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Blood & Ink: the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador

The following is an excerpt from Blood and Ink: Ignacio Ellacuría, Jon Sobrino, and the Jesuit Martyrs of the University of Central America, 

By Robert Lassalle-Klein ’70 

[The 1993 Commission on the Truth for El Salvador produced] a chilling Report which . . . reveals how violence and state terrorism were used mercilessly against civil society . . . Two [cases], in particular, shook the conscience of the world: the assassination of Archbishop Romero, committed by a death squad under the command of the founder of the ARENA party [Roberto D’Aubuisson], and the assassination of the Jesuit fathers and their domestic employees, ordered by the military high command.

Pedro Nikken, President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights 

“It’s Them or Us!”

- Words of Col. Guillermo Benavides to Jesuit high school graduate, Lieutenant Ricardo Espinoza, in ordering him to assassinate Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., President of the University of Central America

A few minutes after 8:00 p.m. on November 11, 1989, rebel forces of the FMLN launched the largest urban offensive of its eight-year civil war against El Salvador’s repressive right-wing government.  The country’s military and its U.S. sponsors were stunned by the strength and scope of the attack. The noise of fierce gun battles erupted throughout the capital city of San Salvador, and military flares illuminated the night sky. 2,000 rebel troops occupied entire neighborhoods until aerial bombing of the civilian population by the Salvadoran Air Force forced them to retreat. From there the rebels entered the wealthy Escalón district, home of government and business elites,  attacking the official and private residences of the President and head of the Legislative Assembly, and the barracks of three separate Infantry Brigades and the Infantry Police.  Nearby, they provoked a standoff at the iconic Sheraton Hotel with U.S. Green Berets who beat a hasty retreat unharmed into awaiting helicopters. Analyzing the rebels’ ability to hold portions of the capital for three weeks, the Los Angeles Times reported that “the intensity and duration of the offensive” had the “right-wing government reeling,” threatened to “make the country ungovernable,” and “undermined” the central claims of “a decade of U.S. counterinsurgency policy.”  Embarrassed by early losses and worried about continued U.S. support for its nine year civil war against the rebels, on November 12 the government declared a state of emergency and established combat zones throughout the capital under the command of Colonel René Emilio Ponce, Chief of Staff of the Salvadoran Armed Forces.

At 6:30 p.m. on November 15, the fifth day of the occupation with no end in sight, the U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador says that Colonel Ponce convened “a meeting of the General Staff with military heads and commanders to adopt new measures to deal with the offensive.”  The meeting took place at military headquarters (the Estado Major), and one participant described the mood as FMLN guerrillas roamed the capital just blocks away as “the most tense and desperate gathering of the country’s top military commanders since the war . . . began a decade ago.”  Col. Ponce states that some 24 officers attended the meeting “to analyze the positions we had lost since November 11 [and to determine] . . . what we needed to do to regain them,” adding ominously, “We understood that we needed to take stronger measures.” 

This was evidently a euphemism for Ponce’s decision to start dropping 500 and 700 pound bombs on occupied civilian neighborhoods  and to implement long-held plans to begin murdering civilian political opponents. What followed evokes more recent images of dictators ordering troops to fire on unarmed civilians in desperate attempts to hold onto power during the “Arab Spring,” which began in 2011. The U.N. states,

Colonel Ponce authorized the elimination of ringleaders, trade unionists and known leaders of the FMLN and a decision was taken to step up bombing [of civilian neighborhoods] by the Air Force and to use artillery and armored vehicles to dislodge the FMLN from the areas it controlled. The Minister of Defense, General Rafael Humberto Larios López, asked whether anyone objected. No hand was raised. It was agreed that President Cristiani would be consulted.

Emboldened by this carte blanche to attack civilians, Colonel Guillermo Benavides turned to General Rafael Bustillo seated next to him and said, according to a source who attended the meeting, “This is a chance to go after” civilian groups considered supporters of the FMLN, adding, “I have the UCA in my sector.” General Bustillo replied, “Well then, you know what you have to do.” 

