Truth, Then Justice: Memory and healing in El Salvador

In Arcatao, El Salvador, a small town nestled amid stunning mountain vistas near the Honduran border, the Historical Memory Committee is charged with preserving the memory of the civil war that left more than 75,000 dead—and thousands more “disappeared”—between 1980 and 1992. Their latest project: building a memorial chapel to hold some of the exhumed bodies from a nearby massacre.

The chapel offers a space to remember and mourn, but that is not all. Rosa Rivera y Rivera, who is helping lead the project, explained that a garden and a pathway lined with flowers are also essential components of the memorial. “Flowers are signs of life and joy,” Rosa explained through an interpreter. “We cannot remain only in the past. We must educate our children” for the sake of the future, “so that it never, never happens again.”

Among the many people killed during the civil war were six Jesuit priests— Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Joaquín López y López, S.J., Amando López, S.J.—along with Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina, who were guests in the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador on the night of the murders.

This past summer I traveled to El Salvador as part of a delegation to mark the 25th anniversary of these assassinations, and I saw some of the many ways the country continues to suffer from the bitter fruits of war. Even two decades after the peace accords officially ended the conflict, the country is still plagued by epidemic violence and impunity from legal prosecution, social disintegration and polarization, a stagnant economy and extensive migration that tears apart communities and families.

In the first months of 2014, the homicide rate in El Salvador hovered between 10 and 14 deaths per day, the fourth highest rate in the world and not far behind the average daily total during the civil war. Omar Serrano, vice president of social outreach at the UCA, told the delegation through an interpreter that people understand high death rates during wartime, but the current rate of violence is “irrational and absurd.” People see the violence as worse today than during the war years, he said.

Yet our delegation also saw many concrete signs of life and hope and healing. A popular movement, for example, helped establish a national monument to civilians who were killed or disappeared during the war. Human rights groups continue to pursue justice and accountability for those responsible for these crimes. Communities of faith, trying to recover from the wounds of war, are imbued with a sense of the paschal mystery. They remember and mourn the victims of the war, but never without an expression of faith and hope in resurrection and new life. Murals and flowers are among the many signs that acts of barbarity do not and will not have the last word. The fidelity, hospitality, festivity and joy of the people are even surer signs.

The Rev. Luis Salazar, pastor of the thriving parish of Maria Madre de los Pobres near San Salvador, told our delegation, “We are a community of faith that believes in the God of life.” When our delegation visited the parish senior center, some members of the community were doing needlework. When we arrived, however, they stopped the work, put on some music, started dancing and invited us to join them. In a welcoming speech, one of the leaders explained that their work was motivated by Archbishop Óscar Romero, whom they call “our pastor,” and Rutilio Grande, S.J.—both of whom lived, worked and died among the people of El Salvador—and now Pope Francis, “who celebrates the Gospel so joyfully.”

Searching for Truth

The assassinations at the UCA in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 1989, drew the attention of the world yet again to the civil war in El Salvador. Since 1980 the United States had been delivering about $1 million in aid each day to the Salvadoran government. After the murder of the Jesuits, however, Congress voted to cut the aid package in half. At the same time, the United Nations and countries like Spain and Mexico quickly became involved in negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the coalition of rebel groups known as the F.M.L.N. It took 20 months and a series of agreements along the way, but the government and the F.M.L.N. finally signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords on Jan. 16, 1992.

The most significant accomplishment of the peace accords was an immediate cease-fire and an end to the war. The accords also laid the groundwork for reforming and rebuilding Salvadoran civil society. The agreement dissolved the military and police groups responsible for much of the violence during the war, established a new constitution, formed a new civilian police force, created new procedures for electing Supreme Court justices, incorporated guerrilla fighters into civilian life, allowed the F.M.L.N. to form a political party and mandated the United Nations to investigate human rights violations.

