Is justice still a long-way off for Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador?

People pose with images of Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande following a Mass in his honor at a church in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 22, 2020. The Vatican announced Feb. 22 that Pope Francis has recognized the martyrdom of Father Grande and two companions who were murdered en route to a novena in 1977. (CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)

Pope Francis last month recognized the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande García, S.J., and two of his lay companions, which may lead to their beatification later this year. Their deaths in 1977 preceded the more than 75,000 who died in El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, from 1980 to 1992. In 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered at the University of Central America in El Salvador.

The State Department is barring U.S. entry to 13 former Salvadoran military personnel identified as among those responsible for those 1989 killings. In 1993 a United Nations-mandated truth commission connected the men to the U.C.A. slayings and other human rights abuses that were the gory hallmark of El Salvador’s long civil war. The conflict’s brutality arguably culminated in the killings at the university, an appalling act that broke support for continuing military aid in the U.S. Congress, drawing El Salvador’s combatants into negotiations that finally led to peace in 1992.

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The State Department sanction is a symbolic step toward justice long denied. The move raised some hope in El Salvador that the perpetrators of the Jesuit murders and more of the era’s worst offenses would finally have to face survivors and family members of their victims in court. Unfortunately, even such small expectations for justice are already imperiled.

The State Department sanction is a symbolic step toward justice long denied.

On Feb. 26, El Salvador’s National Assembly voted to essentially restore a broad amnesty that had been overturned by the nation’s Supreme Court in 2016. With about half the assembly refusing to participate in the vote, legislators from the right-wing Arena party approved a bill purportedly to prosecute war crimes. But the proposal is so riddled with loopholes it would in practical terms mean continued impunity.

The current president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, ran as an independent and is not beholden to either of El Salvador’s two major parties, Arena and the F.M.L.N., each representing a different side from the civil war. Calling the national reconciliation proposal a “fraud of a law,” he vetoed the bill on Feb. 28, but an override attempt remains a possibility.

El Salvador’s bishops have urged the passage of “an authentic ‘National Reconciliation Law,’ which effectively allows justice to be administered to the victims, that the truth of the crimes committed is known and that due damages are established.” These are worthy ambitions.

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Yet even if the prosecution of offenders proceeds, the State Department sanctions list of those culpable for El Salvador’s misery will remain incomplete. Many of the former foot soldiers and members of the high command connected to the worst acts—like the U.C.A. assassinations, the murder of St. Óscar Romero and the massacres at El Mozote and El Calabozo—received counterinsurgency training at the infamous School of the Americas (now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Ga.

Can we hand weapons to butchers and remain unstained by the blood of their innocent victims?

Over successive U.S. administrations, support for El Salvador’s military and civilian leadership continued even as the death toll among campesinos, priests, catechists, trade unionists and intellectuals rose higher. The United States, too, has a share of the suffering and the instability it has engendered to atone for. In 1989, then Fordham University president Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., asked a question that still haunts us: “Can we hand weapons to butchers and remain unstained by the blood of their innocent victims?”

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