The Jesuit martyrs of the university of Central America (UCA), their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were brutally assassinated on Nov. 16, 1989. The orders came from the highest levels of the military of El Salvador, with possible approval by the president of the country. U.S. Military Advisors may have had advance knowledge of the plot, and U.S. government actions certainly assisted in the cover up. Why? The answer is that Ignacio Ellacuría and the university of central America posed a real threat to ongoing bipartisan U.S. support for the government of El Salvador in the country’s twelve year Civil War.
In this essay, I will argue that the UCA’s self-understanding as a Christian university rooted in God’s preferential option for the poor was concretized through its decade- long advocacy for peace and a negotiated solu- tion to the war. I will examine the interaction
of this position with U.S. counterinsurgency in El Salvador. I will demonstrate that Ellacuría, his fellow Jesuits, and the UCA faculty and staff were considered traitors by elements of El Salva- dor’s military-civilian elite for their advocacy of negotiations. And I will explore how the threat of negotiations led to the deaths of Ellacuría and his colleagues.
“IT’S THEM OR US!”
Around 11:00 p.m. on Nov. 15, 1989, the director of the Salvadoran Military Academy, Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, summoned a young graduate of the Jesuit High School of San Salvador and ordered him to mur- der Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., well known president of the University of Central America (UCA), and to leave no witnesses. Lt. José Ricardo Espi- noza Guerra protested, telling his superior, ac- cording to later judicial testimony, that “this was a serious problem.” Living with Ellacuría was the young lieutenant’s former high school princi- pal and teacher, Segundo Montes, S.J. Knowing he might face Fr. Montes, Espinoza asked for a bar of black camouflage grease with which to disguise himself, and about three hours later he gave the order to kill the priests. Espinoza testi- fied that he left the Jesuit university residence as his troops riddled the helpless victims with bul- lets, his eyes filled with tears.
On the U.S. side, Maj. Eric Warren Buck- land, senior U.S. military advisor to Salvadoran Psychological Operations, faced a similarly com- plex dilemma. Several weeks earlier his Salva- doran counterpart, Col. Carlos Armando Avilés Buitrago (Chief of Psychological Operations for the Salvadoran Joint Command), revealed that a group of high-ranking Salvadoran military officers was planning to assassinate Fr. Ellacuría and some other Jesuits. According to the major, Avilés recruited Buckland to accompany him on a mission from Col. René Emilio Ponce, Chief of Staff and second ranking officer of the Sal- vadoran Military High Command, in order “to solve a problem with Col. Benavides.” When they arrived, Buckland was told to wait outside, but Avilés later reported that Benavides said Ellacuría “was a problem,” and that “they wanted to handle it in the old way by killing some of the priests.”5 Maj. Buckland did nothing to prevent the planned murders, however. He later testified that he thought, “if Chief of Staff Ponce assigned a senior colonel (Avilés) to address the problem,” then it meant the assassinations “would not happen.” The major would soon realize he was being played.
|A fresco portion of a memorial wall in El Salvador, with an image of Archbishop Romero. Daniel Murdock J.D. ‘09|
One month after the murders, on Dec. 20, 1989, Buckland learned from Avilés that Col. Benavides had indeed ordered an Atlacatl commando unit to assassinate Ellacuría and his companions, and that an active cover-up was underway. The major would come under intense pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the FBI, and his own military superiors, to back away from his story. Indeed, a week after his Jan. 12, 1990 testimony, Buckland would recant the portion admitting prior knowledge of the plot to assas- sinate Ellacuría and the other Jesuits. Newsweek later reported, “The administration didn’t want that story to come out, because it ‘wasn’t pro- ductive to the conduct of the war.’” Buckland continued to insist, however, that Avilés said Benavides had ordered the assassinations, infor- mation the major had already shared with his sister Carol Buckland, a CNN reporter, first by telephone and later in a letter dated Dec. 25, 1989. This testimony would play an important role in breaking through the wall of lies support- ing the cover up, and protecting those who had ordered and committed the murders.
