The December 1980 Murders of the Four American Churchwomen in El Salvador

In 1980 four U.S. women were engaged in Christian mission work in El Salvador: Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.[1]

U.S. Ambassador Robert White

On November 20, 1980, Kazel and Donovan happened to meet U.S. Ambassador Robert White and his wife at a Roman Catholic religious service in San Salvador, and the Whites invited them to come to the Embassy on December 1st for dinner and to stay the night. Over dinner that night they discussed their differing views on U.S. policy regarding El Salvador. Kazel and Donovan told the Whites that the next night they would be picking up their friends, Maryknollers Clarke and Ford, at the airport.[2]

The next morning (December 2, 1980), Kazel and Donovan had breakfast upstairs at the Embassy with Mrs. White while the Ambassador had one of his frequent breakfasts elsewhere at the Embassy with the Salvadoran Minister of Defense, General Jose Guillermo Garcia.[3]

Later that same day, Kazel and Donovan went to the airport in their white van as planned. Clarke and Ford were returning to the country on a flight from Nicaragua, which then was under the control of the leftist Sandanistas and where they had attended a regional assembly of their order. Around 7:00 p.m. the four women got in the white van to drive to the capital city of San Salvador.[4]

Soon after leaving the airport, their van was stopped by several men in plain clothes. The men took over the van and drove the women to an isolated area about 15 miles east of the airport near the town of Santiago Nonualco in the Department of La Paz.[5]

That night peasants in the area saw the white van drive to an isolated spot. Then they heard machine-gun fire and single shots followed by five men leaving in the van. (Later that night the van was found on fire at the side of the airport road.)[6]

The next morning (December 3rd) the peasants went to the road where they had seen the van and heard the shots. There they found four female bodies. Local authorities told the peasants to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. The peasants did as they were instructed, but they also told their priest about what had happened, and the priest relayed the news to his local bishop.[7]

That same morning (December 3rd), a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy called a local police official to report three nuns and a lay worker were missing, and the official asked whether the nuns were in habits and was told they were not. Later that same day General Jose Guillermo Garcia asked Ambassador White the same question. (In the Salvadoran military lexicon, “good” nuns wore habits; “bad” nuns did not.) The four women did not wear habits, and they worked with the poor, also marking them as troublemakers to Salvadoran officials. Later that same day the office of San Salvador’s acting Archbishop, Rivera y Damas, told Ambassador White that the women’s bodies had been found in an unmarked grave.[8]

On December 4th, Ambassador White drove to where the four bodies had been found, and at his insistence the bodies were exhumed from the shallow common grave, identified and taken to San Salvador. There a group of forensic doctors refused to perform autopsies on the ground that they did not have surgical gloves.[9]

In accordance with Maryknoll custom, the bodies of Clarke and Ford were taken for burial to the city of Chalatenango, where they had served. Fourteen priests celebrated their requiem mass at the city’s main church as soldiers with automatic rifles patrolled outside.[10]

These murders immediately became big news leading to various investigations and prosecutions as well as tension between the U.S. and El Salvador over this crime and continuation of U.S. military aid. Later the crime was investigated by the Truth Commission for El Salvador and was the subject of a civil lawsuit in a U.S. federal court under the Torture Victims Protection Act by relatives of the women. These topics will be explored in subsequent posts.


[1] See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011).

[2] Steinfels, Death & Lies in El Salvador–The Ambassador’s Tale, Commonweal (Oct. 26, 2001).

[3] Id.

[4]  See nn. 1, 2 supra; Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 62-63 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8]  Id.; Sancton & Willwerth, El Salvador: Aftermath of Four Brutal Murders, Time Mag. (Dec. 22, 1980).

[9] Id.

[10]  Id.; 2 Murdered American Nuns Buried in Salvadoran Town, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 1980). The bodies of Kazel and Donovan were returned to the U.S. for burial.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

7 thoughts on “The December 1980 Murders of the Four American Churchwomen in El Salvador”

  1. Couldn?t be developed any much better. Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this report to him. Pretty certain he will possess a great read. Thanks for sharing! 856110

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