Hearing the cry of the poor

The Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador

Hearing the cry of the poor
Illustration by John Parra

In the fall of 1989, the Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino was teaching a brief course in Christology in Thailand when a fellow priest awakened him one night with the news that a Jesuit had been killed in El Salvador. The Irish priest said he’d only half heard it on the BBC’s World Service radio broadcast, so for further information he’d phoned London and Julian Filochowski, the director of an international aid agency and a good friend of the Central American Jesuits. Filochowski, hearing that Sobrino was presently there in Hua Hin, asked to speak to him directly.

Walking to the phone, Sobrino feared the news concerned his friend Ignacio Ellacuría, the well-known and frequently threatened rector of the University of Central America in San Salvador. And so when Filochowski told him, “Something terrible has happened,” Sobrino at once said, “I know. Ellacuría.” But he did not know. His friend told him that Ellacuría indeed had been killed, and then he went on. Also killed were Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Amando López, and Joaquin López y López. Even a cook, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina.

Ignacio Ellacuría had celebrated his 59th birthday just a week before his murder. He was born in the Basque region of Spain—as was Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus—and was the fourth of five boys in his family to go into religious life, entering the Jesuit novitiate in Loyola in 1947. Encouraged to be a missionary by Miguel Elizondo, the novice master who would instruct, or “form,” five of the six martyred Jesuits, young Ellacuría went to El Salvador with six others in 1949 in order to found a new novitiate in the vice-province of Central America—comprising Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. (Forty years later, a columnist for Diario de Hoy wrote of Ellacuría that shortly “after World War II, a sinister person arrived in the country, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he turned out to be a KGB agent.”)

“The whole community, my whole community, had been murdered.”

After five years of humanities, classical languages, and philosophy at the Catholic University in Quito, Ecuador, Ellacuría returned to San Salvador for his three-year regency, teaching in a high school seminary. Then he was sent to Innsbruck, Austria, for four years of theology, having as one of his Jesuit professors there the formidable and influential Karl Rahner, one of the principal architects of the aggiornamento, or updating, of the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council.

Ellacu, as he was called by his friends, was unhappy in Austria. While he was the acknowledged leader of his Hispanic peers, he was perceived by his father superiors less favorably, as an intense, imperative, lofty man with fierce magnetism and often forbidding intellect. A Jesuit examiner wrote of him: “While he is highly talented, his character is one that is potentially difficult; his own spirit of critical judgment is persistent and not open to others; he separates himself from the community in small groups amongst whom he exercises a strong influence.”

Ellacuría was ordained in 1961 and, following a fourth year of theology in Austria, commenced work on his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Madrid, writing his dissertation on the Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri, a theoretician of popular political movements whose work investigated, as Ellacuría later put it, “the truth of what seemed to him to be the fundamentals in human life.” At last, in 1967, nine years after he left for theological studies, Ellacuría returned to San Salvador to teach philosophy at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas—named after a 19th-century Salvadoran priest who fought for the abolition of slavery—which was then little more than a handful of courses and a fifth year of high school.

The University of Central America had been funded in 1964 by wealthy parents, politicians, and a Catholic Church hierarchy that wanted an antidote to the toxic Marxism that was poisoning education at the federally run National University. Without a site or financial foundation, with only a few fervent Jesuits, secretaries, and faculty members who taught for free as a favor to the fathers, the University of Central America at first relied solely on the high repute of the Society of Jesus for its prestige and seriousness. But that was enough. Within a few years a sloping, coffee-growing plantation in the hills south of the city had given rise to a palmy campus that housed highly regarded faculties in industrial engineering and economics, finally enrolling 7,000 students who were generally from Salvadoran high society, financially privileged young men and women who, it was thought, would use their advantages to help the less fortunate.

Ellacuría, who was put on the university’s five-man board of directors, found that premise troubling. While the institution’s orientation was formally that of providing technicians for the economic and social development of El Salvador, he thought it was essentially affirming European values and structures, and fostering prosperity for the prosperous. Ellacuría felt the institution ought to fully engage the harsh realities of the Third World and, through teaching, research, and persuasion, be a voice for those who have no voice, to alter or annihilate the world’s inhuman and unjust structures, and help assuage the agony of the poor. With his forceful guidance and his editing of the monthly magazine Estudios Centroamericanos, the University of Central America would undergo an epistemological shift, orienting its ethos in the fundamental option for the poor and in the liberation theology formulated by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a theology founded on life in the risen Christ while it was focused on the institutions of injustice and death to which Latin America’s poor were subjected.

There was much to do. El Salvador was a tiny country—about the size of Israel, or New Jersey—but with 5 million people had the greatest population density in the Western Hemisphere. Coffee had created El Salvador’s foreign exchange, financed its public works, furnished jobs to its wage earners, and bestowed huge fortunes on 14 families that had formed an oligarchy in what was still a feudal society. El Salvador did not fit well into the First and Second World models of a free-market, trickle-down, privatized economy, for the wealthy had persisted in holding onto a fierce capitalism that went far beyond avarice. Eight percent of the population owned 50 percent of the gross national product, while 92 percent fought to find a fragile subsistence on what was left over, getting by, or not, on an average income of $141 per year. Half the children did not finish primary school. Two percent of the population owned cars. Life for the landless majority was one of rootlessness, wattle huts, filth and illness, and half-mile walks to fetch contaminated water in a bucket, hunger forever there with them like a dog at heel. Wish for and want may have been the only necessary verbs.