The truth is that, like so many other soldiers before and after, Lt. Espinoza and Col. Buck- land were small players in a larger geo-political drama of power and corruption. We now know that the Jesuits were murdered under orders by the highest levels of the military of El Salvador, with possible foreknowlege by the President of the country, Alfredo Cristiani. At the time of this writing, 20 years after the assassinations, the Spanish National Court has reserved the right to indict former President Cristiani for criminal ac- tivity in the cover-up. U.S. officials, which, as we have seen, may have had advance knowledge of the plot, certainly assisted in the cover-up that followed. And three quarters of the officers involved in the killings were trained in counter- insurgency tactics by U.S. personnel from the School of the Americas located at Fort Benning, Ga., while Atlacatl commandos interrupted training after just three days with U.S. Special Forces on Nov. 13, 1989, in order to commit the assassinations!
The 1993 report of the U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador adds some crucial pieces. Around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., “Col. Ponce called over Col. Guillermo Alfredo Bena- vides and, in front of the four other officers, or- dered him to eliminate Fr. Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.” It adds that Ponce “ordered him to use the unit from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion which had carried out the search two days earlier.” Thus, rather than thwarting the plot, Col. Ponce turned out to be its author, and Col. Benavides the organizer! As we have seen, U.S. advisors first admitted, then denied, advance knowledge, and were in the company of the killers immediately before the assassinations. Lt. Espinoza and Maj. Buckland were simply pawns in a deadly game.
But why implicate virtually the entire com- mand structure of the Salvadoran military in or- der to kill one priest and a handful of associates? The answer is that Ignacio Ellacuría, and certain faculty of the University of Central America were considered serious threats to continued U.S. support for the government of El Salvador, and its campaign to suppress Salvadoran civil society and its growing demands for more just economic conditions, and political freedoms. As Col. Benavides told the former Jesuit student, Lt. Espinoza, in giving the order to assassinate the Jesuits, “This is a situation where it’s them or us; [and] we are going to begin with...the uni- versity and Ellacuría...”
“THE MOST EXPLICIT TESTIMONY OF THE CHRISTIAN INSPIRATION OF THE U.C.A. WILL BE...[ITS] SERVICE OF... OPPRESSED PEOPLE...”
The trailhead of the path followed by Ignacio Ellacuría, the Jesuits, and their lay collabora- tors at the University of Central America can be said to begin with the worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops at vatican II (1962-1965). Its signature document, Gaudiem et spes, the Pas- toral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, sent the leadership of churches on every continent home with the mandate “...of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in light of the Gospel.” (GS 4) Barely three years later, Aug. 26-Sept. 6, 1968, the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellín, Colombia took up the Council’s mandate, declaring, “A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men and women ask- ing their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else.” The final document reflects the bishops’ epoch-shaping discernment that God was calling the Latin American church to embrace what has come to be called in Catho- lic social teaching, “the preferential option for the poor.”
Building on the use of “integral develop- ment” by Pope Paul vI to critique developmen- talist strategies that changed little and legitimat- ed an oppressive status quo, Medellín asserts, “If development is the new name for peace, Latin American underdevelopment, with its own char- acteristics in the different countries, is an unjust situation which promotes tensions that conspire against peace.” This criticism is concretized by Medellín’s use of the word “liberation” to high- light and clarify its claim that fundamental social and structural “change will be essential in order to liberate the authentic process of Latin American.
Why implicate virtually the entire command structure of the Salvadoran military in order to kill one priest and a handful of associates? The answer is that Ignacio Ellacuría, and certain faculty of the University of Central America were considered serious threats to continued U.S. support for the government of El Salvador, and its campaign to suppress Salvadoran civil society and its growing demands for more just economic conditions, and political freedoms.
development and integration.” Accord- ingly, the document insists that God’s call to live out a preferential option for the poor implies real economic, political, and cultural change.
