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In El Salvador, a grim reflection, and a glimmer of hope

The president has bestowed the country's highest honor on six Jesuit priests massacred 20 years ago, more evidence that peaceful change is possible, if slow to come.

November 23, 2009

Six Jesuit priests rousted from their beds in the night lay face down on the lawn, arms still stretched over their heads in a futile gesture of self-defense, skulls shattered by bullets. The University of Central America had been an intellectual oasis in El Salvador's civil war, but in the middle of a guerrilla offensive on the capital, the army moved in to kill those it saw as the brains behind the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

As I look back on those executions that I covered as a reporter 20 years ago in one of the last battles of the Cold War, I am struck by despair and hope. Despair, because what we saw in those days as a figurative beheading of the guerrilla movement has become both literal and routine in today's conflicts in Iraq and South Asia. Hope, because this year, nearly two decades after the Farabundo Marti front traded guns for politics, the right-wing party that had long ruled El Salvador peacefully transferred power to the left for the first time. President Mauricio Funes, the Farabundo Marti party's candidate, was educated by Jesuits at the University of Central America.

In fact, the Jesuits who were killed in 1989 were not part of the FMLN. University rector Ignacio Ellacuria and the other priests subscribed to the Catholic doctrine of liberation theology, which professed "a preferential option for the poor." They sought to address El Salvador's gross economic inequalities and to end human rights abuses committed by paramilitary death squads, the army and the conservative government. As a result, they were despised by the ruling elites, who saw them as indistinguishable from the leftist guerrillas. But unlike the guerrillas, the priests were opposed to armed struggle. They were men of reason who argued for dialogue between enemies.

Despite several investigations, many Salvadorans believe they have never had a full accounting of the massacre because its intellectual authors have not been identified. Two army officers were convicted for their roles in the killings in 1992, and released under an amnesty law the following year. Now a Spanish judge has opened a new investigation to consider the indictment of 14 top military officers at the time.

For the most part, El Salvador has not addressed the economic disparities that fueled the insurgency of the 1980s. But the political change was evident on the anniversary of the Jesuits' murder last week when Funes bestowed the country's highest honor on the priests in what he called an act of atonement. And the current defense minister, Gen. David Munguia Payes, volunteered to open military archives on the case and ask forgiveness for the crimes. This, like the democratic election of Funes, was an example that peaceful change is possible, if slow to come.

-- Marjorie Miller

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