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Fernando ValverdeApril 18, 2016
Jorge Galán (photo by Joaquín Puga)

When he was a boy, Jorge Galán would go up to the roof of his house in San Salvador to watch the bombardments. He did this at night, while his mother and his grandmother were sleeping. Had they found out, they would have tied him to his bed. During childhood, war is an adventure, a trail of blood, some broken glass on the ground, a basement where we can all sleep together.

On March 24, 1980, a bullet struck and killed Archbishop Óscar Romero while he was celebrating Mass.* The day before he had called for an end to the repression by the government in San Salvador and had urged the soldiers to commit an act of disobedience: “Before an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God that says Thou shalt not kill should prevail. No soldier is required to obey an order against the law of God.”

Mr. Galán was 7 years old, and from those days he remembers a sense of anguish that made him mature very quickly. “My grandfather went to the funeral of that great man who was Romero,” he remembers. “We heard the report on the radio that the snipers had opened fire on the people that were in the square across from the cathedral. Fortunately, my grandfather had arrived late and made it back home. I am never going to forget that anguish.” For Mr. Galán, war is something very familiar, stuck to his shoes like mud.

War and death were in the air when dawn arrived on Nov. 16, 1989. During the night the Atlacatl battalion entered the Universidad Centroamericana and murdered eight people: six Jesuit priests (Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Amando* López y Joaquín López y López) and two women who were in the house at that time (Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina Ramos). The soldiers followed orders; they did not leave anyone alive; they fired at the bodies several times; they left false evidence behind to implicate the guerrillas.

“I was a young man who had lived more than half of my life in my country’s civil war,” says Mr. Galán, author of Noviembre, a new novel that reconstructs the crime and names the killers. “The assassination of those men hit home and marked me forever. They were people with enviable professional careers, who could have been in the best universities in the world. They chose to be in my city, where nobody wanted to be, to help my people. Their assassination is one of the greatest cruelties that I have ever heard of.”

The objective of the military was to kill Ignacio Ellacuría, president of the U.C.A., who was negotiating for peace. “Ellacuría had met with President Cristiani and was close to reaching an agreement between the government and the guerrilla forces,” explains Mr. Galán. “War is a deplorable business, and at that moment it was making many members of the military rich. They weren’t going to let this come to an end.”

After the killing of the Jesuits a silence followed. From then on, impunity, an impossible memory in a country in which fear can be measured every day by the number of the dead. “You can’t build a country upon an injustice,” Mr. Galán explains. “The results are what can clearly be seen, a state in decomposition, a failed society. It’s not just about the crime against the Jesuits. It’s about a moral issue, about respect for people, about integrity in the defense of human rights. Without all that, there will be no way to live in peace.”

Moved by the memory of the assassination of the Jesuit priests and by the present-day situation of his country, Mr. Galán decided to write Noviembre. In his book he gives an account of the assassination of Rutilio Grande, of Archbishop Romero and, finally, of the massacre of the Jesuits at the U.C.A. Mr. Galán researched archives, interviewed witnesses and put together a moving history that breaks your heart, not only because of what he relates and the manner in which he relates it but also because of his bravery. (The book is not yet available in English.) He writes down the names of all those who participated in the assassination, plucking them out of the anonymity in which they had lived, leaving them out in the open, forever in history.

November is a month when the light in San Salvador turns crystal clear, when the racket caused by the birds is the sound of dawn. On the first day of November last year, Jorge Galán was walking home. A car pulled up a few yards from him. Someone called out his name; someone mentioned the murdered Jesuits, “shitty communists,” and pulled out a weapon. Mr. Galán ran toward the U.S. embassy. A flight began.

That afternoon he received a message that he will never forget. The intelligence agencies gave full credibility to the threat, and the Jesuits from U.C.A., the same ones that had covered the bodies of the murdered priests with sheets, accompanied Mr. Galán to the airport, on the road to exile.

His book has returned attention to a crime that had remained in oblivion. As a result of his exile, a group of intellectuals have signed a letter in his support in which they demand his protection and call for justice for those murdered in November 1989. Among the signatories were Mario Vargas Llosa (Nobel Laureate for Literature), Yusef Komunyakaa and Charles Simic (Pulitzer Prize recipients), Joaquín Sabina, Joan Manuel Serrat, Ernesto Cardenal, Sergio Ramírez and Almudena Grandes.

A few weeks after Mr. Galán left El Salvador, the National Audience of Spain requested once again the extradition of the 17* soldiers implicated in the crime. In response, there was only silence on the part of the Salvadoran government. However, on Feb. 5 the magistrate of the Federal Court of North Carolina, Kimberly A. Swank, approved the extradition of the former Colonel, Inocente Montano, one of the members of the Salvadoran high command that allegedly ordered the assassinations.*

While all of this is going on, Mr. Galán finds himself in Spain, where he has been living with friends for the last four months. He misses his family and his country. “It was very hard to spend Christmas away from them. Those were very sad days. I never thought that I would see myself in such a situation,” he explains. His sacrifice is great, but he is aware that it is minimal compared to what those men did for his country.

Now he is trying to imagine the distant future of El Salvador, and he feels at peace for having left a testimony of what happened in that month of November. “I have tried to preserve forever the sacrifice of the Jesuits and the cruelty that their assassins were capable of,” he says. “I hope that it will be of use so that some may find a little peace and so that something like this won’t happen again.”

Corrections: April 20-21, 2016
Archbishop Romero was not shot while holding the Eucharist during consecration, as was depicted in the film "Romero." The first name of Amando López, S.J., one of the victims of the assassinations, was originally misspelled in this article. An earlier version also misstated the number of soldiers implicated in the crime and the alleged role played by Colonel Inocente Montano in ordering the assassinations.
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Lisa Weber
8 years 2 months ago
This is a story of the high price of speaking the truth - but only the truth can set people free.
Robert Lewis
8 years ago
At the time of these murders, I wrote a letter to the senior Senator of my state in the United States, J.Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, demanding that the military aid that the Bush regime was giving to the Salvadoran dictatorship be stopped, and that the training of Salvadoran military officers in American military facilities be ceased. Senator Thurmond declined to respond.

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