No Escape

Bringing El Salvador Nun Killers to Justice

More than 30 years later, justice closes in on the Salvadorans behind the rape and murder of American nuns.

Mark Duncan/AP Photo

In December 1980, members of the National Guard of El Salvador abducted, sexually assaulted and executed four American churchwomen.

At the time, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the rest of Central America were on the front burner of American foreign policy much in the way that Iraq, Syria and the Middle East are today. The nun killing was one of those acts of horror that may galvanize the American public at the same times it exposes the disarray of American policy.

In that sense it is analogous to the beheadings of Americans and Britons and hundreds of Iraqis and Syrians by the so-called Islamic State and the bombing and gassing of much larger numbers by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.

When, or if, order is restored to that part of the world, the question of justice will remain. And it is likely to be frustrated. But the case of the churchwomen in El Salvador suggests that dogged persistence can, still, exact some price from the monsters of this world.

Just as the ISIS killings have shocked the American public and Washington policymakers, so did the killing of the four American women—three Roman Catholic nuns and a lay missionary. “This particular act of barbarism and attempts by the Salvadoran military to cover it up did more to inflame the debate over El Salvador in the United States than any other single incident,” the State Department noted in a retrospective report many years later.

The victims were 49-year-old Maura Clarke, and 40-year-old Ita Ford, Maryknoll sisters from New York; Dorothy Kazel, a 40-year-old Ursuline nun from Cleveland; and Jean Donovan, a 27-year old lay missionary who was engaged to be married, also from Cleveland.

The churchwomen were working in rural areas with peasants who lived in fear of being kidnapped and killed by soldiers and right-wing death squads. In the eyes of the Salvadoran military, working with the poor was synonymous with being a subversive, and “marked them for assassination,” Robert White, the American ambassador at the time, said in a recent interview with Retro Report, the online news organization that examines stories from the past. (The killing of the churchwomen is the subject of a documentary that can be seen at

On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, Clarke and Ford, were returning from a conference in Nicaragua, and were met at the San Salvador International Airport by Donovan and Kazel. Their van was stopped soon after leaving the airport by soldiers from the National Guard, a component of the Salvadoran military, which White describes as “a kind of landlords’ militia in the countryside.”

The operation was led by a sergeant, acting out of “a persuasive combination of political, financial and sexual interests,” a political officer at the American embassy, Carl Gettinger, wrote in a top secret cable to Washington a few months after the killings. His conclusions were based on a conversation between the sergeant, Colindres Aleman, and a Salvadoran lieutenant who had recorded it secretly for the embassy. “Extraordinary secrecy surrounded the tape,” Gettinger reported; it was kept in a safe in the embassy, “from where it was roused infrequently.”

The American government suspected that the Salvadoran military, despite denials, was involved in the murders—Amb. White had come to this conclusion the very moment he saw the bodies being removed from the grave, but the diplomats did not share this with the American public. Many in Washington feared that El Salvador would fall to communism, and the families of the churchwomen began to believe this was corrupting the American response to the murders. At times, the incoming Reagan administration seemed to blame the victims.

“The nuns were not just nuns,” said Jeanne Kirkpatrick, one of Reagan’s top foreign policy advisors and his first ambassador to the United Nations, “They were political activists.”

Secretary of State Alexander Haig, in an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that “perhaps the vehicle the nuns were riding in may have tried to run a roadblock or may have accidentally been perceived to have been doing so, and there may have been an exchange of fire.” Haig also asked White to send a cable stating that the military was making progress in the investigation of the murders. White, a career diplomat who had served under every president since Eisenhower balked, and sent his own cable: “I will have no part of any cover-up.” Soon thereafter, he was forced out of the foreign service.

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The families of the victims expressed outrage, feeling that their government had turned against them. Pressure from some U.S. Congressmen to curtail mounting Salvadoran military and economic aid to El Salvador until there was resolution in the case finally helped bring the five low-level national guardsmen who committed the crime to trial in 1984. But, despite protests from the families of the churchwomen, who believed the men had acted on orders, the looked like they would mark the end of U.S. government interest in the case.

Over the course of time, it became clear that the Reagan administration, and to some extent the preceding Carter and the later the George H. W. Bush administrations, had turned a blind eye to a broad array of human rights abuses committed by the Salvadoran military during the 1980s in order to keep billions of dollars in aid flowing to El Salvador's civilian-military junta, and it's rightist backers, as they fought the leftist uprising.

