New Examination of the 1980 Rapes and Murders of the Four American Churchwomen in El Salvador

The American Churchwomen
The American Churchwomen


The November 10, 2014, edition of the New York Times published a video and textual “RetroReport[1] by Clyde Haberman about the December 1980 rapes and murder in El Salvador of the four American Churchwomen: Maryknoll missionaries Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan. The article contains disturbing videos of the exhumation of their bodies that month from shallow graves near the airport in that country along with other contemporaneous videos of the churchwomen and U.S. officials and news reports about this horrible crime.

This “RetroReport” was presented as background for the article’s discussion of the pending U.S. legal proceedings to remove or deport two retired Salvadoran generals for having been responsible for those horrible crimes: “José Guillermo García, now 81, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, [who] have been living in Florida for a quarter-century. They were allowed to settle there during the presidency of George Bush, who, like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, considered them allies and bulwarks against a Moscow-backed leftist insurgency.”

“But administrations change, and so do government attitudes. Over the past two and a half years, immigration judges in Florida have ruled that the generals bore responsibility for assassinations and massacres, and deserve now to be ‘removed’ — bureaucratese for deported. Both are appealing the decisions, so for now they are going nowhere. Given their ages, their cases may be, for all parties, a race against time.”

The Times pointed out that the proceedings against these two Salvadoran military officers rely on a 2004 U.S. federal statute “prohibiting human rights abusers from entering or living in this country and that [the U.S. government] has broadened its scope to include violators from all over. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, reported last December that over the previous decade, it had obtained deportation orders for more than 640 people.”

This blog has published the following seven posts about the American Churchwomen:

In addition, this blog has published the following four posts about the U.S. proceedings to remove or deport García and Vides Casanova:

Although Garcia and Casanova escaped civil liability for money damages over the murders of the churchwomen in U.S. federal court under the Torture Victims Protection Act, they were held liable for $54.6 million of money damages in another civil case in U.S. federal court involving other victims as discussed in a prior post.

Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan continue to inspire many by their living out Jesus’ Gospel of loving God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.


[1] The Times article states that this RetroReport is part of a documentary series that looks back at major stories that shaped the world using fresh interviews, analysis and compelling archival video footage. This nonprofit project, which was started with a grant from Christopher Buck, has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors.


Pilgrimage to American Churchwomen Sites in El Salvador

We have reviewed the missionary work in El Salvador of the four American churchwomen, their brutal murders on December 2, 1980, the subsequent investigations of that horrible crime, the Salvadoran successful criminal prosecution of five of its National Guardsmen for the murders and the unsuccessful U.S. civil lawsuit for money damages against two Salvadoran Generals for their failure to prevent this crime and conduct a proper investigation after the fact.[i]

In March 2010 I was privileged to visit some of the sites associated with this powerful demonstration of religious faith, devotion and courage, on the one hand, and brutal and heartless conduct of the Salvadoran security forces, on the other hand.

Military Post, Chalatenango
Lago de Suchitlan

Two of the women, Maryknollers Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, served in the northern city of Chalatenango, population of 30,000. It is near Lago de Suchitlan. During the civil war a military fortress was built to guard the city against attacks by the FMLN guerillas.

Chalatenango chapter house
Chalatenango chapter house

Across the street from the military fortress stands the 18th-century church, which was the center of the Sisters’ activities. They lived in the adjacent chapter house.

The two of them along with their friends Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were murdered on December 2, 1980, near the town of Santiago Nonualco in the southern part of the country near the airport. The next day their bodies were found on a country road not too far from the town, and upon order from officials they immediately were buried in a shallow, common grave. The site of the grave is not publicly accessible, but it was not too far from the places in these photos.

Now near the site of the common grave is a small chapel along with a monument to the women.

Soon after the murders, Sisters Clarke and Ford were buried where they had served, in accordance with Maryknoll custom and practice. Our group visited the cemetery for a moment of prayer and reflection. Here are photos of the municipal cemetery of Chalatenango and their grave markers.

La Libertad

We did not visit the western coastal city of La Libertad, population around 30,000. This is where Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll lay missionary Jean Donovan served. Here is a photo of the city.

The four women are now part of the religious heritage of El Salvador and the world. Every year on December 2nd (the date of their murders), there are pilgrimages to that country to commemorate and honor their religious faith, devotion, courage and service. Praise God!

