The rector of El Salvador's Jesuit-run university and five other Jesuit priests were murdered Thursday in a pre-dawn raid on their campus dormitory, apparently by gunmen in military uniform who rousted them from their sleep.
The shootings, which occurred during a dusk-to-dawn curfew in an army-occupied neighborhood, stunned a nation already brutalized by six days of the deadliest urban combat of a decade-old guerrilla war. They came as the government's heaviest air strikes drove tens of thousands from their homes in the capital.
El Salvador's right-wing leaders, their leftist guerrilla enemies and the Bush Administration joined Roman Catholic church officials in condemning the killings. President Alfredo Cristiani ordered an investigation.
"If there are people involved who turn out to be members of the armed forces, then the weight of the law must fall on them," Cristiani said.
Among the dead were Father Ignacio Ellacuria, 59, rector of the Central American University, four members of his faculty and another Roman Catholic priest. All were Jesuits and leading leftist intellectuals who favored a negotiated peace and became targets of right-wing death threats.
The bullet-riddled bodies of four of the priests were found at daybreak in the yard outside their dormitory, a few feet from a white-and-gray concrete wall that was sprayed with blood. Two others were found on the red tile floors of dormitory rooms, having apparently been dragged there after being killed execution-style in the yard.
All but one priest, who was fully dressed and shod, died in nightclothes and slippers. Four had parts of their skulls blown away.
The dormitory cook and her teen-aged daughter were found shot to death in their room in a nearby building. They apparently were the only others asleep on the walled-in premises when the killers arrived.
Jesuit officials said a score of spent cartridges were found in the women's room and 50 others were scattered about the yard. Cristiani said judicial and police investigators, who arrived at the scene at 9:30 a.m., found cartridges from AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles.
It was the most brutal massacre of leftist figures here since the execution of five political leaders 10 years ago this month, and the most shocking assault on the church since the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in March, 1980.
That same year, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered on the road to San Salvador from the international airport. Their deaths were among the thousands attributed to right-wing military and paramilitary death squads in the early 1980s.
On Thursday, Romero's successor, Msgr. Arturo Rivera y Damas, led a prayer over the bloodied, disfigured bodies before government investigators arrived.
"Those who killed these priests are the same ones who killed Msgr. Romero," he declared. Then he added, "I hope that what has just happened will help us build peace and justice in this country."
It was the closest that hesitant church leaders came to blaming the government.
In Rome, the headquarters of the Jesuit order condemned "this barbarous violence that has claimed so many other victims among the people of Salvador."
Romero's killers have not been brought to justice, but strong evidence exists that a close aide to Roberto d'Aubuisson, a founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) that is now in power, was involved in the murder. The evidence has been dismissed by the Arena-led legislature and the Supreme Court.
Father Jose Maria Tojeira, head of the Jesuit order in El Salvador, said two witnesses saw about 30 armed men in military uniform inside the university compound between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., a few hours after heavy army patrols began in the middle-class university district.
Tojeira said people in the neighborhood, which has not been the scene of fighting, heard shooting for 20 to 30 minutes at that hour.
Church officials withheld the names of the two eyewitnesses, for the sake of their security. Church sources said one witness was a night watchman who escaped after the intruders scaled a wall and fired a rocket or grenade into the dormitory.
Doors to the priests' tiny quarters looked as if they had been forced or shot open. Their desks and bookshelves were ransacked.
Besides Ellacuria, the dead priests were Ignacio Martin-Baro, 47, the university vice rector and head of its polling institute; Amando Lopez, 53, and Juan Ramon Moreno, 56, both professors of philosophy and theology; Segundo Montes, 56, a sociology professor; Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, 71, a founder of church schools for slum children. All but Lopez y Lopez were born in Spain.
Church officials said the intruders apparently killed Elba Julia Ramos, 42, and her 15-year-old daughter, Celina, because they did not want to leave witnesses.
The killers left a cardboard sign blaming the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas. The sign said: "The FMLN Carried Out This Execution Against Enemy Spies. Conquer or Die!"
Government radio was quick to blame the guerrillas, who have admitted killing three prominent right-wing politicians this year. But later it backed away from that accusation. Cristiani said there are "groups that want to torpedo the democratic process and particularly the peace process" but declined to speculate further.
U.S. Ambassador William Walker took a similar, cautious line.
"I personally have difficulty imagining what sort of animals would execute priests and innocent civilians in cold blood," he said.
Walker said he "fully expects" a thorough investigation. If those found responsible are not punished, he added, "that would be of serious concern" to Washington, which has poured $4 billion in military and economic aid into El Salvador over the past decade. He admitted, however, that "there has not been great success in getting to the bottom line" in the investigation of past murders. No government or high-ranking military official has ever been convicted in a political killing in this decade.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the Bush Administration "condemns in the strongest possible terms" the assassination of the Jesuit priests. She added, "We do not know who committed this barbarous act."
The United States, Tutwiler said, remains convinced that "the Salvadoran government is able to manage the (FMLN offensive) situation."
She also said the Salvadoran army has requested "expedited delivery" of weapons already promised under the U.S. military assistance program.
"We are moving to address their needs," she said. "My understanding at this time is that the request is for riot control equipment and some light weaponry."
At a press conference, Father Tojeira said it is unlikely that anyone could have entered the priests' compound without the complicity of the armed forces. But he said he is willing to await the outcome of the official investigation before judging the government responsible.
Cristiani and Walker minimized the reports that the killers wore military uniforms.
"For me this is not categoric proof, because there are many others who do not belong to the armed forces who have uniforms," Cristiani said.
The killings followed death threats against Ellacuria, the archbishop and leftist political leaders from anonymous voices broadcast over government radio on Sunday, a day after the rebels launched their military offensive.
The threats, which included a general call to murder Jesuit priests, stopped Monday after the archbishop denounced them.
Facundo Guardado, a rebel official, denounced the murders on Radio Venceremos. "The people are not going to forget this," he said. "The people are asking for the heads of the murderers. We are going to overthrow this government."
As he spoke, troops battled the guerrillas block to block, trying to break the rebel offensive. The rebels seemed to have advanced in Mejicanos, a northern neighborhood, but to have been pushed back on the eastern side of San Salvador.
Sounds of combat were almost everywhere. U.S. officials here said about 1,500 guerrillas took part in the initial assault on the capital. The government, which has 56,000 troops nationwide, has imposed a stage of siege and a curfew in the capital.
Guerrillas overran and destroyed the police barracks in Cuscatancingo on the northern edge of San Salvador. The sky over the capital was blackened by smoke from a food factory apparently set ablaze by the fighting.
Officials reported that 680 people have been killed in the fighting and that 1,627 civilians have been wounded.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.