Cloud over El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR — San Salvador OVER ALL the signs of progress here, one stunning historic event hangs like a cloud that could shadow the future. Its color is black, the color of the robes of the Jesuit priests murdered two years ago.

Beyond the horror of the murders, the case now invokes the question whose answer will determine whether El Salvador passes into the new era of peace, reconciliation and respect. Has the Salvadoran military really reformed, or does it remain at heart the bloodthirsty corps it has been for so long?


Although the court proceedings got remarkably little coverage in the U.S. press, ostensibly the Jesuit murder case has been "solved." This fall, a jury of five ordinary Salvadorans made a most revealing decision.

Astonishing for Salvador, the jury actually voted that two officers (the high-ranking Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and Lt. Yusshy Mendoza) were guilty in the murders of the six Jesuit priests and two Salvadoran women during the Marxist rebel offensive in November 1989. Interestingly, they put the blame squarely on these in the long-scorned officer corps, while acquitting the working-class soldiers who were accused of doing the actual killing.


For the 11 years that the Marxist guerrillas have been fighting the government, they have claimed that this was a struggle of "class warfare." In its own way, the courtroom drama confirmed that.

Why? Because poorer Salvadorans have for years been doing the killing and taking the rap for the officer corps, the jury clearly accepted the old "I was just following orders" excuse (thus unwittingly bringing to birth that unlikely new creature, the "Good Salvadoran").

Ironically, even the country's president, Alfredo Cristiani of the rightist Arena Party, says he thinks the final judgment was a little odd. "To tell the truth," he told me in an interview recently in the beautiful colonial-style presidential mansion, "I didn't expect such a judgment. We were thinking that they would all be innocent -- or guilty. But such a mix of judgments came out!

"You have to think of how Salvadorans feel. In the past, low-ranking soldiers always paid the price. This time, the jury said that the higher-ups should pay. To me, saying you were given an order still does not justify committing a crime."

Why does the controversy refuse to go away? After all, the trial and the jury were refreshing in Salvador, where the entire justice system has until now most often resembled a Mafia enterprise. The judge, Ricardo Zamora, is universally praised. President Cristiani himself immediately called in specialists from Scotland Yard, and the Special Investigations Unit that expertly broke the case is the unit created and generously funded by the United States since 1985.

At this point, into the case steps Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., chairman of the House Speaker's Task Force on El Salvador, who has become the distant American legal and moral prosecutor on the case.

After months of the task force's own investigations, Congressman Moakley's report was issued on Nov. 18. In brief, after praising the progress El Salvador has made, he says he has talked to innumerable Salvadoran military men who claim that the orders to kill the eight came from the top. He cites testimony, all unfortunately anonymous, of a meeting at the Military Academy on the eve of the killings.

Since the military logs of that meeting "disappeared" in the turbulent days afterward (the city, remember, was in chaos in the middle of the guerrilla offensive), that meeting can in no way be confirmed. But fair observers here say that Moakley's accusations have the ring of truth.


As it heads toward peace accord, the government is saying, "There is no more evidence; the case is closed." The U.S. position is to get through the peace talks, see both imperfect sides sign an accord and finally transform military support totally into economic support.

But the case of the martyred Jesuits is not going to go away so easily. It is going to hang over El Salvador the way the Kennedy assassination hangs over the United States. Its questions will come back to heap scorn on the government's desire to become a centrist government concerned about both "sound economic strategy and the social welfare of the people." And it remains to be seen whether the Salvadoran military is really as "reformed" as the government now claims.