The Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador Continue To Inspire Others

Bodies of Jesuits, November 16, 1989
Bodies of Jesuits,         November 16, 1989

Twenty-five years ago today (November 16th), six Jesuit priests and professors at El Universidad de Centro America (the University of Central America or UCA) in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, were brutally murdered along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The priests were: (1) Ignacio Ellacuría, the Rector of the University; (2) Ignacio Martín Baró, an UCA social psychologist whose research focused on the psychic problems of living in a context of structural violence; (3) Segundo Montes, an UCA anthropologist interested in the effects of social stratification and displaced victims of the country’s civil war; (4) Amando López Quintana, the chair of UCA’s philosophy department, a parish priest and director of a mass-literacy campaign; (5) Joaquín López y López, director of UCA’s Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy), a vocational training program for impoverished youth; and (6) Juan Ramón Moreno, who served at UCA’s Center for Theological Reflection, which addressed questions of faith and justice.

An U.S. journalist, Mary Jo McConahay, was in El Salvador that day, and after hearing reports that morning of the murders she was one of the first individuals to see the bodies of four of the Jesuits in a garden near their UCA apartments. In a recent article in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter she recounts what is was like to be there that morning:

  • “On the grass a few feet from the residence lay the forms of four bodies covered with white sheets. What appeared to be blood stained some of the sheets. . . .
  • In the hall [of the residence] with doors open to rooms on both sides, a body lay face down on the floor. A strip of what looked like blood marked the floor, as if the body had been dragged.”
  • [Fr. José María Tojeira, the Jesuit provincial for Central America] . . . bade me step inside one of the rooms, where another man lay dead . . . .”
  • We stepped outside past the white sheets and turned to descend a few steps to stand at the open door of a small apartment. Inside lay two bodies, a woman and a young girl, fallen backward a few feet from the threshold . . . . I recorded how the girl’s pelvic area looked as if the killer had emptied his gun there, how the woman’s legs had fallen over the girl’s, as if she had stood in front when the killers entered . . . . “
  • “[Back in the garden] the sheets came off [the bodies] and there in death were the priests I had known in life. . . . There was Ellacuría, his clear voice silenced, lying face up, as if he had looked at his killers at the moment of death” joined by Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró and Amando López.”

Subsequent investigations have revealed that members of the country’s Armed Forces under the direction and command of higher officials committed these horrible crimes. They did so in order to silence Fr. Ellacuría’s publicly criticizing social injustices in the country and calling for peace negotiations to end the civil war and persecution of the poor and to leave no witnesses to the murder of Ellacuría.

UCA’s Commemoration

Jesuit Martyrs & Housekeeper & Daughter
Jesuit Martyrs & Housekeeper & Daughter

UCA is marking this anniversary with nine days of programs and masses. This post will discuss two of those events, and subsequent posts will cover others as they become available on the UCA website.

In a discussion about the legacy of the martyrs, Hector Saymour said the legacy was the mission of social projection for UCA and other universities.  Such universities by engaging in rational and scientific research seek to increase understanding of the current situation and to create viable theoretical alternatives. For UCA and other Jesuit universities Jesus Christ is the inspiration for this struggle to transform unjust structures and to construct a new civilization based on solidarity. Omar Serrano, the Director of UCA’s Social Projection, added that UCA “has a continuing commitment to continue the legacy of the martyrs and to ‘transform the reality of Salvadoran society.’”

UCA also published an essay–“Freedom and Martyrs”—by the previously mentioned José Maria Tojeira, now the Director of UCA’s Campus Ministry and the former UCA Rector (1997-2010). It focused “on one of the fundamental characteristics usually common to all martyrs, since the dawn of Christianity until today, including, of course, Romero and many other Salvadorans. This is freedom. As St. Paul said, “for Christ has set us free” (Gal 5: 1).

The martyred Jesuits, Tojeira continued, were “universal fellow human beings of goodwill, [who] lived their freedom in an exceptional way. They started practicing it very soon with their youthful decision to come to America, leaving their roots, family and familiar environment. Their maturing love opened them to the new world . . . with a true devotion to the particular world of the poor of El Salvador. The option for the poor is already an act of freedom, and they demanded the Latin American Church take the matter seriously. And they used [UCA] . . . to find the roots of reality, not only opted for the poor, but also for their causes: social change, liberation from injustice, fully incorporating human rights into existence, creating a new culture in which they predominate over having and work over capital.”

