Salvadoran Judicial Investigation and Prosecution of National Guardsmen for the Murders of the Four American Churchwomen

We have examined the Salvadoran mission work of the four American churchwomen, their brutal December 1980 murders and the non-judicial investigations of this horrendous crime.[1] Now we look at the Salvadoran judicial investigation and prosecutions of five of their National Guardsmen for this crime.

Judicial Investigation

The judicial investigation started in late April 1981, when six members of the Salvadoran National Guard were arrested as suspects. The investigation ended in May 1984 when five of these men went on trial for aggravated homicide.[2]

During this three-year period there were several interesting developments.

In October 1981 a Salvadoran National Guardsman who had been captured by the guerillas said on their radio station (Radio Venceremos) that the women had been killed by other Guardsmen. This individual had not been involved in the killings himself, but said that a major had told him and other soldiers that Guardsmen had killed the women because two of them (Clarke and Ford) were believed to be carrying messages for the Salvadoran guerillas from the leftist Sandinistas on the women’s flight from Nicaragua.[3]

In November 1981 it had appeared that the investigation would not lead to any criminal charges, but in February 1982 the court determined that there was sufficient evidence to charge four of the men with aggravated homicide and one with murder while releasing the sixth for insufficient evidence. At that time (February 1982), the men were discharged from the military, and the court said that one of the five had confessed to his involvement in the killings and that this had been corroborated by other evidence.[4]

In November 1982, the trial court ordered the five men to stand trial on these charges at the earliest possible date. An appellate court, however, reversed this decision on the ground that the record was incomplete and returned the case to the trial court for further investigation. In October 1983, the trial court again ordered the five to stand trial.[5]

Criminal Trial

The five Guardsmen went to trial in May 1984 before a five-person jury. The trial took 19 hours. Seven hours were spent reading written testimony focusing on the women’s work in the country, the confession, ballistic tests and fingerprint evidence . Another seven hours was devoted to arguments by the attorneys. The defense emphasized that the men were obeying orders and criticized the U.S. involvement in the investigation.[6]

After one hour of deliberation, the jury found all of the men guilty of aggravated homicide. Thereafter the judge sentenced each of them to 30 years in prison.[7]

This was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had held a member of the armed forces guilty of homicide or murder.[8]

Post-Conviction Developments

In January 1988, a Salvadoran court rejected the application by three of the five convicts for release under the country’s General Amnesty Law.[9]The court held that the Law applied to political crimes, not to the aggravated homicide for which they had been convicted and which was a common crime.[10]

Seven months later (July 1998), however, two of the Guardsmen were released from prison apparently because of a new law to ease prison overcrowding. (The other three did not qualify for release because of prior convictions on a weapons charge and participation in a prison disturbance.) [11]

At about the same time in 1998, this case again captured public attention with two developments. First,  the convicted Guardsmen said that they had acted on orders of higher officials. Second, previously secret U.S. government files were released that did not support its prior assertions that the Guardsmen had acted on their own. The resulting public requests for a Salvadoran criminal investigation of that subject were rejected when El Salvador’s President and Attorney General said the country’s 10-year statute of limitations for murder charges meant that it was legally impossible to reopen the case to charge those who ordered the murders.[12]

[1] See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2001); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four American Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the Murders of the American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 16, 2011).

[2]  UPI, 6 Salvadoran Soldiers Are Arrested in Slaying of U.S. Church Workers, N.Y. Times (May 10, 1981); AP, Salvador To Try 5 in the Deaths of U.S. Women, N.Y. Times (Nov. 16, 1982); n.6 infra. Presumably it was during this period (April 1981 to May 1984) that a Salvadoran attorney who had been appointed to represent one of the Guardsmen, was pressured by the U.S. Embassy to announce that he had not found any involvement of higher officials, and when the attorney refused to do so, he received death threats that forced him and his family to flee El Salvador. (See Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).)

[3]  UPI, U.S. Nuns’ Deaths Laid to Salvador, N.Y. Times (Oct. 15, 1981).

[4]  Bonner, Salvador’s Inquiry into Nuns’ Slaying Stalled, N.Y. Times (Nov. 13, 1981); Bonner, 6 Salvadoran Soldiers Face Court in Slaying of American Nuns, N.Y. Times (Feb. 11, 1982); Hoge, Judge in Salvador Frees One of Six in Nuns’ Death, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 1982).  More details about the confession entered the public domain. (UPI, Salvadoran Indicted in Death of U.S. Nuns, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 1982); AP, Salvadoran Says He killed U.S. Women, N.Y. Times (Oct. 27, 1983).)

[5]  Hoge, Judge in Salvador Frees One of Six in Nuns’ Death, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 1982); AP, Salvador To Try 5 in the Deaths of U.S. Women, N.Y. Times (Nov. 16, 1982); AP, Salvadorans Again Face Tiral in Killing of 4 Churchwomen, N,Y. Times (Oct. 29, 1983).

[6] Chavez, Salvador Trial in Killing of 4 Is Due Next Week, N.Y. Times (May 17, 1984); Chavez, Guardsmen’s Trial Opens in Salvador; Judge Calls Case in Slaying of 4 Churchwomen Strong Enough for Conviction, N.Y. Times (May 24, 1984); Chavez, 5 Salvadorans Are Found Guilty in Slaying of U.S. Churchwomen, N.Y. Times (May 25, 1984); Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 65 (March 15, 1993),

[7]  Id.

[8] Id.

[9]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011).

[10] Assoc. Press, Salvador Judge Refuses Amnesty To Killers of 4 U.S. Churchwomen, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 1988).

[11] Lawyers Comm. Hum. Rts., Media Alert: Human Rights First Calls for Formal Process in El Salvador Following Statement on Possible Release of Five Convicted Guardsmen, May 18, 1998; Lawyers Comm. Hum. Rts., Media Alert:Human Rights First Denounces Possible Parole for Guards, July 1, 1998; No Parole in Nuns’ Murder, N. Y. Times (July 9, 1998); 2 Killers of Nuns Freed From Salvadoran Prison, N.Y. Times (July 22, 1998); Release Ordered of El Salvador nun murderers, BBC News (July 22, 1998).

[12]  Id.; Rohter, 4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military, N.Y.  Times (Apr. 3, 1998); Lawyers Comm. Hum. Rts., Media Alert: Human Rights First Obtains Embassy Evidence on U.S. Nuns Murder in El Salvador (June 24,1998);  Rohter, Files Focus on Salvador Colonel in U.S. Women’s Deaths, N.Y. Times (June 25, 1998).

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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.

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