With barely a week to go in office, and much to its historic shame, the Carter administration renewed and escalated the direct military aid to the Salvadoran junta that it had cut off on the morrow of the murder of the nuns. It’s a moment perfectly captured in Oliver Stone’s very fine Salvador.
The ideological and policy groundwork had been laid for the incoming hawkish Reagan administration. And the rest of the story we pretty much know. Soon the new secretary of state, Al “I’m in Charge Now” Haig was testifying before Congress that those bothersome nuns might have been trying to run a legitimate roadblock and were shot in the act. (He never explained how or why they also might have raped themselves.)‰21
Declaring he was drawing the line against hemispheric revolution in El Salvador, Reagan dispatched hundreds of American military advisers, fleets of combat helicopters, tons of ammunition and eventually billions of dollars not only to El Salvador, but also to the counterrevolutionary army in Nicaragua and the military dictatorships in Guatemala and Honduras. Read the Iran-Contra transcripts for the gorier parts of the strategy.
During much of the 1980s, Central American policy deeply split the American political debate, much more severely than the current disputes over Iraq. Hundreds of thousands marched against the policy. Church workers in the Southwest set up an underground sanctuary network to provide refuge for Salvadorans fleeing the U.S.-financed war.
In Los Angeles, the Central American wars loudly reverberated. The immigrant-care centers, CARECEN and EL RESCATE, flourished. Other activists set up Medical Aid for El Salvador, headed by Ed Asner. Sandinista leader and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was feted at a fund-raiser at the Benedict Canyon home of actors Elizabeth Montgomery and Robert Foxworth. The founder and former editor of the L.A. Weekly, Jay Levin, established the anti-war and celebrity-studded Committee of Concern. And the Weekly honorably acquitted itself in its Central American coverage. Early on in the conflict, writer Greg Goldin compiled a chilling catalog of massacres conducted by the new U.S.-backed Salvadoran dictatorship. The Weekly’s 1984 “Central America Primer,” which I had the opportunity to edit, won a first-place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and, at one point, writer Ginger Varney resided in Honduras as the Weekly’s regional correspondent.
The Salvadoran war never concluded on the battlefield. U.S. military aid and training succeeded in tripling the size of the Salvadoran armed forces. American-sponsored modernization programs had only minimal effect as the Salvadoran army’s brutal methods persisted.
In turn, the FMLN guerrillas also tripled in size. And they effectively matched and countered every strategic escalation coming from the other side. By the time the war was peaking, the guerrillas had even armed themselves with surface-to-air missiles that could down U.S.-supplied Hueys.
In the meantime, the civilian death toll climbed.
It was only one more massacre of a religious group that finally brought the war to a halt. Almost exactly nine wrenching years after the killing of the nuns — on November 16, 1989, in the midst of another guerrilla offensive — an elite detachment of the Salvadoran army’s First Infantry Brigade staged a pre-dawn break-in into the residential quarters of San Salvador’s private Catholic university. They forced the much-loved and respected Jesuit rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, and five other priests — Juan Ramon Medrano, Armando Lopez, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin Baro and Joaquin Lopez y Lopez —onto the floor, and then they blew out their brains with automatic rifles. Also murdered were a housekeeper and her daughter.
I had forged a close friendship with Martin Baro over the years, and I produced (for CBS News) the last interview he would ever give just a few weeks before his murder. I was devastated when the news of the massacre hit. And so was most of El Salvador. Even fervent right-wing conservatives had trouble justifying the butchering of the gentle men who ran the most prestigious university in the country.
With the Cold War in accelerated collapse at the time, Washington, D.C., also lost its appetite for more carnage in El Salvador. The massacre of the six Jesuit priests was the first step, the beginning of the end of the war.
In January 1992, both sides in the war signed a historic power-sharing peace accord, still in place today. Few observers doubt that the same sort of peace could have been reached a decade and tens of thousands of lives before, directly after the horrific murder of the four nuns. But that would have required the expenditure of political will that was woefully absent.