AND HE CAME to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Luke 4:16–19

Ellacuría once argued that priesthood and religious life found its meaning in the Third World, for there the professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience offered a liberating freedom from First World values of wealth, hedonism, and power. At a disputatious retreat for Central American Jesuits, Ellacuría spoke compellingly of the sin of the province to which he belonged, saying the Society of Jesus had collaborated in shoring up unjust structures and oppression in the Third World by favoring the rich with their schools and ministries in the past, and in the future would need to concentrate on liberating the poor from sin, hunger, ignorance, misery, and persecution.

Older Jesuits felt their hard efforts were being nullified, but Jesuits still in formation felt inspired to take a far more activist role in countering injustice, some of them joining Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande and his pastoral “accompaniment” of the campesinos in the parish of Aguilares. These seminarians were firebrands in their late 20s and 30s from well-to-do families, for whom Third World poverty became a harsh reality for the first time. They’d study books like Jon Sobrino’s The Historical Jesus at the Center for Theological Reflection founded by Ellacuría and Sobrino, and then go out to the parish, where they’d see firsthand a crucified people. A few scholastics began to feel a stronger call to organizing a popular revolutionary movement than to studies for the priesthood, a neglect that Ellacuría criticized, for he felt that academic studies free from ideology or the encumbrance of politics would be more valuable in analyzing and correcting the conditions of the 40 percent of Salvadorans who lived in dire poverty.

Unfortunately, three Jesuit seminarians left the order to take up arms against the so-called national security forces that were wreaking vengeance on those nuns and priests and Protestant missionaries who’d allied themselves with the poor. Soon the presence of a New Testament in a house was enough to have that house destroyed by the police. Whole villages were wiped out. Writer and television producer Teresa Whitfield wrote that after the 1979 Young Officers’ coup, which brought in a civilian-military junta, “El Salvador had hit and held the international headlines as a Central American hellhole where death squads ran riot, unarmed campesinos were slaughtered by the score, and unidentified bodies, or parts of them, turned up on the roadside each morning.”

Rutilio Grande was also one of those who los escuadrones de la muerte [death squads] sought out. In the parish of Aguilares, Father Grande and his team of three priests officiated at formal religious functions and furnished pastoral care as before, but they also worked to form a tightly knit community of brothers and sisters in Christ that could fashion a new world. Within a short time 300 people there were committed to the ministry of the Word, coordinating liturgies and catechism classes, and stressing the Gospel message that God’s will was the building of a Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Then the wealthy owner of a sugar plantation in Aguilares was killed outside his estate while, coincidentally, the ordination of three Jesuit priests was being celebrated by the archbishop, 40 Jesuits, and 2,000 campesinos—who were soon being called “hordes of assassins.” Again the Latin American Society of Jesus was accused of favoring the rebels and fostering subversion.

A presidential candidate promised to rid El Salvador of the Jesuits within three months of his election. The Committee for the Defense of the Fatherland, the Catholic Association of Mothers, and other government front organizations found their greatest enemies were not hunger and misery but liberation theology and its Jesuit teachers. Ellacuría was among those priests exiled from El Salvador for a time; other foreigners were interrogated with torture or expelled, including a Colombian priest from the parish next to Aguilares for whom Rutilio Grande filled in at a Mass. In his homily Grande said, “I greatly fear, my brothers, that very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be allowed within our country. We’ll get the covers and nothing more, because all its pages are subversive … And I fear, my brothers, that if Jesus of Nazareth returned … they would arrest him. They would take him to the courts and accuse him of being unconstitutional and subversive.”

Soon the presence of a New Testament in a house was enough to have that house destroyed by the police.

On the afternoon of March 12, 1977, Rutilio Grande got into his white Jeep with an old man, Manuel Solórzano, a 15-year-old boy named Nelson Rutilio Lemus, and three children and headed for a Mass in the village of El Paisnal, where Rutilio had been born 49 years earlier. Waylaid by heavily armed soldiers on his right and left in the sugarcane fields, Fr. Grande was heard to quietly say, “We must do as God wills,” and then he and the old man and boy were cold-bloodedly killed. The children in the back of the Jeep got away.

Late that night Archbishop Óscar Romero concelebrated a Mass for the dead in Aguilares, and afterward he humbly begged the gathered priests and nuns to tell him what the Church ought to do next. The Jesuits there were surprised. Although he’d been educated by them in San Salvador and at the Gregorian University in Rome, Msgr. Romero had not been friendly to the Society of Jesus in El Salvador, having gotten its men removed from the faculty of the National Seminary, having warned a pontifical commission about their politicization of the clergy, and having been a longtime follower of the highly conservative Opus Dei movement. And he was hampered, too, by the fact that when the papal nuncio consulted wealthy businessmen and government officials about their choice for the archdiocese, he was the one preferred.

