The Murder of Six Jesuits One Year After: Interview with Father José Tojeira
José María Tojeira
A full year has passed since the assassination of six Jesuit priests at San Salvador's Central American University (UCA). Twelve months of investigations, littered with every possible obstacle, always lead to the same place: the upper echelons of the Salvadoran armed forces. Although top-level army officers find themselves as defendants for the first time in El Salvador's history, and although—again for the first time—the military institution's impunity, its past and its future are being publicly debated in El Salvador, full knowledge about the murder of the Jesuits is still a long way off.
envío recently interviewed Padre José María Tojeira, Jesuit Provincial for Central America, about the process. Of the interested parties representing the Society of Jesus, Father Tojeira, from his regional headquarters in El Salvador, has been closest to the case. He has followed its every aspect since 6:35 the morning of November 16, when he was one of the first to view the eight bullet-ridden bodies.
Alongside this interview, we provide a summary chronology of the main data and opinions that have emerged in the investigations up to the last day of October. With these two documents, we pay loving homage to the memory of our brothers, companions of Jesus, who even in death have continued working for peace with justice in El Salvador.
envío: The investigation process has been long and complex and isn't over yet. What have the different stages been?
Tojeira: Thus far there have been two real stages, neither of them legal or judicial. In the first, the debate centered on a political discussion of whether or not to put anyone on trial. In reality, the judicial system had little influence on this political decision. One sector, including President Cristiani, believed that at least the physical authors of the crime should be tried and punished. Another sector, the military and members of the ruling ARENA party, wanted silence to reign. In the army, however, one sector also agreed that someone should be tried, that someone had to pay. This first phase lasted until mid-December, at which point a political decision was made to try someone.
I should point out that, initially, individuals from both factions tried to point the finger at the FMLN. The physical authors of the crime clearly wanted to blame the FMLN, and left graffiti on the site accusing them. Those who planned the crime, the intellectual authors, also tried to frame the FMLN. Two military reports were prepared beforehand that made two contradictory accusations—one that the guerrillas attacked the theological center from outside with grenades at 12:30 am with no reported injuries, and another that they entered the UCA itself and killed the Jesuits, also at 12:30 am. The discrepancy is that the alleged attacks took place two hours before the real attack. Even now, eleven months after the assassinations, no one knows who issued these military reports.
envío: What was the context in which the first phase led to a decision to put someone on trial?
Tojeira: A discussion within ARENA and the army culminated in the victory of those more open sectors of both the party and the armed forces. A series of incidents led to the decision to put a military person on trial. A number of ultra-right military officers left the country, the most significant being General Bustillo. At the same time Vice President Merino, known as the farthest-right member of the executive branch, lost influence both in the state sector and within ARENA. It also appears that Cristiani returned from [the Central American President's Summit in early December at] San Isidro Coronado greatly bolstered by the other Central American Presidents, with more power. We saw a marked change in his handling of the Jesuit case. There may also be other events that occurred at the time that we are unaware of.
The decision to put someone on trial was made in mid-December. At that time some military officials approached the Society of Jesus to request a dialogue. They expressed interest in the case and promised that the guilty party would be found. They even implied that investigations were primarily focusing on members of the army. They said that of 200 people interviewed in the case, 190 were military members. Certain openings began to be noticed. This first phase ended in the second week of January with the arrest of eight soldiers and Colonel Benavides.
The second phase of the process then began, with yet another confrontation of two sectors. On the one hand were the Society of Jesus, some newspapers and honest people within the judicial system. We were the ones who said: it's great to have identified these people, but the information suggests that there are more, that there are intellectual authors who should also bed identified and prosecuted. On the other hand were those who said: we've gotten this far, let's get it over with and close the case. None of this was said publicly, of course, but that was their position—this far and no more. Luckily, the group within the judicial system that wanted real justice is the group directly assigned to the case. There are no military people in this group.
There was a time when the US Embassy was the party most interested in a rapid judicial process. The Embassy spent the first months criticizing the judge for being inefficient. The Ambassador even commented to some members of Congress that he didn't understand why the Jesuit Provincial praised the judge for the process. We were comfortable with a relatively long investigation that gathers data and looks at all the contradictions that emerge throughout the investigation, because we sought the intellectual authors of the assassinations. The US Embassy wanted to use the available data and interviews to prosecute the accused, convict them and close the case.
envío: How did the Salvadoran government and the military want the process to take place? Slowly or rapidly?
Tojeira: There has been a tug of war within the government. Some sectors—although I can't point them out specifically—approved the slow process. But I can't tell you if they shared our interests or not. Within the military, I have the impression that there were other motivations. They did not want to prosecute Colonel Benavides in any way. Maybe lieutenants were not so bad, but blaming a colonel was unheard of. I believe that as long as they were not personally touched they didn't care if the process was delayed; it gave them more time.
envío: And how has the process really proceeded? From the outside it appears to be taking far too much time.
