Why the Right Would Slay Priests in El Salvador

<i> George Black is the author of "The Good Neighbor: How the United States Wrote the History of Central America and the Caribbean" (Pantheon); Anne Nelson is the author of "Murder Under Two Flags" (Ticknor & Fields)</i>

Ten days after the crime, we have yet to see any informed explanation of why Father Ignacio Ellacuria Beascoechea, five other Jesuit priests, their cook and her 15-year old daughter should have been dragged from their beds in San Salvador at 3 a.m., tortured and killed. One suspicion is that the massacre of the Jesuits made headlines because the murder of priests is an ugly business, not because there was any real grasp of who it was that died, or why these killings mark a watershed in the 10-year-old war.

Each of the six Jesuits had an important role in the political life of El Salvador. But one in particular, Ellacuria, rector of the Jesuit-run Jose Simeon Canas University of Central America (UCA), was a crucial figure, and his murder is the savage slamming of a door--perhaps the last one remaining--for communication between the government and the rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

In a country shredded by war, Ellacuria, an ascetic scholar with piercing eyes, made the UCA a place apart. El Salvador’s other center of higher learning, the National University, is a battle-scarred working-class campus, frequently attacked by the army and on occasion closed down altogether. But UCA was the closest thing in Central America to an Ivy League school, a quiet, leafy place on a hill, devoted to the pursuit of academic excellence, almost surreal in its tranquility. Even so, it was no ivory tower. The fact that Ellacuria and his colleagues continued to sleep unguarded on their dormitory cots, even after receiving death threats, showed their determination to bear witness to the horror around them.


Although the Jesuits were men of clear and forthright views, distinguished primarily for their contributions to the theology of liberation--the Christian movement emphasizing the biblical theme of liberation from oppression--the essence of UCA philosophy was that at least one institution had to be kept as an oasis of civility, intact from the passions of the war. Only that way could it faithfully document El Salvador’s social and economic problems and propose rational, humane solutions.

Despite their commitment to human rights and social reform, the Jesuits did not take sides; instead, they alone had equal access to all sides. Ever since the military coup by reform-minded officers in October, 1979, Ellacuria had been a key facilitator of peaceful dialogue. He spoke repeatedly of the need to “humanize” the war and used UCA as a forum for the broadest range of political voices.

Through years of patient effort, Ellacuria persuaded the top commanders of the FMLN to accept him as a trusted interlocutor. It was Ellacuria who secured the safe release of President Jose Napoleon Duarte’s daughter after she was kidnaped in 1985. He was a familiar face to Salvadoran TV audiences, a respected dinner guest at the home of the U.S. ambassador, a patient searcher for any moderate voices in the rightist Arena government of President Alfredo Cristiani.

The guerrillas’ decision this year to enter into serious peace talks, first in Mexico City and then in San Jose, Costa Rica, was testimony to Ellacuria’s skills. But the army came to the talks, according to those present, merely to discuss the terms of rebel surrender. That, aggravated by a series of provocative attacks that culminated in the bombing of the offices of a labor union on Oct. 31, was what prompted the guerrillas to break off the talks and launch their offensive Nov. 11.

The recent chain of events has also shown clearly who is in charge in El Salvador. As Ellacuria understood well, Cristiani no more calls the shots than did Duarte, his predecessor. This is a government that advertises its depravity in diplomatic correspondence. The investigation of the murders of the Jesuits will be headed by El Salvador’s attorney general, Mauricio Colorado. Yet his first response to the killings was to write to Pope John Paul II to warn that the Salvadoran government could not guarantee the safety of Catholic bishops “who have persisted in keeping alive this questionable ideology of the church of the poor.”

Evidence that elements of the armed forces murdered the priests is persuasive. UCA stands adjacent to the neighborhood where top military officers reside with their families; the killers drove freely through the darkened streets of a city under military curfew; a surviving eyewitness said they were dressed in army uniforms.


In a letter to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the human-rights organization Americas Watch notes that a large contingent of troops surrounded the university for several days before the killings; the previous Monday, soldiers ransacked the Jesuit rectory. Local radio stations--all under military control and censorship--had broadcast calls for “vigilante justice” against church people--egged on by retired Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a leader of Arena. Ellacuria was singled out by name.

Yet the Bush Administration declines to assign responsibility, and makes statements, as it has so often before, about the “violent extremes of left and right” that conspire to threaten democracy in El Salvador.

For all its bestiality, the murder of the six Jesuits was not the irrational act of madmen. We believe it was a declaration of intent by the men who really run the country. Father Ignacio Ellacuria was one of the last, best hopes for peaceful dialogue in El Salvador. That is why he was killed.