It was a moment that fueled a war and helped touch off a decade-long bloodbath in Central America. The conflagration that followed cost tens of thousands of lives and touched millions of homes, one whose flames — mightily fanned from Washington, D.C. — once flickered, at least politically, from the Panama Canal to the Hollywood Hills.
The bodies of three American nuns and one lay worker of the Maryknoll order — Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Jean Donovan — were found raped, mutilated and murdered by the side of the road from the San Salvador airport on December 4, 1980.
Two nights before, the four women had disappeared as their van made its way from the airport after two of the women had returned from a trip to neighboring Nicaragua. Fingered as “subversives” for their work among the poor of El Salvador, the four women were pulled over and finished off by a government-linked death squad made up of members of the feared National Guard.
A high tide of blood and repression had been slowly covering the tiny country of 5 million for the entire previous year. A military-civilian junta that came to power promising reform was instead dishing out wholesale murder and mayhem. As a small left-wing guerrilla movement surfaced, the military and ultra-right death squads rampaged through the countryside and the university barrios exterminating hundreds and eventually thousands of real and imagined enemies. Almost 900 political killings took place in just the first two months of 1980.
In March of the same year, nine months before the murder of the nuns, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, a gentle conservative who had been radicalized by the swirling injustice around him, was gunned down as he delivered Mass. His crime was to demand, in what became his final sermon: “In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to heaven more loudly every day, I ask you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
That repression was already being financed by the waning Carter administration. Closing its eyes to the organized murder perpetrated by the Salvadoran junta, the White House provided $10 million in aid to the regime. Not a very large figure, but one that went quite a way in such a small country. And beyond the direct financial benefit, the U.S. aid was a green light of political approval. Not that the Carter administration had much lust for supporting such a blood-soaked dictatorship. But next door, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had just carried out their successful revolution, and Washington felt a palpable fear that the example could and would spread. These were some of the last rattles on the snake of the Cold War.
For a brief historic moment, however, in the immediate aftermath of the rape-murder of the nuns, it looked as though events might take a different turn. While the murder of Romero and the ongoing butchering of the Salvadoran peasantry got little notice in the American media and almost no consideration in public opinion, the atrocity committed against the nuns — American nuns — was just too outrageous to ignore.
Overnight, U.S. policy in El Salvador was thrust front and center into the national debate. As the bodies of the four women were being unearthed from their shallow roadside grave, the visibly shaken outgoing U.S. ambassador, Robert White, vowed that the crime would not go unpunished.
With White’s urging, the Carter State Department immediately suspended all U.S. military aid to El Salvador. A newly approved appropriation was also held up. The question of just what we were doing as a country anyway, smack-dab in the middle of a ruthless Central American civil war, became persistent.
No question but that the killing of the nuns offered an opportunity for the U.S. to play a different, more productive role in El Salvador, that of arbiter and broker for a peace that would have saved an additional 70,000 lives.
But it wasn’t to be. A month prior to the murder of the nuns — in November 1980 — Ronald Reagan staged a resounding victory over the hapless Jimmy Carter. Ambassador White and the relative moderates who staffed the State Department were all lame ducks. Interwoven among the Reaganites were some of the same neocons who make headlines today. Twenty-some years ago they also used the vocabulary of fighting terrorism, but their targets — in the case of El Salvador — were impoverished peasants and outraged students who had fielded a ragtag guerrilla insurgency.
In any case, it’s rather pointless to speculate what the Carter administration might have done to make things different in El Salvador during that 50-day interim between the death of the nuns on December 4 and Reagan’s swearing in on January 20. Pointless, because we already know.
The repression on the ground in El Salvador never abated; it only intensified. In the first days of January 1981, guerrillas from the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) fought back against the ruling junta with a coordinated military offensive.
With just a few days left in his tenure, Ambassador White and, with him, the entire Carter administration, buckled. Washington hard-liners had begun circulating “intelligence” every bit as specious as that used to justify the war in Iraq. The Salvador guerrilla offensive, the intelligence reports falsely argued, was being directly supported by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas next door.
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.