Three weeks ago, the Biden administration released two presidential briefs submitted to Richard Nixon days and hours prior to the September 1973 CIA-backed coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. Not a line in the six declassified pages —with a total of 73 lines referring to the coup, some of them still partially redacted— even grazed the U.S. role in the putsch. It seems a metaphor for how hard it remains for the United States, even half a century later, to break the secrecy shrouding its involvement in key episodes in Latin American history.
Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts joined more than three decades ago the efforts to elucidate another infamous crime: who in the Salvadoran military orchestrated the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in November 1989, in the final throes of the country’s 12-year civil war, and recalls the active U.S. role in covering it up. Last June, Salvadoran prosecutors charged former President Alfredo Cristiani with allegedly “authorizing” the killings, which were carried out by the U.S.-sponsored Atlacatl Battalion. In 2020, the U.S. extradited Colonel Inocente Montano to Madrid, where he alone was convicted as an intellectual author. Most of the involved high-ranking officials are either dead or evaded responsibility and still live in El Salvador.
November 16 will mark the 34th anniversary of the massacre. In a video conference interview with El Faro English, McGovern says the George H.W. Bush administration not only was “determined to circle the wagons” around Cristiani and the Salvadoran military; he asserts that “I don’t know how they could not have” learned of the assassination plot in advance.
In early 1990 he traveled to El Salvador to investigate the crime as part of the ‘Moakley Commission,’ the nickname of the House Speaker’s inquiry delegated to his longtime boss, the tough-talking South Boston Congressman Joe Moakley. McGovern says it is now time to reconnect with efforts in El Salvador and the United States to obtain thousands of U.S. government documents that remain secret: “I say this in the case of Chile, too: what is the national security issue? Do they want to protect Henry Kissinger? (...) If it shows that we knew more than we admitted, so be it.”
Shortly after the Jesuit massacre, the FBI and Salvadoran military jointly interrogated Lucía Cerna, an UCA worker who saw soldiers on the university grounds during the massacre. The U.S. Embassy went out of its way to assert that she had failed a polygraph. What did the Moakley Commission learn about the Cerna interrogation?
There was a guy from the U.S. Embassy named Rick Chidester who accompanied her to Florida. And at the airport she was interrogated by the FBI and hooked up to a polygraph test. Lucía Cerna had no idea what the hell was going on, she had seen something horrible, and she was being asked questions that she felt —based on when we talked to her— made her wonder whether she was being protected or being put into a very dangerous situation.
Cerna didn’t know whether she was about to be electrocuted. She was not sophisticated in FBI interrogation techniques, but she knew about the history of El Salvador and about people being tortured, so she was in a panic. And she got to the point where, I think, she was trying to get this over with, and move on. So it made sense to us that this woman who was in a state of unbelievable nervousness and was frightened, that she would be all over the place on a polygraph, and that’s what happened. Because ultimately what she said turned out to be true. The idea that she was making this up, because she was a leftist, was ridiculous.
But in any event, this was an improper way to have dealt with her. She should have been briefed on what was going on and been assured she was being taken care of by people she trusted.
Salvadoran Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Antonio Rivas, from the Special Investigative Unit (SIU), was part of the interrogations. According to Human Rights Watch, there was a direct conflict of interest: another member of the SIU, Colonel Iván López y López, had been transferred to the unit after being at the Military Command at the time of the killings.
My old boss, Congressman Moakley, had some very candid conversations with the Embassy and State Department about how this was all handled. And he told them, “The best possible face that you could put on this is that you are all terribly incompetent and stupid, because if you wanted to get to the truth, this is not how you would have handled it.” But it raises questions about whether it was intentionally done this way to try to discredit her story because people were interested in protecting the Salvadoran military and government, who the United States was generously supporting.
We never uncovered a document that said, intentionally, “get her to recant her story,” but our suspicion and paranoia were intensified even more with the case of Major Eric Buckland, who was stationed at the U.S. Embassy and recounted a conversation he had with Colonel Carlos Avilés [about Salvadoran military involvement in the massacre]. The way the Embassy handled that was not to protect the young U.S. service member. They put him in a room with Minister of Defense Emilio Ponce and brought in Colonel Avilés and questioned him that way. Why would you expose him to Salvadoran interrogation and have the minister of defense and the guy whose confidence he betrayed in the room? It’s either incredible incompetence —that’s the best face you can put on it— or this was an effort to try to shake this guy down or discredit him.
