‘On This Day’ 1980: American Nuns Kidnapped, Raped & Murdered by U.S.-Trained Salvadoran Death Squad
“Those who work on the side of the poor suffer the same fate as the poor.” So said Archbishop Oscar Romero, the heroic Salvadoran priest who championed the cause of his country’s oppressed masses before being assassinated in March 1980 by a death squad armed, trained and funded by United States.
Archbishop Romero’s spirit lived on in Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel, four American churchwomen who journeyed to war-torn El Salvador to help the poor.
Kazel was an Ursuline nun who taught indigenous peasants to read and write. She also fed the hungry and taught young mothers how to care for their children. Sister Dorothy greatly admired the unflappable courage of the poor in the face of the deadly oppression they faced on a daily basis. She was just as courageous herself, for she knew there was constant danger everywhere around her.
Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were Maryknoll Sisters, a Catholic order dedicated to overseas missionary work. “Sister Maura was generous to a fault,” recalled a friend and fellow Maryknoll sister, “She gave away virtually everything she had except what was on her back.” Sister Ita was pensive and politically aware. “Sometimes the United States has to realize it does not own Central America or any other part of the world,” she once said, “ [and] that people have the right to shape their own destiny, to choose the type of government they want. We don’t lose Cuba, we don’t lose Nicaragua because they were never ours to lose. The sooner we accept this, the better.”
Jean Donovan was an executive at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in Cleveland. One day in 1977 she bravely decided to quit her job, give away her Harley Davidson, leave Ohio behind and join the Maryknoll Lay Mission. She was sent to El Salvador where she worked as a budget manager. Jean was greatly inspired by Archbishop Oscar Romero and was privileged to meet and work with him. Every week she’d bake him chocolate chip cookies and deliver them after Sunday mass. His murder hit her particularly hard. She was there at his funeral when government thugs attacked the mourners and killed thirty people.
Although terribly frightened, Jean carried on her work. “Things are so much worse, it’s unbelievable,” she wrote to a friend in May 1980, “People are being killed daily. We just found out that three people from our area had been taken, tortured, and hacked to death.” Not too long after that, two of her best friends were murdered immediately after walking Jean home. She thought about leaving El Salvador. “I almost could,” she wrote, “except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
On the evening of December 2, 1980 Jean and Dorothy drove to Comalapa International Airport to pick up Maura and Ita, who were arriving from Nicaragua. On the way home the women were stopped by the National Guard, kidnapped at gunpoint, raped and executed. Their bodies were left to rot on the side of the road. The Salvadoran regime claimed that the women had been the victims of a robbery.
This was a very convenient lie for the incoming Reagan administration, which was obligated to prove to Congress that El Salvador was making progress on human rights as a condition for continued U.S. aid. Reagan was unburdened by any of the human rights concerns that his predecessor Jimmy Carter claimed to care so much about, and the new president turned a blind eye to the most horrendous abuses as he ramped up military and economic aid to El Salvador. Secretary of State Alexander Haig even had the audacity to go before Congress and declare that the four American churchwomen may have been responsible for their own deaths.
There is now absolutely no doubt as to who is responsible for this barbaric crime. There are, of course, the four National Guardsmen who abducted, raped and murdered the women. Then there’s Major Lizandro Zepeda Velasco, who planned the operation. There’s Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, who gave the actual order to the kill the four women, and his boss, General Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, commander of the guard unit at the airport that carried out the attack. Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova knew all about the churchwomen killings and participated in the ensuing cover-up. General Jose Guillermo Garcia failed to investigate the barbaric murders. All five of these men were proud graduates of the United States Army School of the Americas, then located in Panama (it has since been relocated to Ft. Benning, Georgia). They’d been trained in kidnapping, torture and assassination by the best and brightest minds of U.S. military and intelligence planning. Shockingly, Vides Casanova and Garcia would later be rewarded with U.S. residency.
Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador when the four churchwomen were murdered, knew right away who was responsible. “I find it difficult to believe that the U.S. government did not know there was legitimate reason to believe that Casanova and Vides Casanova and Garcia were all guilty of either ordering or covering up the killing,” he said. “That they have been let off not only with their reputations intact, but with the right of residence in the United States, does not serve the ends of justice,” he added. Top Carter officials knew that American-trained Salvadoran officers were responsible for the rape and murder of the four American churchwomen. That’s when President Carter finally cut off military assistance to El Salvador. But within weeks he resumed aid to the country’s murderous regime after the guerrillas launched a major nationwide offensive. So much for human rights.
Once Reagan took over, the aid really started flowing. The only problem was that the president was required by law to certify that El Salvador was making progress on human rights. Without the certification, Congress couldn’t authorize aid. Reagan knew the full extent of the Salvadoran regime’s brutality, but the new president was hell-bent on crushing the popular uprising in impoverished El Salvador that he felt was threatening U.S. commercial and strategic control over the region.
And so it was that the Reagan folks tried to blame the four slain churchwomen for their own deaths. Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Alexander M. Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State, shamefully attempted to sully the reputations of the four martyrs while the Reagan administration made little effort to see justice served. Ambassador White sent a secret cable to Secretary Haig expressing his dismay. “It is amazing to me that the [State] Department can state publicly that the investigation of the nuns’ deaths is proceeding satisfactorily,” he wrote, “This is not backed up by any reporting from this embassy. I reiterate for the record that in my judgment there is no sign of any sincere attempt to locate and punish those responsible for this atrocity.”
Said Congressman Robert G. Torricelli (D-NJ): “It is now clear that while the Reagan administration was certifying human rights progress in El Salvador, they knew the terrible truth that the Salvadoran military was engaged in a widespread campaign of terror and torture.”
“The Salvadoran military knew that we knew, and they knew when we covered up the truth, it was a clear signal that, at a minimum, we tolerated this,” lamented Ambassador White.
The United States would continue to fully support the brutal Salvadoran government and arm, fund and train its death squads at the School of the Americas throughout the 1980s. A year after the four churchwomen were slain, the most horrific massacre in the Western Hemisphere occurred at El Mozote, where a thousand innocent children, almost all women, children and the elderly, were slaughtered by an army unit trained by the United States and staffed full of officers who graduated from the School of the Americas. Moral Low Ground will soon bring you this tragic tale, as the massacre at El Mozote also happened during the month of December.
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