General Larios López states that the session broke up around 10:00 p.m.,  and the U.N. says, “After the meeting, the officers stayed in the room talking in groups.”  Colonel Ponce gathered with several top-ranking officers including General Bustillo (Chief of the Air Force), Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes (Commander of the First Infantry Brigade), Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda (Vice Minister of Defense), and Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano (Vice Minister of Public Security). The report then asserts, “Colonel Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides [director of the Military Academy] and, in front of the four other officers, ordered him to eliminate Father Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses,” adding that he was “to use the unit from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion.”

Within the hour, around 11:00 p.m., Col. Benavides summoned Lieutenant Ricardo Espinoza, a young graduate of the Jesuit High School in San Salvador,  and ordered him to assassinate Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., president of the Jesuit-run University of Central America, and to leave no witnesses. This implied the murder of Ellacuría’s housemates, including Fr. Segundo Montes, S.J., the young man’s former high school principal and teacher. Espinoza protested, saying, “this is a serious problem.”  But Benavides insisted and ordered Lt. Yusshy Mendoza, who had been sent to fetch his former Military Academy classmate, that he must participate in the action “in order to overcome any reluctance on . . . [Espinoza's] part.”  Knowing he might face Fr. Montes, Espinoza took a bar of black camouflage grease with which to disguise himself and a little over three hours later “gave the order to kill the priests.”  Espinoza later testified that his eyes filled with tears as he hurriedly left the Jesuit university residence while his troops riddled the helpless victims with bullets.

General Larios reports that he called President Cristiani who arrived at the military headquarters at 11:00 pm and stayed until about 2:00 a.m.  The U.N. report confirms that President Cristiani was indeed present at the Military Academy and that he met with the High Command during most of the operation on November 16.  The report by the Lawyer’s Committee on Human Rights, an official plaintiff in the case, asserts that the assassinations took place around 2:30 a.m. at which point it suggests that President Cristiani may have left the grounds of the military headquarters.   Thus, the Jesuit murders were ordered by the highest levels of the Salvadoran military with possible approval by the President of the country, and were in the process of being carried out while he was closeted with the military leadership about a mile from the scene of the crime.  At the time of this writing, twenty-five years later, the Spanish National Court has reserved the right to indict former President Cristiani for involvement in the killings. 

The question remains, however, why implicate virtually the entire command structure of the Salvadoran military, and possibly the President, in order to kill one priest and a handful of associates? The easy answer is that Colonel Ponce and the others understood that their ability to avoid prosecution as the intellectual authors of the assassinations would depend upon implicating the entire command structure. Clearly, the decision to murder Ellacuría was by no means a last minute decision taken in a state of near panic in the face of FMLN control of parts of the capital.  Indeed, a variety of historical, ideological, and personal factors fueled the deep-seated animosity of El Salvador’s extreme right for Ignacio Ellacuría. But the most important irritant may have been the threat posed by the work of Ignacio Ellacuría and his UCA colleagues to continued U.S. support for the government of El Salvador and its suppression of Salvadoran civil society with its demands for economic, political, and social change.

Martha Doggett, in her exhaustive report on the UCA murders, explains that in light of such factors, “Some observers believe that these officers have in retrospect exaggerated the severity of the FMLN challenge as well as their despair at the time in an attempt to rationalize the Jesuit murders and extensive aerial bombardment.”  Her report on behalf of the Central American Jesuits and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the official plaintiffs in the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charges, “An examination of events during the year preceding the UCA murders suggests that the decision to move against the Jesuits may have been taken months earlier.”  Confirming this view, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights cites a pattern of slanders and “attacks by government officials and members of the Armed Forces” against the Jesuits going back “three years before the extra-judicial executions.” 