“The severe social tensions (the fruit of injustice), repression and later civil war posed new challenges. . . . When words soar and thinking intellectuals become an enemy to the military, it is not easy to keep . . . [one’s] balance and safeguard life. The Jesuits’ decision to stay, to continue speaking freely, to continue publishing, to continue to defend the victims, risking life even looking at the face of death without defending their trust in reason and the Gospel, shows their tough libertarian convictions. For freedom is not measured by speeches defending money, property, or self-interest, but by the life choices of defending human rights.”

According to Tojiera, “In the exercise of this freedom . . . the martyred Jesuits maintained [UCA as] a quality university in a time that viciously persecuted intelligence and condemned the national university. At the same time, they multiplied their analysis and social criticism, their choice for peace with justice and human rights, while the government encouraged the creation of universities to promote conservative ideologies. The martyred Jesuits wanted to remain faithful to the intellectual quality of their voices so that victims would be protected, so that peace would emerge. And from that intellectually respectable quality, they started to speak of dialogue and negotiation as the only valid way out of the conflict.”

UCA’s “publications, conferences, studies [in 1989 and before] were mainly aimed at saving lives. The Jesuits said they stayed in El Salvador to fight for peace: ‘Basically what we want and where we direct our efforts is to save lives.’ Wanting to save the lives of many is what eventually led to the Jesuits’ death.  Finally, the Army, by a compact of silence and concealment, took the decision to kill the Jesuits, a crime against humanity, for which the military still has not apologized nor has recognized it as such.  What 25 years ago was cause for tears, now is a cause for rejoicing. Because our comrades still are alive generating critical thinking, lucid intelligence and true freedom.”

U.S. Jesuit Conference

Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, who is the president of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, said, “The slaughter of eight innocents had a visceral impact on me and my Jesuit brothers, one that continues to shape us. More importantly, 25 years later, it helps highlight the continuing failures of U.S. policy toward Central America. Back in 1989, the UCA killers were instructed to leave no witnesses, but by silencing eight people, they unintentionally and, ironically, gave voice to a generation of activists proud to walk in the footsteps of the martyrs. We need that same sense of urgency and mission now, as we struggle to help those suffering in Central America today.”

Last week Fr. Kesicki led a visit to El Salvador by Jesuit provincials, the incoming international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the presidents of nine Jesuit universities. They visited UCA, participated in its forum and commemorated the martyrs at Mass at the Cathedral in San Salvador and at the Romero Chapel, where Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980.

In addition, more than 1,300 participants from Jesuit universities, high schools and parishes converged on Washington, D.C. this weekend for the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. It will feature a wide array of speakers and the premiere of a documentary about the martyrs, “Blood in the Backyard.” Other scheduled events include a Capitol Hill rally and congressional visits. Each of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities also marked the anniversary with lectures, panel discussions, Masses and prayer services.

An article this month in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter remembered these words by Fr. Ellacuría when in 1982 he received an honorary degree from California’s Santa Clara University, “Our work is oriented . . . above all on behalf of a people who, oppressed by injustice, struggle for their self-determination—people often without liberty or human rights. The university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.”

The website for the U.S. Conference of Jesuits has other fascinating relevant features: (a) “Legacy of the Martyrs: Lives Changed, Causes Embraced,” that contains recollections of 38 U.S. Jesuit priests and other religious workers of what they felt when they first heard the news in 1989 of the murders of the six priests in El Salvador; and (b) U.S. Jesuits’ recollections of the martyrs.

Fr. Michael McCarthy, S.J.

 Fr. Michael McCarthy, another fellow Jesuit priest and a professor and the executive director of California’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, also has expressed in the New York Times his inspiration by the martyred Jesuits. He credits Ellacuría’s recognizing “the responsibility of his institution as lending intellectual support to those who did not have the academic qualifications to legitimize their rights. His life has challenged me to keep my sights not on conventional measures of success but on what really matters: the contribution I am making to the world.”

