Murder of UCA scholars

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The massacre of six Jesuit scholars/priests, their housekeeper and her daughter took place during the Salvadoran Civil War on November 16, 1989, at the campus of Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas" (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador.[1] Armed men in uniforms burst into their shared residence and gunned down everyone within.


All those murdered were employees of Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas", in San Salvador, El Salvador. Six of them were scholars and Catholic priests (Ignacio, Segundo, Ignacio, Juan Ramón, Joaquín and Amando). One of those murdered (Elba Ramos) was employed as a domestic worker at the university residence and Celina Ramos was Elba Ramos' daughter.[2]

The political implications of the scholars' commitment to their work and ideas met strong opposition from political forces in El Salvador. This opposition led to this massacre, which was carried out by the Salvadoran army, on November 16, 1989. These scholars, priests and domestic workers were massacred at their own residence in UCA. Their murder marked a turning point in the Salvadoran civil war (see History of El Salvador). On the one hand it increased international pressures on the Salvadoran government to sign peace agreements with the guerrilla organization FMLN. On the other, it helped make their ideas (until then known only in Latin America and Spain), become known worldwide.



  • All descriptions of events in this section are taken from the Truth Commission's report[3] and the Summary of accusations admitted by the Spanish court, against the members of the Salvadoran military who were sentenced for the crime.[4]

The massacre was carried out by members of the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite unit of the Salvadoran Army, November 16, 1989. The Atlacatl Battalion, a former Salvadoran Army unit, was a rapid-response, counter-insurgency battalion created in 1980 at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, then located in Panama. Implicated in some of the most infamous incidents of the Salvadoran Civil War, the Battalion was named for Atlacatl, a figure from Salvadoran history legendary for his resistance to the Spanish conquest of Central America.

The Pastoral Centre of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador was considered a "refuge of subversives" by the Army; Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Vice-Minister for Defence, had publicly accused UCA of being the center of operations for "FMLN terrorists". Colonel Inocente Montano, Vice-Minister for Public Security, stated publicly that the Jesuits were "fully identified with subversive movements".

In negotiations for a peaceful solution to the conflict, Father Ellacuria had played a pivotal role. Many of the armed forces identified the Jesuit priests with the rebels, because of their special concern for those Salvadorians who were poorest and thus most affected by the war.

On the evening of November 15, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno met with officers under his command at the Military College, to inform them that the General Staff considered the recent rebel offensive "critical", to be met with full force, including artillery and armored vehicles. Additionally, all "known subversive elements" were to be eliminated; he himself had been ordered to eliminate Father Ellacuria, leaving no witnesses.

The officers involved decided to disguise the operation as a rebel attack. According to the Truth Commission's report, "[i]t was decided to use an AK-47 rifle belonging to Major Hernández Barahona, because the weapon had been captured from FMLN and was identifiable. The rifle was entrusted to private Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, who knew how to use it."

A few hours later, lieutenants Espinoza Guerra and Mendoza Vallecillos and Second Lieutenant Guevara Cerritos arrived at some empty buildings close to the UCA campus in two pick-up trucks, with the soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion. There, they met awaiting soldiers of the Battalion. Lieutenant Espinoza ordered some to keep watch while the rest entered the Jesuit's residence.

The soldiers initially tried to force their way into the building, until the priests opened the doors to them, allowing them to enter. After ordering the priests to lie on face-down in the back garden, the soldiers searched the residence. After lieutenant Guerra gave the order to kill the priests, Fathers Ellacuria, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by private Grimaldi, while Fathers López and Moreno were killed by Deputy Sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas. Subsequently, the soldiers discovered Father Joaquín López y López in the residence and killed him as well.

Additionally, deputy sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo shot Julia Elba Ramos, the housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos; Private José Alberto Sierra Ascencio then shot them both again to "finish them off".

After removing a small suitcase belonging to the priests, containing photographs, documents and $5,000, the soldiers fired a machine gun at the façade of the residence, as well as rockets and grenades. They left a cardboard sign which read "FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN."

