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When the Witness Is Under Attack : El Salvador: The U.S. is attempting to undermine the credibility of a witness to the murder of six Jesuit priests.

December 17, 1989|Jefferson Morley | Jefferson Morley is Washington editor of the Nation magazine

WASHINGTON — Luisa Cerna is believed to be the only witness to the assassination of six Jesuit leaders in El Salvador last month. Here, for the first time, is Cerna's own story in her own words.

U.S. officials publicly described her account as "worthless." This negative response from the U.S. government says almost as much about the reality of U.S. policy in El Salvador as the killing of the priests themselves.

The U.S. government professes to be outraged by the killings and determined to identify those responsible. If justice is not done in this case, say these officials, then aid to El Salvador from the United States is in jeopardy.

The assassins of the priests have heard this before. U.S. officials used precisely the same language after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in March, 1980. No action was taken against his killers and the United States increased its aid.

When four U.S. religious workers were killed by government troops in December, 1980, loud indignation and threats again erupted out of official Washington. The men who ordered the killings were never punished, and U.S. aid again increased.

So, too, after the killings of two North American labor advisers in January, 1981. So too after the Salvadoran Army slaughtered 75 unarmed peasants in the village of Las Hojas in 1983.

Each time U.S. officials professed outrage, promised action, obtained no results and increased U.S. military aid. The Salvadoran government now receives more than $1 million a day from the United States.

After the priests were killed, U.S. Ambassador William G. Walker said, "I have told everybody that the U.S. stands ready to do whatever it can to help in the investigations." Cerna may have made the mistake of believing him.

On the night the priests were killed, Cerna, a housekeeper, lay nearby, listening and watching. The next day she went to another Jesuit priest who asked the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to protect her. The embassy agreed, arranging to send her, her husband and daughter to Miami.

Cerna was accompanied at all times by a State Department official, Richard Chedester. Cerna was not allowed to talk to the press, but she was allowed to make at least two personal phone calls. This is her story.

Cerna was "very depressed and very scared," said one person who spoke to her. "She kept on saying, 'It's the (Salvadoran) army, it's the army," that had done the killings. She was scared for her family members who are still in El Salvador.

During that phone conversation, Cerna said the night of the killings was the first she had spent on the campus of the University of Central America. Left-wing guerrillas had taken over her neighborhood, and government troops were attacking. She fled the violence, turning to her employers for refuge.

She asked Ignacio Martin-Baro, one of the slain priests, if she could stay there. He said of course; she could stay as long as she wanted.

That night, as Cerna slept in an extra bed in one of the priests' houses, she said she was awakened by shouting. When she finally dared to look outside, she could see uniformed men. Most of the time she listened.

"The only thing that separated me from them (the priests) was a garden," Cerna told her friend. "I could hear everything. One of them (the uniformed men) was hitting them (the priests) with a stick like they were cattle. They treated them worse than animals. Nachito (Martin-Baro's nickname) was shouting. Then they shot them, one by one, and I couldn't do anything. I felt terrible."

By phone, Cerna told her friends how much she had loved the priests who were slain.

When she began working at the university she didn't even know how to use the telephone, Cerna admitted. The priests taught her.

She said Martin-Baro, the vice-rector of the university, taught her to believe in herself, how to be sure of herself, not to let anyone treat her as something less than anyone else.

"They liked me because I was a hard worker and I was efficient. That was important to them." She said she reciprocated their affection by attending to their smallest needs, arranging one priest's personal effects in the way he liked, and ironing the shirts of another in a special way.

At one point in her phone conversations, Cerna began to cry. She said she hadn't cried since she had witnessed the killings.

"I hope they (the U.S. government) do justice. These people were so good, they had done so much."

In pursuing justice, the U.S. government had two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogate Cerna for three days. She was not allowed to have anyone with her during the questioning, according to Scott Greathead, a representative of the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, now working on the case.

Yet an official from the Salvadoran government was present during the questioning, according to FBI and State Department officials.

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