Either they’d got him wrong or he was changed by the office or by grace, for from the time of Rutilio Grande’s murder, Óscar Romero was a different man, offending the right-wing press, the papal nuncio, his fellow bishops, and those in high society who’d thought he was one of them. And now his friends and allies were the same Jesuits held in contempt by those in power. Soon Romero’s press secretary, the president of the governing board of the archdiocese, the general manager of its radio station, his consultors and writers, even his confessor were all Jesuits. And Romero inspired them with his evangelization of the culture and his serenity, prayerfulness, and fortitude in the face of evil, giving the university a greater consciousness of its own Christian mission in the Third World. Ellacuría would say of him, “With Msgr. Romero, God has passed through El Salvador.”

Leaflets had been floating around San Salvador that read: “¡Haga patria, mate un cura!” “Be a patriot, kill a priest!” Eleven would be killed between 1977 and 1980, but also killed were four North American churchwomen and Lutheran, Episcopalian, Mennonite, and Baptist missionaries—any of those who imitated Christ in opting for the poor. And yet they stayed on. “We have not remained because we are obstinate,” the Jesuit provincial wrote, “but because we are thinking of our brothers, especially the dispossessed, who have suffered more than we … We have remained to make a small testimony to the loyalty of the church.”

Archbishop Romero said in a homily, “I am glad, brothers and sisters, that they have murdered priests in this country, because it would be very sad if, in a country where they are murdering the people so horrifically, there were no priests among the victims. It is a sign that the church has become truly incarnate in the problems of the people.”

High school students were not reading Marxist tracts but papal encyclicals … they were shocked because the injustice and poverty were shocking.

Ellacuría was with him when he planned his homily for March 23, 1980. Romero would talk about the fifth commandment and the thousands who were being slaughtered, and he would implore the soldiers and police to heed God’s law, not the godless commands of their superiors. “In the name of God,” Romero said, “and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to the heavens every day more tumultuously, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!” Early in the evening of the following day, while he was celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel, preparing the gifts for the Offertory, a national policeman walked in, shot Archbishop Romero through the heart, and hurried out.

Of course the government offered its condolences and there was an official investigation of the murder, but more than 35 years have passed and no one has been charged with the crime.


WHAT DOES IT profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James 2:14–17

Archbishop Romero had walked through a door that he’d left open for his Jesuit friends. In 1979 Ignacio Ellacuría had been named rector, or president, of the University of Central America and became a far more public man. Two years later Ignacio Martín-Baró was named academic vice rector, Ellacuría’s right-hand man.

Twelve years younger than his friend, Ellacu, Ignacio Martín-Baró, or Nacho as he was called, was born in Valladolid, Spain, in 1942. In formation he was thought to be hugely talented but too serious and intense, an uptight perfectionist whom his Jesuit classmates finally humanized to such an extent that friends later characterized Nacho as a “boon companion.” While studying humanities and philosophy in Bogotá, Colombia, Martín-Baró became engrossed by psychology and filled his nights reading whatever books on it he could find. Right after his ordination to the priesthood, he was assigned to the University of Central America, where he taught psychology and was a popular dean of students until he left for the University of Chicago, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in social psychology in 1979, with a dissertation on population density in El Salvador.

With his norte americano colleagues, Martín-Baró often wisecracked, “In your country, it’s publish or perish. In ours, it’s publish and perish.” And publish he did, writing frequently for Ellacuría’s Estudios Centroamericanos on a wide variety of subjects, whether it was the latest Nobel Prize for literature or Latin American machismo or the problems of marijuana use. Chair of the psychology department at UCA, vice rector, a member of the five-man board of directors, and founder of the Institute of Public Opinion, which did polling and canvassing of the people to counteract the government-controlled media’s “public disinformation,” Martín-Baró was of necessity a workaholic, getting to his office before 6 a.m. and generally staying until 8 p.m., and often following formal meetings with late-night chat sessions at which he’d sing and play guitar. Weekends he spent in a parish in Jayaque, where he left behind his harried, intellectual life to become “Padre Nacho,” his trouser pockets full of candies for the children, his face lighting up with love and joy as he ministered and preached to his congregation. “A Cervantes with his pen or at the computer,” as a friend described him, “as an orator he could have captivated an auditorium of the deaf.”

Martín-Baró was internationally famous for a psychology of liberation that eschewed Western scientism, ahistoricism, and self-centered individualism in order to orient psychology toward service to communities and to the rights of workers, campesinos, union organizers, and mothers of the “disappeared.” Writing in the International Journal of Mental Health, Martín-Baró pointed out that the Reagan-Bush White House pretended that El Salvador was premier among the Latin American democracies, having, as it seemed, a government chosen in free elections, an ever-increasing respect for human rights, and a highly professional army under civilian control. What few problems there were in the functioning of the judicial system, the White House proposed, were in fact fomented by Marxist-Leninist terrorists.

