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Six Jesuit Priests Slain in Salvador

A pre-dawn raid on a university leaves two other people dead. The shootings come amid government air strikes on rebel-held parts of the capital.

November 17, 1989|Richard Boudreaux and Marjorie Miller | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

San Salvador — The rector of El Salvador's Jesuit-run university and five other Jesuit priests were murdered Thursday in a pre-dawn raid on their campus dormitory, apparently by gunmen in military uniform who rousted them from their sleep.

The shootings, which occurred during a dusk-to-dawn curfew in an army-occupied neighborhood, stunned a nation already brutalized by six days of the deadliest urban combat of a decade-old guerrilla war. They came as the government's heaviest air strikes drove tens of thousands from their homes in the capital.

El Salvador's right-wing leaders, their leftist guerrilla enemies and the Bush Administration joined Roman Catholic church officials in condemning the killings. President Alfredo Cristiani ordered an investigation.

"If there are people involved who turn out to be members of the armed forces, then the weight of the law must fall on them," Cristiani said.

Among the dead were Father Ignacio Ellacuria, 59, rector of the Central American University, four members of his faculty and another Roman Catholic priest. All were Jesuits and leading leftist intellectuals who favored a negotiated peace and became targets of right-wing death threats.

The bullet-riddled bodies of four of the priests were found at daybreak in the yard outside their dormitory, a few feet from a white-and-gray concrete wall that was sprayed with blood. Two others were found on the red tile floors of dormitory rooms, having apparently been dragged there after being killed execution-style in the yard.

All but one priest, who was fully dressed and shod, died in nightclothes and slippers. Four had parts of their skulls blown away.

The dormitory cook and her teen-aged daughter were found shot to death in their room in a nearby building. They apparently were the only others asleep on the walled-in premises when the killers arrived.

Jesuit officials said a score of spent cartridges were found in the women's room and 50 others were scattered about the yard. Cristiani said judicial and police investigators, who arrived at the scene at 9:30 a.m., found cartridges from AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles.

It was the most brutal massacre of leftist figures here since the execution of five political leaders 10 years ago this month, and the most shocking assault on the church since the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in March, 1980.

That same year, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered on the road to San Salvador from the international airport. Their deaths were among the thousands attributed to right-wing military and paramilitary death squads in the early 1980s.

On Thursday, Romero's successor, Msgr. Arturo Rivera y Damas, led a prayer over the bloodied, disfigured bodies before government investigators arrived.

"Those who killed these priests are the same ones who killed Msgr. Romero," he declared. Then he added, "I hope that what has just happened will help us build peace and justice in this country."

It was the closest that hesitant church leaders came to blaming the government.

In Rome, the headquarters of the Jesuit order condemned "this barbarous violence that has claimed so many other victims among the people of Salvador."

Romero's killers have not been brought to justice, but strong evidence exists that a close aide to Roberto d'Aubuisson, a founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) that is now in power, was involved in the murder. The evidence has been dismissed by the Arena-led legislature and the Supreme Court.

Father Jose Maria Tojeira, head of the Jesuit order in El Salvador, said two witnesses saw about 30 armed men in military uniform inside the university compound between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., a few hours after heavy army patrols began in the middle-class university district.

Tojeira said people in the neighborhood, which has not been the scene of fighting, heard shooting for 20 to 30 minutes at that hour.

Church officials withheld the names of the two eyewitnesses, for the sake of their security. Church sources said one witness was a night watchman who escaped after the intruders scaled a wall and fired a rocket or grenade into the dormitory.

Doors to the priests' tiny quarters looked as if they had been forced or shot open. Their desks and bookshelves were ransacked.

Besides Ellacuria, the dead priests were Ignacio Martin-Baro, 47, the university vice rector and head of its polling institute; Amando Lopez, 53, and Juan Ramon Moreno, 56, both professors of philosophy and theology; Segundo Montes, 56, a sociology professor; Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, 71, a founder of church schools for slum children. All but Lopez y Lopez were born in Spain.

Church officials said the intruders apparently killed Elba Julia Ramos, 42, and her 15-year-old daughter, Celina, because they did not want to leave witnesses.

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