The Six Jesuit Scholars and the American War on Self-Determination

Twenty-five years ago this week, six Jesuit scholars at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in El Salvador opened the doors of their residence to members of a government death squad, who had been armed and trained by the United States. The soldiers marched the priests to the back garden. They were ordered to lie face down. They were shot and killed like dogs along with their housekeeper and her teenage daughter.

Father Ignacio Ellacuría Bescoetxea, one of the six Jesuits executed that night, had been a vocal advocate for a negotiated political settlement to the war that had devastated the small Central American country over the course of the decade. On November 16, 1989, Ellacuría would become one of the more than 75,000 killed in the brutal violence carried out by the military dictatorship.

The ruling junta was the beneficiary of billions in military aid from the United States government, which they received for their efforts to suppress a populist rebellion by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Nine years earlier, Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero had been gunned down at the altar by a death squad member while he was in the middle of celebrating Mass. Before his assassination, Romero had sent a letter to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to stop sending military aid to the Salvadoran military junta. Romero made his case to Carter “because you are a Christian and because you have shown that you want to defend human rights.”

At its peak during the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, U.S. aid to the military government averaged $1.5 million per day. Romero argued that by arming and training the military of El Salvador “the contribution of your government instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador will without a doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.”

Romero’s letter went unanswered. Two weeks later, Romero was dead at the hand of the same forces he had warned Carter of.

Romero was a proponent of Liberation Theology, a movement within the Catholic Church that encouraged the poor to seek freedom from oppression. This religious philosophy was a manifestation of the fight for social justice that was taking place across the world in societies where large majorities of local populations had been exploited by centuries of colonialism, slavery and white supremacy. These people sought to attain their basic human needs such as education and health care by achieving self-determination.

The right to self-determination is one of the most fundamental pillars of human rights. As stated in The United Nations Declaration on Granting Independence of Colonial Countries and Peoples: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

The assassinations of the UCA scholars and Archbishop Romero were part of a decades-long U.S. military campaign to wipe out Liberation Theology and other forms of political agency throughout Latin America. This war was waged through terror and violence by client regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and other states. Hundreds of thousands of peasants, clergy, labor leaders, students, scholars, and human rights activists were targeted and eliminated because they shared the belief that people should be able to freely participate in their government and their economy.

The training center in the fight against Latin American populist movements was the School of the Americas (SOAS). Originally located in Panama – where the murderers of the six Jesuit priests were trained – SOAS was later relocated to Fort Benning in Georgia. The “School of Assassins“, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is still open today.

SOAS was developed to “provide instruction necessary to the nations in Latin America to thwart armed communist insurgencies.” The military proudly declared on its Web site that Liberation Theology “was defeated with the assistance of the U.S. Army.”

Through instructions codified in the SOA Manuals, Latin American trainees – many of whom later became members of death squads, irregular paramilitary forces, and leaders of military dictatorships – were taught to use “torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations.”

“More than a thousand of these manuals were distributed for use in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, and the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991,” writes SOA Watch.

Traditionally, armies in Latin America had been used exclusively for defense against foreign aggression. But during the Kennedy administration, the U.S. government encouraged states to redirect their use towards suppressing internal threats (i.e., political opposition) from “communists” and “subversives.”

After the CIA-sponsored coup against democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, Guatemala was returned to military rule and lavished with billions in U.S. military aid. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan called Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt: “A man of great personal integrity … totally dedicated to democracy” who was “getting a bum rap” for his war against peasant guerilla (mostly indigenous) groups. Decades later, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide for ordering the deaths of 1,771 people during his time in power.

In her testimonial book I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, the author recalls that after kidnapping her brother, government soldiers told a girl and her mother who followed after the soldiers: “‘Do you want us to do the same to you, do you want us to rape you right here?’ … And he told the señora that if they didn’t go away they’d be tortured just like he was going to be because he was a communist and a subversive, and subversives deserved to be punished and to die.”  ((Menchú, R. (2010). I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Verso.))

Menchú’s brother was later burned alive with other “subversives” in the town square in front of Menchú, her entire family, and the rest of the town. The prisoners were beaten to a bloody pulp, their nails ripped off and the soles of their feet cut off before being set on fire. She recalled the captain telling the town the torture and murder of the captured men and women was: “so that everyone could see for themselves what their punishment had been and realize that if we got mixed up in communism, in terrorism, we’d be punished the same way.”  ((Ibid))

In Nicaragua, the CIA recruited, trained and armed a terrorist army, the Contras, to fight against that country’s freely elected Sandinista revolutionary government. The Contras were instructed by their American advisors to attack “soft targets.”

In 1984, Nicaragua sued the United States government in the World Court. The U.S. was found guilty of encouraging human rights violations, violating another country’s sovereignty and mining its harbors. The U.S. refused to recognize the ICJ verdict and vetoed a U.N. resolution to enforce the decision.

Millions of people were killed directly by U.S. forces or indirectly through proxy forces receiving U.S. aid from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in Asia to Angola, Mozambique, Zaire and Gineau Bissau in Africa to Iran in the Middle East. All across the globe, anywhere popular movements sought to determine their fate in a way that was inconsistent with U.S. political and economic goals, they were met with ruthless violence and terror.

As William Blum explains in his book Killing Hope, it was not just communism that U.S. policy makers were seeking to root out but any form of political organization incompatible with American influence and domination.

“The whole thing had been a con game. The Soviet Union and something called communism per se had not been the object of Washington’s global attacks,” Blum writes. “There had never been an International Communist Conspiracy. The enemy was, and remains, any government or movement, or even individual, that stands in the way of the expansion of the American Empire; by whatever name the US gives to the enemy-communist, rogue state, drug trafficker, terrorist.”  ((Blum, W. (2008). Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II – Updated Through 2003. Common Courage Press.))

Given this context, should the American crusade against Liberation Theology, Marxism, nationalism and other expressions of self-determination be considered a form of genocide? The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines the term as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Groups who share an ideology do not meet this definition. But is it any less of a crime to torture, maim, and murder millions of people because of their political beliefs? If not genocide, then there should be a new name for the crime of using violence to prevent self-determination.

In a week where the U.S. public remembered the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and celebrated Veterans Day, there will be no public acknowledgement of the murder of the six Jesuit priests. But we can honor their memories by recognizing them as victims not only of a civil conflict in El Salvador, but as victims of a larger campaign of persecution and violence as serious as any international crime of modern times.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy, and Latin America. You can follow him on twitter. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.