Believing in the God of Life or Serving the Idols of Death

“Either we believe in the God of life, or we serve the idols of death”—Oscar Romero

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, November 16, 1989, a group of armed men forced their way into the rectory of the University of Central America in El Salvador. The elite special forces of the Salvadoran military dragged six Jesuit priests—the country’s most credible voice for peace—from their rooms and executed them, leaving their bodies in the back garden. They burned as many of the Jesuits’ books as possible, and, to show their contempt for the rector who had put his intelligence to use for the service of others, splattered Fr. Ellacuria’s brains on the grounds. They also murdered the housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her young daughter, Celina, who had spent the night in the rectory, thinking they would be safe there.

Twenty-four years later, in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, November 14, 2013, a group of armed men forced their way into the offices of Pro-Búsqueda, an association dedicated to finding children forcibly disappeared during the civil war.  These children were often adopted by members of the military who had massacred their families or adopted abroad under false pretenses. Pro-Búsqueda was founded by Fr. Jon de Cortina, SJ, who would have been the seventh Jesuit priest killed in 1989 if not for the fact that members of the community where he was pastoring refused to let him return to the city that night. This organization stepped in to begin to stitch together families broken apart by systematic terror.

Now, these armed men proceeded to torch the irreplaceable legal files containing evidence of war crimes. On their way out, they took several computers containing critical evidence and the personal contact information of the hundreds of families that had contacted Pro-Búsqueda in the hopes of reuniting with their families. While the precise culprits are not yet known, it is almost certain that they are affiliated with the same dark forces behind the repression in the 1970s and 1980s. For anyone who lived through this time, or who grew up without their disappeared loved ones, it seems clear that the attack is intended to evoke the state terror of that era.

The attack comes after recent developments in the contestation over whether impunity will continue. In the negotiations of the 1992 Peace Accords that ended the civil war, the military and the FMLN guerillas agreed to a National Reconciliation Law that provided a general amnesty, but specifically did not grant amnesty to those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, or to those named in the UN Truth Commission Report. However, in March 1993, within a week of the publication of the Report—which attributed 85% of the crimes to state-allied agents, 5% to the guerillas, and 10% to unknown culprits—the legislature, controlled by the party of notorious death squad leader Roberto D’Aubisson, immediately passed a new Amnesty Law which pardoned all crimes. For more than 20 years, this legislation has prevented the domestic prosecution of war crimes, including the murders of Oscar Romero, the four American churchwomen, the Jesuits and Elba and Celina Ramos, and the tortures, rapes, kidnappings, and massacres that left about 75,000 Salvadorans dead and forced over a million into exile. Far from being punished for their actions, the perpetrators still move among Salvadoran society with impunity. The involvement of right-wing politicians and military and commercial leaders in the most notorious crimes is an open secret.

But, over the past few years, it has started to look like this amnesty law may be challenged, allowing the truth to be revealed:

  • December 10, 2012: The Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled that the Amnesty Law cannot be used to protect those who massacred more than 1000 men, women, and children at El Mozote.
  • August 27, 2013: In the United States, Colonel Orlando Montano was sentenced to prison on immigration fraud charges for lying about his role in the murder of the Jesuits. He now may be extradited to Spain to undergo prosecution for his part in this crime.
  • September 21, 2013: The Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court agreed to hear the Central American University’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Amnesty Law.

In the midst of these positive developments, worryingly, on September 30, 2013, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar, abruptly closed the Archdiocese’s Tutela Legal, the church’s legal aid organization that was handling the most important massacre cases. Initially his office stated that the office no longer had any reason to exist. Subsequently, the Archbishop has backtracked somewhat and is in negotiations with well-respected individuals to determine how the work of the organization can continue and how to safeguard all evidence.

But the theatrical attack on Pro-Búsqueda shows that the dark forces within Salvadoran society are willing to use any means necessary to keep the truth hidden. The flames, the pre-dawn silence, the destruction and disappearance of evidence, the darkness—powerful rituals of terror that had fallen into disuse are being revived. These rituals—along with others including torture, systematic rape, and forced disappearance—were used in previous decades to fragment Salvadoran society in order to consolidate the power of the military dictatorship. The attack—years after the military and death squads allegedly lost their power—is an attempt to immobilize those who are still seeking to reconstruct their society and to reunite with their family members. Upon hearing the news, my good friend who grew up with the palpable absence of the disappeared wrote:

They want to burn our memory, and keep the truth hidden, and, in the meantime, pain keeps tearing apart the hearts of the victims. The facts, the barbarity, the sorrow remains latent in the hearts and minds of all those who still have not found their disappeared family members.

She saw clearly that this act was in the service of the idols of death. But Catholics believe in the God of Life. We participate in the liturgy of the Eucharist to proclaim the ultimate reality that the Resurrection, not death, has the last word. Our historical memory is that we belong to one family that extends throughout the earth and throughout the generations. Through the Eucharist celebrated down the ages, we are heirs, and have shared the same table as Jesus and Peter, Mary and Martha, Paul and Augustine, Ignatius Loyola, Ignacio Ellacuria and Celina Ramos, our Salvadoran friends’ murdered siblings, children, and parents, and our immediate friends and families. In the global sanctuary of the universal church, we know to Whom we belong.

As in 1989, our prayers must be with the people of El Salvador. And, as in 1989, our prayers must be converted into action to serve and support our sisters and brothers struggling to heal their society.