The hard realities were far different. Civil war had brought not only violence, polarization, and the “institutionalized lie” to El Salvador but also psychological trauma that would have far-reaching effects on a whole generation. Looking at a tiny village used as a hiding place by the insurgents of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and periodically wiped out by the Salvadoran armed forces solely for that reason, he found that whenever even a far-off military operation was begun, “the people take shelter in their houses gripped by a series of psychosomatic symptoms: generalized trembling of the body, muscular weakness, diarrhea.” His field workers collected “clear evidence that government soldiers practice systematic sexual abuse of the campesina women,” and found that campesinos were afraid to even talk about the civil war. Even when they were shown crops that had been put to flame or houses that were pockmarked with bullet holes, the frightened farmers insisted on their ignorance of the cause, saying that the damage must have happened when they were away from home. And when children from the higher economic sectors were asked what would have to happen for there to be no more poor people, a few answered, “Kill them all.”

Working in much the same areas as Martín-Baró was Segundo Montes, who was famous both in El Salvador and the United States for his analysis of exiles, refugees, and the displaced. Like Ellacuría and Martín-Baró, he was punishingly overworked: he was the religious superior of the Jesuit community—often a full-time job at other universities—as well as the chair of the departments of sociology and political science, one of the five on the board of directors, the head of the Human Rights Institute, and a weekend pastor at a parish in Santa Tecla.

A tall, majestic, passionate Spaniard with a fierce scowl and beard, Segundo Montes was called Zeus by his students, for whom he had a fatherly affection. Educated initially in the hard sciences, he taught physics at the Jesuit high school in San Salvador—the Externado San José—during his regency, and after his Austrian theology studies and ordination he went back to be prefect of discipline and headmaster there. But he saw he could do far more good as a social analyst than as a physicist, so he went on to get a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Madrid and fulfilled his former penchant for numbers with statistics.

Researching subjects as varied as land holdings, social stratification, patronage, and the pervasive theft of dollars mailed from workers in the United States to their Salvadoran families, Montes stirred up as many enemies as Ellacuría had. In 1980 a high-powered bomb exploded at the foot of his bed in the old Jesuit house on Calle del Mediterraneo, blowing out a hole in the floor the size of a trash can lid. On another night he and Ellacuría left a dinner and found their little white car painted with blood-red swastikas and slogans, including DEATH TO THE COMMUNISTS OF THE UCA! And in the early 1980s he heard from army officers who’d formerly been his high school students that there was a plan to murder Ellacuría first and then himself and the three other men who directed the university. Segundo Montes shrugged and told a worried staff member, “What am I going to do? If they kill me, they kill me.” When a journalist asked in 1988 if he’d thought about seeking freedom elsewhere, Montes told him, “We here are not just teachers and social scientists. We are also parish priests, and the people need to have the Church stay with them in these terrible times—the rich as well as the poor. The rich need to hear from us, just as do the poor. God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we.”

The fourth member of the board at the University of Central America was the Spaniard Juan Ramón Moreno, who was born in 1933 and was known to his friends as Pardito. A highly intelligent, haltingly shy and sensitive man, his first assignment as a regent was biology classes in the high school of the San Salvador seminary where Ellacuría taught, but besides some work in bioethics, that was as far as he went with his great love of science, and he failed to get a doctorate or even a master’s degree in any field, a humiliating oddity among Jesuit priests. Moreno held a host of jobs in vice-province service and formation, having been a novice master, a teacher in the juniorate, a province consultor, a secretary to the provincial, an editor of the province newsletter, and a spiritual director for a great number of sisters and priests in religious orders throughout Latin America.

Ever tactful and self-effacing, Moreno was named interim rector of San Salvador’s Externado San José in 1972 in order to investigate charges by high-society parents that their sons and daughters were having their heads filled with talk of the class struggle and then going on field trips among El Salvador’s poor, after which they were angrily denouncing their families for being bourgeois, as if it were criminal to strive for economic well-being. Looking carefully into the matter, Moreno found out that the high school students were not reading Marxist tracts but papal encyclicals, and that they were shocked because the injustice and poverty were shocking. Quiet rationality was not what was wanted, however, and the pro-government newspaper Prensa Gráfica hounded Moreno out of office with fulminations about him wrapping Christ and the Gospels in communism.

The founder in Panama of a magazine for religious called Diakonia, which in Greek means “service,” Moreno brought the publication and its library with him to the University of Central America, where he was librarian for the Center for Theological Reflection and assistant director of the new Óscar Romero Center. There, on the night of his martyrdom, in wanton retribution for his crimes of thoughtfulness and conscientious administration, soldiers would firebomb his filing cabinets and wipe out the hard disks on the computers he’d installed.

