Twenty-five years ago, on November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women were murdered by US-trained Salvadoran special forces on the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador.
The killings sent shock waves through the United States Congress, which was monitoring human rights in El Salvador. For the past decade, Congress had been funding the right-wing Salvadoran government’s civil war against rebels demanding political and economic reform. However, these appropriations depended on official certifications by the Reagan and Bush administrations that human-rights abuses by El Salvador’s government and paramilitary forces were declining.
Yet shortly after 10 p.m. on November 15, Colonel René Emilio Ponce, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of El Salvador, in collusion with the country’s highest ranking military officials, ordered Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides to eliminate the Jesuits at the university, specifically Ignacio Ellacuría, the university president and the country’s leading public intellectual: “Kill Father Ellacuría and leave no witnesses.”1
The meeting took place at the national military academy, of which Colonel Benavides was director. Within the hour, he summoned Lieutenant Ricardo Espinoza, a young graduate of San Salvador’s Jesuit high school, and ordered him to carry out the assassination. The targets included not only Ellacuría but also Lieutenant Espinoza’s former high-school principal. “It’s them or us!” Benavides told Espinoza.2 The young officer, who attempted to hide his identity with camouflage grease, later testified that his eyes filled with tears as he hurriedly left the scene of the crime after giving the order for the killing.3
The United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador states that around 2:30 a.m. on November 16, Ellacuría and four fellow Spanish-born Jesuits were executed with machine guns by Espinoza’s unit as they lay face down in the grass behind the Jesuit residence at the university. One neighbor reports that “just before the gunfire” she heard “rhythmic whispering, like a psalmody of a group in prayer.”4
Minutes later, Elba Ramos, a cook for the university, and her sixteen-year-old daughter Celina were repeatedly shot as they huddled in each other’s arms in the Jesuit residence, where they had sought refuge. The brutality ended with the murder of an elderly Salvadoran-born Jesuit priest in his room. Several sources later testified that El Salvador’s newly elected president, Alfredo Cristiani, was present at the national military academy at the time when the attack was planned and that he met with Colonel Ponce and other military officials during the operation.
In addition to Father Ellacuría, the Jesuits who died included Father Ignacio Martín-Baró, a university vice president and the director of El Salvador’s only functioning public-opinion poll; Father Segundo Montes, director of the university’s Human Rights Institute and superior of the Jesuit community; Father Amando López, professor of theology and philosophy and former president of the university’s sister institution in Managua; Father Joaquin López y López, national director of Fe y Alegría, a program for children in poverty; and Father Juan Ramón Moreno, assistant director of the newly constructed Óscar Romero Pastoral Center, built by the Jesuits to commemorate the archbishop of San Salvador who had died nine years earlier by a rightwing assassin’s bullet.
Why Were They Killed?
One month after the murders, Major Eric Warren Buckland, a senior US military advisor in El Salvador, testified that his Salvadoran counterpart, Colonel Carlos Armando Avilés Buitrago, chief of psychological operations for the Salvadoran Joint Command, informed him in advance of the planned killing; afterward the same source confirmed both that the crime had been committed by specific high-ranking Salvadoran military officers, and that it was being covered up.5
Major Buckland’s account matched the testimony of Lucía Cerna, a neighbor of the Jesuit fathers and the only living witness to the crime. Both Major Buckland and Cerna would come under intense pressure from the FBI to back away from their stories implicating Salvadoran forces; Buckland soon recanted his admission of prior knowledge of the killings. Newsweek later reported, “The [George H. W. Bush] administration didn’t want that story to come out . . . because it wasn’t productive to the conduct of the war.”6
Thus the orders to kill Father Ellacuría and his colleagues came from the highest levels of the Salvadoran military and may have been approved by the country’s president, possibly with the knowledge of US military officials. For the Salvadoran government, the killings were extraordinarily risky; if they came to light they would implicate the entire military command structure and embarrass the United States.
Why take such a high-stakes gamble in order to kill one priest and a handful of associates? Evidently, the Salvadoran government viewed Ignacio Ellacuría and the University of Central America (UCA) as a serious threat to the United States’ continued backing. The government was well aware that if the US Congress became concerned about human-rights abuses by its Salvadoran ally, it might withdraw its crucial support. Inconveniently, Ellacuría and his fellow Jesuits at the UCA were scrupulously documenting the government’s systemic violations of human rights and its vicious repression of Salvadoran civil society. What’s more, they publicly advocated peace negotiations with the rebels in order to put an end to the cycle of violence. To the country’s governing elites, Ellacuría and his colleagues were jeopardizing the US support they needed to win a definitive victory over a leftist insurgency. They were traitors, and deserved to be treated as such.