Tojeira: Although the process has been slow, it is only so in theory; with a 40-hour work week, the judge dedicates 15 to 20 to our case, with more than 200 other cases also waiting for attention. The case is thus moving quite rapidly, especially given the length of time it takes for a "normal" case in El Salvador.
As time goes by the case intensifies because of emerging contradictions. And when someone is interviewed to clarify the contradictions, more emerge. Some are outright scandalous, in my opinion, such as the burning of the Military Academy's Book of Entries and Departures and the lies of officers as to which cadets were guarding the Academy that night. And the cadets who actually were on duty during that period say they don't remember anything, that they didn't see anything. One even said he fell asleep during the offensive! The slowness of the process has allowed many important points to emerge. Only through interrogations and contradictions will we get to the high-level officers.
This has led to the final stage, the most recent, which is intense and quick-moving. Cristiani testifies. He personally goes before the judge, and more than a dozen colonels and lieutenant colonels feel obliged to follow suit. So the interrogation of colonels begins. This is the first time we’ve ever seen this in the history of El Salvador. Some of the interviews last more than seven hours. Of course, the colonels are understandably tense. Civilians are questioning them, and when they contradict themselves or others, the civilians ask again and again for clarifications; this makes them very nervous. I think it was because of this nervousness that some colonels refused to testify before the judge and insisted that they receive written questions and respond to them in writing.
I believe that this period, which we're in now, is the final stage of the investigation period. All trials start with an investigation period, or hearing, which is the longest part of the trial. This is when evidence is found. Then the trial is sent to a plenary, and finally comes the verdict of guilt or innocence. These two are more regulated phases. The investigation period is more flexible, to allow for the search for witnesses. That investigation period is now ending. Everyone has now come before the judge. There are still contradictions, but the declarations will not reveal much more information. The final achievement was the colonels' testimony. Their nervousness made the whole country tense, leading some sectors to push to end the investigation. There is fear of an impending national scandal.
envío: What conclusions can you draw from the investigation period?
Tojeira: The most likely stage at which to identify the intellectual authors is the investigation period and we have yet to identify them. This is the most important conclusion. We've identified the physical authors of the crime and the one who circumstantially gave the order, Colonel Benavides. New data may possibly come out over the course of the trial, but it is unlikely if the information has not appeared up to now. It may be that someone has information that they plan to release during the trial itself, but I find that hard to believe. So the investigation period has ended without having identified the intellectual authors.
Despite this, I would not offer a totally negative evaluation of the investigation period. It is negative in comparison to our own efforts, but all of the contradictions that have emerged in the investigation period point to someone else behind the assassinations. At the same time, they illustrate that the Salvadoran judicial system cannot do more than it has done. There is no judicial investigation police. And there are sectors of society that operate outside of the judicial system. I don't know if it is just consolation, but I think anyone who looks at the process or who reads what we will publish about it—we plan to do a serious study—will come to the same two conclusions: that there was someone behind Benavides and that the Salvadoran judicial system does not have the authority to identify them. In a certain sense, this is a triumph for the judicial system because it clearly shows its limitations. I’ not trying to blame those who conducted the investigation. On the contrary, they have done such a good job that rather than hiding the system's deficiencies, they reveal them to all.
envío: Have you had access to the testimony given during the investigation period? How do you evaluate what you know of it?
Tojeira: The process is public and every Salvadoran citizen has access to the testimonies, once they are in written form, signed and put in the judge's files. This takes just a few hours, and after that they are available to the public. I've read the testimonies. What do I find? Well, we have said since the beginning that someone planned the crime beforehand and that those intellectual authors did not work through the official military structures, but rather through an unofficial structure. The high-level officers, however, almost all say: if you want to know, investigate the formal military command. They do this to evade investigation and also in part to get themselves off the hook because it's much more difficult to accuse the formal military structure than to carry out concrete investigations into individual officers' contradictions.
Obviously, contradictions are not necessarily signs of guilt, but they are definitely signs of irresponsibility. To give one example: the judge asked one of the colonels to make a list of all members of the Atlacatl battalion who participated in the search of the UCA grounds. He sends a list of 30 or so. Colonel Ponce looks at the list and agrees that these men did the search. But later another soldier appears and says he also participated, and knows all the details. But he doesn't appear on the list. Why? We don't know, and there's no explanation. To me this is irresponsible.
Another high-level officer, who worked with military intelligence (DNI), was asked who wrote and sent the two reports detailing false FMLN operations. The colonel said he didn’t know. He was told to investigate, but didn't investigate anything. There is irresponsibility, an unwillingness to clarify the situation. The final testimony of the officers doesn’t help much. Many questions were asked, but sometimes the officers refused to respond, and other times they contradicted themselves.
