SAN SALVADOR AND MEXICO CITY — In a sign of the remarkable changes afoot in El Salvador, the government Monday bestowed the nation's highest award on six Jesuit priests slain by the army exactly 20 years ago.
Right-wing governments that ruled El Salvador since its civil war have traditionally relegated the case of the murdered Jesuits to a historic past they preferred to forget. But the election in March of a new president from a leftist political party made up of former guerrillas set the stage for Monday's recognition.
"We want this to be an act of recovering our collective memory," President Mauricio Funes said in the ceremony. "For me, this act means [we] pull back a heavy veil of darkness and lies to let in the light of justice and truth. We begin to cleanse our house of this recent history."
Funes, a former journalist who, like many Salvadorans, was educated by the Jesuits, presented golden medallions to relatives of the priests "for extraordinary service to the nation."
Stunning the audience, the minister of defense then said that the army was prepared to ask for forgiveness and that he was willing to open military archives to judicial investigators -- something that the priests' advocates have long demanded but the army steadfastly refused. The Funes government has not ordered such an investigation.
"If the government asks me to open the archives, I will do it," said the minister, Gen. David Munguia Payes, who fought in the war against the guerrillas and served in the early 1980s as part of the presidential guard.
The 1989 assassination of the priests, along with their cook and her young daughter, was a pivotal event in El Salvador's long civil war.
The priests were highly regarded intellectuals, promoters of justice for the poor and opponents of the war, and seen by the Salvadoran right as pro-left subversives.
Among them was Ignacio Ellacuria, a Spanish national who was one of the region's leading intellectuals and rector at the time of the Jesuit-run University of Central America, or UCA, in San Salvador.
Their killings provoked outrage worldwide; the pictures of the priests sprawled face down on the lawn of their modest home after being shot by soldiers were among the most haunting images of the war.
It was a bookend atrocity, in some ways, to the 1980 slaying of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot by an assassin as he said Mass. His death is often seen as a marker of the start of the civil war, and the Jesuits' killings the beginning of the end.
The 1989 assassinations finally broke long-standing U.S. administration support for the Salvadoran army and government, which in turn helped to force the end of the war in 1992.
A national truth commission, as well as several international investigations, established that top Salvadoran army officers had ordered and then covered up the slayings of the priests, whom the military accused of supporting the guerrillas.
Four officers and five soldiers were tried and convicted for their roles in the killings. No one, however, was higher in rank than a colonel, and all were released in 1993 under an amnesty law. No one in the top military leadership was prosecuted.
There is widespread suspicion in El Salvador and among U.S. officials that Roberto D'Aubuisson, one of the founders of the right-wing Arena party that ruled El Salvador until this year, ordered the Jesuits' killings during a meeting with other party officials in November 1989.
A lawsuit filed last year in a Spanish court is attempting to bring senior military and civilian officials to account.
Next week, attorneys and witnesses on behalf of the Jesuits' families will present evidence based on hundreds of pages of declassified U.S. documents from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The documents, including cables from U.S. Embassy, military and CIA officials in El Salvador to Washington, describe the Salvadoran army's "role in planning, ordering and committing the crime and covering it up afterward," said Kate Doyle, a researcher with the National Security Archive, a Washington-based organization that has been key in bringing much of the information to light.
The ceremony Monday in San Salvador drew participants from all over the world, including activists, religious figures, journalists from the country's civil war era, and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a follower of U.S. policy in Central America who has long demanded a full accounting of the Salvadoran and U.S. government roles in the killings.
"We've had to wait 20 years for this," said Father Jose Tojeira, the current UCA rector. "This is the first time that a Salvadoran government publicly and officially recognizes the courage, dignity and service of this group of academics and men of faith."
Still, there are many in El Salvador who are critical of Funes for not going far enough in pushing for a full airing of the Jesuit case.
The Jesuits "don't need homages," an editorial on the leading Salvadoran news website El Faro said Monday. "They need, and especially we Salvadorans need, to know the truth. . . . The new government . . . has fled from its moral obligation to demand the opening of an investigation."
Renderos is a special correspondent.