The UCA Jesuits, by contrast, believed that it was their duty as Christians and Catholics to speak up for human rights and to advocate for a negotiated peace. Their vision was grounded in the teaching of the “preferential option for the poor” issued by the 1968 conference of Latin American bishops meeting in Medellín, Colombia, in response to the recently concluded Vatican II council. This “preferential option,” they believed, required Christians to share God’s special love for the poor and downtrodden as illustrated throughout the Old and New Testaments. Echoing the language of Medellín, the university’s 1979 mission statement declares that “the most explicit testimony of the Christian inspiration of the UCA will be putting itself really at the service of the people in such a way that in this service it allows itself to be oriented by the oppressed people themselves.”7
There was an influence on the Jesuits’ work more immediate than Medellín’s teaching of social justice: the example of the martyr Archbishop Óscar Romero. Ellacuría would speak of the UCA Jesuits’ “commitment to do in our university way what [Archbishop Romero] did in his pastoral way.”8His colleague Jon Sobrino, a UCA Jesuit who survived the 1989 killings because he happened to be away from campus that night, argues that Ellacuría and the UCA learned to fulfill their mission by watching Romero run the San Salvador archdiocese from the perspective of a preferential option for the poor.
Thus the Jesuits of the UCA and Óscar Romero formed a company of martyrs bound together by a common conviction that the gospel must become good news to the poor. No outcome could have seemed less likely to anyone who knew of the active antagonism with which Romero’s and Ellacuría’s relationship began. Their remarkable story is told in the following pages, starting at the beginning.
Óscar Romero, Guardian of Orthodoxy
The Central American Jesuits began reorganizing their work in the early 1970s in an effort to embrace the Medellín call to stand with the poor. They understood this to mean actively supporting the rights of campesinos and civilian movements promoting social, economic, and political reform and the end of military rule. Ellacuría and the UCA worked throughout the decade to reframe the university’s “principal mission as that of being the critical and creative conscience”9
Óscar Romero emerged at the same moment as one of the Jesuit’s chief opponents among the Salvadoran bishops. He was then an auxiliary bishop in the San Salvador archdiocese and secretary of the bishops’ conference of El Salvador. Romero’s actions and statements from 1970 to 1976 betray a deep suspicion and even hostility toward Ellacuría’s interpretation of Medellín as a call for the church to become more involved in movements for social change.
Reacting to the ferment following Vatican II, Romero was tradionalist in his approach to the role of the church in society. His approach has been called “quasi-corporatist,” and it finds support in certain statements in the documents of Medellín, side by side with affirmations of the preferential option for the poor.10According to this view, the church’s role is that of a unifying social institution, promoting what Medellín calls “socialization understood as a sociocultural process of personalization and communal growth” so that “all of the sectors of society, . . . [especially] the social-economic sphere, should, because of justice and brotherhood, transcend antagonisms in order to become agents of national and continental development.”11
Romero’s commitment to this vision of the church as unifier and social glue, along with other more personal factors, rendered him deeply suspicious of theological and pastoral approaches involving prophetic denunciations of state-sponsored violence. Romero’s public statements and writings from this period as editor of the diocesan newspaper Orientación consistently characterize such views as politically naive distortions of Catholic teaching; such approaches, he suggested, were unduly influenced by communist ideas, and dangerously politicized the role of the church in Salvadoran society.
In the tinderbox atmosphere of El Salvador, Romero’s accusations had real consequences. His very public attacks against clergy who were critical of the government helped to marginalize their voices and provided cover for repressive actions against those calling for change. In early 1972, for example, the Central Elections Council, which was known to be controlled by a pro-military faction, fraudulently declared Colonel Arturo Armando Molina winner of that year’s presidential election. Molina’s opponents had run on a platform promising desperately needed agrarian reforms. When the stolen election was exposed by a UCA investigation, many seminarians refused to sing at the liturgy for Molina’s inauguration. They charged that the church, by allowing this event to be celebrated in the cathedral in the presence of the papal nuncio, was giving wrongful legitimation to a fraudulent government. Romero rightly suspected that the seminarians had learned of the UCA’s investigation from their Jesuit professors, and regarded their protest as a dangerous foray into politics. As one Jesuit, Father Juan Hernández Pico, recalled, Romero responded to the protest by making “the problem his personal issue. The pope and his nuncio had been attacked, and the hierarchy of the church had been insulted. How could it be worse?”12
Romero then “started to actively support the expulsion of the Jesuits from the seminary,” saying that they “were the ones that were putting ideas into the seminarians’ heads and had to go.” Romero added ominously, “If they’re not removed, we reserve the right to take other measures.” This was a threat (at least in part) to bring the matter to the attention of Vatican officials, something Romero actually did on this and other issues. In the end, the Jesuits were removed after fifty years of service and “Monseñor Romero took charge of the seminary.” Pico says, “He was satisfied. Orthodoxy had triumphed.” Years later Archbishop Romero would apologize to Father Amando López (formerly part of the seminary faculty) for his role in pushing the Jesuits out of the seminary. But in 1972, he was content.