In the 1970s, when Juan Ramón Moreno was assisting in a nationwide literacy campaign in Nicaragua, Amando López was one of his superiors. López was then head of the Central American University in Managua, having moved there from the post of rector at the Colegio Centro América. Amando López was born in Spain in 1936, studied in Rome, got his doctorate in theology at Strasbourg in 1970, and, at age 34, was put in charge of San Salvador’s diocesan seminary. Within no time the bishops who’d been impressed by his credentials were woefully disappointed. Expecting López to form the seminarians as they themselves had been formed, the prelates were offended at finding out that López was instituting changes that were prompted by Vatican II: The faculty were far less aloof, regulations were far less intrusive, soccer was now being played inside the walls, old-fashioned cassocks were being discarded, and the seminarians were going over to the UCA to get their philosophy classes from that wild man Ellacuría. In 1972, after heated deliberations, López and the full faculty of Jesuits were fired from their jobs.

López had taught at the high school in Managua as a scholastic, so it was a good fit for him to be assigned as rector there, and then at the Central American University of Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution. The U.S. Congress was up to then following the urgings of the White House in financing the governments of infamous autocrats like Anastasio Somoza and the shah of Iran if that meant fending off for a few more years a regime of communism, and Reagan foreign policy advisors like United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State Alexander Haig so frowned at the affinity that Latin American Christianity had for Marxist socialism that they found themselves telling journalists that four American churchwomen raped and slaughtered by the El Salvadoran National Guard on the highway to La Libertad were political activists who’d probably brought it on themselves—Secretary Haig even offered the ludicrous suggestion that the four churchwomen were first to engage the soldiers in gunfire.

At Ellacuría’s behest, he joined the Jesuit community in 1988, knowing the threat of violence to them was a persistent and gathering force.

López found no difficulty in choosing sides, aligning himself against the tyranny and terrorism of the former Nicaraguan regime and with the progressive, if imperfect, government of the Sandinistas. Word of his friendly relations with them got back to the Vatican Curia, however, and López was sent an official “visitor” from Rome who filed a confidential report, the upshot of which was that López was forced to give up his post as rector and went back to Spain for a sabbatical before heading to the University of Central America in San Salvador.

López’s spirit seemed to have been broken for a time by his conflicts with the Catholic Church hierarchy, for though he was a forthright and sympathetic counselor to those who sought him out, he seemed hidden in the Jesuit residence, and his theology classes, though well prepared, were frankly thought to be dull. Yet in 1989 López found fresh vigor and happiness in his Sunday pastoral work in the farming region of Tierra Virgen, where his parishioners had such affection for him that 25 walked through San Salvador’s killing zones in order to go to his funeral.

The oldest and most taciturn man in the Jesuit community was also the only native Salvadoran. José Joaquin López y López, who was called Lolo, was born in 1918 to a wealthy family that owned coffee plantations and a famous dairy in Santa Ana. Lolo felt called to the Catholic priesthood from his youth, finishing high school in a minor seminary before he was accepted into the Society of Jesus. While teaching upper-class boys at the Externado San José, he got the idea to hold weekend catechism classes for the poor, a ministry that finally became part of the Latin American organization Fe y Alegría, “Faith and Joy,” and furnished El Salvador with 13 schools and 12 workshops, as well as two health clinics with 50,000 patients. Lolo financed it all in the old-fashioned way, with fund drives, government aid, and highly successful raffles.

Early in the 1960s López y López began campaigning for a Catholic university in San Salvador by going to right-wing politicians and the wealthiest families he knew with the hope of constructing a private alternative to the radicalized National University, so his humility and loyalty were put to the test when the focus on liberation theology offended the very groups he’d depended upon to found the UCA. Yet for many years he was general secretary to the faculty there and, at Ellacuría’s behest, he joined the Jesuit community in 1988, knowing the threat of violence to them was a persistent and gathering force, and knowing, too, he had prostate cancer and had few years more to live.


WHEN THE SON of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”
Matthew 25:31–40

By 1989, El Salvador’s 10-year civil war had killed more than 70,000 people and caused homelessness and misery for far more. Ellacuría had for a long time been urging dialogue between the factions and a negotiated settlement to end the war, and progress seemed slightly more possible when Alfredo Cristiani, a candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA), was elected president on March 19 and publicly committed his government to good faith negotiations toward peace with the rebel forces of the FMLN. But the Salvadoran government was arrogant, even belligerent, in its talks while—seemingly without Cristiani’s awareness—the High Command heightened the violence against human rights organizations such as the National Trade Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers, the Committee of Mothers of the Detained, Disappeared, and Assassinated, and even a primary school operated by the Lutheran Church. The FMLN halted negotiations and on November 11 initiated the largest offensive of the war, firing missiles at Cristiani’s private home, the presidential residence, and the homes of the president and vice president of the Salvadoran Constituent Assembly.

Cristiani’s response was to suspend all constitutional guarantees and announce a state of siege and a curfew between six at night and six in the morning. A huge counteroffensive of artillery and aerial bombardments of presumed guerrilla hiding places in the poorest and most heavily populated areas of the city trapped families in their homes without food or water, or forced them to flee their neighborhoods and face gunfire in the streets. The government and armed forces seized the radio and television stations in order to have a national channel on which citizens could report guerrilla activities and find lost members of their families, but the phone-in shows also became forums on which to broadcast attacks against what was thought to be the intellectual leadership behind the FMLN: Archbishop Rivera y Damas, the “communists” infiltrating the Catholic Church, and, of course, the Jesuits. “Bring them to the public places and lynch them,” one radio announcer insisted. Ellacuría, it was said, ought to be “spit to death.”