There’s also the example of a Lieutenant Cuenca Ocampo, who is from the DNI and participated in the UCA search. Ocampo declared before the Criminal Acts Investigation Commission that he went to the Military Academy and ran into Lieutenant Espinosa, who had been in his class. He asked him what he was doing, and Espinosa told him he was getting ready to search the Jesuits' house at the UCA. When he returned to the DNI he told his superior, and the superior told him to go with them. He went directly to the UCA and met up with the others, telling them he was sent by the DNI. He said all this to one sector of the judicial system, but he contradicted himself when he spoke to the judge; he said he had been sent directly by the DNI, that he had not seen Espinosa before, that he doesn't know why they sent him and that the first time he saw Espinosa was on the UCA grounds. We don't know why he changed his testimony, but he did.
There are other contradictions as well. From the beginning Colonel Ponce, chief of staff, declared that he authorized the search of the UCA at 8:50 pm, but the search began at 6:30. Lieutenant Espinosa, who headed the search, has said it occurred at 6:30, as has Lieutenant Cuenca Ocampo, and Father Rodolfo Cardenal, who was there. Nacho [Martin Baró] left a note in his computer saying that the search occurred shortly after curfew, and curfew began at 6:00 pm. He called me at 8:00 pm to tell me the search was over, and we waited at our house to see if they would come there next. I think there are sufficient witnesses to conclude that the search took place at 6:30 pm. Why does Colonel Ponce insist that he authorized it at 8:50? He has no reason to lie. I think the only explanation is that Ponce did actually authorize the search at 8:50. What does this mean? That the search was carried out without permission. This leads us to believe once again that there was a preconceived plan outside of the military command. Once the search took place, those who directed the plan obtained permission to avoid repercussions.
envío: So, we have to exonerate the high-level officers?
Tojeira: No, this doesn't mean that those implementing the plan didn’t use the formal structure, nor does it mean that high-level military were not involved, but they only used the structure after the fact. The formal structure was not used to give orders, but rather to cover the crime and erase tracks. The change of hours in the search and the written reports against the FMLN show that an organized conspiracy was prepared beforehand. There are also other flagrant lies. Almost all the high-level officers say they didn’t hear of the crime until 8:00 or 9:00 am on the official radio. However, a soldier who distributes food stated he heard the news at 6:15 am on his patrol car radio in an internal radio communication. How is it possible that a soldier claims to have heard at 6:15 am and all high-level officers claim not to have heard until 8:00 am?
Other contradictions imply that people are afraid to testify. For example, there is a clear view from the top of the Tower of Democracy, the tallest building in San Salvador, of the exact place of the assassination, the lawn where they were shot and the place they were shot from—the angle of the shots was established through a technical process. It would even have been possible to see the assassins from the tower—if not their faces, at least their forms and how many there were. More than 30 shots killed the Jesuits, and there were at least 250 in total as well as various grenades. There were also two flares, which would have lit up the tower. How is it possible that soldiers in the tower did not see any of this? They were on duty, and at least had to have seen the powder flash from the guns; they say they didn't even see the flares. Maybe they were asleep—and for the army to be asleep in the middle of the offensive, they must have been told to sleep or be afraid to testify. Or maybe they simply don't want to say anything. I have the impression that many people are afraid, whether they know a little or a lot. They would rather say they were asleep.
envío: Are we facing a mafia-type structure, with impenetrable loyalties?
Tojeira: I believe there’s a closed structure within the Salvadoran armed forces of personal relationships, dependence and also fear. No one wants to accuse anyone else. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Camilo Hernández, who is accused of burning the books in the Military Academy, has refused to say who gave him the order. Following an order is not a crime, and this would have been his strongest defense. But he simply said he did not burn the books. That was his entire testimony.
envío: Given this, did they choose Colonel Benavides as a sacrificial lamb? Why him? Why did Benavides accept being the focus of the accusation?
Tojeira: I believe that Benavides did give the order. He had to have done it because he was in charge of the zone. Obviously, no patrol would be in the area without an order from someone. If another officer had sent a patrol from outside the zone, it would have been stopped immediately, asked who it was, where it came from, who sent it. And if it was a special mission, there would have to be a written order. All patrols had to be there with Benavides' authorization. So the easiest process would be for Benavides to give the order. But Benavides sent a special group that was not based at the Academy. The patrol had been participating in a course outside San Salvador exactly two hours before the search in the UCA and was sent back three or four hours after the assassination. It is very significant that this group, which is an Atlacatl, was interrupted in a course run by US advisers to be sent on a mission in San Salvador. The mission begins with a search and ends with the assassinations. During this period, they were under Benavides' command. This is one more reason to believe that there was a larger plot, that it wasn't only Benavides' decision. Someone else sent them to search the UCA, and then once they knew the grounds and the day was chosen, they were sent to commit the crime then returned to the Academy. This only makes sense if there was a larger plan of which they were only one piece.
envío: Why the Atlacatl battalion?
