THE BLOG
11/11/2014 10:23 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

El Salvador Still Deserves Justice

Image Source via Getty Images

November 10, 2014

This weekend, I will be in San Salvador to honor the lives and work of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. They worked at the University of Central America (UCA) and they were murdered 25 years ago, on November 16, 1989, in a coordinated operation of the Salvadoran military by members of the Atlacatl Battalion.

Three of the murdered Jesuits were well-known in the United States and I was honored to call them my friends: University rector and world-renown intellectual Ignacio Ellacuría; Ignacio "Nacho" Martín-Baró, whose insightful research and analysis on the Salvadoran reality informed policymakers throughout the world; and Segundo Montes, whose advocacy, research and analysis about Salvadoran refugees in the United States influenced U.S. immigration policy throughout the 1980s.

I became involved in El Salvador in 1983 when I worked as a congressional aide for Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley. A group of concerned citizens in the Boston area brought the stories of several Salvadoran refugees to Joe's attention. After he listened to these stories and then began to meet with those refugees in person, he asked me to go to El Salvador and evaluate first-hand whether the stories were true. So I went, and found out the situation on the ground was even worse than what Joe had been told.

When the priests were killed, then Speaker Tom Foley appointed Joe to lead a congressional investigation into the case and make recommendations to Congress about policy and funding for El Salvador. Moakley asked me to staff the investigation. The Moakley Commission, as it came to be called, released a seminal report in 1990 that identified members of the Atlacatl Battalion as those who carried out the murders. Subsequent reports included the Commission's conclusions on who ordered, covered up and knew about the murders in the Salvadoran High Command and civilian government. The Commission's findings have been cited in the United Nations Truth Commission Report, which was mandated under the 1992 Salvadoran Peace Accords, and in numerous court cases, including the 1991 trial in San Salvador of the army triggermen and commanding officer.

As part of our investigation, I was deeply upset to find that 19 of the 26 members of the unit that killed the priests and women had received U.S. taxpayer-paid military training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). In addition, the Atlacatl Battalion received specialized training from U.S. Special Operations just two days before the operation to murder the Jesuits happened. At the time, it was just the latest atrocity in El Salvador committed by Salvadoran troops who had received extensive U.S. military training in-country and at the SOA. These include the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen; the 1981 murder of two U.S. labor advisors and the director of the Salvadoran agrarian reform program; the 1981 massacre at El Mozote; and the 1983 massacre at Las Hojas indigenous cooperative, to name but a few of the best-known cases.

After a 1999 bipartisan vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to shut down the SOA, the Pentagon changed its name in 2000 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). It continues to operate at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

The U.S. has never acknowledged any responsibility for the many assassinations, massacres, disappearances and repression perpetrated by the Salvadoran military and security forces against an innocent and unarmed civilian population. With the "re-branded" WHINSEC, the Pentagon pretends that the past doesn't exist. But even the WHINSEC can't escape the past, having invited Salvadoran military officers to be guest instructors even though they were named in the U.N. Truth Commission Report as responsible for murders and other human rights abuses. The WHINSEC began to classify the names of all its students and foreign faculty members in 2006 so as to avoid any further embarrassment. The House voted twice to restore the names to public domain, and this requirement was signed into law. But the Pentagon refuses, citing national security concerns. The matter is being settled in the courts.

Those who lost family and loved ones at the hands of U.S.-trained militaries have not forgotten the role the U.S., the SOA, and even the WHINSEC has played. At the time of the 20th anniversary of the Jesuit murders, the Government of El Salvador awarded its highest honors posthumously to the six Jesuits and two women. Then-President Mauricio Funes publicly apologized for the role of the State in the murders and asked forgiveness of the priests' and women's surviving family members. It was an extraordinary act of accountability and reconciliation.

Throughout Latin America -- in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador and elsewhere -- nations are struggling to document the truth of their turbulent and violent past and promote reconciliation. I await the day when the United States will recognize its own responsibility for the suffering and sorrow of so many families throughout Latin America, including El Salvador, ask forgiveness, and as an act of reconciliation, close the WHINSEC.