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Site of  El Mazote massacre during  war.

“Set your mind and your heart on these people who are suffering so much. Then, in the spirit of St. Ignatius, ask yourself:

What have I done to crucify them? What do I do to uncrucify them? What must I do for these people to rise again?”


Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría


The National Catholic Reporter

March 22, 2002

   The Crucified People: A Holy Week Meditation

Community of Ignacio Ellacuría,

Dept. of Chalatenango,

El Salvador  



Gary MacEoin recently returned to El Salvador to visit friends he had made in the 1980s when he went to report on refugees hiding in the mountains on the Honduran side of the border and in the U.N.-protected Mesa Grande refugee camp. A lawyer who speaks several languages, MacEoin, 92, is the author of 30 books, including a history of the Second Vatican Council. His work as a journalist since 1933 has taken him to every continent and more than a hundred countries.

Guazapa Volcano dominates the early morning landscape. A warm breeze rustles the leaves of lime and orange trees on the hillsides. Here my perceived personal needs are modest. I have the luxury of a bed. That it is springless doesn’t matter. I have the luxury of a mosquito net. Many of my neighbors have neither. In daylight I stumble over jagged rocks to reach a latrine. At night, I just step outside and pray for a cloud to cover the moon. But I am among friends.

The cock announces the dawn, his strident voice for a moment blocking out the gentle sounds of proliferating life, the humming of bees, the scratching of chickens in search of insects, a fruit dropping from a tree, the distant bray of a donkey. The wind carries the voices of a woman and her son weeding the milpa, the sprouting corn that holds the promise of food.

As I finish my ablutions, pouring water over head and body, my neighbor arrives with hot coffee. That is how we live here. We share our poverty generously. Eloisa is delighted when Yvonne invites her to bathe in our little cubicle. Her one-room shack has no such luxuries.

These are the people Ignacio Ellacuría had in mind when he identified the crucified people stripped of life as the primary sign of the times. Ellacuría was the Basque Jesuit who had adopted the Salvadoran people as his own. He paid with his life for his insistent defense of their rights. He was assassinated with five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by the Salvadoran military in 1989. A grateful people has named this town to ensure his memory will not die.

The people of El Salvador have been a long time hanging on the cross. The pain was slightly eased a decade ago with a U.N.-negotiated end to a stalemated civil war. The assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he said Mass and of the four U.S. Catholic churchwomen had shocked the world. The brutal killing of the six Jesuits at the Central American University was too much. The U.S. Congress moved to cut aid. The U.S. administration, whose aircraft, weapons and training of the Salvadoran military had protracted the conflict, had to accept a peace agreement that left the oligarchy in control while giving minority political power to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, often known as FMLN, the political arm of the guerrillas.

That was January 1992. By the late 1980s, U.S. military aid to El Salvador had exceeded the country’s entire budget.

The past is so close

During my visit to Chalatenango last fall, we shared many memories. The dominant memories are of U.S. bombs and missiles that showered on the people as they fled their homes and that killed husbands and children during the 1980s. The past is very much the present for Eloisa. She had watched when they killed her husband and son. As they lifted her husband’s dead body, his eye was hanging by a thread. El dia de los muertos (the Day of the Dead, Nov. 2) each year is particularly sad for Eloisa. Not knowing the location of the grave, she is unable to visit it, just as she was unable to fulfill the rituals of burial. Soldiers and death-squad members had systematically hacked men and boys to death, then dumped them in unmarked graves.

We recalled Romero’s weekly homilies, his insistence that the people’s demands for reform of an unjust system were reasonable. People marching in the streets demanding a piece of land. Soldiers in tanks and armored cars careening around, shooting at random. In 1980, I picked up a copy of an unbound volume by Leonel Rugama. It caught my eye because more than 10 years earlier I had found his “The Earth Is A Moon Satellite” in a student magazine in Montevideo, Uruguay. The poem’s description of distorted values that leave people to starve while sending men to the moon was so vivid that when I translated and published it in NCR, it was picked up by publications in many languages.

Everywhere people were organizing and arming. In January 1981 the FMLN would call for a nationwide insurrection to bring about the social changes the ruling class had denied for centuries.

Pilate and Herod were once again cooperating. The United States had begun to donate $4 billion in armaments, aircraft and training. The army and its paramilitary helpers compiled lists of trade unionists, student leaders, journalists and pastoral workers to be hunted down, tortured and killed. Romero’s warning in a letter to President Carter was being proved chillingly accurate: “Instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly intensify the injustice and the repression.”

War was not new to me. But El Salvador was a war for which I was not prepared. Returning to my hotel after a day at the university, I told a friend that never had I seen so much life among so much death.

Life. Yes, life and hope.