Tojeira: I think there's an ideology in the Atlacatl, a mentality that believes problems are solved by killing people. In war, every group tries to solve problems by killing, but groups like the Atlacatl attempt to resolve situations by killing not only armed but also unarmed people. There is now a documentary about some of the internal characteristics of the Atlacatl battalion. When the journalist asks what the battalion’s symbols are, an officer responds that they are the skull and the lightning bolt. "The skull because we kill the most and the lightning bolt because we do it quickest." These people have no scruples about killing. There’s a death cult among them. This is the ideology of the first elite battalion trained and continually advised by the United States.
envío: Benavides would then only be the "physical" author of the crime?
Tojeira: The evidence against Benavides is mostly circumstantial, actually; he was in control of the zone at the time of the murders. But this is also part of the plan—don't allow any investigation into what happens in the zone and accept official reports that are patently false and contradictory. At least he could have proved that the time reported was wrong. The arms used came from the Military Academy and he would have had to authorize their release. The murderers came from the Military Academy and he should have had a record of when they left and when they returned. Given this, Benavides was the likely one to finger. Everything pointed to him.
Benavides has not said anything. During every interrogation, he claims that he knows nothing, that he didn't even hear about the crime in his zone until 8:00 or 9:00 am. He presents himself as totally ignorant and basically inept, as he acknowledges his ignorance about acts for which he is responsible. His lawyers have advised him to remain silent, and this is logical advice. Salvadoran legislation protects intellectual authors. The law says that the statement of the accomplices of a crime have no legal status before a judge. And since the lieutenants told the police that Benavides gave the order—and they were his accomplices—those statements can't be used against Benavides. The assassins even said they had been asked by their superiors to sign a paper and they obeyed. This is another contradiction, but even though they testified to the judge that they took part in the crime and received their orders from Benavides, it doesn't stand as evidence because they were his accomplices.
There has been material evidence against the other eight accused. A ballistic analysis identified the weapons used in the assassination as the same ones assigned to two or three members of the Atlacatl battalion. They even had these guns some time after the crime. Others who were at the scene of the crime have also testified. They didn’t participate in the murders, but accompanied the others. The material evidence—arms, people, places, hours—everything is very clear. In Benavides' case, it’s not such a clear legal situation, although there is enough evidence to demand a conviction.
I think the defense's tactics, advising silence or negative answers, are immoral. There is proof of guilt for the majority of the accused, yet they continue to deny everything. An ethical defense in the face of such indisputable proof would be for the accused to acknowledge their guilt and for the defense to show possible extenuating circumstances. But rather than seeking moral and legal clemency, the defense has decided to deny everything. This desire to hide the sun with one finger has made certain social sectors particularly angry.
On the other hand, I think one can explain Benavides' silence as that the intellectual authors have promised him he will not be convicted and will go free. If he goes free, however, he’s still guilty. It’s one thing if Benavides goes free but it's another if he goes on trial and is condemned to 30 years and has to go to prison with common criminals. When Benavides sees the imminent danger of this second alternative, he will act differently. This is much more complex than just being a sacrificial lamb.
envío: In this current phase, are the accused really under arrest?
Tojeira: As members of the military, Benavides and the others have the right to remain under house arrest on their bases during the investigation. It has been said that Benavides goes to the beach and lives in a "luxury cell." If the judge decides to charge them when the investigation period ends and the trial begins, they will automatically be sent to Mariona prison. They're terrified of this and find it humiliating for military officers to mingle with common criminals. But if they are convicted, I would say that the great majority of the criminals they will spend years with have committed less shameful crimes.
envío: Would Benavides have been accused without the testimony of [Major Eric] Buckland, the US military adviser? Wasn't his testimony decisive? Whether it is true or not, it appears to have been the key to the first phase of the process.
Tojeira Yes, I do think that Buckland unleashed the process, because his written report to the Embassy implicated Benavides. Finding the physical authors of the crime would have been no problem, but without Buckland's report, the investigation might not have reached even Benavides. I believe that the decision was made in December to accuse the material authors, and action was taken in January. At that point, Buckland's testimony pointing to Benavides was released and there was no choice but to accuse a colonel.
I think Buckland spoke out because he had a fit of honesty. I'm not sure why he said just what he said, but I have the impression that, given his own self-contradictions, he was tormented by what he knew. He wanted to speak but did not want to accuse friends or institutions, I'm not sure just who. This is why he only gave the most basic information: the army knew Benavides did it and my friend Lieutenant Colonel Áviles told me. He also said that ten days before the assassination—before the offensive—he personally accompanied Áviles to speak with Benavides, and waited in the car while they spoke. When Áviles returned, he told Buckland, "I'm going to have to say something. Colonel Ponce and I are very concerned about Benavides. He keeps talking about assassinating the Jesuits." Buckland gave this in written testimony but later retracted it. This created a minor scandal, because the FBI said the testimony was sent to the Embassy in January, but the Embassy said they never received it. The Salvadoran judicial authorities say they never received it either. Congressman Moakley uncovered this information, and it may be important. If it was false, it makes little difference; but if it was true, it gives the case a different dimension, given that Buckland knew before the assassination that preparations were being made and that there was an internal debate about the issue.
envío: What responsibility does President Cristiani have? Did he know or not? And if he really didn't know, wouldn't the appropriate response be to resign as titular head of an armed forces that has committed such barbarities?