When we went down to El Salvador, a month and a half after the priests were killed, Moakley asked Deputy Chief of Mission Jeff Dietrich about Buckland and the response was, “Oh, you mean the June Allyson of the Embassy?” Allyson was an actress in the 50s who cried a lot in movies. It was a disparaging characterization of this U.S. officer who came forward and said, “This is what I was told.” Why do you assume that anybody who had anything negative to say about the Salvadoran government or Armed Forces had to be lying? Why do you treat him or Lucía Cerna in a way that assumes they are liars? We never got an answer.
During the investigation, the leader of our Military Group who was there when the Jesuits were killed was pretty candid to us about his view —this was before everybody admitted that the military killed them— that the military did it. And I remember after he left I said at an Embassy briefing, “The head of MilGroup said the military was involved.” And somebody responded, “Oh, was he drinking when he told you that?” We knew early on that there were forces within the Embassy that were determined to circle the wagons around the military and around Cristiani.
Is your impression today that there was at least a segment of the Embassy that was actively covering for the Cristiani administration?
That is my conclusion, yes.
The private prosecutors contracted by the UCA, Sidney Blanco and Henry Campos, said that the legal department of the Embassy approached them and claimed to be warning them that there was a guerrilla threat against their lives…
And I remember them [Blanco and Campos] telling us that. They were pretty young back then, at least they looked young. But look: the Bush State Department was team Cristiani, and the idea that we were supporting a government that killed priests was not something that they wanted to have established as fact. So there was a concerted effort.
We had asked for a bunch of information from the State Department before Moakley went down to El Salvador for his first trip. And we had a government plane and the State Department asked whether they could have some of their people on the plane with us. And Moakley said, “I have no objection, but where are my documents?” And they said, “Well, we’re working on it.” He says, “Here’s the deal. None of your guys are allowed on the plane until we get the documents.” It was the State Department saying, “Fuck you, we don’t have to cooperate.” And Moakley kicked them out of the plane. And then the documents came.
Our relationship with the State and Justice Departments was like pulling teeth every step of the way. They inadvertently sent us a list of members of the Salvadoran military who went to the School of the Americas, and there was a number of these people who were in the Atlacatl Battalion, which received U.S. money. But as every shoe dropped, the response was always, “Yeah, OK, that may be true, but the High Command’s not involved… Cristiani had no idea… there was no cover-up.” And it just became ridiculous.
Moakley gave a speech at the UCA at the one-year anniversary of the massacre. We met with Ponce beforehand and a guy from the Embassy came to translate. During the interview, the congressman would ask a very succinct question —like, “where were you on this day?”— and the translator would say like three paragraphs in Spanish. It became clear that there was some coaching going on. So Moakley said, “Stop doing that.” He told Ponce, “No matter how you look at this, one thing is very clear: This couldn’t have happened in a vacuum.”
Moakley told Ponce, “This is more than just a question of a couple of bad apples. You have an institutional problem.” And the Embassy guy pushed back: “You can’t say that.” And Moakley goes, “I’m asking the questions.” When we got in the car to drive to the UCA to give the speech, Moakley told him [the Embassy employee] that he did not want to be accompanied by him. He said, “You work for the U.S. government, but in that meeting, it sounded like you work for the minister of defense. I’m appalled.”
I think [Ambassador] Bill Walker wanted desperately to believe that the military didn’t do it. But I think he realized, as the evidence piled up, that that clearly wasn’t the case. Our intelligence agencies are not always communicative with ambassadors and sometimes multiple people know a little bit but don’t share. But it was clear to us that the U.S. government was not doing everything within its power to get to the truth, and I look back on that with great shame.
The CIA and other U.S. agencies looked out for their local contacts in El Salvador, or Guatemala, and knew a lot about the repression of civil society that was taking place.
Look, how many years have passed since Allende was overthrown in Chile? We still don’t know the entire U.S. role in that. And we still haven’t gotten all of the documents declassified that would give us more of an insight. But I have no doubt that the main goal of people in the CIA who had cultivated sources or friends in the military was to protect them.