A little more than a year later, the Jesuits of Central America gathered at the diocesan seminary during Christmas 1969 for a Province retreat to prayerfully discern how to respond to Medellín’s prophetic interpretation of vatican II. The team, which included Ellacuría, used the long-neglected tradition of group discernment described in Deliberatio primorum Patrum, 22 the official account of the 1539 discernment by Ignatius of Loyola and his companions to found the Jesuits. “Following the parameters of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius,” the team sought to achieve prayerful consensus on the fundamental principles for how to renew the Province and its works by constituting it as a single subject united “in communal reflection and prayer.” The retreat concluded by recom- mending the Province develop an apostolic plan to implement the option for the poor in its internal life, its apostolic works, and Central America as a whole. Juan Hernandez Pico, S.J., suggests that it was officially first here that “the Jesuits committed themselves to...attend to the cries that were coming from the unjustly im- poverished and oppressed majorities of Central America, putting aside disordered affections for established works and lifestyles [in order to promote]...efficacious action on behalf of the poor.” From this point forward, the Central American Jesuits began to see the UCA as a Catholic university whose Christian character
would be defined in part by its preferential option for the poor.
A decade later, in May 1979, following a university-wide consultation, the board of directors published a seminal statement of the UCA’s self understanding as a university. The document begins with a charter statement of the UCA’s self-understanding.
The UCA seeks to be an institutional university response to the historical reality of the country, considered from an ethical perspective as an unjust and irrational reality which should be transformed. This is rooted...in a purpose: that of contributing to social change in the country. It does this in a university manner and...with a Christian inspiration.
We should note that the call of Paul VI and Medellín to “integral liberation” has been concretized in the UCA’s mandate to work in a specifically “university manner” to transform the “historical reality of the country” guided by the “Christian inspiration” of the Jesus of the Gos- pels and Catholic social teaching. This formula- tion is closer to the original call of Gaudiem et spes (GS 4) to read the signs of the times in light of the Gospel.
The document says the UCA seeks to be a university working a) “for social change,” b) “in a university manner,” and c) guided by a “Chris- tian inspiration.” This leads to several conclu- sions. First,
The UCA does not exist for itself, or for its members. Its center is not within itself, nor in its students, nor in its professors, nor in its authorities. It exists for the Salvadoran people...for the majority of our people who suffer inhuman conditions... This means the work of the UCA is decidedly oriented by social outreach.
Second, the UCA must always go about its work precisely “as a university,” analyzing the reality and the causes of oppression, and the developing ideas and theoretical models for “more human and humanizing structures.” And third, the UCA’s Christian inspiration should draw attention to secular and religious values consonant with Christian faith. Thus,
The most explicit testimony of the Christian inspiration of the UCA will be putting itself really at the service of the people in such a way that in this service it allows itself to be oriented by oppressed people themselves. This will make it see and denounce what there is of sin in our real- ity; it will impel it to create models which historically correspond better to the Reign of God; and it will make it develop typi- cally Christian attitudes, such as operational hope, the passion for justice, the generous self-giving to others, the rejection of violent means, etc.
In the end, it was precisely their role in implementing this vision of the UCA that led to the deaths of Ellacuría and his companions. Their effectiveness in promoting a negotiated end to the decade-long civil war contributed to the collapse of U.S. Congressional support for the war, which in turn helped bring about a negotiated peace. But how and why did this ad- vocacy contribute to their deaths?
“THE U.S. WAS PREPARED TO MAKE A 'PACT WITH THE DEVIL’ TO ACHIEVE ITS STRATEGIC GOAL...”
By May 1979, El Salvador was sliding inevitably toward civil war. A 1991 Rand Corporation study done for the Pentagon asserts that 1979 concluded a decade during which El Salvador’s sometimes contradictory forces of reform and rebellion had finally reached critical mass. It says the impoverished state of the vast majority of Salvadorans was clearly tied to the fact that “over 70 percent of the land was owned by only one percent of the population, while over 40 percent
of the rural population owned no land at all and worked as sharecroppers on absentee owners’ land or as laborers on large estates.” And it asserts the stubborn refusal of successive repres- sive civilian-military regimes to debate the status quo simply fueled the push for land reform and a change in government, whether through elec- tions, coup, or revolution.