Tojeira: I don't believe Cristiani was involved in the assassinations, and he has played a positive role since then. I'm not sure how much power he has to do more than he has already done. From the beginning, he knew that the military was responsible. There was a notable difference between Cristiani's response to our accusations against the military and the response of other executive branch members. They either got defensive or accused the FMLN. Cristiani accepted what we said, or at least gave the impression of doing so.
La Croix, a Paris magazine, published an interview with Cristiani on December 3 —conducted at the end of November—where he admitted that all available evidence pointed to the army. He said this at a time when his position as President was not very stable and there were large splits in the army. The army splits were resolved by sending some ultra-rightwing officers out of the country. But when Cristiani gave the interview the splits had not been resolved, and yet he had the courage to give his opinion.
Cristiani later played a role in the decision to accuse the soldiers, even though they were military. There have been other positive actions as well. He testified in person before the judge, giving up his state privilege, which would have allowed him to respond only in written form to written questions from the judge. His initiative obliged many military leaders, though not all, to do the same. This made the investigation easier because it provided for follow-up questions on the spot and cut out a series of written interrogations. The written questions sometimes took more than 20 days, with follow-up questions stretching out to three months.
I would say, however, that Cristiani has also made some mistakes. He publicly tried to discredit Lucía Cerna’s testimony. He probably did this based on information he was given. Later, he spoke of arms found on the UCA grounds. While it's true that arms were found, it was in the Loyola Center, our retreat house. They were found in a small coffee grove, an area where the FMLN freely passes and the army often does operations. The arms weren't even well-buried—they were just under some ashes from burned trash. If we had really been hiding arms, we would have done a better job. I don't know if Cristiani's accusation against us was based on human error or because someone gave him the information.
Cristiani's position has been essentially positive, though he could have done some things he did not do. I'm not sure if he was limited by personal ability or actual limits on his power, given that the President of El Salvador, as in many countries, can't do everything. As the highest power in the country, he has been accused of being responsible, but in reality, such power does not rest with him. Those who should be accused are those who played a direct role in the assassinations, or those who were responsible for investigating and did not do it. There were many intermediaries between these people and the physical authors. I honestly don't think Cristiani had anything to do with the assassinations, nor is there evidence that he has tried to impede the investigation. In addition, he was good friends with Ellacuría.
envío: And the famous meeting [of high-level military officers] just hours before the crime? Does it mean anything?
Tojeira: On the 15th there was a meeting of all high-level military involved in the war in San Salvador, the most affected zone. The meeting, followed immediately by the assassinations, is very suspicious, but I doubt that it dealt directly with the issue of killing the Jesuits. I’ve never thought that the formal military structure was used to plan the assassinations. Some people in the meeting may have put pressure on Benavides, who was also there. Or during a break, maybe the intellectual authors made their decision and told Benavides, "Tonight’s the night, the lieutenants will come to see you, give them the order." I imagine that the lieutenants knew what they were going to do even before Benavides gave them the order.
envío: And the FMLN offensive is what allowed them to act on the already-existing plan?
Tojeira: I think so; I think the offensive allowed the decision to be put into action. Some Salvadoran analysts have suggested to me that the assassinations may have been a response to FMLN assassinations of rightwing Salvadoran intellectuals like Peccorini and Chacón, and that military and rightwing civilians decided, "They’re killing our intellectuals, so we’ll do the same." However, even if the decision was made beforehand, it wasn’t possible until the offensive began.
envío: Another unanswered question is the US government’s role. Was it involved in the plan? What role has it played since then, during the investigation?
Tojeira: I don't know exactly what it did before, nor do I know exactly what the US government wants, but I have been following the US Embassy's actions closely. The truth is that, from the very first, the Embassy and Ambassador William Walker have tried to minimize the costs of the assassination to the Salvadoran government. This has been their primary goal, even above seeking truth. They offered police officers and investigators, but overall they tried to minimize the costs. What proof do I have of this? First, the case of Lucía Cerna. They did all they could to discredit her testimony, and she was the first witness to definitively say that it was soldiers. Her words were, "They were people in uniforms like the soldiers I see in the street." This was a rather weak statement against the army, but it had merit.
The US Embassy ran the campaign to discredit her. And it was the Embassy that deceived us when Lucía traveled to Miami and was whisked away. The Embassy also told journalists and others that the FMLN was responsible, despite all the contradictory information, including Cristiani's own interview on December 3. I spoke with one of the US investigators and he insisted that it was the FMLN despite all the evidence. They didn't want to recognize the army's involvement or even the guilt of individual officers. We were claiming this from the beginning, as was Archbishop Rivera. What we said was that due to the hour, the duration of the action and its location, there had to be some complicity on the part of the military. Since we didn't know who did it but did know that the army had to be involved, we began investigating the army and discovered first the accomplices and later the assassins. The US investigators were outraged by this claim, even though it was the most logical.