[i]  See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen (Dec. 16, 2011); Post: Judicial Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 18, 2011); Post: The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the Murders of the American Churchwomen (Dec. 19, 2011); Post: TVPA Lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court Over the Murders of the American Churchwomen (Dec. 20, 2011).

TVPA Lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court Over the Murders of the American Churchwomen

One of the horrendous crimes during El Salvador’s civil war was the December 1980 brutal murders of four American churchwomen. We have examined the facts of those crimes along with the investigations and criminal prosecutions in El Salvador for those crimes plus the report on same by the Truth Commission for El Salvador.[1]

General Vides Casanova
General Jose Guillermo Garcia

In 1999 U.S. relatives of the four churchwomen brought a civil lawsuit for money damages under the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA)[2] for the women’s torture and murders. The defendants were former Salvadoran Generals Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia. The case was in a federal court in Florida, where the defendants then lived.[3]

The case was tried before a jury in October-November 2000. The defendants denied any knowledge of the murders beforehand. They admitted, however, that torture and violence were rampant in El Salvador and that the country’s armed forces were involved in many of these actions. In response, they testified, they had issued orders forbidding illegal interrogation and extrajudicial executions and had done all they could do to prevent such crimes. However, they further testified, they did not have the resources to stop a long practice of such actions by the armed forces.[4]

General Garcia testified that he had ordered an investigation of the killing of the churchwomen and had done nothing to interfere with the investigation. General Garcia also testified about the U.S. government’s giving him the Legion of Merit award in the 1980’s for his being a “sterling example of a military leader in a representative government”as well as the U.S. government’s granting him political asylum in 1991.

Other trial witnesses were former U.S. Ambassador Robert White to El Salvador and a former investigator for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The trial exhibits included the report of the El Salvador Truth Commission, other investigative reports and declassified U.S. diplomatic cables

In November 2000 the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Afterwards the jurors indicated that they thought they did not have enough evidence that the generals were able to exercise authority over their subordinates. Some jurors also said the defendants had done what they could to curb abuses, given the tumult of the times and a lack of resources.

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court. The sole issue on this appeal was the legal sufficiency of the trial court’s instruction to the lay jury on the question of command responsibility. Because there was no objection at trial to this instruction, the appellate court reviewed the instruction only for plain error and found no such plain error,

The appellate court held that legislative history made clear that Congress intended to adopt the doctrine of command responsibility from international law and that the essential elements of liability under that doctrine were (i) the existence of a superior-subordinate relationship between the commander and the perpetrator; (ii) the commander knew or should have known that the subordinate was committing or planning to commit war crimes; and (iii) the commander failed to prevent the crimes or failed to punish the subordinate for same.

The plaintiffs’ request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. Thus, this case is over.[5]

[1]  See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen (Dec. 16, 2011); Post: Judicial Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 18, 2011); Post: The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the Murders of the American Churchwomen (Dec. 19, 2011).

[2]  See Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[3]  Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283, 1285 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003).

[4]  Gonzalez, Salvadoran Admits Abuses In Trial Tied to Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times (Oct. 19, 2000); Gonzalez, Salvadoran General Admits He Knew of Abuses, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2000); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2000); Eviatar, Following the Blood, American Lawyer, Jan. 2001, at 83.

[5] The problem with the jury instruction on command responsibility was avoided in a later and similar case against Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova in which they were held liable for $54.6 million. (See Post: Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable by U.S. Courts for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture (Nov. 11, 2011).)

The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the Murders of the Four American Churchwomen

We already have discussed the mission work in El Salvador of the four American churchwomen, their December 1980 brutal murders, the subsequent non-judicial and judicial investigations and successful Salvadoran criminal prosecutions for these crimes.[1]

The Truth Commission for El Salvador also investigated these crimes and its March 1993 report found:

  • the December 2, 1980, arrests and murders of the churchwomen had been planned prior to the arrival of two of them that evening from Nicaragua;
  •  the National Guard deputy sergeant in charge that night of the killing was carrying out the orders of a superior officer;
  • the Director-General of the National Guard at the time, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, and other high security forces officers knew that members of the National Guard had committed the murders pursuant to orders of a superior officer and were in charge of covering up those facts;
  • Vides Casanova and another officer impeded the gathering of evidence and thereby adversely affected the judicial investigation of the crimes;
  • the two Salvadoran military investigations of this crime (Monterrosa and Zepeda) were not serious and instead sought to conceal the involvement of higher officials;
  • the Minister of Defense at the time, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, made no serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation of responsibility for the murders; and
  • the State of El Salvador failed in its responsibility to conduct a thorough and fair investigation of the crime and to find and punish the culprits.[2]

[1] See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 20111); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen (Dec. 16, 2011); Post: Judicial Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 18, 2011).