In addition, McCarthy treasures Ellacuría’s “vision of a university that would be an ‘inescapable social force’ for good. That is no less important in 2014 than it was in 1989. I still believe that an education not grounded in justice is a farce and that we desperately need wise, courageous, even heroic academic leaders to realize the highest purposes of education.”

 Conclusion

 Many others have been transformed and inspired by the witness and ministry of the Jesuit priests of El Salvador.

One of them, Fran Rossi Szplczym, Pastoral Associate for Administration, Immaculate Conception Church of Albany, NY, said, “the lust for power, control, and domination is essentially the way of the world. That is one of the reasons we who are Catholic [and other] Christians live our faith as we do. We are not here to be against the world, nor to withdraw from the world. Jesus might have gone to the desert now and then, but he did not come here to simply be alone and pray, or to hide out with the apostles and feel superior to everyone else. Jesus came to transform us and the world with it.”

She added, “We cannot give up, we cannot turn away, we cannot turn to violence. To walk to the cross with Christ might mean lying face down on the ground with part of your brain splattered nearby, but it also means that we must all be changed. That is the call of discipleship put into action, no matter the cost. Let the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador remind us of this daunting task of loving and changing the world in Jesus’ name. No matter what tiny and beautiful, or grand and magnificent ways that we are called to be that change in Christ.”

As a Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion, I too have been inspired by the Jesuit martyrs as I will discuss in a subsequent post.

International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests

We already have looked at a Spanish court’s recent issuance of 20 criminal arrest warrants regarding the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.[1] Here we examine the provisional facts of the murders themselves and of the surrounding circumstances.[2]

The Murders

In the early hours of November 16, 1989, a group of Salvadoran soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the Pastoral Centre, which was the residence of Jesuit priests Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice-Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; and Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, all teachers at UCA.

The soldiers tried to force their way into the Pastoral Centre. When the priests realized what was happening, they let the soldiers in voluntarily. The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into the back garden and lie face down on the ground.

The lieutenant in command gave the order to kill the priests. Fathers Ellacuria, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by a Private, Fathers López and Moreno by a Deputy Sergeant. Shortly afterwards, the soldiers found Father Joaquín López y López inside the residence and killed him. Another Deputy Sergeant shot Julia Elva Ramos, who was working as a cook in the residence, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos. Another Private shot them again, finishing them off.

The soldiers then took a small suitcase belonging to the priests containing photographs, documents and $5,000. They also fired a machine gun at the façade of the residence and launched rockets and grenades. Before leaving, they wrote on a piece of cardboard: “FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN.”

The FMLN’s “Final Offensive” and the Salvadoran Military’s Response

This horrible crime occurred in the midst of what the FMLN guerrillas called “The Final Offensive.” Most of the nine-year old civil war had been fought in the mountains and countryside. On November 11, 1989, however, “The Final Offensive” was launched to bring the war into the capitol city of San Salvador for the first time.

This assault reached alarming proportions that the Salvadoran armed forces had not expected. The guerrillas gained control of various areas in and around the capitol. They attacked the official and private residences of the President of the Republic and the residence of the President of the Legislative Assembly. They also attacked the barracks of the First, Third and Sixth Infantry Brigades and those of the National Police. In addition, guerrillas blew up one of the main gates of UCA and crossed UCA’s campus.

On November 12, the Government declared a state of emergency and imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

The next day, November 13, at a meeting of the Salvadoran Armed Forces’ General Staff, security commands were created to deal with the FMLN offensive. Each command was headed by an officer under the operational control of Colonel René Emilio Ponce, Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff. Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides was designated to head the military complex security command zone. It included the Military College, the Ministry of Defense, the Joint Staff, the National Intelligence Department, two districts where many members of the armed forces lived, the residence of the United States Ambassador and the UCA campus. (It takes less than five minutes to drive from the Salvadoran Ministry of Defense complex (Estado Mayor) to the UCA campus, as I know from visiting them both.)

