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), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html. 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).

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), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html [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), 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.

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, en.wikipedia.org; Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, http://www.maryknollsisters.org;Wikipedia, Maura Clarke, en.wikipedia.org; Wikipedia, Ita Ford, en.wikipedia.org.

[2] Wikipedia, Ursulines, en.wikipedia.org; Wikipedia, Dorothy Kazel, en.wikipedia.org; Wikipedia, Jean Donovan, en.wikipedia.org; Dear, The Life and Example of Jean Donovan (Dec. 2, 2005), CommonDream.org; Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland, Sister Dorothy Kazel, modern-day martyr, http://www.ursulinesisters.org.