Assassination and Civil War

On February 6, 1981, Campus Ministry sent a newsletter to the Loyola Marymount University community, informing them of an upcoming symposium about the “political, sociological, and religious” issues in El Salvador. The newsletter explained the reason for the symposium, arguing that

the atrocities being perpetrated upon the people of El Salvador, and upon the Church and its representatives in that country, demand exposure and response.

Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

What makes this newsletter noteworthy today is the last few words of that statement: exposure and response. The civil war in El Salvador began the year before in 1980, and its inception was marked with the assassination of a revered archbishop who criticized the Salvadoran government and was revolutionary in what he preached. His death was one of many Church representatives who died as a result, and one of thousands of atrocities committed by the Salvadoran government, which was aided by the United States. The extent of U.S. involvement and the atrocities committed, however, were actively concealed throughout the twelve years of war in El Salvador. At a time in history when the U.S. aided and concealed human rights violations that occurred during the war, LMU’s hosing of the symposium represented a moment of resistance. Being a Jesuit university, LMU’s interest in the Salvadoran civil war was tied to the prominent role of the Catholic Church, which placed it at odds with the U.S. government’s policies, as their aid to El Salvador funded a persecution of Church representatives.

El Salvador is a small country in Central America that has suffered from a revolving door of entities that attempted to control it. From the time of Spanish colonialism and even after independence, El Salvador had been under the control of dictatorial powers that suppressed the indigenous and peasant populations. With land being the dominant resource in the largely agrarian country, possession of land equaled power and was controlled by an elitist group known as the “Fourteen Families.” They ruled El Salvador through a series of military dictatorships, which left the rest of the population in poverty and reduced to serfdom. The extreme divide in socioeconomic status created the circumstances for cyclical peasant revolts and the formation of revolutionary leftist groups, which were met by brutal violence and executed on orders of the Salvadoran ruling class. Recognizing that the country was on the brink of war, a moderate party of military officials (JUNTA) took control of the government in an attempt to keep the peace through promised land reforms and rights for the peasant population. Seeking to maintain status and control, the far-right military and elitist groups created the ARENA party in response and worked to undermine the government.

Initially backing JUNTA as the best solution between the far-right dictatorship and the far-left peasantry, the U.S. government increased its aid to El Salvador. The aid consisted of economic support as well as military support in the form of supplies and increased training of military officers in the School of the Americas. But the JUNTA government carried little legitimacy without control of the military that was loyal to the elite families it had served. Right-wing forces from the ARENA party increased their influence within the government and the military and then forced the resignation of JUNTA party members and continued an agenda of repression and violence. With the far-right control of the military, all aid sent to El Salvador landed in their hands and fueled the brutal terrorism they executed throughout the country. The U.S. was aware of the actions, as seen in a 1979 letter to President Carter from Archbishop Romero, who asked that the U.S. stop its aid to El Salvador because the true power lied behind the military.

The brutal form in which the security forces recently attacked and assassinated the [illegible] of the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Party in spite of what appears to be lack of authorization for this operation from the JUNTA Government and [illegible] party is an indication that the JUNTA and the party do not govern the country. But that political power is in the hands of the unscrupulous military who only know how to repress the people and promote the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.

United States Embassy El Salvador, “Unclassified Cable: ‘Text of Archbishop’s Letter to
President Carter,’ February 19, 1980.”

This information was confirmed by the testimony of a member of the Salvadoran National Guard who confided to a U.S. ambassador that the JUNTA government would be overthrown (November 19, 1980 Cable). Both the U.S. ambassador and President Carter dismissed the possibility of a military mutiny and continued to send aid to El Salvador that only helped to exacerbate the violence (March 1, 1980 & November 19, 1980 Cables).

The violence expressed itself in high levels of human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran military and right-wing “death squads,” with the highest levels carried out by Salvadoran officers trained by the U.S. in the School of the Americas. Declassified training guides from the SOA describe torture techniques and “scorched earth”, among the tactics, that were taught and heavily implemented by the military, and add another example of the direct hand the U.S. had in the violence perpetuated (CIA Training Manual). These groups targeted and executed dissenting opponents mercilessly as the political climate became sharply polarized.  

Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated in March of 1980 in the middle of Mass offering.