Romero’s Personal Conversion:
Santiago de María
In 1974, Romero was named bishop of a rural diocese about seventy miles southeast of San Salvador called Santiago de María in Usulután. Here he would remain for the next three years. During this period, something in Romero began to change. His coworkers would later point to Romero’s encounter with the terrible suffering of rural farm workers as decisive; these experiences opened his heart and mind to Medellín’s preferential option for the poor.13
Still, Romero wasn’t ready for public confrontations. At one o’clock in the morning on June 21, 1975, members of the National Guard entered Tres Calles, a village in Romero’s diocese, ransacking the houses of five farm workers in a search for weapons and murdering the unarmed men in front of their families. Zacarias Diez and Juan Macho, Passionist priests working in the diocese, recall that they and other colleagues told Romero, “We must do something, bishop,”14 and proposed several forms of public response. “But Monseñor was on another wavelength and didn’t think like us.” Instead, Romero wrote an anguished letter to his friend President Molina and a summary of the events for the Salvadoran bishops. Looking back, the priests reflect: “It is true; he did something. It was an energetic protest and a strong denouncement.” On the other hand, however, “it was not public. It was private, since he still believed that denunciations from authority to authority were more effective.”
Later that year, in December 1975, Pope Paul VI published his apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, linking evangelization in the modern world to prophetic denunciations of poverty and oppression. To many in Latin America, it sounded as if the pope was echoing Medellín’s declaration of a preferential option for the poor. According to those close to Romero at the time, Paul VI’s words prompted him to reconsider the high priority he had given to maintaining good relations between the church and the government. In the face of state-sponsored violence against his people, and the vilification of his clergy for educating and defending them, Romero gradually came to accept Medellín’s discernment that God was calling the Latin American church to support and defend the poor.
Romero’s Social Conversion:
The Death of Rutilio Grande
Romero’s role in the dismissal of the Jesuits as directors of El Salvador’s diocesan seminary in 1972 was only the latest in a series of skirmishes between conservative Salvadoran bishops and the Jesuits. Already in 1970, the bishops had rejected the nomination of the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande as rector of the seminary in response to the Jesuits’ Medellín-inspired agenda there, according to Rodolfo Cardenal, a Jesuit priest. Father Grande reacted to this vote of no confidence by taking a leave of absence from the seminary faculty to study new pastoral approaches in Peru. When he returned in September 1972, around the time of Romero’s takeover of the seminary from the Jesuits, his services as a professor were no longer required and he was assigned as pastor to a parish church in the town of Aguilares. Over the next five years this parish was to become the site of a new Jesuit ministry among rural farm workers, the poorest Salvadorans. Father Grande had traded the comfortable confines of the diocesan seminary for a dangerous new rural ministry among the country’s increasingly restive farm workers.
As a result of these and similar initiatives, Father Grande, Ignacio Ellacuría, and other Jesuits were soon accused of being “communists in sheep’s clothing” by organizations like the Committee for the Defense of the Fatherland. This explosive rhetoric reaped its predictable harvest on March 12, 1977, when Father Grande was ambushed by the national police, taken from his jeep, and executed.
Less than three weeks before Rutilio Grande’s killing, Romero had been appointed as archbishop of San Salvador, to the consternation of those priests who had been most active in advocating for the poor. Both they and the political conservatives who had applauded Romero’s appointment were in for a surprise. As Romero later put it, “Father Grande’s death and the death of other priests after his impelled me to take an energetic attitude before the government.”15
Despite the archbishop’s differences with the Jesuits, he and Grande had been friends. “I remember that because of Father Grande’s death I made a statement that I would not attend any official acts until this situation [ascertaining who had killed Rutilio] was clarified.” Thus, “a rupture was produced, not by me with the government but [by] the government itself because of its attitude.”
