Today is the 23rd anniversary of the martyrdom in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests together with their house-keeper and her 15 year-old daughter. In the early hours of the 16th of November 1989 the Jesuits were dragged out of their beds by a detachment of soldiers from the crack Atlacatl Batallion trained in and funded by the United States. The soldiers made them lie on the ground in our university campus and were then ordered to shoot them in cold blood by Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinosa who had been a student of one of them at our Jesuit high school, the Externado San José. They then went and shot the two women who were sleeping in a parlour attached to the residence so that there would be no witnesses.
Who were these Jesuits ? There was the university rector Ignacio Ellacuría, an internationally known philosopher and tireless in his efforts to promote peace through his writings, conferences and travels abroad; Segundo Montes, dean of the sociology department and director of the University Institute of Human Rights which tried to help the families and relatives of those who had been assassinated, disappeared or imprisoned; Ignacio Martín Baró, a pioneering social psychologist who headed the Psychology Department; theology professors Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López; and Joaquin López y López, the only native Salvadoran of the group and founding head of the Fe y Alegría network of schools for the poor. Julia Elba Ramos, wife of the caretaker at the UCA and her daughter Celina were sleeping that night at the UCA since they felt it would be safer than their cottage on the edge of the campus.
Why were they killed ? The reason was no different from that of the martyrdom in 1977 of the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, or the assassination three years later of Archbishop Romero or of the four American sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Jean Donovan. They all shed their blood with tens of thousands of lesser-known civilian victims of El Salvador’s civil war of 1981 to 1992. They were looking for peace, but the peace they longed for was not peace at any price. They were one with Archbishop Romero who, shortly before his martyrdom, declared: “Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order and the only peace that God wants is one based on truth and justice”.
The killings at the UCA took place during a major guerrilla offensive that began on Saturday November 11th 1989. Ellacuría returned to El Salvador from Spain the following Monday. A few hours after he arrived at the UCA, a commando unit of the Atlacatl Battalion, mentioned above, searched the Jesuit residence. It was clearly a reconnaissance. Two days later the High Command of the armed forces gathered at their headquarters a kilometre away from the UCA. In fear of losing the capital city, and perhaps the war, they decided to rocket the poor communities where the guerrillas were now entrenched and to act on a long hit list of civilians critical of the government and the armed forces. Almost all on this death list, including labour leaders, opposition politicians and some clergy, had gone into hiding once the offensive began. The six Jesuits did not.
Even after the Monday search, Ellacuría prevailed on his brothers to remain at their UCA residence. They had nothing to hide, they had done nothing wrong; nor were they members of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) guerrilla movement. The accusations – that the UCA stored weapons and trained guerrillas – were patently false. And, with the campus surrounded by soldiers protecting the military installations close by, any harm done to them would be blamed on the army. It was a logical argument: yet, as frequently happens in wartime, unreason prevailed. Shortly after the Wednesday night meeting of the High Command, and with the apparent approval of the President, the Atlacatl Unit returned to the UCA to murder the Jesuits and the two women. The soldiers simulated a military confrontation, leaving over 200 spent cartridges, to make it look as if the Jesuits had fallen in combat. But they also split open Ellacuría’s head and spread his brains on the grass to make it clear why he had been killed.
Why were they killed ? Like many others, the UCA martyrs were killed for the way they lived, that is, for how they lived their religious faith, how they expressed their faith in love. They stood for a new kind of university, a new kind of society, a ‘new’ church. Together with their lay colleagues, they wrestled with the ambiguities of their university in a country where only a tiny minority finished elementary school and still fewer could meet the required academic standards to enter university and to pay the tuition fees. The Jesuits and their colleagues concluded that they could not limit their mission to teaching and innocuous research. They did their best to steeply scale tuition charges according to students’ family income. More importantly, they sought countless ways to unmask the lies that justified the pervasive injustice and the continuing violence, and they made constructive proposals for a just peace and a more humane social order. As a university of Christian inspiration, they felt compelled to serve the truth in this way. That is what got them killed.
Jon Sobrino, who would have been killed with them had he not been away giving a Scripture course in Thailand, expresses this very clearly in their new understanding of what a university should be and do in a situation of chronic injustice. He says: “The University should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice, the intellectual support of those whose very reality makes them true and right and reasonable, even though this sometimes takes the form of having nothing, but who cannot call upon academic reasons to justify themselves”. This is precisely what the Salvadoran Jesuits did and it led to their death. Sobrino again: “They murdered these Jesuit academics because they made the university an effective instrument in defence of the mass of the people, because they had become the critical conscience in a society of sin and the creative awareness of a future society that would be different, the utopia of God’s kingdom for the poor. They were killed for trying to create a truly Christian university. They were killed because they believed in the God of the poor and tried to produce this faith through the university”. And he adds: “Truth told, analysed and presented in a university and Christian way, this is a kind of university that the idols will not tolerate”.