1991 trial[edit]

According to a trial conducted in 1991, the murders were ordered by officers of the Salvadoran Army. Nine members of the Salvadoran military were put on trial, but there was enough evidence to convict only colonel Guillermo Benavides and lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza. The others were either absolved, or found guilty of other lesser crimes. Benavides and Mendoza were to serve 30 years in prison.[5] However, they were both liberated on April 1, 1993, as a result of the Salvadoran Amnesty Law. This law was approved with the purpose of avoiding a witch hunt, following the Salvadoran civil war. The results of this trial were confirmed by the report presented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of El Salvador. This report additionally explains how members of the Salvadoran Military, as well as other recognized figures of political life in El Salvador, concealed vital information in order to cover up the people who were responsible for this massacre. One of the persons mentioned by the report is the lawyer and politician Rodolfo Parker, who currently leads the Christian Democratic Party (El Salvador) and is also a deputy (legislator), in the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador. He allegedly "altered statements in order to conceal the responsibility of senior officers for the murder".[6]

The Jesuits in El Salvador have never given up the case. Their express purpose has not been to punish the authors and perpetrators of this crime, but to find out the truth about this massacre. The work with this case has been led by José María Tojeira, UCA's former rector. They have received the technical support of UCA's Institute of Human Rights - IDHUCA. This institute was founded by Segundo Montes, one of the slain scholars during this massacre. The work done by IDHUCA and the Jesuits has consisted mainly in trying to use the mechanisms available through the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in order to bypass the Salvadoran Amnesty Law of 1993 [7][8]

Spanish court reopens the case[edit]

In 2008, two human rights organizations, The Center for Justice and Accountability and The Spanish Association for Human Rights, filed lawsuit in a Spanish court, against the former Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani and 14 members of the Salvadoran Military, for the direct responsibility of this massacre. Judge Eloy Velasco admitted this lawsuit in 2009, on the basis of the principle of universal justice.[9]

According to José María Tojeria, the Jesuits and UCA had nothing to do with this lawsuit.[10]

During the course of this judicial process, an unknown witness in the case confessed about his participation in this massacre, implicating the High Command of the Salvadoran Military, as well as former president Alfredo Cristiani. Judge Velasco's resolution on the demand initially included investigations on the 14 implicated members of the Salvadoran Military, excluding the former Salvadoran president, but including the Military High Command, represented by General (Colonel, at that time) René Emilio Ponce (who then was chief of defence of El Salvador). However, this new testimony has opened up the investigation of former president Cristiani as well.[11] Some of the most compelling evidence that has been available for journalists consists of notes taken by hand during a meeting of the Salvadoran Military's High Command. The massacre was allegedly planned during this meeting, and both the military's High Command and the country's Executive were probably aware of, if not directly involved in, these planning meetings.[12] Declassified documents by the CIA have recently shed new light on this case. These documents indicate that for many years the CIA had had knowledge of the Salvadoran government's plans to murder the Jesuits.[13]

On May 30, 2011, the court ruled against 20 Salvadoran members of the military, and ordered their immediate arrest internationally. President Cristiaini was not included in the ruling, but all of the other accused were found guilty on the counts of murder, terrorism and crimes against humanity. According to the substantiation of the ruling, the accused took advantage of an initial war context, to perpetrate violations to human rights, with the aggravating character of xenophobia. Five of the murdered scholars were originally Spanish citizens. The propaganda against them, that prepared the context for the murder, called them leftist neoimperialists from Spain, who were in El Salvador to reinstate colonialism.

If all of the sentences are added, the accused could serve up to 2700 years in prison.

The ruling of the Spanish court specifies that the Jesuits were murdered for having made efforts to end the Salvadoran civil war peacefully. The planning of the murder started when peace negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN were broken, in 1989. The leadership of the Salvadoran military were convinced that they could win the war against the FMLN militarily. Therefore, they interpreted Ignacio Ellacuria's efforts for peace negotiations as an inconvenience that had to be eliminated.

The operation against the Jesuits involved cooperation between several military institutions. It consisted of a psychological campaign to delegitimize the Jesuits in the media, accusing them of conspiracy and cooperation with FMLN; military raids against the university, and the Jesuits' home, in order to map and plan the operation; and finally, the massacre, perpetrated by the Atlacatl battalion.[14][15]


On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, president Mauricio Funes awarded the Order of José Matías Delgado, Grand Cross with Gold Star, to the six murdered scholars/priests. This is the greatest recognition that can be granted by the Salvadoran government. President Mauricio Funes was educated by the Jesuits in El Salvador, by attending and graduating from both Externado San José and Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas". Funes knew the slain scholars personally and considered some of them his personal friends. He has mentioned his relationship to the murdered scholars of UCA as of particular significance in his professional and personal development.[16][17]

Several academic chairs and research centers in the world are named after some of these slain intellectuals. For example, the "Ignacio Ellacuría" chair at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico[18] or at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Spain.[19] Other examples are the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights at Boston College,[20] the Ignacio Martín-Baró prizes at the University of Chicago, and the Segundo Montes community in Morazán, which consists of repatriated refugees. Segundo Montes' research and activism were dedicated to defending the rights of Salvadoran refugees.