[2] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 62-66 (March 15, 1993), See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011) (summary of the Commission’s mandate and procedures).

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).

Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador

On December 2, 1980, four American churchwomen were beaten, raped and murdered in the countryside 15 miles from the country’s international airport.[1]

This was a huge problem for the governments of the U.S. and El Salvador because four religious missionaries who were U.S. citizens had been brutally raped and murdered and because there was a huge public outcry in the U.S. for investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Continuation of  U.S. military aid to El Salvador was also at risk. Immediately after the discovery of the murders, President Carter suspended $25 million of aid (with restoration 10 days later), and in 1983 Congress voted to withhold $19 million in aid pending a verdict in the criminal case discussed below.[2]

There were five non-judicial investigations of the crime.

The first investigation was initiated on December 6, 1980 (four days after the murders), by President Jimmy Carter, when he appointed William G. Bowdler, a State Department official, and William D. Rogers, a former Department official, to go to El Salvador and investigate the case. They went and said they had found no direct evidence of the crime or of involvement of Salvadoran authorities, but that there had been a cover-up of the murders.[3]

The Junta then governing El Salvador started the second investigation by putting Colonel Roberto Monterrosa in charge of an official commission of investigation. Later he admitted that his commission had excluded the possibility that Salvadoran security forces had been involved in the crime because that would have created serious difficulties with those forces. He hid from the U.S. Embassy evidence implicating a deputy sergeant of the Salvadoran National Guard. In short, Monterrosa did not conduct a thorough, honest investigation.[4]

Simultaneously with the Monterrosa commission, the Director-General of the National Guard, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, started a third investigation. He put Major Lizandro Zepeda in charge. Zapeda reported there was no evidence that National Guard personnel had committed these crimes while he simultaneously ordered the actual Guard perpetrators to replace their rifles to avoid detection and to remain loyal to the National Guard by suppressing the facts. There is also evidence that Zapeda kept his superior, Vides Casanova, informed of the details of the investigation.[5]

The fourth investigation was conducted by former U.S. federal judge Harold R. Tyler, Jr. at the appointment of the U.S. Secretary of State. He concluded that the purpose of the Monterrosa and Zapeda investigations had been to establish written precedents clearing the Salvadoran security forces of blame for the crimes. Tyler also concluded that senior officers had not been directly involved in the crimes themselves although it was quite possible that General Vides Casanova, who had been the commander of the National Guard at the time and was then the Salvadoran Minister of Defense, was aware of the cover-up. Indeed, the deputy sergeant immediately had confessed his involvement to his superiors, who kept this secret and took other steps to make detection more difficult. [6]

In December 1981 Colonel Vides Casanova appointed Major Jose Adolfo Medrano to conduct a fifth investigation.[7]

As the first four of these investigations were proceeding, the Salvadoran government announced that it had sent to the FBI for analysis new evidence, including fingerprints of Salvadoran police and military personnel who had been stationed in the area of the national airport on December 2. Subsequently there were reports in late April 1981 that the FBI had concluded that certain evidence pointed to six Salvadoran National Guardsmen as the killers.[8]

Several  weeks after this report about the FBI conclusions, six Salvadoran Guardsmen were arrested to start a Salvadoran judicial investigation and eventual prosecution of this crime. The next post in this series will look at this judicial investigation and prosecution.

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

[2] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador at 65 (March 15, 1993), [Commission Report]; Chavez, 5 Salvadorans Are Found Guilty in Slaying of U.S. Churchwomen, N.Y. Times (May 25, 1984).

[3] Onis, U.S. Officials Fly to El Salvador to Investigate Murders, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 1980); Commission Report at 63. Bowdler was Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs and a former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (1968-71). In the Ford Administration Rogers served as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs and Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs.

[4]  Commission Report at 63-64.

[5]  Id.

[6]  Id. at 63-65; Bonner, Cover-Up Charged in Death of Nuns, N.Y. Times (Feb. 16, 1984).

[7]  Commission Report at 64.

