Early one autumn morning in 1989, a death squad stormed through the gates of Central American University in El Salvador. When its work was finished, six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers lay dead. One victim was my friend the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria, the university rector.
Finally one of the Salvadoran officers who allegedly organized this slaughter, Inocente Orlando Montano, is facing justice. He was found living in Everett. Now a US court is considering a request to extradite him to Spain, where he and 19 other Salvadorans have been indicted for five of the murders. His boss, a former Salvadoran defense minister, has also been a target of American justice. But this is not real justice.
Salvadorans fired the weapons that killed my friend, but part of the responsibility lies with those who pulled the strings from Washington. Americans and Salvadorans should be in the dock together.
Prosecuting soldiers who massacred civilians in El Salvador makes us feel good. It confirms our contempt for Central American thugs. At the same time, it fills us with pride for the relentless work of American officials who pursue those killers. This reaffirms the sense of moral superiority that is part of our collective psyche.
Salvadoran soldiers killed tens of thousands of civilians during their scorched-earth campaign in the 1980s. The elite military unit that murdered the six Jesuits and carried out other notorious massacres was called the Atlacatl Battalion. It was created as a rapid-response counterinsurgency unit by American trainers at the US Army School of the Americas, then located in the Panama Canal Zone. Instructors there taught a “national security” doctrine based on the principle that terrorists are not simply people with guns or bombs, but all who hold subversive ideas.
Many Salvadoran officers who held command positions during the 1980s were trained at the School of the Americas. Among them were Montano, who evidently planned the massacre of the Jesuits; the defense minister who authorized the operation; and the commander of the squad that carried it out. All believed they were acting in accordance with United States policy, which was dedicated to killing Salvadoran guerrillas and all who sympathized with them.
American-trained officers also directed the rape and murder of four American church women in El Salvador early in 1981. The heroic US ambassador who swore that the killers would never get away with their crime, Robert White, was fired days after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. Later Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that the women might have been killed in “an exchange of fire.” That was a signal to Salvadorans that the United States would help cover up the truth about such killings.
President Reagan steadfastly supported the Salvadoran military despite overwhelming evidence of its crimes. So did Haig and other senior officials in the Reagan administration. It is a parody of justice that their legacy remains honorable while triggermen who did their bidding are demonized.
Writing about one of the former Salvadoran officers now targeted by American justice, two former Reagan administration officials recently asserted, “He was there when the US needed him.” They know. One of them, Edwin Corr, was ambassador to El Salvador at the height of the killing campaign in the mid-1980s. The other, Elliott Abrams, was assistant secretary of state. Their commentary was insightful but did not go far enough.
The Salvadoran justice system has every right to prosecute Salvadoran officers who tortured and murdered during the 1980s. For the United States to feign outrage at their crimes, however, is unfair. Those officers were pawns in a game directed from Washington. True justice would target the people who conceived, blessed, and financed El Salvador’s counterinsurgency campaign. Executioners’ faces are always well hidden, but in this case, they speak English, worked in Washington during the 1980s, and remain respectable cocktail-party guests.
There is, of course, no real prospect that the American masterminds of El Salvador’s killing campaign will be brought to justice in this world. Next best would be for Americans to accept a measure of responsibility as a nation. That might lead us to pause before giving blank checks to regimes we know to be murderous.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.