I imagine the US Embassy didn't want to accept the evidence because it wanted to minimize the political costs, not because it was directly involved. I honestly don't believe it was involved, but it must have seen that the costs for their policy could be great, as indeed they have been. The State Department recently said it feels deceived and defrauded because the Senate has conditioned military aid to El Salvador. If the State Department feels this way, how must the US Embassy have felt when it first learned of the assassination? Although it had to minimize the political costs, it also had to respond to international pressure. Given the Embassy's actions, many began to think it was really hiding something. This forced it to change. Even so, in December, when the decision was made to indict someone, sectors of the Salvadoran government were more rational than the Embassy.
Has the US helped or hindered the case? This has to be answered on three levels. The first is the US public, which has expressed great solidarity. People are aware of what happened and do not want their tax dollars used to support such crimes. They know that this crime is just one of other equally brutal assassinations, 75,000 in total. The US people have reacted in an extraordinary manner, writing letters to their representatives and the administration, participating in meetings and campaigns, and supporting the Jesuits in the United States.
The second level is the US Congress. There has been a huge effort to seek the truth in the case. The Moakley Commission and other interested senators have followed the case carefully. They are looking for ways to push the investigation forward, and have put pressure on the military. Knowing that actions speak louder than words, they have responded with actions. There was a time when unconditional aid was not given to countries with records of human rights violations, because the aid created monsters that no one could control—I don't know why that policy was dropped. There are honest and good-willed people in Congress who have helped the investigation move forward.
Finally, the third level is the US executive branch, which, in my judgment, has tried to minimize the assassination's impact in order to maintain its Salvadoran policy. It has treated our brothers in death just as it treated them in life. The Embassy listened to them talk, but the reports to the State Department never failed to accuse them or their publications of being leftwing, collaborating with the mentality that later led to their murders. I would say that the US Embassy's concrete policy, its reports and information, which are being released bit by bit, are in part morally responsible for the assassinations. We have to keep this in mind.
The Embassy's human rights policy is not right. It has not been so in this case and has it not been in the past. US Salvadoran policy in general has been wrong—after ten years of the policy, investing millions in it and in El Salvador, there is today more war than peace, less economic development and less hope for reconciliation among Salvadorans. This third level of US response, represented by the Embassy, has been deceitful in its insistence on minimizing costs. I'm not saying that the Embassy has done absolutely nothing, but what it has done has been because it has been forced to. If circumstances had not pushed it to minimal action, it would not have done even that. Not only in the case of Lucía Cerna. It even tried to intimidate some people in the judicial system who could influence the case. The Embassy has been shameless toward the Salvadoran judicial system. It has hidden information and complicated the case, tried to twist facts and lied to us. We have been in constant tension with it.
envío: Some believe that this is due to the ambassador himself...
Tojeira He is not the source of the problem—it is the incorrect US policy. There would probably have been the same problems no matter who the ambassador is. There is agreement in Salvadoran political circles, however, that this ambassador has the weakest credentials of any who have served during the last ten years of war. He is an arrogant man who acts more like a "proconsul," who looks down on the Salvadorans. When Ellacuría spoke with him, the ambassador could not respond adequately to his arguments. Ellacuría could always out-debate him. I think the Embassy, even if it did not agree with Ellacuría, should have seen the mediating role the UCA was playing in the Salvadoran conflict. Had there been more respect, it is less likely that there would have been a direct attack against him. Our conflict with the Embassy is a result of the intransigence with which it has dealt with the investigation process.
envío: What about the 21 documents that the US government is refusing to release? Is this one more scandal?
Tojeira: We had information that various US government agencies had gathered information on the case. Through our lawyers in the US, we wrote to the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Most of the institutions did not reply at first, and eventually those that did said they could not release any documents. The State Department refused to release any information it had received from the Embassy about the Jesuits. The DIA told us they had 21 documents, but could not give them to us because the law protects US government agency documents if their release could threaten US national security. This was a bit scandalous and clearly illustrated the US government's unwillingness to cooperate.
There must be a lot of information in the Embassy reports—what they think of us, when they have monitored us. Releasing this information wouldn't threaten US security, it would only threaten the spies they have in El Salvador. They don't want to release the names. Also, some of the information is bound to lack proof and be even false, so the spies would be in a bad position. After heavy pressure from our lawyers, the DIA admitted that it had 85 documents and would release some, but not all. It sent us a series of documents, but with huge sections blocked out! Of 30 lines on a page, 15 to 18 were blocked out. Virtually no names of contacts appear. Sometimes just names or places were blocked out so that informers could not be identified, but text was also blocked out. The remaining parts we were allowed to read were superficial, general comments, totally irrelevant. What do the blocked-out lines contain? Apart from specific names, we just don't know. We would like to know what is in these documents as well as the ones not released to us. If we printed the documents as they were given to us, it would make clear that although the US talks of helping to solve the crime, it is a confusing rather than a clarifying element.
