Today thousands of peacemakers will gather in Columbus, GA outside the gates of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning. With “Cooperation” on the end of this title, this “institute” sounds positively civilized.
But the history of this agency is anything but civilized. This is simply a new name for an actual terrorist organization once named the School of the Americas. Often referred to as the School of the Assassins in Latin America, the School has trained members of the military and paramilitary all over Latin America in methods of terrorism designed to combat popular uprisings in Central and South America since 1946.
Under the rubric of anti-communism, students, clergy, unions, media and farmers have been targeted for kidnappings, torture, murder and mutilation. Like ISIS, the mutilated bodies were often left in high visibility locations such as highways and garbage dumps where they could send very clear messages to the population at large: Do not challenge the regime. We will crush you.
Your Tax Money at Work
Today’s commemoration has particular significance. It is the 25th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit professors at the University of Central America in San Salvador along with their housekeeper and her daughter. These brutal murders were carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion, a self-described counter-insurgency military unit trained, armed and largely directed by the US Army’s School of the Americas then headquartered in Panama.
The Battalion was responsible for a high profile act of genocide in the northeastern village of Mozote in which the more than 700 residents were rounded up, tortured, raped, killed, their mutilated bodies hung from trees and burned in the rubble of their village.
The very clear goal of all these highly public acts of brutality was obvious: to terrorize the population and frighten the people into submission. It was a brutal terrorism taught these Latin American soldiers by agents trained in America and paid for with American taxpayers’ money.
ISIS has got nothing on us.
I visited this place of death on a peaceful university campus during my first trip to El Salvador in 1993. It was a very difficult time to be in that country, then under a cease fire monitored by the UN with no accord yet in place to prevent a resumption of the bloody civil war that had been raging there for 13 years. Through the aegis of the Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador and the World Council of Churches, our small group of seminarians was able to serve as international monitors of the cease fire for the week we were there.
The civil war was predominately funded and largely directed by the American military and the CIA. The uprising of campesinos who had taken over many less than fully productive farms owned by Salvador’s famed Fourteen Families had brought the US into this conflict. Our government sought to protect American business interests in Salvador and to prevent the successful Sandinista leftist revolution in Nicaragua from spreading to its neighbor to the north. Under the rubric of fighting communism - whether it actually was present or not - the US became embroiled in wars up and down Central America and generated some of the more brutal acts of terrorism known to humanity.
We Were Not the Good Guys…
One memory of that visit occurred at the base community of campesinos who had overtaken a large cattle farm in the country. The leader of the community said to us, “You may think we live like animals because we live in cattle stalls. But this is the first roof I’ve ever had over my head in 30 years.” About this time a group of children with distended bellies came up to our group and the leader continued, “We have had two children die in our community in the last week from hunger. The oldest one was 10. He was my son.”
That visit also included meeting victims of napalm dropped from US helicopters onto villages. One of the survivors bore horrendous scarring from his encounter with death which rained from the skies. As we spoke with him, the charred barren hillsides around the base community in which he and other burn victims lived still bore witness to that deadly encounter years after its occurrence. In some places the landscape was charred right down to the stone.
Napalm is a terrible thing.
When we asked the man how he had managed to survive, he quickly responded, “It was the Cuban doctors who helped us.” Suddenly I found myself reeling from cognitive dissonance. A child of the Cuban missile crisis in Florida, Castro’s Cuba represented all that was evil in my childhood. The reality I encountered that day in the countryside of El Salvador was a complete reversal of roles. Here it was America who was the author of evil. And it was Castro’s Cuba whose policies were life giving.
As I watch the waves of children coming to our border from El Salvador, I do not have to wonder what would prompt their desperate parents to send them on such dangerous journeys in the hopes of new lives. I’ve seen where they come from. And I know what happened there. At a very basic level, these children are coming to reclaim the lives that were stolen from them.
This is what happens when you use your brains….
The afternoon we visited the university was the occasion of the third anniversary of the massacre at UCA. We got there early enough to see the actual site of the killing which was now a museum. The victims were taken from their dormitory at UCA into a rose garden and shot point blank. To make their point, their assassins used their rifle butts to beat the brains out of the heads of some of the professors. Their point was pretty clear:
This is what happens when you use your brains to challenge the regime.
These killings occurred nine years after Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down at the altar of a convent in the middle of mass. Romero had long predicted his death: “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God.” Romero was also prone to cite Tertullian’s maxim that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” I have stood in that very spot and felt the palpable chill of death.
There was never a shortage of martyrs in El Salvador.
Latin Americans tend to be pretty graphic with their depiction of horror and somewhat literal in their appropriation of religious symbols. When the bodies of the Jesuits were discovered, some of the people scraped the brains beaten from their heads into glass jars and saved them. They are currently on display in the museum, a sight which prompted me to go running from the museum to the rose garden where they had died to vomit between sobs.
The chapel at UCA contains a set of unbelievably graphic scenes of tortured campesinos that serves as the Stations of the Cross. They are powerful in their witness to the terror systematically generated in El Salvador during the civil war to coerce the populace into control. They are also powerful voices of protest against this brutality and insisting that this violence end.
That evening we attended an outdoor mass on the UCA campus. Under the gaze of the ubiquitous military guards with their automatic weapons, we entered into what was an incredibly joyful rite of remembrance, resistance and hope for reconciliation. It was my first encounter with the Misa Campesina, the liberationist eucharist that arose out of the struggles of Central America. It closed with a rousing hymn:
Cuando el pobre crea en el pobre When the poor believe in themselves
Ya podremos cantar libertad Then we will sing liberty
Cuando el pobre crea en el pobre When the poor believe in themselves
Construiremos la fraternidad We will build a brotherhood.
This would be the first of two trips to El Salvador. The second I would serve as an international election monitor for the 1994 election in the country. I would watch illiterate peasants standing in the tropical sun for hours to dip their thumbs into purple ink and mark their ballots under the photos of the candidates. It provided a stark contrast to the recent shameful elections in America where about a third of the electorate bothered to show up, our worst participation rate since the Great Depression.
An Obligation to Bear Witness
My time in El Salvador changed me forever. I no longer had the luxury of naïveté in looking at my country’s foreign policy through the lens of generosity. I had seen too much. I also came away with a decided admiration for the tenacity, the generosity and the hopefulness of the poor despite the unbearable hardships they bear daily just to survive and the demonization they endure which threatens to take away their remaining dignity.
I promised myself that I would return to America to tell what I had seen and experienced there. Sadly, I cannot be present in Columbus this day. I have a funeral of a long time friend to attend. But a candle burns before my Guadalupe shrine this morning and my prayers ascend to heaven along with a curl of frankincense smoke in memory of the many martyrs of El Salvador. My heart and my spirit are with the protesters who stand at the gates of the sanitized School of the Assassins this day even as my body is not. And I join them in solidarity as they make their demands:
No more terrorism! No more war! Not in my name and not with my tax money!
Today I give thanks for the lives of true martyrs, those who died fighting for human dignity, those who understood that the right to life is broader, deeper and much more involved than the shallow politics of abortion. As a follower in the Way of Jesus, I give thanks for those who recognize that the good news of Jesus means nothing so long as it remains silent in the face of ongoing degradation and demonization of the little ones that Jesus loved.
The poster for the third anniversary commemoration I brought back from El Salvador contains a quote from Salvadoreño writer Rafael Rodriguez Diaz. Speaking on behalf of the martyred Jesuits, he believes they would stand in the face of death again and say:
We want to say for the record that if we were given new life to decide again what to do, they would again find us dying for this town and its people.
Martyrs of El Salvador!
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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