People long powerless and voiceless were becoming masters of their own fate. In his homilies, Sunday after Sunday, Romero had insisted that the people’s demands were reasonable and their cause just. But now they were arming. What would Romero say of that? As it happened, I knew what Romero would say, because he had said it to me. That was at Puebla in Mexico in 1979 when I was interviewing him for Canadian television. “As a Christian and especially as a Christian leader I am totally opposed to violence. I could not countenance violence in any circumstances.”

If the donkey ran faster

I said, “Monseñor, may I ask you the question an indigenous man in the Guatemalan highlands put to a missionary friend of mine? ‘What would the Good Samaritan have done if his donkey had run faster?’ ” We evaluated the question for some moments. Would the Samaritan have reined in his donkey and waited to see the outcome, not knowing if the robbers might kill their victim? Or would he take the stick he had used to make his donkey run faster and wade into the fight? Nuns were being raped in the Congo just then. We reflected on that too, and on what a father would do who saw his child being sexually abused. And we concluded that in some situations it is not only the right but the duty of the Christian to use counterviolence against unjust violence.

As I talked with my neighbors on my visit last fall, it seemed I was back in 1980 El Salvador. Each man and woman has a personal association with the barbarities of that year. Some were in the thronged square in front of the cathedral in March when the military opened fire on the mourners at the funeral Mass for Romero. Others recalled the massacre of 600 peasants at the Rio Sumpul in May or knew one or more of the six leaders of a popular movement assassinated in San Salvador in November, or the four American churchwomen raped and killed in December. The atrocities came fast and furious that year.

It was dangerous to belong to any citizen group. Seven members of the Human Rights Commission paid with their lives. Two prominent journalists were picked off in a café. Bodies each morning in the streets. Similar barbarities in the countryside. Entire families were fleeing for the safety of the mountains or trekking east to reach the relative safety of the U.N.-protected refuge in Honduras.

Confusion filled the offices of the archdiocese following Romero’s assassination March 24, 1980. Refugees from the countryside were squatting on the grounds of the adjoining seminary, each with his or her story. An old man told me how the soldiers had invaded his village killing people at random. A soldier urged his companion to kill the children as well because they were bad seed. It was a story I would hear with variations many times.

Once in Honduras I was so overcome I could not continue to translate a woman’s story for representatives of Oxfam, a relief group. A soldier had hacked open a woman’s womb with a machete, removed the fetus, and inserted the just-severed head of the woman’s husband.

Someone mentioned Beto Gallagher, the Franciscan priest working in Santa Rosa de Coban who struggled for months against the crude lies of the Salvadoran military and the U.S. Embassy until he finally convinced the world of the massacre at the Rio Lempa in March 1981. As part of his campaign Beto took me down to the river and joined me in climbing steep mountainsides, often on hands and knees. There we interviewed survivors who, in places too remote for the military to hunt them down, were sharing the generous hospitality of Honduran families as poor as themselves.

Memories of a massacre

Yvonne added her memories. The day of the massacre she was at a first-aid post about five miles inland, sterilizing the wounds of children who had traveled for days on foot with their parents. Using a forceps, she plucked a worm an inch long out of the putrefying head wound of one child; she picked shrapnel out of the back of another. They were hiding among the trees from helicopters that patrolled the riverbanks and fired at anything that moved. The stream of patients, which had been incessant since morning, stopped about 3 p.m.

“Are there no more?’ she asked. There were still hundreds on the other side of the river, they told her, but the five men, the only ones who knew how to swim, were exhausted and had to rest. So Yvonne, just a few years out of a college in Indiana, went down to the river, stripped to her underwear and took her turn for several hours. The younger children, strapped to her back, grabbed her hair in terror. The older ones almost choked her as they hung on.

On the Saturday of my visit, people from all over the department came to Las Flores to unveil a monument to 117 children captured and killed by the military in the 1980s. As we drove with Maria Chichilco, she told us of her adventures on this road in the 1980s as a regional guerrilla leader. There were military patrols everywhere. Once she talked her way through a checkpoint as an itinerant vendor, the pile of tamales in a tray on her head concealing her pistol. Another time, she posed as a peasant woman nine months pregnant while carrying 240 thousand colones to buy arms. Her companion wore a nurse’s uniform. As Maria groaned and writhed in feigned pain, the nurse begged the soldiers to hurry and pass them through, shouting that the pregnant woman’s water had already broken.

At Las Flores, after prayers in the small church, parents and siblings told their stories. Sometimes the soldiers killed both children and parents. At other times they adopted the children or placed them in an orphanage. Francesca’s was a dramatic story. With her husband and four children she headed for the mountains. Going ahead with two children, she got safely through the cordon. Then she and other women stopped on a hill to rest. As they watched, the soldiers killed several men, including Francesca’s husband. Shortly afterwards, helicopters landed and took away 55 children.