President Cristiani was a graduate of Washington’s Jesuit-run Georgetown University and was friendly with Ellacuría, but he was also thought to be in the thrall of the ultrarightist Roberto D’Aubuisson, president of the assembly and founder of Cristiani’s ARENA party, composed of paramilitary groups and wealthy industrial and farming interests. A “homicidal killer,” as a former U.S. ambassador said of him, D’Aubuisson was said to be an admirer of the Nazis and their holocaust of the Jews, was rumored to have ordered the murder of Archbishop Óscar Romero, was the chief architect of the political assassinations, kidnappings, and terrorism of the underground death squads, and was officially ostracized by the United States in 1984 when it was found he’d tried to have Ambassador Thomas Pickering killed. Closely allied with D’Aubuisson was Col. René Emilio Ponce, a shrewd tactician and former death squad member who was now chief of the joint general staff and of a powerful corporate network of brutality and corruption that was financed by the United States.

On the afternoon of Monday, November 13, government officials established a zone of security around its Joint Command headquarters, the military academy, and the Arce neighborhood, which were in front of the main gate to the UCA. Three hundred soldiers were stationed around the campus, so presumably it was safe.

On Wednesday, November 15, an evening meeting of the High Command was held at the general staff headquarters, the estado mayor. Among the 25 present at the meeting were Col. Ponce as well as Col. Juan Orlando Zepeda, vice minister of defense, and Col. Guillermo Benavides, director of the military academy. Worried about the offensive, the officers held hands and prayed for divine intervention, after which one of the commanders ordered the elimination of unionists and known members of the FMLN leadership. And Col. Benavides, commanding officer of the security zone between the general staff headquarters and the UCA, was authorized to organize a commando unit within the Atlacatl Battalion for the purpose of assassinating Ellacuría and the other Jesuits. They were to leave no witnesses.

Ellacuría was in Spain at the first part of the offensive, visiting old friends and his 93-year-old father, giving thanks for the $5,000 Alfonso Comín Prize awarded to the UCA for its commitment to justice for the oppressed, celebrating his 59th birthday, and being unanimously elected as president of the coordinating council of postgraduate institutions in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, at which meeting he offered to host the council in his country in two years, “if I am still alive.”

Ellacuría flew back to El Salvador on Monday the 13th. With a curfew in effect and a state of siege having been declared, the 23 buildings on the shut-down university campus were bleakly empty but for the new Archbishop Romero Theological Reflection Center, a functionalist construction of concrete block that housed offices on the first floor and, on the second, the kitchen, dining room, guest room, and corridor of bedrooms of the Jesuit residence. Jon Sobrino had moved in before flying off to Thailand, but the six other priests were still shifting their hundreds of books and few other possessions from the old residence when Ellacuría got there.

A half hour later, as he was talking to his friends about Europe, they heard the doors to the Romero Center below them being kicked in. Hurrying downstairs the Jesuits found 20 soldiers from the elite Atlacatl Battalion rummaging through the offices. An officer who knew the Jesuits by their first names but who refused to identify himself told Ellacuría they were looking for hidden weapons and, given the state of siege, needed no permission to do so. After a thorough and orderly inspection of the upstairs residence, the two patrols left, searching no other buildings.

Ellacuría was fuming about it Tuesday morning when his Jesuit assistant, Rolando Alvarado, recalled his teens in Somoza’s Nicaragua and told the rector that the intrusion was in fact a reconnaissance. Wouldn’t it be wise for the Jesuits to go somewhere else?

Ellacuría replied that Alvarado was being paranoid, that the soldiers found nothing incriminating, and there were no other housing options anyway. “We have fought them from here and here we will stay.”

His friend Ruben Zamora would later say, “Ignacio was a Cartesian, with absolute faith in logic. This time his analysis failed him.”

Elba Ramos was the 42-year-old housekeeper at the Jesuit school of theology, a 15-minute walk away, and her husband, Obdulio, was a night watchman at the university when Fr. Amando López, who was in charge of buildings and grounds, gave the family of four the chance to live in a little guardhouse not far from the Jesuit residence. But the guardhouse was on Avenida Albert Einstein where the hammering noise of bombing was so frightening that Elba phoned the Jesuits to find out if there was a quieter place where she and her daughter Celina could stay for a while. Celina was 16 and in the first year of a high school commercial course that was rigorous enough that she’d been forced to give up basketball and the band. She was having a hard time doing homework. On Sunday López offered Elba and Celina the guest room in the Archbishop Romero Theological Reflection Center where it was thought they’d have more peace and quiet.

Segundo Montes was installing telephones in the residence on Wednesday night, and Ignacio Martín-Baró took advantage of one in order to call his sister Alicia in Valladolid, Spain. He told her he was all right but that San Salvador was in a state of siege, and he held the telephone out so she could hear the bombs. “Oh, Nacho,” she asked, “and when is this going to end?” “A lot more people will have to die yet,” he told her. “A lot more people will have to die.”