[8]  Schumacher, Salvadoran Discloses New Evidence in the Murder of Four U.S. Missionaries, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 1981); Assoc. Press, Link of Salvadoran Soldiers to Killing of 4 Reported, N.Y. Times (April 27, 1981).

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),

[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.

The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador


In 1980 there were at least two U.S. Roman Catholic missionary centers in El Salvador. One in Chalatenango. The other in La Libertad. 


Chalatenango, the largest city in the northern Department of the same name, was a stronghold of the FMLN guerrillas at the time and scene of many battles. There the Maryknoll Sisters lived in the Parish House of the 18th-century colonial church. They worked with the Emergency Refugee Committee to provide food, shelter, transportation and burials for the poor and people trying to escape the early days of the civil war. Two of the Sisters who were so involved were Maura Clarke and Ita Ford.[1]

The other missionary center was the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the western coastal port of La Libertad in the Department of the same name. There the Ursulines of the Roman Union trained catechists, conducted sacramental preparation programs and oversaw the distribution of Catholic Relief Services aid and food supplies. They also helped civil war refugees with food, shelter and medical supplies and transportation to medical facilities. Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan worked there. [2]

Maura Clarke

Clarke, age 49 from New York City, had worked for the Order for 20 years in Nicaragua before coming to El Salvador. She said, “My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being shot and some cut up with machetes and bodies thrown by the road and people prohibited from burying them. A loving Father must have a new life of unimaginable joy and peace prepared for these precious unknown, uncelebrated martyrs.”

Ita Ford

Ita Ford, age 40 and also from New York City, had joined the Maryknoll Order in 1971 and had served in Bolivia and Chile before arriving In El Salvador on March 24, 1980, the day of Archbishop Romero’s assassination. In a worship service on December 1, 1980, she read a passage from one of Romero’s homilies, “Christ invites us not to fear persecution because . . . the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive–and to be found dead.”


Dorothy Kazel


Sister Dorothy Kazel was in charge of the Ursuline mission. She was 42 years old from Ohio and had been a member of the Order for 20 years. The last six of those years she had worked in El Salvador and frequently went by motorbike and jeep to visit country parishes.

Jean Donovan


Sister Dorothy was assisted by Jean Donovan, a Maryknoll lay missionary, also from Ohio, age 27. Donovan had been doing this work for three years and had told a friend in the U.S., “The danger is extreme . . . . [I wanted to leave], except for the children, the poor, the bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

[1] Wikipedia, Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic,; Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic,;Wikipedia, Maura Clarke,; Wikipedia, Ita Ford,

[2] Wikipedia, Ursulines,; Wikipedia, Dorothy Kazel,; Wikipedia, Jean Donovan,; Dear, The Life and Example of Jean Donovan (Dec. 2, 2005),; Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland, Sister Dorothy Kazel, modern-day martyr,

Annual Commemorations of Oscar Romero’s Life

Memory is important in all aspects of human life, especially when we consider religious and moral leaders and exemplars. Oscar Romero was such a man, and as we have seen, Oscar Romero is remembered in music, film, art and books.[1]

Perhaps the most important way he is remembered and honored, however, is the series of annual commemorations of his life on March 24th, the day he was assassinated in 1980. They happen in many places around the world.

Romero celebration @ Chapel, March 2000
El Salvador de Mundo

In San Salvador, the commemorations are especially poignant. The central event is a gathering of people from all over the world at the chapel where he was killed and where a special memorial service is held. Then the people march through the city, passing a traffic circle appropriately called “El Salvador de Mundo” (the Savior of the World), before going on to the Cathedral where Romero is buried. There a worship service with music is held in the plaza in front of the Cathedral.

I went to the 20th anniversary commemoration in 2000 with a group from Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College.[2] In 2010 for the 30th anniversary I went with a group organized by a Salvadoran NGO, Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS).[3]

Both institutions participated in the previously mentioned central event. They also visited the chapel where Romero was murdered, his apartment across the street and the Cathedral where he is buried. On both occasions we went to Universidad de Centro America (UCA) to see the Romero Chapel and the Monsenor Romero Pastoral Center with its museum of the civil war.

Romero banner, March 2000
Romero banner, March 2010
CIS Romero banner, March 2010
German Romero banner, March 2010
Mass @ El Salvador de Mundo, March 2000

They both also organize other activities, including meetings with local economists and political scientists to learn about the history and current conditions of El Salvador.  Other common activities are concerts and trips outside the capitol to learn more about the country.