The U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador took eight months to investigate what happened during the war and recommended measures for promoting national reconciliation and healing. The final report, “From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador,” was published in March 1993. The commission received 22,000 complaints involving murder, torture and disappearance; 85 percent were attributed to state agents, and 5 percent to F.M.L.N. forces. Concerning an early period of the war from 1980 to 1983, the report concluded: “Organized terrorism, in the form of the so-called ‘death squads,’ became the most aberrant manifestation of the escalation of violence. Civilian and military groups engaged in a systematic murder campaign with total impunity, while state institutions turned a blind eye.”

The report examined the most notorious assassinations and massacres of the war. The commission, for example, found “full evidence” that Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, ordered the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in March 1980. They also found “substantial evidence” that the Salvadoran military and a paramilitary group deliberately killed at least 300 innocent people, including women and children, at the Sumpul River near the town of Arcatao on May 14, 1980. The report called the massacre a “serious violation” of international humanitarian and human rights law, and said that military authorities attempted to cover up the incident.

In addition to recommending substantial reform of the judiciary, military and police, the U.N. report also addressed the need for justice and reconciliation. It described the “twofold requirements of justice” as punishing the guilty and compensating the victims. The commission expressed no confidence in the Salvadoran judicial system to actually prosecute perpetrators, but it did assert that victims and their families were entitled to “moral and material compensation.” In addition to monetary reparations, the commission recommended that the national government build a memorial bearing the name of every victim of the conflict.

The ruling party at that time, Arena, harshly criticized the report and ignored most of its recommendations. Just five days after the United Nations issued the report, the national assembly approved general, unconditional amnesty for all those involved in the civil war. It protected high ranking political and military officials (including F.M.L.N. leaders) from prosecution. Supporters of general amnesty claimed that the legislation helped protect a fragile peace agreement and helped a polarized society focus on a united future. Critics, however, contended that true peace was not possible without justice. They asked how there could be no consequences, even for the most horrendous crimes.

Andreu Oliva, S.J., the current president of the UCA, told the delegation that the peace accords have made a lasting impact in the area of political rights and freedom of expression and association, but much more work needs to be done. “The peace accords achieved an end to the war, but not reconciliation or justice or an improvement of living conditions,” he said. “The accords could have been a path to reconciliation” but were not completely fulfilled.

“There are different visions of reconciliation in the country,” Father Oliva explained. “Some people call for truth and reparations, while others say we should ‘forgive and forget,’ but they are not even willing to ask for forgiveness.” The human rights office of the UCA, he said, has called for an international tribunal for restorative justice, but the government has not supported this proposal.

Legal Openings

Under international pressure, El Salvador prosecuted several military officers in 1991 for the assassinations at the UCA, but only two were convicted—and they were soon freed under the amnesty law. At the time, several human rights groups expressed concerns with the proceedings. In 1999 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended that El Salvador revoke the amnesty law and conduct an entirely new investigation into the murder of the Jesuits and the women.

So far El Salvador has not reopened the case, but legal action is afoot across the Atlantic. In 2008 the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a criminal case in the Spanish National Court against former Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani Burkard and 14 former military officers and soldiers for their role in the murder of the Jesuits. (Five of the six Jesuits were Spanish citizens by birth.) A year later the court charged all 14 former military officers and soldiers—and reserved the right to charge Mr. Cristiani at a later date—with state terrorism and crimes against humanity. In 2011 the court charged six additional defendants.

Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, one of the original defendants in the case, is currently serving a 21-month prison sentence in the United States. In 2012 he pleaded guilty to six counts of immigration fraud and perjury. U.S. authorities are currently considering how to respond to Spain’s extradition request for Colonel Montano, one of the top military officers in El Salvador when the Jesuits and the women were murdered.

A Monument to Truth

Parque Cuscatlan, a serene green space in the heart of San Salvador, is home to the Monument to Memory and Truth. Following the recommendation of the U.N. commission as well as 20 years of advocacy by citizen groups, the city government of San Salvador finally erected a memorial wall in December 2003. It stretches 300 feet and stands 10 feet tall. The endless rows of white engraved names on a dark surface immediately remind the U.S. visitor of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., but the memorial wall in San Salvador lists only civilians who were killed or disappeared during the civil war. The list, organized by year and last name, includes 32,000 names. A final panel honors 30,000 anonymous civilian victims of the war.

