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Twenty Years After the Murder of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador

Photo: Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) receives an honorary degree from the University of Central America in El Salvador.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) '81 '84 receives an honorary degree from the University of Central America in El Salvador for his role investigating the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the UCA twenty years ago.

On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered in El Salvador.

The killings marked a turning point in that country’s brutal civil war. The world took notice; the United States slashed aid to the El Salvadoran army, which carried out the executions, and three years later a peace accord was signed. Earlier this month, Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), CAS/BA ’81, SPA/MPA ’84, and School of Public Affairs dean William LeoGrande traveled to the Central American nation where they played key roles in commemorating the historic 20-year anniversary of the murders.

It was an emotional trip for both men, each of whom has a long and deep connection to the country. Both have been visiting El Salvador since the early 1980s, and each had a personal relationship with some of the fallen priests.

McGovern, who as a staffer for former Rep. Joe Moakley played an integral part in cutting U.S. aid to the El Salvadoran army, was awarded an honorary degree in human rights from the University of Central America, where the priests lived and worked.

“I was honored and deeply touched,” McGovern said of the degree. “Three of the priests that were murdered were friends of mine. I had worked with them on refugees. It was an opportunity to celebrate the lives of these priests. In getting my honorary degree, I told the audience my work with the priests impacted my life greatly. Jesuits in El Salvador taught me that religion and faith are about more than rituals or even prayer—it’s about action. That’s one of the reasons they were killed. They stood with the poor on behalf of human rights and social justice, and ultimately they were murdered for their progressive views.”

LeoGrande, one of the country’s preeminent Central American scholars, first went to El Salvador in 1982. He spoke on a panel that examined the history of the war, what the Jesuits meant during the war, and the problems faced by El Salvador today.

“I knew two of the priests that were killed,” LeoGrande said. “Like everyone else, when I went down there I made sure to stop in and get their assessment of what was going on. To see the extent to which they’ve become not just national heroes but national icons is very emotional. It really is an inspiration to people in the country from all different political persuasions.”

McGovern first began focusing on El Salvador in 1983 when his boss, Moakley, asked him to start studying the situation. After the priests were murdered, McGovern worked on a House panel that investigated the slayings.

“In the United States we weren’t paying attention to El Salvador,” he said. “Thousands of people were being killed every year whose murders didn’t make the front page of the Washington Post. The murders of the priests did. One of them was the rector of the university. They were very active in the political system.

“We spent a year looking at the killings; we found that the Salvadoran military murdered the priests,” McGovern said. “Moakley introduced an amendment to cut military aid to El Salvador that passed. I believe that helped pave the way for the peace negotiations. No longer did the government get a blank check from the United States. The insurgents thought this would be a good time to sit down.”

Remarkably, El Salvador has enjoyed relative political peace since the war, which began in the 1970s, ended 17 years ago. The United Nations estimates that more than 75,000 civilians were killed, 80 percent of them by the army, LeoGrande said.

“It’s a country that went through an awful lot,” he said. “A lot of people gave their lives trying to make it better, and I knew some of them. They’ve come an amazingly long way. They’ve been able to get the army out of politics, almost eliminate political violence, and now make a transition from the extreme right wing party which was in government before, to now the old guerrilla movement that’s become a political party, having won the last election and taken power. They’ve done all that without a lot of political turmoil.”

Which is not to say that problems do not exist. An influx of the gang culture from the United States, where roughly a third of El Salvadorans reside, highlights the problem of criminal violence.

“It’s still a country that has very serious inequalities between rich and poor,” LeoGrande said. “You’ve got a situation where there’s a lot of young men, there’s a lot of weapons still floating around for the war, there’s not a lot of jobs. So you get criminal violence as a result.”

Still, LeoGrande returned impressed by the progress the country has achieved in just two decades since the murders of eight innocents altered the course of history.

“If the Jesuits were alive today and could see how far El Salvador has come, they’d be proud of what’s been accomplished,” he said. “But they wouldn’t think the work was done. There’s still a lot that needs to be taken care of on the social and economic front.”