About a month before the guerrilla offensive and the killing of the Jesuits, I went down to El Salvador to accompany a labor leader who had been arrested and tortured. And I met with the deputy chief of mission, Rick Chidester, and some other people at the Human Rights Office. And for most of the meeting they said that the guy that I was accompanying had made everything up, that the marks on his body were self-inflicted. A disproportionate amount of that meeting was them bashing the UCA, telling me that the Jesuits were mouthpieces for the FMLN, that “these are not good people; they’re not the priests that you know.” It was clear that the Embassy —not just the military and intelligence sides, but also the civilian side— hated the priests.
Was your impression that they would have known that something was afoot in advance?
I don’t know how they could not have. The decision to kill the priests happened in the aftermath of the offensive. Not to say that people didn’t want them dead a lot earlier, but it is inconceivable to me that somebody somewhere didn’t know what was about to happen. And if by chance they didn’t, with all their contacts, and with all the money poured in there and all the intelligence involvement, someone must have known immediately afterward. Yet the official position of our government was to deny. They even put out this thing that the FMLN came onto the campus and killed the priests, and made all these things up. I don’t believe they were that dumb and out-of-touch to have not known what was going on. The State Department side is interesting, but our intelligence services probably have more useful information.
You mentioned the coup in Chile. Just this year there has been a declassification of documents. In the case of the Jesuits, in 1993 and 1994 there was a wave of declassification across different agencies, but in 1999 they reclassified and tucked away many of the documents. The National Security Archive has filed thousands of FOIA requests and in 2009 said that a chunk of the archives is missing. What are the next steps for those seeking the Jesuit documents?
You know, I need to get reconnected and try to advance some of these requests, because I think it’s important to know the truth. Years ago I went to El Mozote. I was working for Moakley when the massacre occurred there and I remember Elliott Abrams publicly denying that it ever happened. And when the war came to an end and forensic experts went out there, they uncovered all the bodies —mostly women and children— that the Salvadoran military was accused of murdering when the Reagan administration was saying that it never happened. I can’t believe that they didn’t know it happened. A thousand people dead. People disappeared, murdered. I have no doubt that they knew. We paid these awful people an awful lot of money not just to fight against the FMLN but to gather intelligence, to get dirt on people.
As for the idea that the president of El Salvador had no clue what his military was about to do, this had to be coordinated very carefully. Units had to be clued in, otherwise they would have rushed to the [UCA] campus as there was gunfire. In a highly protected area with lots of sensitive military intelligence installations, the story of denial never made any sense. What was frustrating to us was that our government was part of the obstruction to getting to the truth.
I knew three of the priests —Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, and Martín-Baró— including for their work on the bill that is now known as TPS, which was inspired to protect Salvadoran refugees. And we worked closely with the UCA on getting the data on Salvadoran migrants. Segundo Montes had a major role in that. For me, this was very, very personal. And I was stunned when I heard they were murdered. I never thought that they would murder such high-profile priests.
On August 6 the San Salvador Archdiocese announced the beginning of the canonization process for Ellacuría. What concrete steps could the Biden administration take in terms of accountability for their murders?
Release everything! They were killed in 1989, for Christ’s sake. A lot of people are dead. Ponce’s dead. I say this in the case of Chile, too: what is the national security issue? Do they want to protect [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger? There is no national security issue at stake to release the reporting. And if it shows that we knew more than we admitted, so be it. Those people are no longer in the U.S. government. To make sure that we don’t do this again, a little airing of the truth is not a bad thing. I should probably hook up with the UCA and find out what the outstanding requests are, and get some members of Congress to amplify that and endorse the declassification.
Exposing the truth about those who were responsible, in terms of accountability, is up to the Salvadoran people to figure out how they proceed. Sometimes the truth alone can be very, very powerful. It signals to someone thinking about doing something terrible that there may be a moment of accounting. Look, I haven’t gone to El Salvador because I worry about the attacks that Nayib Bukele has leveled against the UCA, because they sound eerily similar to the attacks made against the UCA right before the priests were killed. And I’m concerned about the UCA in Nicaragua right now as well. The only reason I haven’t gone down in the last couple of years is because I don’t want to put the UCA in a kind of situation where I’m used as an excuse to go after them. But in any event, I think what I need to do is reconnect with them about the documents, figure out who is making the requests, and see how we can find a way to be helpful.
Is your sense that there is a political openness from the Biden administration?
I hope so. I just had a terrible conversation with the Biden administration today about Cuba. I thought they would be better on Cuba than they are, but they’re the same as Trump. I’m hoping that they might be more open to this. Maybe this is the moment to elevate it.