In a sea of 32,000 names, it takes some work to find “Óscar Arnulfo Romero,” even though it is bracketed by tiny painted green leaves and slightly discolored from being touched by many hands over the years. There are other familiar names on the wall: Rutilio Grande, Ignacio Ellacuría, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan. But most of all, the memorial serves as a stark reminder that unjust and untimely deaths were the fate of tens of thousands in the country, not just a few priests and sisters. The deaths of Margarita Veronica Garcia, Nelsey Mirella Herrera, Isabel Luna, Maximino Rodríguez, Gerardo Cruz Sosa may not have been reported in the newspaper, nor did they garner international concern or a remembrance in annual commemorations or pilgrimages; but the memorial—and the Gospel—invite us to imagine where they lived, whom they loved and who loved them. Whose world was turned upside down by their disappearance or death? In this way, the wall itself is an act of resistance to death and anonymity because it identifies people by name and thus recognizes their dignity.

The first few sections of the wall consist of a mural by the Salvadoran artist Julio Reyes. The mural tells the story of colonialism, massacres and popular protests. In the final panel, flowers bloom and some of the petals transform into doves of peace. A few feet down the path, an older couple sits on a park bench, tears flowing. They share no words, but simply hold each other. The civil war ended 22 years ago, but the memory of the war and the pain of the losses remain close.

A Work in Progress

Ms. Rivera y Rivera, who serves on the Historical Memory Committee in Arcatao, told the delegation that people in the town were run out of their villages as early as 1976. Government forces burned their homes, she said, so people took clothes and food and fled to Honduran refugee camps or to the nearby mountains, where they lived on seeds, leaves and the roots of plantain trees. The town was eventually repopulated.

The current pastor, Miguel Angel Vásquez, S.J., told the delegation that when he first arrived in Arcatao in June 1986, he saw that the war had destroyed everything. During the war years, he said, there were 59 massacres in his diocese alone. The Historical Memory Museum displays many artifacts like broken and rusted shells of bombs and bullets as well as documentary photos of wounded men, children in makeshift schools and skulls from the massacre at the Sumpul River.

At present, nine bodies from different massacres are buried near the memorial chapel—a work in progress—and the community waits for more bodies from the local medical examiner. It will not be possible to exhume all the bodies from the war era, however, because of the passage of time and the fact that the Sumpul River swept away so many of the bodies.

Students from the local Jesuit school have completed service hours to help build the memorial chapel, and the community has raised funds through food sales, appeals to local businesses and the support of outside groups like the city of Madison, Wis., the sister city of Arcatao. So far the community has invested nearly $20,000 in the chapel and memorial site. “We have many ideas but few resources,” Ms. Rivera y Rivera explained. “We have trusted God to provide what we need.”

Once completed, the chapel will include a statue of Mary, who “like so many here,” Ms. Rivera y Rivera explained, “saw the torture and killing of her child. Mary continued forward, and kept walking, so we too continue in the struggle.”

“I have seen how these communities can rise up,” Father Vásquez told the delegation. “I have seen the resurrection of the community and the people, a new way of sharing and living together. Peace is possible when we all come together.”

Photo Journal: Memory and Healing in El Salvador

Don Doll, S.J.
2 years 7 months ago
Luke, wonderful and comprehensive article. I'll be representing Creighton University on 11/16. Appreciated Sobrino's article. I did a piece on my classmate, the late Jon Cortina S.J., Entitled FINDING ERNESTO, the story of 'disappeared' children who were adopted out into 14 countries. Jon insisted you have a right to know who your birth parents are, and they have a right to know you are okay. http://magisproductions.org/onassignment Don Doll, S.J.

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