Visitors look at the names of six Jesuits killed during El Salvador’s civil war in the chapel of Central American University in San Salvador. The priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed Nov. 16, 1989. CNS photo/Luis Galdamez, Reuters

Salvadoran division that led to Jesuit massacre still evident

  • November 16, 2014

TORONTO - The memory of six Jesuit scholars, their housekeeper and her daughter should encompass more than the mass murders 25 years ago that sparked international outrage, said Jesuit philosophy student Kevin Kelly. 

The massacre at the University of Central America in El Salvador is related to a much deeper history of exclusion, oppression and division that Salvadorans, and to some extent all Latin American people, still experience today, Kelly said. The vast divide between rich and poor and the drive of the privileged to dominate society hasn’t changed, even as the economy in Latin America has opened and a new middle class has emerged. 

On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuits and their housekeepers were killed by members of the elite Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army, a rapid-response, anti-insurgency unit trained in the United States. The soldiers used a captured AK-47 automatic rifle and left graffiti behind claiming rebel FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) forces had killed the priests for informing on the insurgent forces. 

The massacre occurred during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war that left about 75,000 dead. A United Nations investigation concluded the attack was ordered by the High Command of the Armed Forces, which opposed the Jesuits social justice and human rights actions in support of local populations. 

Amid a Salvadoran and international outcry, Pope John Paul II called the murders “barbaric’’ and “horrible.’’ 

Nine members of the Salvadoran Army were put on trial in 1991, but only two were convicted for the murders. They were freed April 1, 1993 when a Salvadoran Amnesty Law came into effect. The case was reopened in Spain in 2008 and in 2011 the Spanish court found 20 Salvadoran soldiers guilty and ordered their immediate arrest should any of them venture outside El Salvador. 

The victims were 16-year-old Celina Ramos, killed with her mother Elba Ramos, who was housekeeper for Fr. Amando Lopez, Fr. Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Fr. Juan Ramon Moreno, Fr. Segundo Montes, Fr. Ignacio Martin-Baro and Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria. 

The Cold War which framed the murders may have ended, but Kelly witnessed a deeply divided political life throughout Latin America when he spent time with Jesuits in Venezuela last year. Political and social polarization, and the drive for economic and political power, is the best explanation for why the Salvadoran military killed the Jesuits, Kelly said. 

A quarter century later, Kelly said people should pay attention to the mindset behind the murders, whether it is manifested in thuggish and corrupt politics in Latin America or driving our own response to terror in the Middle East. 

“There are things that are similar to that time in history that still are at work today,” said Kelly. “A mindset that you can just eliminate your opponent, kill them, is out there.” 

Canadians and Americans might have seen the civil war in El Salvador in terms of the Cold War, but Salvadorans then and now know there were more fundamental and enduring causes behind the conflict, said Antonio Henriquez, president of the Salvadoran-Canadian Association. 

“There is still poverty. There is still injustice,” said Henriquez. “The conditions that created the war are still there.” 

Remembering the murdered Jesuits is important to every Salvadoran who wants to look forward to a different future, he said. 

“Our job is to teach and show and maintain that legacy of human rights,” he said. 

That means keeping the memory of what happened a generation ago alive today. 

“Most of the people in El Salvador remember and teach their kids,” said Henriquez. “Families talk all the time about that.” 

The war in El Salvador killed more than 70,000, but the memory of those sacrifices has brought about a culture of peace, he said. 

“And that is important because families remember what we went through and what is the reality (of war).” 

In Toronto, that memory was honoured at a Nov. 12 Mass at Toronto’s Regis College. 

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