Here Romero differentiates his earlier “gradual evolution” toward a personal preferential option for the poor from his decision following Rutilio’s death to “respond to the situation in the country as a pastor” by publicly denouncing the government’s abuse of human rights. Romero, it seems, underwent two conversions: first a personal conversion, characterized by his gradual decision in Santiago de María to assume personal responsibility for the suffering of his people; and second, a socio-political conversion following the assassination of Rutilio. After this second conversion, Romero began to publicly address the systematic and ongoing violations of human rights in the country.
Ellacuría, reflecting on this second conversion of his former opponent Romero, would later write that Rutilio Grande’s killing confronted the archbishop with three imperatives:16 a demand to grasp the reality of Father Grande’s priestly ministry with the peasant farm workers of Aguilares and why that ministry led to his death; an ethical demand to assume public responsibility as part of his mission as archbishop to accompany and defend the terrorized peasants of Aguilares and El Salvador whom Father Grande left behind; and a praxis-related demand as archbishop to help those peasants, both within the church and in Salvadoran society.
Spiritual Leader of El Salvador
Three months after Father Grande’s death, Archbishop Romero drove to the deceased priest’s parish of Aguilares. The town had recently been subjected to a full-scale siege by the military in an action appropriately named Operation Rutilio. Soldiers had taken over the town, shot an elderly sacristan as he rang the church bells, arrested and deported the town’s three Jesuit priests, and assassinated about fifty people including campesino leaders. In coming to Aguilares, Archbishop Romero’s mission was to install a new pastor and celebrate Mass with the terrorized community.
The service ended with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament out of the church, Archbishop Romero in the rear and the crowd in front. Jon Sobrino, who was present, offers a remarkable description of what happened next. As the crowd flowed into the square in front of the church, armed troops were stationed in front of the town hall opposite. As the procession approached the soldiers, the crowd stopped, uneasy and afraid. Sobrino writes:
We had no idea what might happen…. [So] we all instinctively turned around and looked at Monseñor Romero, who was bringing up the rear, holding the monstrance. “¡Adelante!” (Forward!), said Monseñor Romero. And we went right ahead. The procession ended without incident. From that moment forward, Monseñor Romero was the symbolic leader of El Salvador. He made no such claim. He had sought no such thing. But this is the way it was. From then on Monseñor Romero led us, marching at our head. He had been transformed into the central reference point for the church and for the country. Nothing of any importance occurred in our country over the next three years without our all turning to Monseñor Romero for guidance and direction, for leadership.17
Over those three years, Romero served as spiritual leader and shepherd for the nation, speaking to his fellow Salvadorans in weekly radio sermons that drew huge audiences. In one such sermon on March 23, 1980, Romero called on Salvadoran soldiers to refuse to obey orders that violated God’s law. The next day he was shot and killed while saying Mass. The sniper had been hired by former Major Robert D’Aubuisson, a leader in El Salvador’s right-wing faction.18
Learning from a Martyr
Ellacuría responded to the archbishop’s death by writing an homage whose title alone shows how much had changed in the eight years since Romero had evicted the Jesuits from the seminary: “Monseñor Romero, a Man Sent by God to Save His Country.” Romero, wrote Ellacuría, “was the teacher” and the UCA “was the assistant,” Romero “was the voice and…[the UCA] was the echo.”
In the same article, Ellacuría describes the lessons that the UCA learned from its mentor.19 The Jesuits learned how “to historicize the power of the gospel” by running the university, like the archdiocese, with special concern for the needs of the poor. Previously the university had focused almost exclusively on El Salvador’s elites. But Archbishop Romero showed the UCA that when the church embraced the sufferings and hopes of El Salvador’s poor majorities, “what had been an opaque, amorphous, and ineffective word became a torrent of life to which the people drew near in order to quench their thirst.” Romero’s example demonstrated how “the power of the gospel could become a transformative historical force.”
Accordingly, after the archbishop’s death the UCA became a new kind of Christian university – one focused on making God’s love of the poor real in El Salvador. For example, it sought ways to increase participation by the country’s dispossessed majorities in the debate over how to resolve the country’s civil war. Ellacuría summarized his vision in a 1982 address at Santa Clara University, arguing that “a university of Christian inspiration is one that focuses all its university activity… within the illuminating horizon of…a Christian preferential option for the poor.”20The university’s task, he said, is to serve as an “intellectual support for those who…possess truth and reason…but who do not have the academic arguments to justify and legitimate them.”
It was for courageously living out this vocation that Father Ellacuría and his brother Jesuits gave up their lives.