Who was responsible for the killing ? The report by the Archdiocesan Legal Aid Office (Tutela Legal) concludes after 38 pages of analysis that “All the evidence, taken together, establishes that those responsible for the murder of the six Jesuit priests and the two domestic workers were elements belonging to the Armed Forces”. And it goes on to point out: “It is difficult to explain how, in an area which was totally controlled and guarded by soldiers – who had already searched the house two days before and asked which Jesuits lived there – at 2.30 in the morning, in a state of siege and martial law, a large number of persons, about 30, could freely enter the house, remain there for a long time, murder eight people and destroy part of the building’s installations, using lights, making a lot of noise and causing a visible fire, without being interrupted by soldiers in the immediate vicinity, and leave afterwards unchallenged. Furthermore witnesses present have testified that they saw these 30 men dressed in military uniform. Indeed – ironically and tragically – the Jesuits stayed in the house to sleep – despite their fear, reasonable in the light of their experience, that a bomb might be planted – precisely because the area was surrounded by many soldiers and they felt it was unthinkable that in these circumstances anyone would dare to make a physical attack on the house because it would be obvious who was responsible”. It could not have been more evident who in fact was responsible. The Jesuits realised well the danger they were in but this did not hinder them from carrying out what they saw as their duty.
They had made a similar choice once before in El Salvador when, in the late 1970s, they were told to leave the country within thirty days or be ready to face death at the hands of right-wing death squads. It was then that the slogan “Be a patriot, kill a priest” was daubed on buildings all over the capital. The Jesuits decided to stay since they felt the people needed them. As a result, some were banished, others tortured and Rutilio Grande was assassinated with an old man and young boy as he was on his way with them to celebrate Mass. The six Jesuits who died in 1989 made the same choice. Earlier that year, the Catholic University (UCA) was one of the principal partners in a national debate on peace which was sponsored by the Archbishop of San Salvador. After ten years of bitter civil war, which had cost the lives of more than 70,000 people, mostly civilians, women and children, the overwhelming conclusion was that the only hope for peace lay, not in military victory by either side, but in talks and negotiations. The UCA, and Ignacio Ellacuría in particular, played a leading role in promoting these negotiations. It was a long and complex process which the El Salvador government, aided and abetted by the USA, by then sending the country a sum approaching two million dollars a day, most of which was spent on arms such as the helicopter gunships by which thousands of innocent civilian were killed, both opposed attempts for peace. But the assassination of the six made a huge impact throughout the world and was a major factor in eventually leading to peace.
Personally I knew all six of the Jesuits as well as Julia Elba and her daughter Celina. I had lived with them for three years in El Salvador but by the time of their assassination was back in the UK attempting to be provincial of the British Jesuits. One day, shortly after the assassination, I was visited by three Scotland Yard detectives on their way to El Salvador to investigate their murder at the request of President Cristiani. They promised to get to the bottom of the crime and report back on their return. But it was the last I saw of them. And Colonel Guillermo Benavides, directly responsible for organising the assassination, though arrested and charged, was ‘confined’ in a luxury hotel near a beach and then released. The judge who tried him and found him guilty had to flee the country with his family after an assassination attempt in his own house. One of the better-known death squads threatened they would “physically eliminate all persons, lay or religious, in or out of the government, who are involved in this case”. The reason they gave was: “Never before in the history of El Salvador has a military man been brought to trial… No military man has been or should be subject to any law of the Republic”.
I end with the following assessment Jon Sobrino makes of the six martyrs. “I would like to say a few words about what impressed me most in these Jesuits as a group – although of course there were differences between them. I would like to suggest what is their most important legacy to us. Before all else they were human beings, Salvadorans, who tried to live honestly and responsibly in the midst of the tragedy and hope of El Salvador. This may not seem adequate praise for glorious martyrs, but it is where I want to start, because living in the midst of the situation of El Salvador, as in that of any part of the third world, is before all else a matter of humanity, a demand on all to respond with honesty to a dehumanising situation, which cries out for life and which is inherently an inescapable challenge to our own humanity. These Jesuits, then, were human in a very Salvadoran way, solid, not like reeds to be swayed by any wind. They worked from dawn to dusk and now will have presented themselves before God with their calloused hands, maybe not from physical work, but certainly from work of all sorts: classes, writing, the important if monotonous work of administration ,masses, retreats, talks, interviews, journeys and lectures abroad…. They were men of spirit, although outwardly they were not ‘spiritual’ in the conventional sense… Above all I want to call these Jesuits ‘men with spirit’. And this spirit showed itself, as St Ignatius recommends in the meditation to attain love, ‘more in deeds than in words’…. It was above all, a spirit of service. If anything emerges clearly from this community, it is their work, to the point where they called us fanatics. But it was work that was really service. In this they were certainly outstanding disciples of St. Ignatius”.
It is a tardy though entirely fitting tribute that Mauricio Funes, the new President of El Salvador, has publicly recognised the six Jesuit martyrs as eminent citizens who rendered extraordinary service to their country, and awarded them the National Order of José Matias Delgado, the highest decoration it can give. As he said: “We can’t understand our country or recognise ourselves as a community if we ignore our common past, and our martyrs, their pains and joys, their bloody struggles and above all, in this case, their extraordinary contribution to this country”.