Lt. José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra was the 28-year-old commander of the commando unit within the feared Atlacatl Battalion and a graduate of the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In fact, only the week before, 13 Green Berets from the United States had flown in to oversee his company’s training exercises. With the exercises called off because of the offensive, Espinoza’s first assignment—an order hand-delivered by Col. Ponce and signed by President Cristiani—had been the Monday night search of the Archbishop Romero Theological Reflection Center. A few of the Jesuits there he knew well, having been a high school student at the Externado San José. And so he was thought a natural for Wednesday night’s assignment. Colonel Benavides had reportedly told him, “This is a situation where it’s them or us; we are going to begin with the ringleaders. Within our sector we have the university and Ellacuría is there.” Espinoza was told to use the tactic of Monday’s search, but this time he was to eliminate Ellacuría. “And I want no witnesses,” he said.

Espinoza objected that this was serious, but Col. Benavides told him not to worry, that Espinoza had his support, meaning that of the High Command. On leaving, Espinoza asked the colonel’s assistant, Lt. Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, for a bar of camouflage grease so that he could paint his face.

Espinoza’s four patrols of 36 commandos assembled at the Captain General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy after midnight on Thursday the 16th. With only two beige Ford 250 pickup trucks to get them to the university, five minutes away, there would have to be a return trip. The trucks took the Southern Highway then went uphill to the Mortgage Bank behind the UCA where the patrols finally were told who they’d be killing: priests who were in on the FMLN’s offensive up to the hilt, furnishing logistical assistance to the guerrillas and even overseeing heir campaign against the armed forces and the people of El Salvador. Lt. Yusshy Mendoza, who was in charge of the operation, told Pvt. Óscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, nicknamed Pilijay, or “Hangman” in the Nahuatl language, that it was he who would have prime responsibility for the assassinations because of his familiarity with the AK-47 rifle, a Soviet-made assault weapon wholly associated with the FMLN. When Pilijay was finished there would be a flare, at which time the four patrols would fire their rifles as if they were fighting off the fleeing terrorists.

Espinoza ordered them to form a column and head toward the university at about 1 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1989. Electrical power was gone from the area, but there was good light from the full moon. The pedestrian gate was forced open, and the commandos hustled past the Chapel of Christ the Liberator to a parking lot where they feigned a first attack with the FMLN by riddling cars with bullets and throwing a grenade. A few soldiers must have then strayed off in the wrong direction, because a night watchman heard a voice say, “Don’t go over there, there are only offices over there.”

While some soldiers got on roofs of neighboring houses to watch, another group encircled the hillside and the Archbishop Romero Theological Reflection Center and began banging on the doors and windows, and a high fence of wire mesh was climbed so a first- floor door could be unlocked from the inside.

Sub-sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo went a few steps down a passageway when he heard a sound in a guest room and found Elba Ramos worriedly sitting on a divan bed beside a pretty teenage girl who was lying under the covers. Lt. Mendoza held a lamp up to see them and then told Zárpate to stay there and not let anyone leave. Ignacio Martín-Baró was being hauled down the passageway by a soldier when he saw Zárpate holding his rifle on the women. Eyewitness Lucía Barrera de Cerna heard Nacho say, “This is an injustice. You are carrion.”

Pilijay saw a soldier forcing a piece of wood between a frame and a door when a priest in a coffee-colored robe frowned at them from his hammock on the balcony. Ellacuría said, “Wait. I am coming to open the door, but don’t keep making so much noise.” And then Pilijay heard his name being called and was told the priests were in the garden behind the residence.

Offices were being trashed and commandos were firebombing the file cabinets, wiping out computers, burning books and tapes.

Pilijay hurried out and found Sub-sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, whose nickname was Satan, holding a rifle on five grim priests in pajamas or trousers and shirts, priests whom other Jesuits called los viejos, “the old men,” because their 15-hour days of hard work and anxiety had hurt their health and prematurely aged them: Ellacu, Nacho, Zeus, Pardito, Amando. Worried that it was five against two, Sub-sergeant Avalos ordered them to lie facedown on the grass, and then was called over by Lt. Espinoza, whose eyes were filling with tears because he saw that Segundo Montes, his headmaster at the Externado, was among those on the ground. Espinoza impatiently asked, “When are you going to proceed?” Sgt. Avalos walked back to Pilijay and told him, “Let’s proceed.”

The five priests were prostrate just as they were in their rites of ordination when the litany of the saints was chanted. And they seemed to be whispering a psalmody when Sub-sergeant Avalos yelled, “Quick, quick, give it to them quickly!” and Pilijay fired the AK-47 at the heads of the three men in front of him, thinking their brains were the problem, killing Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, and Ignacio Martín- Baró. Avalos fired his M-16 at the heads and bodies of the two priests closest to him, Amando López and Juan Ramón Moreno, and then Pilijay finished off all five with a long burst from his fully automatic rifle. Only with difficulty would friends later be able to recognize the face of Amando López.