Given this secrecy, rumors against the US are naturally flying. People believe, logically, that the US government is trying to hide something. It hasn't acted this way only with us; it has also refused information to members of Congress. This bizarre behavior makes it easy to imagine it’s hiding some scandal.
envío: How would you describe the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy and Salvadoran society to the assassinations and the investigation?
Tojeira: Archbishop Rivera and Bishop Rosa Chávez expressed, and continue to express, total support. They have put themselves in danger for us, they've pushed the investigation and have refused to let the process be sidetracked. I can find nothing to criticize in their actions, and lots to appreciate. The other bishops have accepted Rivera's leadership as representing the official view of the Church. Only once, shortly after the assassinations, the president of the Bishops' Conference, Bishop Tovar Astorga, stated in the magazine 30 Days that he suspected the FMLN had committed the crime, openly disagreeing with Rivera. As the evidence has emerged pointing to the contrary, he has not maintained his claims. I think that was unique. All the other bishops have backed Rivera in his work to resolve the case.
I would not try to claim that the Jesuit case has been a decisive question for Salvadoran society, but there has been a general revulsion, even among those who did not agree ideologically with our companions. No one can deny the brutality of the act nor the need to say, "We cannot consent to such acts." The brutality has highlighted the savagery of the war itself and the lesser known murders. I think the death of our brothers has sparked desires for peace, not only among those who suffer from the war but also those who have been relatively unaffected. There is now a larger group saying that the military has to be subjected to authority. The idea of military impunity has been losing ground, and even more so after these killings. This could be a real step towards peace, because diagnosing the illness is the first step to curing the person. In this case, the social body is sick and if the primary source of the infection is diagnosed as military impunity, then we are on the way to curing the illness. There has also been growing respect for the Church, for the Jesuits, for the peaceful role of the Church in El Salvador. I think the killing of our brothers has been an important factor in limiting repression of the Church. Not that we now have total liberty, but there has been a decrease in provocations, harassment and threats.
envío: In your first public declaration on November 16, the Society of Jesus expressed its desire that the sacrifice of the Jesuits not be in vain. Are you satisfied in that sense?
Tojeira: I don't think any death is in vain; every death has the same value. Sometimes, the value of all deaths focuses on one or two deaths, or on eight in this case. Their commitment to life, which led to them being killed, is the same commitment of the Salvadoran people, so many of whom have been killed anonymously, and whose deaths have not led to peace in El Salvador. Their deaths have, however, led to a growing consciousness that we have to work for peace with justice. The people say: they died because they defended life and publicly opposed the death of the thousands who have been sacrificed in this war. Their death takes on a symbolic, sacramental, theological value, a sacrifice for life and peace.
envío: The Jesuits have said that the case demands truth, justice and pardon, but in that order.
Tojeira: We have often repeated that, and we believe it. The Salvadoran people need to know the truth. Truth is important for peace, because it is the building block of peace. This type of crime shows that there are powerful sectors in this country that do not value life. Justice can only come after the truth. Truth is not enough if basic rights are denied. And finally, as Christians and as human beings we have the moral obligation to forgive and to promote reconciliation. What is the time frame for truth, justice and forgiveness? We have yet to receive the whole truth, obviously. We have to continue to fight for the truth and if the trial ends without having found it, we have to continue independently, even if there is no chance for justice. This is basic—we will seek the truth until we find it.
With respect to justice, it is ideal to demand justice based on the whole truth, but it is also good to carry out the justice possible based on part of the truth. The more truth is revealed, the more justice will be done and the closer we will be to peace with justice in El Salvador. Although we don't want just a partial justice based on partial truth, we recognize that concrete actions have their merits. We've never wanted vengeance and have never demanded it. We've limited our demands for justice to the Salvadoran legal system and oppose any type of "justice" outside of the legal framework.
Forgiveness? Forgiveness has two distinct aspects. One is moral forgiveness, granted from the first moment. The other is legal pardon, and that depends on the conditions for real reconciliation in Salvadoran society. That is, the legal pardon should not occur right after the judgment is passed down, but should work within the broader framework of reconciliation in El Salvador. If there is an accord between the two conflicting forces at some point and the possibility of peace emerges, then I could imagine a legal pardon being appropriate within the framework of a general amnesty for war crimes. I include in war crimes many of those common crimes that result from the desperate economic situation and the mood of violence due to the war. During war, crime is the result of war. There must be general reconciliation among Salvadorans, and when this occurs, along with a negotiation process supervised by the United Nations—as is currently taking place—then we can talk about a legal pardon for the murderers of the Jesuits. Until then, any pardon would be a slap in the face to justice.
envío: In your first declaration you also said that you "reserve the right to come to your own conclusions." What will you do after the trial and the possible sentencing?
