Crime & Courts

Arrests in 1989 El Salvador priest massacre elicit shock, happiness — and a hope for justice

Felix Kury stumbled across an article online Friday night, and his memory shot back 26 years.

El Salvador's national police force, he read, had finally arrested four of the men linked to the 1989 execution of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her teenage daughter on a university campus in San Salvador.

One of the priests, Ignacio Martín-Baró, had been Kury's friend.

Messages poured in from fellow Salvadorans, and Kury, a professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies at San Francisco State University, began to process a flurry of emotions.

Happiness, of course, but also frustration that the captures had taken so long. And then a wave of cautiousness from years of watching his homeland's often-corrupt power brokers somehow slip away from punishment.

"This case will be the test," he said, "about whether impunity will finally come to an end in El Salvador."

But for now, he said, his mind races mostly with memories of Nov. 16, 1989.

Kury, 65, recalls waking up to news that gunmen in military garb had raided Central American University. They'd targeted clerics, it seemed, and Martín-Baró was among those gunned down. The attack occurred in the pre-dawn hours, and most of the priests died wearing pajamas and slippers.

A few days later, The Times reported that a surviving witness said she overhead Martín-Baró shout at the assailants before he died.

"You are committing an injustice!" he screamed. "You are scum!"

The killings shocked Kury, who grew up in the country's eastern city of San Miguel but moved to the U.S. in the 1970s amid escalating fights between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas. The clash had spiraled into a civil war by 1980. Still, Kury said, the massacre felt especially brutal.

"We're talking about men of peace, men who defended the poor and didn't carry weapons," Kury said. "It was a message that if you think and question, we are going to destroy you."

Kury, along with some of his former students, founded Clínica Martín-Baró, a free clinic in San Francisco's Mission District.

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That was his way, he said, to honor the man he remembered as a brilliant psychologist. The type of guy who looked for and loved big questions such as, "What is the madness going on in society?"

Martín-Baró, like four of the other Jesuits killed in the massacre, was born in Spain. But the cleric, Kury said, had a fierce heart for El Salvador. During a trip to the Bay Area in 1988 for a conference on Central American refugees, several people tried to get Martín-Baró to extend his stay. He said he couldn't, Kury recalled, because he was eager to return to his parish in Jayaque, a rural area known for its coffee.

Most of all, Kury said he remembers the priest as selfless.

Soon after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, Kury got a letter from El Salvador from Martín-Baró. He wanted to make sure Kury was OK. And what about everybody else?

"When I think about how much he was confronting in those days," Kury said, sighing, "and he still had the time to send notes to us in the Bay Area."

Martín-Baró was executed less than a month later.

The bloodbath became a symbol of El Salvador's brutal civil war and helped crumble U.S. support for the country's right-wing government.

Isabel Cardenas, a longtime leader in Los Angeles' Salvadoran community, said that a big wave of Salvadoran refugees fled north after the slayings. Thousands settled in Southern California, which is home to the largest population of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador.

"We all lost people we loved," said Cardenas, whose family moved to the U.S. when she was 9 to get away from violence.

The ache of the 1989 slayings, she said, still feels fresh.

"I don't want to remember, I don't want to remember...." she said, trailing off as she began to cry.

Cardenas, 77, found out about the arrests Saturday while watching Univision and said she felt "so, so, so happy."

"This is justice being made," she said. "It's time they found these guys.... They caused so much pain."

Her friend Patricia Krommer, a Roman Catholic nun who has long worked with Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles and has spent a lot of time in the Latin American country, said she was shocked by the recent captures.

She gasped as she heard the names of the arrestees — former soldiers Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Ángel Pérez Vásquez, Tomas Zarpate Castillo and Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno.

"Benavides?" she said. "Oh boy. Bad man, bad man."

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Twitter: @marisagerber

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 08, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "After arrests in priest slayings, hope for justice - Salvadorans recall pain of 1989 massacre that left 6 clerics dead amid bloody civil war." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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