Most of these scholars are also credited for lasting contributions to the fields of philosophy, (liberation) theology (Ellacuría), psychology (Martin-Baró) and social anthropology/migration studies (Montes). Their work is still a fundamental reference to study the Central American region. Much of what they wrote was not ready for publication. Some of it has been published by, among others, UCA Editores. But there is still a lot of their material that has not been categorized or published. One of the reasons for this is that they considered unethical to use UCA's publications channels, to spread their research, when they were leading authorities at this University. Likewise, their research was so innovative and country specific, something that made it hard to attract the interest of other international journals. However, much of their work was published post-mortem, at UCA Editores.

Chomsky on the slain scholars[edit]

American linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky has contrasted the reception of dissidents in Eastern Europe at that time with that of the slain priests, who remain relatively obscure:

"Closer to the explanation is your observation that they [Eastern European dissidents] were supported by the US and the Vatican, unlike dissidents elsewhere, who were supported by no one with any power or influence. But that is a great understatement: they [Eastern European dissidents] were given massive support and attention by the entire Western world, quite unprecedented support, vastly greater than the support given to people within Western domains who were suffering far worse oppression and were defending freedom and justice with far greater courage. The disparity is so extraordinary that the very word "dissident" in Western languages refers to East Europeans; no one, except those few who have extricated themselves from the Western propaganda system, even uses the word "dissident" for people like the Central American Jesuit intellectuals who were assassinated in November 1989 by elite forces armed and trained by the US. And while every word of East European dissidents is widely publicized, hailed, and treasured, try to find even a reference to the very important and courageous writings of Fr. Ellacuría and his associates, or other Central American dissidents who had to flee from slaughter or were simply tortured and killed by US-run forces." [21]


  1. ^ "Galerías de Fotos. Celebración. Mártires de la UCA 2010", Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas" (in Spanish), November 16, 2010, retrieved 25 April 2011 
  2. ^ ""Preface", In: Jon Sobrino & Ignacio Ellacuria (eds). Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology", Jon Sobrino, London: SCM Press, p. vii, 1996 
  3. ^ "1993 Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador", UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, 1993, retrieved 2013-10-21 
  4. ^ "Sumario 97/10. Juzgado de instrucción número 6, Audiencia Nacional, Madrid. Firma, Eloy Velasco Núñez" (PDF). Juzgado de instrucción número 6, Audiencia Nacional, Madrid (in Spanish). May 31, 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  5. ^ "Los acusados", Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas" (in Spanish), November 16, 2009, retrieved 25 April 2011 
  6. ^ "Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, pg. 47", United Nations, April 1, 1993, retrieved 25 April 2011 
  7. ^ "Dimisión en el juicio salvadoreño por el asesinato de jesuitas". El País (in Spanish). January 1, 1991. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  8. ^ "Jesuitas esperan justicia a 17 años de masacre". Radio La Primerísima (in Spanish). November 16, 2006. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  9. ^ "Audiencia Nacional de España investigará a 14 militares". Diario Co Latino (in Spanish). January 13, 2009. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  10. ^ "Presentan demanda en España contra el ex presidente salvadoreño Alfredo Cristiani". La Jornada (in Spanish). November 16, 2006. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  11. ^ "Ex militar implicado en asesinato jesuitas confiesa en España". El Faro (digital newspaper) (in Spanish). July 5, 2010. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  12. ^ "El ex presidente Cristiani sabía que iban a atentar contra el padre Ellacuría". El Mundo (Spain) (in Spanish). July 5, 2010. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  13. ^ "Declassified Docs Shed Light on Jesuits' Murders". Inter Press Service. November 27, 2009. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  14. ^ "Procesados 20 cargos militares de El Salvador por matar a Ellacuría". El País (in Spanish). May 31, 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  15. ^ "Sumario 97/10. Juzgado de instrucción número 6, Audiencia Nacional, Madrid. Firma, Eloy Velasco Núñez" (PDF). Juzgado de instrucción número 6, Audiencia Nacional, Madrid (in Spanish). May 31, 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  16. ^ "Mártires jesuitas reciben Orden José Matías Delgado". XX Aniversario - Mártires de la UCA (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  17. ^ "Yo voy a conducir el Estado y no vamos a construir socialismo - Entrevista con Mauricio Funes". El Faro (digital newspaper) (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  18. ^ "Cátedra Ignacio Ellacuría". Universidad Iberoamericana (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  19. ^ "Cátedra Ignacio Ellacuría". Universidad Carlos III (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  20. ^ "Martín-Baró Fund". Martín-Baró Fund (in Spanish). Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  21. ^ "Noam Chomsky - Stefan Kubiak. E-mail correspondence. - - - - - -", Noam Chomsky, 1996, retrieved 2013-10-21 

External links[edit]