Tojeira: We don't plan an investigation, because we're not police, but we will continue to follow all the tips we receive and those that have not been checked out. We're going to point out all the contradictions and the conclusions about Salvadoran society that can be drawn from those contradictions. Even if the intellectual authors were found, serious reflection on the case would still need to be done. For example, what thinking processes allowed this kind of assassination? I don't think this question has been asked or reflected upon. If we really want peace in El Salvador, we have to find the underlying cause of the case. Up to now we've been too concerned with its legal aspects to do this, but we as Jesuits will reflect not only on the murders but also on the situation that led to their deaths and the deaths of so many others.
envío: What do you think of the recent vote in the US Senate which conditions military aid on clarification of the case?
Tojeira: That has been, more than anything, a victory of the active work of the US people. They forced military aid to be linked to the Jesuit case. I think many people in the US wanted to eliminate all aid but the legislators chose softer language. Their decision will help the investigation probe more deeply, both judicially and extra-judicially. Bit by bit it will clarify the roots of the crime, the contradictions and the complicities. The US people won because Congress listened to them. The President, of course, is another story. He wanted to condition aid on a cease-fire in 60 days, eliminating all other conditions about the Jesuits and human rights.
envío: How do you evaluate the attitude of the European countries, especially Spain, where five of the murdered Jesuits were born?
Tojeira: Sometimes I think that the pressure of other governments, especially European, may have more effect on the United States than on El Salvador. Spain in particular has limited diplomatic and economic relations with El Salvador and so exerts minimal pressure. The same pattern follows in other European countries, except for Germany, and Germany has now cut off all aid. It is much less than US assistance, but it has affected the Salvadoran government and forced it to reflect. In general, there is a tendency in Europe toward moral reflection and not the same use of civil mechanisms for political pressure as in the United States. Europe, and Spain in particular, do not understand nonviolent civil protest.
Spain has offered great support at the spiritual level. The crime profoundly affected the clergy, but there are no effective mechanisms to transform this into political action. The strongest solidarity has been from the US, but various European countries have also been supportive. This is logical, given that El Salvador is militarily, economically and politically dependent on the US. Europe is more isolated from the problems, and the European people have dropped the idea that they can influence Third World countries' policies. In other words, Europe has dropped the idea of imperialism. Not that Europeans aren't imperialist, but their imperialist policies are essentially economic, where the North gets rich off the South. In the US, imperialist policies are so brazen that the people not only see the government's mechanisms at work, they also see with horror the consequences of policies that European countries no longer hold.
envío: Some say that the Jesuits have been more politically effective since their death than they were in life, and that their sacrifice has contributed to peace and the end of the war in a way that would not have been possible if they had been alive. What do you say?
Tojeira: I’ve heard this, and it is true that in some cases people have been more effective after their deaths than during their lives. These deaths have become universal. I would say that it would have been difficult to receive all the support we have received from the Church, so full of admiration and commitment, if our brothers had not died. I speak here of all levels of the Church, but especially of the hierarchy. High-level members of the hierarchy have affirmed that they are martyrs. By putting them in this category, they are classifying them as people worthy of imitating in their heroic virtues and in the shedding of their blood. They did not say this before their deaths, and those who did were viewed with suspicion. Their deaths have illuminated the commitment with which they lived their lives. This makes their deaths more universal and therefore they have a greater impact on the conscience of the Church.
In other aspects, including the political, their deaths have had a huge impact. They would have always struggled against US military aid. They avidly supported a total cutoff of aid, but never even saw the aid made conditional, which they finally won in death. In Salvadoran society, they were much more polemical figures while they were alive than they are now. They are now more admired and less debated. Those who continue to debate their moral authority are a minority and use such ridiculous arguments that all classes reject them. They have been effective in creating a public image of respect and admiration in El Salvador.
Despite all this, I don't think you can say they have done more after their deaths than they did while they lived. Their deaths are significant because of what their lives meant. Martyrs are not born from nothing. They struggled for peace for 20 years in El Salvador, for the poor and for justice. Their deaths make absolutely clear their goals in life. Those who have other struggles in life surrender to death more easily. Our brothers did not hide, they fought for what they believed with Christian conviction and human ethics. Their deaths gave value to their lives, but this pains us. Their sudden death cut short a work of conscience, of analysis, a struggle for justice, all of which are so important in El Salvador. Although their deaths gave a universal dimension to their work, they also ended it. This was part of the cold and deliberate plan, to put an end to the effectiveness of their work. We are grateful to have martyrs, but their death saddens us greatly, not only because of the injustice but also because it will be difficult to continue their work. You can't replace 20 years of understanding of Salvadoran reality. We would rather they had not been martyrs, but had been, in the language of the Church, confessors of the faith. We would have preferred their commitment to be made clear in their confession and not in their martyrdom. We know that martyrdom is a gift of God, that He gives it to those whom He chooses, and that we should be thankful. But we would rather have them alive.