|A view of the memorial rose garden at the University of Central America where six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered in 1989. Daniel Murdock J.D. ’09|
The Cambridge History of Central America describes 1979-80 as the end of a “period of political monopoly by the army, which, in to- tally controlled elections, secured the election of Col. Julio Rivera (1962-7), Gen. Fidel Sánchez (1967-72), Col. Arturo Molina (1972-77), and Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero (1977-9).” For its part, the UCA enacted its new mandate through a June 1973 study exposing the Molina government as having fraudulently stolen the 1972 elections from Jose Napoleon Duarte, whose platform included the promise of real agrarian reform. Frustrated by a succession of such events, five nationalistic political-military organizations had emerged by 1979, each calling for the overthrow of the ruling regime. Two of these had roots in the home grown communist party of El Salvador, whose leader Augustín Farabundo Martí led the unsuccessful 1932 peasant revolt against the military government of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, infamous for his genocidal campaign against the indigenous population of El Salvador. Adding fuel to the fire, on July 19, 1979 the Sandinista movement led a rebellion overthrowing the re- pressive regime of General Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, and installing a government they said would blend socialism, capitalism, and democ- racy. In the U.S., however, Jimmy Carter and Democrats in Congress were facing upcoming elections, and could not accept a second Cen- tral American revolution in El Salvador open to socialist ideas. Accordingly, the overriding con- cerns of Central America policy under the Cart- er administration became, as stated by New York Democrat Mario Biaggi, “basic human rights,” and preventing “the threat of a Communist takeover in our own backyard.” This position hardened when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran on Nov. 4, 1979, captur- ing approximately 70 hostages. Ronald Reagan hammered Carter in the media and the polls, while making an illegal arms-for-hostage deal that formed the basis of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Recognizing the gathering storm, reform- ist Salvadoran military officers carried out a coup on Oct. 15, 1979, recruiting a number of UCA faculty to the new government, including Román Mayorga Quirós, president of UCA, as its civilian leader. It was a last ditch effort to avoid a bitter civil war over the need for land re- form, economic democracy, civil rights, and oth- er long-simmering issues. During its ten short weeks of life, the reformist junta careened from one crisis to the next, unable to achieve civilian control, much less to enact stated objectives of purging the military of human rights abusers and corruption, and addressing land reform. Thus, on Jan. 2, 1980, after being informed that attempts to control human rights abuses by the armed forces would be rejected, Mayorga and Dr. Guillermo Ungo Revelo, leader of the op- position party, resigned from the cabinet with the other civilians during a meeting at the semi- nary called by Archbishop Oscar Romero. Not surprisingly, the country drifted toward war. On March 24, 1980, while saying mass, Archbishop Romero was shot through the heart by a paid assassin with government links. On Oct. 10, 1980, four of the five political-military organi- zations formed the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) and prepared for war. A wave of right wing death squad and military assassinations against reformist civilian leaders followed. And on January 10, 1981, the FMLN launched its “final offensive,” almost one year exactly after the Jan. 3, 1980 failure of the reformist coup.
Within days, however, it became clear that the government would not fall anytime soon. The FMLN had no unified plan and little coor- dination for waging a sustained war, beyond its hope for a Nicaraguan-style overthrow of a re- pressive regime. In the eyes of some, the failed offensive presented El Salvador and its U.S. ally with a genuine opportunity to embrace a mean- ingful political negotiation. U.S. Ambassador, Robert White, saw it this way and strongly pro- moted a “political solution.” But the incom- ing Reagan administration was determined to internationalize the Salvadoran conflict, using it to symbolically “draw the line” against Com- munism. White was immediately removed as ambassador by the new administration. And on Feb. 23, 1981, a White Paper entitled, “Com- munist Interference in El Salvador” was released. It argued, “The insurgency in El Salvador has [become]...another case of indirect armed aggression against a small Third World country by Communist powers acting through Cuba.”
Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas wrote to vice-President Bush on April 6, 1981, arguing “The administration does not understand the composition and nature of the junta,” and assert- ed that “political dialogue” and “negotiations” are “the only road to peace in our country.” Two days after the White Paper, former Ambassador White asked Congress, “How do you supply mil- itary assistance to a force that is going to use that military assistance to assassinate, [and] to kill, in a totally uncontrolled way? Do you want to associate the United States with the type of kill- ing that has been going on...in El Salvador?” But the Reagan administration’s unapologetic acceptance of this liability found an ambivalent collaborator in Congress, cementing a pattern that would continue for a decade. Negotiations were out, and the push for victory was on.
Ellacuría and the UCA, however, had a dif- ferent solution. In March 1981, a month and a half after the failure of the “final offensive,” Ellacuría came out in favor of “A Process of [Political] Mediation for El Salvador.” On April 27, 1981 he wrote to the board that “the social outreach of the UCA should now ground itself in the perspective of [promoting] a politi- cal solution and...a process of mediation” for the civil war. He insists this commitment must be carried out in a thoroughly “university man- ner” through the activities of the president; the editorial, production, and distribution work of the University’s overall communications center, its press and journals; and through community service. He proposed a vigorous agenda of public contacts including open events like “round tables, conferences, congresses, etc.,” ongoing contacts with leading “politicians, economists, religious, military figures, etc.,” and the addition of a university radio station and weekly newspa- per designed to provoke the “national collective consciousness” of Salvadoran civil society to re- flect on current events.
This commitment to negotiations, however, proved to be dangerous. In 1983 the ARENA party, through what the CIA describes as its clandestine “paramilitary organization,”47 made a direct threat on the lives of all who would dare to advocate dialogue: “Dialogue is treason to the fatherland, and so we warn all the parties, political and military forces interested in nego- tiating the future of the country, that the eyes and the guns of the true patriots of El Salvador are on them.”48 Within days a bomb exploded at Ellacuría’s Jesuit residence, and flyers were found claiming responsibility for the group who had issued the warning: the Secret anti-Communist Army (ESA).
For its part, the U.S. vigorously opposed serious negotiations throughout the decade as incompatible with U.S. counterinsurgency goals in the region. In her study of U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador from 1976-1993, however, Cyn- thia Arnson notes that by late in Reagan’s second term, congressional support 49 for the govern- ment of El Salvador and its brutal war began to wear thin. Also, the geo-political situation was changing. On Aug. 7, 1987 Costa Rican President Oscar Arias led the Central American presidents to a framework for a comprehensive regional peace (for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize). By 1989 the ongoing military stale- mate between the FMLN and the military, the emphasis of the Esquipulas agreements on end- ing guerrilla insurgencies, and the collapse of the Cold War as a linchpin for U.S. foreign policy were rapidly eroding congressional support for U.S. counterinsurgency in El Salvador.
Then, on Jan. 23, 1989, the FMLN sur- prised everyone with a proposal to postpone upcoming presidential elections for six to eight months (Sept. 15, 1989), to implement a series of guarantees for a free and fair election, and to abide by the results.50 The Duarte government rejected the proposal, but the first Bush admin- istration (1978-1982) encouraged a reconsidera- tion. Three weeks later, on Feb. 20-21, 1989, the FMLN met in Mexico with 13 political parties and proposed to renounce the armed struggle and incorporate into the political process. After a brief period of hope, however, negotiations collapsed. The military party, ARENA, was confident of victory in the upcoming elections, which it eventually won with 54 percent of the vote on March 19, 1988. The FMLN, which
Ellacuría and the UCA remained a powerful voice both in El Salvador and the North in favor of negotiations, which made him a threat to economic and political interests on the far right, and to the military leadership. Why? The Pentagon report explains that right wing land owners remained virulently opposed to land reform.51 Military leaders were largely corrupt, enjoyed impunity for violations of human rights, and “did not wish to win the war because in so doing it would lose the American aid that has enriched it for the past decade.”
had been planning an offensive since 1987, be- gan a series of assassinations against government officials, and the far right escalated its ongoing campaign of violence and murder against re- formist civilian leaders.