Thus, Doggett concludes, “While the guerrilla offensive provided a last-minute impetus and suitable cover, hard-liners within the Army had long before resolved finally to act on their 10-year wish to silence Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría.” Indeed, she says, “The decision to kill Father Ellacuría was consistent with a longstanding pattern of attacks against the Jesuits [and] . . . increasing attempts to link the Jesuits to FMLN violence and to portray the priests as apologists for guerrilla actions.”  In the pages that follow we shall trace the roots of this long held antipathy and its role in the decision to carry out the assassinations in the epoch-changing religious and political events that rocked Latin America and the Catholic Church in the decades after World War II.

Those who died included Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., university president and the country’s leading public intellectual; Fr. Martín-Baró, S.J., university vice president for academic affairs and director of the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), El Salvador’s only functioning public opinion poll; Fr. Segundo Montes, S.J., director of the Human Rights Institute of the UCA (IDHUCA) and superior of the Jesuit community; Fr. Amando Lopéz, S.J., professor of theology and philosophy, and ex-president of the UCA in Managua; Fr. Juaquin Lopéz y Lopéz, S.J., national director of Fe y Alegría, an education and direct service program for children in poverty; Fr. Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., assistant director of the newly constructed Oscar Romero Pastoral Center, campus home of the Center for Theological Reflection and part of the Jesuit community; Elba Ramos, cook for one of the seminary communities; and her sixteen year old daughter, Celina.

Jurgen Moltmann’s famous book, The Crucified God, was found soaked in blood by the body of Fr. Juan Ramón Moreno and is preserved in the University’s museum of the martyrs just feet from where they died. It is a visceral sign of the cost of this ultimately unsuccessful attempt to silence the voice of a university which, for almost two decades, scrupulously documented the need to take the crucified people of El Salvador down from their cross. The blood and ink mingled on its pages serves as a fitting symbol of the faith, hope and love that animated them and their vision of a Christian university grounded in God’s preferential option for the poor.


Part One of this book tells the story of the UCA martyrs, focusing on their awakening to God’s self-offer in the crucified people of El Salvador and to Medellin’s call to take them down from the cross. We will follow the journey that led to the crossroads above, exploring their vision of the Christian university and their efforts “to do in our university way what [Oscar Romero] did in his pastoral way”  as archbishop of San Salvador. I will discuss a variety of factors and events, both sacred and profane, including the conversion of Archbishop Romero; relevant aspects of the social, economic, political, and indigenous history of El Salvador; the influence on the thinking and spirituality of the martyrs of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Vatican II, and Medellín; the post World War II promise of development and the role of the United Nations in Latin America; U.S. Cold War counterinsurgency doctrine and foreign policy; and many other factors.

Part Two treats the Latin American fundamental theology of Ignacio Ellacuría and the underlying Christian historical realism that informs it. Here I will critically explore the transformations produced by Ellacuría’s dialogue with Ignatian spirituality, Xavier Zubiri’s neuroscientifically informed model of intelligence and philosophy of God, the face of Christ revealed by Archbishop Romero in El Salvador’s suffering people, and Rahner’s christocentric and trinitarian fundamental theology. Part Three analyzes Ellacuría’s fundamental theology and Sobrino’s Christology as a collaborative theological reflection on God’s gracious self-offer in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its analogatum princeps in the crucified people of the planet. I will also examine why they consider the poor and oppressed to be the defining sign of the times and a privileged locus theologicus for the encounter with God. Finally, the book concludes by exploring the God revealed to the UCA martyrs and their companions by the suffering people of El Salvador.

This is a story of blood and ink; of writers, books, teaching, service projects, and learning dedicated to uncovering the truth about El Salvador’s state-sponsored persecution of civil society funded by U.S. tax dollars. But most of all it is the tale of a university’s efforts to help take El Salvador’s crucified people down from the cross by supporting their efforts to construct a society in which all would have a chance to share a future where dignity, love, compassion, and sanity might prevail.

 (Robert Lassalle-Klein, Blood and Ink: Ignacio Ellacuria, Jon Sobrino, and the Jesuit Martyrs of the University of Central America [Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2014]).




Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Monday January, 27, 2014

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