A national radio channel also was established, the pilot station being Radio Cuscatlán of the armed forces. Telephone calls to the station were broadcast in a “phone-in” in which callers lofted accusations at Father Ellacuria and called for his death.

Salvadoran Military’s Focus on UCA

The Salvadoran military’s response to the FMLN offensive devoted a lot of effort to UCA, which was very close to the Ministry of Defense complex and which was seen by many in the armed forces as a “refuge of subversives.” Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Vice-Minister for Defense, publicly accused UCA of being the center of operations where FMLN terrorist strategy was planned. Colonel Inocente Montano, Vice-Minister for Public Security, stated publicly that the Jesuits were fully identified with subversive movements. Sectors of the armed forces identified the Jesuit priests with FMLN because of the priests’ special concern for those sectors of Salvadorian society who were poorest and most affected by the war.

On November 12th, a Salvadoran military detachment was stationed to watch who went in and out of UCA. Starting the next day no one was permitted onto the campus.

On November 13th, Colonel Ponce ordered a search of UCA premises. According to Colonel Ponce, he ordered the search because he had been informed that there were over 200 guerrillas inside the UCA campus.

The search was entrusted to a Lieutenant with 100 men from the Atlacatl Battalion. Another Lieutenant  of the National Intelligence Department joined the troops at the entrance to UCA to assist with the search. One of the Lieutenants personally directed the search of the Jesuits residence. They found no signs of any guerrilla presence, war material or propaganda. After completing the search, one of the  Lieutenants reported the results to higher officers.

On November 15th at 6.30 p.m. there was a meeting of the General Staff with military heads and commanders to adopt new measures to deal with the offensive. Colonel Ponce authorized the elimination of ringleaders, trade unionists and known leaders of FMLN, and a decision was taken to step up bombing by the Air Force and to use artillery and armored vehicles to dislodge FMLN from the areas it controlled.

The Minister of Defence, General Larios, asked whether anyone objected. No hand was raised. It was agreed that Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani would be consulted about the measures.

After the meeting, the officers stayed in the room talking in groups. One of these groups included Colonel Ponce, Colonel Zepeda and Colonel Montano. Colonel Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, who was the Director of the Military College. In front of four other officers, Ponce ordered Benavides to eliminate Father Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses. He also ordered him to use the unit from the Atlacatl Battalion which had carried out the search two days earlier.

That same night, November 15th, between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., Benavides met with the officers under his command. Colonel Benavides told them that he had just come from a meeting at the General Staff at which special measures had been adopted to combat the FMLN offensive. Colonel Benavides said that the situation was critical and it had been decided that artillery and armored vehicles should be used. He also told them that all known subversive elements must be eliminated.

Colonel Benavides specifically said that he had received orders to eliminate Father Ignacio Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses. Colonel Benavides asked any officers who objected to this order to raise their hands. No one did.

After the meeting, the leader of the Atlacatl Battalion decided that in order to try to blame the deaths on the FMLN, they would use an AK-47 rifle that had been captured from the FMLN, instead of regulation firearms, and that they would leave no witnesses. After the murders, they would simulate an attack and leave a sign mentioning FMLN.

Two pick-up trucks with the soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion left the Military College and joined other soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. They then proceeded to the Pastorale Center of UCA and committed the murders as previously described.


[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May31, 2011).

[2] This post’s factual recitation is extracted from the Commission for the Truth for El Salvador’s Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 45-54 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html  [“Commission Report”]. See also Martha Doggett, Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador at 37-71 (Washington, D.C.; Georgetown Univ. Press 1993). Although, as will be discussed in a subsequent post, the Truth Commission adhered to an objective and reasonable methodology in conducting its investigations and writing its report, it must be recognized that there was no cross-examination of witnesses by attorneys for the accused or full opportunity for them to present evidence in their own defense. Thus, the findings of the Truth Commission must be taken as provisional in nature. In other future posts we will talk about the Salvadoran military’s efforts to cover up their participation in this crime; the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of some of the military officers who were involved and the subsequent Salvadoran general amnesty for them and others; the Jesuits case before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights; the Spanish implementation of the principle of universal jurisdiction; and more details about the Spanish case regarding this crime.