In 2000 we met with UCA’s Rector, Dean Brakeley, a U.S. citizen who came to El Salvador in January 1990 to take over the leadership of UCA two months after the murders of the previous Rector, Ignacio Ellacuria, and his five brother Jesuits. Brackley’s “deepening analysis of the plight of the poor would connect the dots between Medellin and the complex inequities built into trade agreements, global capitalism, immigration policy and the war on terror.” All of this analysis always was within the theological understanding that “God is with the poor, making them ambassadors to the rest of us, evangelists who invite us to save ourselves by responding to their plight.” Brackley taught theology at UCA, but he identified a special role for himself in educating U.S. and European visitors to El Salvador about the realities of poverty and oppression in that part of the world and the roles played by the U.S. in helping to maintain that situation. Brackley died of pancreatic cancer in El Salvador on October 16, 2011.[4]

In the 2000 trip we learned about the work of Equipo Maiz, the Salvadoran NGO. We saw a special art exhibit about Romero in Parque Cuscatlan.

Our 20th anniversary group traveled to Oscar Romero’s home town of Ciudad Barrios in the northeastern part of the country. There we saw the house where he was born, the town’s church and the Radio Romero studio. We even had one day of relaxation on a beach on the Pacific Ocean.

In 2010 we again visited the chapel where Romero was murdered, his apartment across the street and the Cathedral where he is buried. We went to the Presidential Theater to see a new documentary film, “Romero by Romero.” I was touched to see the portion of the film showing Romero walking around a poor area and warmly greeting and touching the people he met without a lot of ceremony.

We met in 2010 with the UCA Rector, Father Jose Maria Tojeira, S.J. He was an amazingly light-hearted man. He told us he was new to UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 18th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus, and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same nonchalant manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

Romero mural & bomb shell, Cinquera
Helicopter, Cinquera

In 2010 we visited towns (San Isidro and Victoria) in the Department of Cabanas, where we learned about current controversies over gold mining and murders and death threats of people opposed to the mining. Another village (Cinquera) in the Department of Chalatenango on our itinerary was heavily damaged in the civil war, and a damaged helicopter sits on a pedestal in the town square.[5]

We were fortunate in 2010 to have in our group Dr. Marian Mollin, An Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech University. She is working on a historical biography of Sister Ita Ford, who was one of the four American church women murdered in El Salvador in December 1980.[6] Professor Mollin shared her insights into Sister Ford and the other sisters on our visits to where the women were murdered and where they are buried; I will discuss these visits in a future post about the four church women.

U.S. Embassy, San Salvador

We also had a meeting 2010 at the new and very large U.S. Embassy with U.S. officials. There we learned the current U.S. perspective on El Salvador. We asked them tough questions on the U.S. position about gold mining in the country and the current violence directed at anti-mining activists.

My 2000 trip with CGE was my second trip with them. I went to El Salvador for the first time in 1989 with CGE. My 2010 trip with CIS was also my second trip with them. My other trip was in 2003 to be an election observer.

I was not aware of Oscar Romero during his life. I give thanks to God for helping me to discover him starting in 1989. He was and is a truly inspiring, brave, wonderful human being, servant of God and Christian.

[1] Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Music (Oct.14, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Film (Oct. 15, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Art (Oct. 16, 2001); Post, Remembering Oscar Romero in Books (Oct. 17, 2011).

[2] Center for Global Education, CGE also usually organizes November trips for the commemoration of the six Jesuits and December trips for honoring the four American church women.

[3]  Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad, CIS also usually organizes November trips for the commemoration of the six Jesuits and December trips for honoring the four American church women. In addition, CIS has regular election observation missions, Spanish and English language courses and grassroots organizing activities.

[4] Dean Brackley on the 20th Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, (Nov. 1, 2009); Mike, Dean Brackley returns to El Salvador, ( Sept. 24, 2011); Jesuit who replaced slain Salvadoran priests dies, Nat’l Catholic Reporter (Oct. 17, 2011).

[5]  There is a new documentary film about the war in Cinquera that I have not yet seen. (Echeverria, A beautiful documentary about the war in El Salvador surprises in Biarritz [France], (Sept. 30, 2011)(Google English translation).)

[6] Virginia Tech Univ., Marian Mollin, Ph.D.,