Ellacuría and the UCA, however, remained a powerful voice both in El Salvador and the North in favor of negotiations, which made him a threat to economic and political interests on the far right, and to the military leadership. Why? The Pentagon report explains that right wing land owners remained virulently opposed to land reform. Military leaders were largely corrupt, enjoyed impunity for violations of hu- man rights, and “did not wish to win the war because in so doing it would lose the American aid that has enriched it for the past decade.” The government depended on U.S. aid for sur- vival and shared a commitment to defeat the FMLN, but there was little confidence and often outright opposition among the civilian-mili- tary elites to aspects of U.S. counterinsurgency promoting reforms directed at disenfranchized peasants. Thus, on March 3, 1989 the Crusade for Peace and Work denounced the “tiny group of satanic brains led by Ellacuría and a pack of communist hounds” ruining the country. On March 14 a grenade exploded at the University’s emergency electric power plant. On March 18 a paid advertisement denounced the “decep- tive Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, and others, who with their doctrines, are poi- soning many young minds.” On April 16 the Armed Forces High Command published an ad charging Segundo Montes with defending the FMLN’s use of land mines, and placing him with “groups and individuals who insist on defending the terrorism of the FMLN-FDR and its front groups.” On April 20, Col. Juan Orlando Zepeda said the UCA is a “refuge for terrorist leaders, from where they plan the strat- egy of attack against Salvadorans.” And on April 28, three bombs exploded at the UCA printing press.
The threat of negotiations and peace never- theless continued to build. When the new presi- dent, the businessman Alfredo Cristiani, took office on June 1, 1989, he revealed a surprising five-point plan for talks with the FMLN that did not make surrender a precondition. Talks began Sept. 13-15, 1989, in Mexico, and continued Oct. 15-17 in San Jose, Costa Rica. Both sides agreed to a third meeting Nov. 20 and 21, 1989 in Caracas, venezuela. During the next few weeks, however, El Salvador was plunged into a murky sea of assassination and irresponsible rhetoric, and the meeting never took place. On Nov. 11, 1989 the FMLN invaded the capital and threatened to take over the city. The mili- tary decided to assassinate civilian leaders, trade unionists, and others they saw as FMLN sup- porters.54 And on Nov. 16, 1989, members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion assassinated Ellacuría; Ignacio Martin-Baró, S.J.; Segundo Montes, S.J.; Amando López, S.J.; Joaquín López y López, S.J.; Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.; a friend and community housekeeper, Elba Ra- mos; and her 15-year-old daughter, Celina.
What, then, does the Pentagon report sug- gest is to be learned from the U.S. involvement in this disturbing story? It concludes that the Salvadoran government, the right wing land owners and their allies, and the Salvadoran mili- tary knew that they “had America trapped,” and understood the U.S. was prepared to make a kind of “pact with the devil” in order to in- sure that El Salvador not fall to the FMLN. Given the current insistence by former U.S. vice-President Cheney and others on torture as a legitimate weapon in the war against terror, the Pentagon report seems prescient in point- ing to the potential threat to basic and enduring American values posed by the practical aspects of U.S.
counterinsurgency and anti-terrorist policy. The Pentagon report asserts that making victory for an inept and corrupt ally the cornerstone of U.S. counterinsurgency objectives in El Salvador helped to defeat its efforts to promote develop- ment and human rights. The report concludes, “In attempting to reconcile these objectives,... we pursued a policy by means unsettling to our- selves, for ends humiliating to the Salvadorans, and at a cost disproportionate to any conven- tional conception of the national interest.”
For those interested in the future of the Catholic university, it must be said that the commitment of Ignacio Ellacuría and the UCA to the option for the poor led them to confront violent, powerful, and dehumanizing forces with a reasoned and compassionate plea for ne- gotiations and peace. In the end, the sanity and humanity of this approach proved a dangerous threat to ongoing U.S. support for an immoral ally in a brutal and unnecessary civil war. Twenty years after these deaths, we have come to appre- ciate the risks to individuals and institutions that concretize a commitment to the dignity of every person, especially the marginalized, through effective opposition to the sometime follies of U.S.-financed wars on foreign soil.
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