Blood and Ink
When the murdered priests were found on the morning of November 16, 1989, a blood-soaked copy of Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Crucified God was discovered near the body of Father Moreno. Today it is preserved in the university’s museum, just feet from where its owner died. It serves as a visceral sign of the cost of this ultimately unsuccessful attempt to silence the voice of scholars who, for almost two decades, had documented the sufferings of the people of El Salvador. The blood and ink mingled on its pages serve as a fitting symbol of the faith, hope, and love that animated these men.
In 2009, Jon Sobrino wrote a letter to his deceased friend Ellacuría titled “Monseñor Romero and You”:
People know that both of you were eloquent prophets and martyrs,…[but] I like to remember another important similarity, which is how you began. Each of you was given a Christian and Salvadoran torch, and without any kind of discernment made the fundamental choice to keep it burning. Monseñor Romero received it from Rutilio Grande the night they killed him. And when Monseñor Romero died, you picked it up.”21
Sobrino believes it is crucial to remember “that in El Salvador there was a grand tradition” which was “passed from hand to hand” of “dedication and love for the poor, confrontation with oppressors, steadiness in conflict, and the hope and the dream [of the kingdom of God]” grounded in “the Jesus of the gospel and the mystery of his God.” And he insists, “We must not squander that legacy and we need to make it available to the young.”
Twenty-five years after the martyrdom of the UCA Jesuits and thirty-five years after the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero, what can we learn from their example? In 1982, Ellacuría counseled graduating seniors to respond by following the example of the company of martyrs who preceded them:
Just place your whole human heart before the reality of a crucified world, and ask yourselves the three questions that Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood before [an image of the crucified Christ], the representative of all those who are crucified: What have I done for this world? What am I doing for it now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your personal and academic responsibility.22
Robert Lassalle-Klein, professor of religious studies and philosophy at Holy Names University and cofounder of the Oakland Catholic Worker, is the author of Blood and Ink: Ignacio Ellacuría, Jon Sobrino, and the Jesuit Martyrs of the University of Central America (Orbis, 2014); this article is adapted from the book.
All photographs courtesy of the author.
- United Nations, Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador: From Madness to Hope: The Twelve-Year War in El Salvador (March 15, 1993), 50.
- Extrajudicial statements of Lt. José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Lt. Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, cited in Martha Doggett, Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador (Georgetown University Press, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1993), 65.
- Extrajudicial confession of Lt. José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, cited from “Narración de los hechos,” prepared by the Jesuits of Central America, which appeared in Estudios centroamericanos (ECA) nos. 493–494 (November–December 1989): 1162.
- Doggett, Death Foretold, 282, 68.
- Sworn statement by Eric Warren Buckland, January 11, 1990, handwritten addendum, Washington, DC, p. 10 (on file at Lawyers Committee for Human Rights). Cited in Doggett, Death Foretold, 225.
- Doggett, Death Foretold, 228.
- “Las funciones fundamentales de la universidad y su operativización,” Planteamiento universitario 1989 (UCA Editores, 1989), 47.
- Ignacio Ellacuría, “La UCA ante el doctorado concedido a Monseñor Romero,” Escritos teológicos, III (UCA Editores, 2002), 102; reprinted from ECA no. 437 (1985): 168.
- José María Gondra, SJ, “Discurso de la Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas en la firma del contrato con el BID,” Planteamiento universitario 1989, 12.
- William T. Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities,” Cross Currents (Spring 1994): 72.
- Second Gen. Conference of Latin American Bishops, “Document on Justice,” 13.
- Interview with Juan Hernández Pico, in María López Vigil, Óscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic (Washington, DC: Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, 2000), 51.
- Interview of Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez by Robert Lassalle-Klein, San Salvador, November 12, 2009.
- James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989), 61.
- Interview of Archbishop Óscar Romero, December 14, 1979, Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), 95.
- Ignacio Ellacuría, “Monseñor Romero, un enviado de Dios para salvar a su pueblo,” Escritos teológicos, III (UCA Editores, 2002), 93–100; reprinted from ECA 19 (1990): 5–10.
- Doggett, Death Foretold, 27.
- United Nations, Report on the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 127.
- All quotes from Ellacuría in this section are from Ellacuría, “Monseñor Romero, un enviado de Dios para salvar a su pueblo,” 93–100.
- Ignacio Ellacuría, “Discurso de graduación en la Universidad de Santa Clara,” Escritos universitarios (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1999), 226.
- Jon Sobrino, “Monseñor Romero y tú,” Carta a Ellacuría 2009, www.foroellacuria. org/otra_mirada.htm.
- Ellacuría, “Discurso de graduación,” 228.