In 1980 alone, nearly 10,000 Salvadoran citizens, mostly peasants, students and workers, were killed. “Ten bullet-ridden bodies of people who have ‘disappeared’ are found daily on city streets or provincial highways, while the armed forces are increasingly attacking protest groups they describe as ‘subversive,’ “Alan Riding of The New York Times wrote in March 1980.

The much-beloved Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero pleaded with the Salvadoran military that same month: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

The next day, while the archbishop was saying a private mass for the mother of the owner of an independent newspaper whose offices had been bombed, a single shot rang out. The bullet entered the left side of his chest, hit his heart and settled in his lung. It was the work of a right-wing death squad.

Finally, after a decade of civil war, America's backing for the Salvadoran regime came to an end. In November 1989, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Batallion murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year old daughter. A bullet was fired into a portrait of Archbishop Romero.

Three years later, under pressure from the United States, a peace accord was reached between the junta and The U.N. Commission on Truth for El Salvador, formed to document war crimes committed in the country during the course of the civil war, called the Jesuit killing “the final outburst of the delirium that had infected the armed forces and the innermost recesses of certain government circles.”

The commission made clear that this final act, much like the murder of the American churchwomen, was, in its framework, far from an unusual occurrence during El Salvador's civil war. It listed tens of thousands of instances of murder, abduction, torture and other crimes, predominately at the hands of government troops and security forces. The commission concluded that the National Guard soldiers had been “acting on orders of a superior,” and said that Carlos Vides Casanova, the commander of the Guard at the time, knew that members of the Guard had committed the murders and that he had facilitated a cover up.

The commission further found that the Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo Garcia, “made no serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation.”

The acknowledgment of these crimes, which came as part of an amnesty for them, was a cathartic moment for El Salvador. But it was far from the sort of justice sought by the families of victims, such as the American Churchwomen.

In the 1990s, human rights groups found the two Salvadoran generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, who were implicated in the killings of the churchwomen and many other crimes living in Florida, and sought to have them deported. Some Bush Administration officials were sympathetic , but told them that under existing law it would be very difficult.

The law had been enacted after WWII and was aimed at Nazi war criminals. The center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco, and other human rights organizations went to work to expand the law. Piggy-backing on the fears of terrorists entering the country, they succeeded in adding language to an anti-terrorism bill that would allow for the deportation of an individual who had participated in acts of genocide, torture or extrajudicial killings. The report of the Judiciary Committee cites the case of the American churchwomen -- ”raped and murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard” -- as a need for the law. The committee report notes that two officials covered up the military’s involvement in the murders. “Both of these Salvadoran former officials currently reside in Florida,” the report says, not naming them, but leaving no doubt who they were.

In 2004, the law was changed and, five years later, deportation proceedings were begun. In the Vides case, the judge found that he had “assisted or otherwise participated” in the killing of the churchwomen, as well as other acts of torture, thus clearing the way for his deportation. Similarly, the judge that heard the case against Gen. Garcia found that he had “assisted or otherwise participated in the extrajudicial killings of the four American churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clare, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.” The judge also found that he had assisted or otherwise participated in” the assassination of Archbishop Romero.

The law has acted as another window into the terrible crimes committed during El Salvador's civil war, and not just those linked to Garcia and Vides Casanova.

Civil cases brought by human rights groups have hit several former Salvadoran commanders who once found easy refuge in the United States. In 2005, a US jury ruled that former Salvadoran Vice-Minister of Defense, Colonel Nicolás Carranza had committed crimes against humanity and ordered that he pay $6 million in damages to victims. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal of the ruling. In 2004 a federal judge ordered a default judgment of $10 million against former-Captain Alvaro Saravia for his role in planning the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The US Department of Homeland Security placed Saravia on it's wanted list when the former Modesto, CA., resident went into hiding.

Human rights groups have been pressing to have Carranza denaturalized and removed, while Saravia is believed to have already fled to somewhere in Central America.

The deportation faced by Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova may not seem like justice to some. But it is a measure of it, say human rights activists, who are also pursuing similar cases against accused war criminals from other countries.

If deported back to El Salvador, Garcia, Vides Cassanova and others may not find the government as welcoming as it was when they were in charge. El Salvador’s Supreme Court has ordered prosecutors to reopen one investigation into one 1981 massacre. And the country’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing a challenge to overturn the 1993 Amnesty Law.

Amb. White testified in the hearings to deport the generals. “I was delighted to collaborate,” he said in the interview with Retro Report. If the men are ultimately deported, will that mean justice has been done? “I will feel some justice has been done,” said White, now eighty-eight. “But mostly what I will feel is that the United States will have regained some honor and that we no longer serve as a refuge for people who violated their oath of office and inflicted death and destruction on innocent people.”