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It’s Time to Lay Into El Salvador : Aid must be cut unless Jesuits’ murders are prosecuted.

It’s time for Congress and the Bush Administration to come down--and come down hard--on El Salvador. Unless the Salvadoran government makes a greater effort to prosecute the soldiers who murdered six Jesuit priests last year and any high-ranking officers who tried to cover up the crime, U.S. military aid must be cut.

That’s the conclusion of a congressional task force that looked into the killings by an elite Salvadoran army unit last Nov. 16. Given the frustration U.S. military advisers have faced trying to “professionalize” the Salvadoran armed forces, or at least make them humane enough to win the support of their own people, it only makes sense.

The task force was made up of 19 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, from both the conservative and liberal wings of that party. It concluded that the Salvadoran government’s investigation of the Jesuit murders is at “a virtual standstill,” and warned that the longer the probe is stalled, the “less likely that full justice will be done.”

The investigation of the Jesuit murders bogged down not because of the subtleties of Salvadoran law, but the harsh reality of Salvadoran politics. The military was the most powerful institution in that country for 50 years, leading up to the current civil war, and it still refuses to answer to civilian authority.

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The task force report praises the sincere effort that President Alfredo Cristiani made to get to the bottom of the crime. It also states that “good police work” resulted in the arrest of a colonel, two lieutenants and six enlisted men as suspects in the killings. But several other investigative trails--including the possibility that top officers ordered the killings or tried to cover them up after they learned soldiers were involved--have not been pursued. That’s important, not just because further probing might find more suspects but because Salvadoran law bars co-conspirators from testifying against one another. All the suspects could go free unless enough new evidence is found.

The military’s lack of cooperation betrays the mind-set that U.S. military advisers have been butting their heads against for 10 years now, with not a whole lot to show for it. The task force reported that several officers it interviewed called the Jesuit murders “stupid” and “self-defeating.” “But,” the report adds, “no senior military official with whom we talked said it was wrong.” The task force concludes that the Jesuit murders grew out of a suspicion of religious activists that does not distinguish “between those who use nonviolent methods to advocate or achieve change, and guerrillas who take up arms against the government.” There is no more succinct explanation of why the Salvadoran civil war numbers among its 70,000 victims not only six Jesuits but four American nuns also killed by soldiers, plus an archbishop gunned down at the altar.

The Salvadoran military must understand that U.S. taxpayers won’t support an army that routinely kills priests, nuns and other innocent victims. To get the message across, Congress should withhold half of the military aid currently budgeted for El Salvador--$40 million this year and $85 million in 1991--unless more progress is made on the Jesuit murder case. A plan to do just that is pending in Congress. The State Department must use it as leverage, not so much against Cristiani as against his generals.


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