Sub-sergeant Zárpate heard the gunfire and then someone shouting, “Now!” Obediently he turned to Elba and Celina Ramos and, though they were far from being communist agitators, Zárpate fired at them until “they no longer groaned,” shooting Elba in the vagina in the signature style of the death squads. And then he glumly walked off.

In the first-floor Theological Reflection Center, offices were being trashed and commandos were firebombing the file cabinets, wiping out computers, burning books and tapes. When he heard the gun noise outside, one inflamed soldier looked up at a framed picture on the wall of a genial Archbishop Romero and fired a bullet at his heart.

A frail old man in a white undershirt walked out into the corridor and then to the front of the building. López y López was in hiding until he heard the gunfire, and then must have felt he had to go out. But when he saw his friends massacred on the grass, fear overtook him, and he said, “Don’t kill me, because I don’t belong to any organization.” And then he turned to go back inside the house.

Calling him “Campa,” a nickname in the FMLN, the soldier ordered him to come to him. Lolo walked on. But as he was entering a bedroom, he was hit with a shot and fell. Cpl. Angel Pérez Vásquez walked into the room to find what was in there. Like Sub-sergeant Avalos he was a graduate of a Small Unit Training Management Course in the United States. Lolo’s hand took hold of his foot and in his astonishment Cpl. Peréz fired twice at Joaquin López y López. And then, flushed with embarrassment at his surprise, he fired at the old man twice more.

Walking along a passageway toward the garden gate, Sub-sergeant Avalos heard groaning and lit a match to look into the guest room where Elba and Celina Ramos were still painfully alive and hugging each other in a widening pool of blood. The sergeant told Pvt. José Alberto Sierra Ascencio to finish them off, and Sierra fired the full magazine of his M-16 into them and trudged off, leaving bootprints of blood on the floor.

And then they were through. The whole operation had taken no more than an hour. Pilijay headed back inside the Jesuit residence, wrecked the kitchen, and helped himself to a pilsner beer. Hoping to hide the fact that this was a formal execution, other commandos were ordered to haul the bodies back inside, but there was only time for Cpl. Cota Hernández to drag Juan Ramón Moreno along the tile floor to Jon Sobrino’s bedroom, the red bundle of his brains hanging from his head. A book fell from its bookshelf there and into his flowing blood. The book’s title was The Crucified God.


BEHOLD, MY SERVANT shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him … so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.
Isaiah 52:13–15

The official story was that the murderers were committed by the FMLN, and at first even Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was firm in saying “there’s no indication at all that the government of El Salvador had any involvement.” Witnesses to the slayings were harassed and intimidated by the FBI; Col. René Emilio Ponce, of all people, was put in charge of the official investigation of the murders; and the United States embassy all but stonewalled on the crimes. Word of the truth was getting out, however, and Massachusetts Rep. Joe Moakley’s congressional task force finally embarrassed the Cristiani government into action, reflecting an old pattern in our relations with El Salvador over human rights issues in which, as Martha Doggett of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights put it, “Washington plays the parent to the unruly Salvadoran child. When threats fail to curb behavior, punishment sometimes follows, though not as a rule.” Eventually the Salvadoran Supreme Court charged four officers and five enlisted men with the crimes—a half measure certainly—and even though there were confessions from those who committed the atrocities, a jury that was possibly tampered with found only Col. Guillermo Benavides and Lt. Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos guilty of murder, the first officers ever convicted of a human rights violation. They would finally serve a little over a year of their 30-year sentences. Each and every other member of the Atlacatl Battalion went free.

DELVE DEEPER: Read more on El Salvador in the Fall 2014 issue of SCM and find additional stories, photos, video, and a schedule of events on the UCA Commemoration website.

But the two-year investigation of the Jesuit murders shone a light on villains in the High Command, put an end to the hated security forces and the Atlacatl, focused attention on other crimes and inequities in El Salvador, and changed U.S. policy to one of full endorsement of negotiations, resulting in a peace agreement being signed in Chapultepec.

At the funeral of the six Jesuits, José María Tojeira, their provincial superior, offered a homily in which he ringingly said, “they have not killed the University of Central America and they have not killed the Society of Jesus in El Salvador.” And the filled auditorium affirmed that with a two-minute standing ovation.

Two Salvadorans, two Americans, a Mexican, and a Canadian joined Jon Sobrino to again fill out the university’s Jesuit community, and off the balcony where Ignacio Ellacuría frowned at the soldiers a building extension was constructed to accommodate the growing numbers of theology students.

The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, wrote Tertullian. All the faithful do not perish, nor suffer infamy or risk, but Christians are expected to be witnesses to those who did, and do. And then we will find that like the martyrs before them, the two women and six Jesuits murdered in El Salvador are, as José María Tojeira has written, dead “who continue to be profoundly active and alive … generating human spirit, generating human dignity, generating the capacity for dialogue and humane rationality, generating a critical capacity, a constructive capacity, and generating imagination.”

From the book A Stay Against Confusion by Ron Hansen. Copyright ©2001 by Ron Hansen. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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