Remembering The 1989 Massacre Of Jesuits In El Salvador On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were killed by a group of U.S.-backed soldiers in El Salvador's capital.

Remembering The 1989 Massacre Of Jesuits In El Salvador

Remembering The 1989 Massacre Of Jesuits In El Salvador

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On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were killed by a group of U.S.-backed soldiers in El Salvador's capital.


I want to take you back to November 16, 1989, to an eerily quiet morning in a sunny courtyard at a university in El Salvador. American freelance journalist Mary Jo McConahay heard that something horrible happened overnight.

MARY JO MCCONAHAY: We knocked on the door and saw what looked to be the forms of bodies under a sheet.

GREENE: Reporters were talking in hushed tones, their cameras clicking. There on campus were the bodies of six prominent Catholic Jesuit priests - also, their cook, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina. They were modern-day martyrs in one of the most high-profile religious crimes in recent Latin American history.

MCCONAHAY: A woman stopped us, and she said, tell the truth about what the armed forces are doing here. And then she just burst into tears.

GREENE: Tomorrow marks 30 years since that day in that courtyard.

MCCONAHAY: It's sacred ground.

GREENE: NPR's Danny Hajek has the story. And just a warning here, this piece begins with the sound of gunfire.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Outside the walls of the Central American University, El Salvador was being torn apart by civil war.


HAJEK: NPR's Alan Tomlinson was in the capital in 1989, caught in the crossfire between leftist guerrillas and the Salvadoran army.


ALAN TOMLINSON: We ourselves came under fire from a sniper.

HAJEK: During the 1980s, the United States sent over $4 billion to El Salvador's anti-communist military regime. But El Salvador's military, supported by the U.S., kidnapped, tortured and killed innocent civilians.

VICTOR ABALOS: There were always bodies being discovered in the dumps.

HAJEK: Victor Abalos reported in El Salvador in the '80s.

ABALOS: Young, old, women, men. And the theme was, for a lot of people, was that life was sort of cheap.

HAJEK: And the murders at that university 30 years ago, these were Jesuit priests - Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Amando Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno and Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, some of the top scholars in El Salvador, known for ministering to communities caught in war zones.

ABALOS: They were speaking for people who were too afraid to speak. You know, they had the mic at that time. They could deliver this message, which was - this is wrong.

HAJEK: This violence against the poor. And the country heard the priests' calls for social justice, including those who wanted them dead.

ABALOS: Whoever was viewed as the enemy was the enemy, and it didn't matter whether they wore a clerical collar or not.

HAJEK: Priests and nuns who stood with the poor were targets accused of communism. Right-wing death squads had a mantra back then - be a patriot, kill a priest. One of the murdered Jesuits, Segundo Montes, once spoke to NPR.


SEGUNDO MONTES: All of us (speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "We all must risk a little," he said. On November 16, 1989, the reports came flooding out of El Salvador.


LINDA WERTHEIMER: Six Jesuit priests from Central American University were tortured and murdered in San Salvador.

CARL KASELL: Six Jesuit Roman Catholic priests were tortured and assassinated...

HAJEK: The question loomed over all of this - did anyone know the truth?


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: The Jesuit priests say they have a witness.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: They have a witness - the witness saw...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: The only known witness...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #7: The woman is Lucia Cerna. She is the only living witness to what happened in the dark hours of that morning.

LUCIA CERNA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: This is Lucia Cerna, the witness.

CERNA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: It's a peaceful afternoon in her cozy living room. She asks that we not say where she lives today. Her husband Jorge sits in an armchair scrolling through the news, and when she talks about the priests, she smiles. Cerna was their housekeeper for 10 years. In her memoir, titled "La Verdad," Cerna says she knew every hall, every office, every corner of the priests' residence, because she cleaned it.

CERNA: (Through interpreter) I knew the priests so well, I could recognize the sound of their footsteps. They were such great people.

HAJEK: Cerna remembers being startled awake when soldiers opened fire on the residence where the six priests were sleeping.

CERNA: I saw them. I saw the men with all their equipment and uniforms. I was seeing it and hearing it all from the window.

HAJEK: The Jesuits' cook and her teenage daughter were found and shot. Lucia Cerna, Jorge and their 4-year-old huddled on the floor in a nearby house.

CERNA: One of the priests screamed. He said that it was an injustice. Then they pushed him up the stairs and they killed them, and everything was silent, as if nothing happened.

HAJEK: Cerna flew to a Radisson hotel in Miami, where the FBI questioned her. And she's long alleged that American officials intimidated and pressured her to change her story, saying that she never saw U.S.-backed Salvadoran soldiers that night, a claim that the FBI denied.

CERNA: (Through interpreter) I always told the truth. That's what the priests taught me.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

HAJEK: The funeral Mass overflowed with people near the courtyard where the massacre took place. Eight rose bushes were planted in the garden for the cook, her daughter and the six priests.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

HAJEK: The Jesuit murders drew the world's attention to a crisis in El Salvador, and Congress faced mounting pressure to end American support of a brutal military regime. A U.N.-sponsored report in 1993 concluded that the Jesuits were killed by a Salvadoran army battalion trained and equipped by the United States. As for Lucia Cerna, sitting in her living room 30 years later, she still wonders if she could have somehow changed the hearts of the soldiers who killed her friends.

CERNA: (Through interpreter) If the soldiers had spoken to me first, they wouldn't have done it. I would have told them not to, and they wouldn't have done it. I miss them always.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News.

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