The death squads targeted the Catholic Church and its representatives, in particular the most well-known activist, Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was an active critic of the Salvadoran government and the violence it committed towards its citizens, directly calling on soldiers to stop the killing of their own people. Romero preached this under Liberation Theology, which emphasized freedom from oppression through a religious foundation and encouraged revolutionary action from the people, an ideology that was widely embraced by Church representatives who felt it their duty to help the poor and the victims of the war.  Romero was a champion of revolution and resistance for the guerilla and civilian populations, but his outspokenness made him a target for the death squads, and he was assassinated in March 1980 while offering Mass. His death was strongly felt by the Salvadoran population and marked the onset of the civil war, but he was only one of many targeted Church representatives.  The Salvadoran government systematically persecuted Catholic personnel for their support of the guerilla revolutionaries and greatly alienated itself from the Church.  Even those who were not critical of the government suffered harassment and death due to the association of religious representatives with socialist sympathizers:

This appears to have been part of an attempt to serve notice to any who would work with real or potential guerilla supporters…’the civilian military junta and the right wing squads interpret this humanitarian work as being subversive.’ In this context, it becomes clear why so many members of the Catholic Church have been subject to intense repression.

Robert W. Taylor and Harry E. Vanden, “Defining Terrorism in El Salvador: ‘La Matanza’,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 463 (1982): 106-18.

Months after the assassination of Romero, four American Catholic nuns were raped and murdered while doing missionary work and providing relief to Salvadoran citizens.  The culmination of religious persecution and the beginning of the end of the war came with the assassination of six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers on a university campus in the middle of the night in 1989.

Despite knowledge of attacks against the Church and the civilian population, the U.S. continued to fund whichever right-wing party was in control for twelve years. It did so under the historical context of the ongoing Cold War; the threat of Soviet influence over any Latin American region was a national security risk that demanded attention. Until Soviet influence was no longer a threat, the U.S. felt compelled to act in its interest and to prevent socialist guerilla parties from taking control of the Salvadoran government, even at the expense of thousands of lives. Given the atrocities that were committed, the U.S. needed to deny and dismiss revelations of these war crimes to maintain a positive public opinion on U.S. intervention, public opinion that was already damaged from intervention in the Vietnam war and the anti-war protests. The declassified training manual from SOA itself is evidence of the attempted erasure of U.S. responsibility; there is redacted information throughout the text, as well as an added foreword claiming that none of these actions are condoned and are only taught for instructional purposes (CIA Training Manual).

Considering the atrocities that the Salvadoran government committed, with the direct help of the U.S. government, it is easily understood why information that exposed their actions would be denied. For the U.S., protecting Latin America from Soviet influence by preventing a leftist takeover outweighed concern for civilians and, seemingly, Church representatives. Their deaths lent moral righteousness to the cause and presented an urgency for acknowledgment of the circumstances of the war.  LMU’s commitment to exposing the truth was an act of resistance against both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, and its connection to Catholic representatives only strengthened its resolve.  Though what was said in the symposium and LMU reactions is unknown, it is also possible that LMU;s vocal support was as much based in public image as U.S. attempts to conceal its actions.  It would have helped further an agenda of the Church as the champion of the poor at home and abroad, especially as the Vatican remained publicly neutral in the hopes of being a key figure to broker peace in the country.  However, LMU’s response could also be a continuation of the anti-war sentiments that were born out of the Vietnam war as the public became increasingly informed and critical of government action, placing it opposite the U.S. as LMU called out and criticized government action like those before it.

For Further Reading:

Primary Sources

Central Intelligence Agency. “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983.” CIA, 1983. Book No. 122. NSA.

United States Embassy. El Salvador. “Secret Cable, ‘Conversation with National Guard Officer’.” National Security Archive, November 19, 1980. Briefing Book No. 339. “Learn from History”, 31st Anniversary of the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

United States Embassy. El Salvador. “Unclassified Cable, ‘Text of Archbishop’s Letter to President Carter’,” February 19, 1980. Briefing Book No.  339. “Learn from History”, 31st Anniversary of the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Vance, Cyrus. “Confidentia Cable, “Reply to Archbishop’s Letter to President Carter,” March 1, 1980. Briefing Book No. 339. National Security Archive.

Secondary Sources

Center for Justice and Accountability. “El Salvador.” Accessed December 13, 2019.

Taylor, Robert W., and Harry E. Vanden. “Defining Terrorism in El Salvador: ‘La Matanza’.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 463 (1982): 106-18.