.
Los seis jesuitas murieron por orden de un criminal.
. . .
Desaparecen los cuerpos pero sus ideas no.

The people always remember and never will be able to forget
The crime committed by those who do not want peace.
The six Jesuits died by order of a criminal.
. . .
Their bodies are gone, but their ideas remain.

In somewhat the same way that Tibetan monks dramatize life’s impermanence by erasing the mandalas they have spent hours creating, the marchers, some bearing images of the fallen, process down the same street, scattering the salt from the alfombras. These days, the UCA continues to maintain a vibrant presence in the Salvadoran community, with a mission to serve the country’s underprivileged. A rose garden blooms in the courtyard where the killings took place, planted by the school’s gardener, Obdulio Lozano, husband of Julia Elba and father of Celina.

The deaths at the UCA are thought by many to have marked a turning point in the war, and especially in how North Americans perceived its costs. For the first time since the war began, the US Congress imposed significant cuts on military aid to the Salvadoran government, and in 1992 a peace accord brought an end to the civil war. Much has changed for the better in El Salvador during the past twenty years, but significant challenges remain.

The FMLN, once an insurgency, has laid down its weapons and been incorporated into the democratic process as a mainstream political party; this past March Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, became the first FMLN candidate to be elected president, breaking a 20-year hold on the presidency by the rightist ARENA party.

Funes has promised to expand health care and reduce crime, but not everyone is pleased by the popularity of the FMLN. In a November 8 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady avers that, “(m)any Salvadorans distrust (the FMLN) because of its violent history,” neglecting to mention that ARENA was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who organized El Salvador’s death squads and has been named in several international investigations as the mastermind behind Romero’s assassination. In fact, the election of President Funes is historic as it marks the first peaceful transfer of power since El Salvador gained independence in 1821.

The Unite States continues to play a major role in shaping the country’s future. Writing in 1986, Ellacuría argued that the history of the region:

shows two things: first, that the North American presence in Central America has clearly been characterized by interference in the internal affairs of our countries and, second, that for over 80 years the concern for democracy has been totally subordinated to the interests of US security, when not to private North American financial interests.

Today, the United States is El Salvador’s largest trading partner, and remittances from Salvadorans working in the U.S. comprise some 18 percent of its gross domestic product. Last week, El Salvador’s central bank announced that these had fallen by ten percent in the first ten months of the year, presumably as a result of the recession.

In an effort to reduce inflation and lure foreign investment, El Salvador adopted the American dollar as its official currency in 2001, and in 2003 it signed on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). But the fruits of recent economic growth are unequally distributed, and it is estimated that half the country’s rural population lives below the poverty line. Speaking in a public forum on Saturday, the UCA’s current president, Jose María Tojeira, S.J., remarked, “Our reality here continues to be one of great inequality. Today, most of the rebellion against this reality is what we can call a primitive one, a savage one.”

In today’s El Salvador, political violence has largely been replaced by criminal violence, much of it associated with gangs known locally as maras. The maras got their start in the United States, among war refugees and their children. When undocumented gang members were deported in the 1990s, they brought the gang culture back to El Salvador. Last week the Associated Press reported that there have been 3,673 murders in El Salvador so far this year. Recently, President Funes mobilized the army to help the civilian police maintain order in areas prone to violence, but this move worries some observers, who note the risks of once again involving the military in the country’s domestic affairs.

For the moment, Salvadorans occupy an uneasy transitional space between the pain of the past and the hope of a better future. As the marchers processed through the UCA Saturday, they gave voice to these tensions in song:

Cambiemos las promesas
En realidades.
Luchemos como hermanos
Por la justicia.
Sembremos hoy la aurora
De un nuevo dia.

We transform the promises
Into realities.
We struggle together as brothers and sisters
For justice.
We make possible today the dawn
Of a new day.

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