Ten years later, after the war, an organization called Pro Busqueda (searchers) started to look for the lost children. They found some who had been adopted and others in orphanages. Many parents, however, could not identify their children. They knew nothing about DNA testing. But Francesca was lucky. When Pro Busqueda took Francesca to an orphanage, her older daughter, now 19, recognized Francesca and also identified several of her companions who were from the same village. Pro Busqueda located other adopted children, some in the United States. For one, adopted by an army colonel, the discovery of his mother created complicated and conflicting emotions. Referring to the helicopters, Francesca said to me: “The people who planned that were trained in your School of Assassins [the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, now operating as the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Cooperation]. That school has to be closed.”

Francesca and the other survivors live with death. And with life in spite of death. Mercedes Sosa sang the “Song of the Cricket”:

As often as they kill you, so often will
you rise again;
How many nights will you pass in
And at the hour of shipwreck and
Someone will save you so that you go
on singing?
Singing to the sun like the cricket
After a year beneath the earth,
Like a survivor home from the war

A decade has passed since the United States walked away, stepping carefully to avoid the moaning wounded and the rubble in the streets.

Under the new arrangement, my friends here in Chalatenango are not doing very well. Government services are all but nonexistent. What help they get, apart from what family members in the United States send, comes from international aid agencies, mostly European.

Money sent home

What is true of Chalatenango is true of the entire country. An area smaller than New Jersey, El Salvador has experienced massive population growth without a corresponding growth in productivity. It had 783,000 inhabitants in 1900, a million in 1960, over 6 million today. Infant mortality is high, 93 per 1,000 births. So is illiteracy at 86 percent.

What keeps the economy from total collapse is the steady flow of remittances from family members in the United States. The amount this year is $1.9 billion, as much as total income from farming and livestock. The country lives on the export of bodies and brains. Only the families who have someone in the United States can show some small improvements.

For the long term, however, this income source is far from guaranteed.

A government representing the oligarchy and pursuing the free market policies advocated by the United States makes things worse. Recent privatizations have brought more expensive electricity, higher phone rates and fewer social services. More and more of the tax burden is being shifted to middle-class and the poor.

Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino is not optimistic. A professor at the Central American University and a leading liberation theologian, Sobrino was one of Romero’s closest advisers and, like him, was convinced of the justice of the demands of the popular movement for radical reform of Salvadoran society. Had he not been at a conference in Thailand on Nov. 16, 1989, he would have been killed with the other Jesuits at Central American University. He is a survivor with the self-imposed life task of continuing the fight of his fellow Jesuits for justice in El Salvador.

The problem, says Sobrino, is not of El Salvador but of the world. As long as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continue their policies -- policies determined by the multinational corporations and implemented by a handful of rich countries -- the future of El Salvador is dark. “The final word is that life here is still very desperate.”

Within that somber framework, however, there are elements that keep the hope of Easter alive. The celebration of the martyrs is important for Sobrino. People long afraid even to name their own martyrs now assemble to affirm them. This year 12,000 gathered for the anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs, great crowds at El Mozote and at other massacre sites. “So there is a force, a strength, an energy, maybe not on the surface but in the undercurrents. There are many undercurrents.”

People are interested in theology. They meet on Saturdays in 12 schools spread around the country, about a thousand students in all. The students come together nationally from time to time. They move from ignorance to knowledge, from lies to truth. From radio listeners they have become radio speakers. They talk back.

In the 1980s, says Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley, a professor at the Central American University, a national unity of sentiment and commitment existed as a result of Romero’s leadership. Brackley, who previously worked in the South Bronx, was one of the six chosen from some 50 volunteers to replace the assassinated Jesuits. The question is whether or not this unity can survive. Today the median age is 19, and more than half the people live in cities. This is the first TV generation. Their attitude toward religion is different. They are not unbelievers but they question.

The radical social change for which the long struggle was fought was thwarted by the United States, which opposes any alternative that would end its control. However, the war ended not in surrender but in a compromise. The FMLN holds positions of influence, a major voice in the legislature.

Do people feel that the benefits are worth all the suffering and deaths?

I’ve asked that question many times and have received conflicting answers. Every survivor, I think, believes that those who died did not die in vain. They are the heroes and the martyrs treasured by Sobrino and remembered by everyone. An important plus for many is the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of being killed. But many would add that the benefits do not match up to the costs. The price was too high.

My neighbors here in Ellacuría, as in all of Chalatenango, fall into both categories. Many barely survive on the corn and beans they grow in their small plots of infertile land. Those with a family member in the United States, one of the 200,000 who fled here in the 1980s or the countless thousands who have since followed them “by the river or the fence,” can rise a fraction above the starvation level and improve their shacks. For the economist these people are statistics. For me they are friends.

They are the crucified people hoping for resurrection. Before I say goodbye to them, I meditate and ask myself what have they taught me, a citizen of the United States. And I recall something Ellacuría had said. “Set your mind and your heart on these people who are suffering so much. Then, in the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, ask yourself: What have I done to crucify them? What do I do to uncrucify them? What must I do for these people to rise again?”


National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002