In a country that has witnessed many atrocities during its raging 10-year civil war, the horrific attack shocked even battle-hardened Salvadorans. In the predawn hours of Nov. 16, armed men stormed a house on the grounds of José Simeón Cañas University of Central America in San Salvador, dragged six Jesuit priests from their beds and riddled them with bullets. A housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were also killed in the massacre. Rev. Eduardo Valdez, the director of Jesuit studies at the university, claimed that paramilitary death squads were probably responsible for the murders of the priests, whom rightists frequently accuse of fostering subversive leftist ideology. Later that day, police raided a Lutheran church office in San Salvador and arrested a dozen missionaries, including Rev. Brian Rude, 33, of Calgary. Although the missionaries were released unharmed on Friday, many observers said that the arrests, following the brutal Jesuit killings, pointed to a new wave of repression by the right-wing government of President Alfredo Cristiani.
Those chilling incidents coincided with an all-out military offensive by leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas
EL SALVADOR’S REBELS ATTACK, AND THE RIGHT IS SUSPECTED IN THE MURDERS OF SIX PRIESTS
against the U.S.-backed government. Throughout the week, some of the fiercest fighting took place in the densely populated, working-class suburbs of San Salvador, where about 1,500 rebels fought pitched battles with government soldiers. Air force jet fighters and helicopter gunships streaked overhead, raining bullets and rockets on the rebel strongholds below. Caught in the crossfire, hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians huddled in their homes under a 24-hour curfew, listening to the sounds of the battle raging outside as their meagre
supplies of food and water ran out.
By week’s end, at least 800 people lay dead, joining the ranks of the 70,000 who have perished in the 10-year war. Included in that grim toll was British reporter David Blundy, 44, of the London-based Sunday Correspondent, who was fatally wounded last Friday by a sniper’s bullet. But despite heavy casualties, guerrilla leaders vowed to fight to the end. In the embattled Zacamil district of the capital, rebel commander Claudio Rabindranath declared, “We are going to defend this territory to the ultimate consequences—until victory or death.”
The fighting in El Salvador, close on the heels of renewed hostilities between Sandinista government troops and contra rebels in Nicaragua, threatened to unravel a two-year-old regional peace accord painstakingly arranged by Central American leaders.
Last week, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, in response to the massacre, condemned the Salvadoran government and urged it to accept a ceasefire. In Washington, a state department spokesman joined an international chorus of protest by calling the massacre a “barbarous act.” But the Bush administration refused to blame Cristiani’s government and
announced that it was speeding delivery of military aid to the Salvadoran army to counter the rebel offensive. Despite receiving more than $4 billion in military and economic aid from Washington since 1980—to combat the leftist insurgency, to promote democracy and economic reform and to curb human rights abuses—El Salvador remains as politically divided and problematic as ever. “In a world where communism is being discredited,” declared Mark Falcoff, an expert on the region at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, the rebels are “showing that El Salvador is a country where they are still fighting and dying over it.”
The rebel offensive also strained recently improving relations between Washington and
Moscow. President George Bush last week accused the Soviets of sending arms shipments to the guerrillas through Cuba and Nicaragua. Moscow vehemently denied the charge. The disagreement came just two weeks before Bush was scheduled to meet Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on U.S. and Soviet vessels off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.
The rebels launched their offensive on Nov. 11, three days after they broke off peace talks with the government over the Oct. 31 bombing of a leftist labor union office, which killed 10 people. Last week, rebel leaders said that their forces attacked government troop positions at 50 points in all 14 provinces of the country. On Nov. 12, Cristiani declared a state of siege, and, two days later, the army placed half the
one million residents of the capital, who are in combat zones, under 24-hour curfew.
At midweek, the government rejected a Red Cross proposal for a truce in the capital on the grounds that the rebels were on the verge of defeat. Then, in an action that reminded many observers of the 1979 tactic that Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza employed against advancing Sandinista rebels, the military ordered aerial strikes against guerrilla positions in San Salvador. Said Berta Rodriguez, a Salvadoran Green Cross co-ordinator: “I would not be surprised if we have 3,000 to 5,000 civilian casualties.”
Despite the government’s claim of imminent victory, fierce fighting raged on. Last Thursday, in the embattled suburb of Mejicanos, Facundo Guardado, the highest-ranking rebel leader in San Salvador, told Maclean’s that his troops would not retreat. “We would accept a truce and we are disposed to return to the negotiating table,” he said. “But when that happens, we will remain in the areas we control.” Caught in the middle of the fighting, tens of thousands of besieged Salvadorans defied the round-the-clock curfew on Thursday and streamed out of the combat zones. Many people appeared in panic, some weeping openly. “This is not our war,” said house painter José Roberto Andrade as he led his neighbors out of the northern suburb of Cuscatanzingo under a white flag. “If they want to fight, they should go where there are no people.” The scenes were repeated in the southeast of San Salvador, where many thousands more fled fierce fighting in the suburbs of Soyapango, San Jacinto and Santa Marta.
After leading a prayer over the bodies,of the slain Jesuits last week, San Salvador’s Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas compared the killings with the 1980 assassination of his predecessor, Oscar Amulfo Romero, which highlighted a wave of murders and kidnappings by right-wing death squads. And a Western diplomat in the capital said that the attack on the clergy may signal the start of large-scale repression by the military once the rebels withdraw from —or are driven out of — San Salvador. “There will be a lot of bloody retribution after this offensive is over,” said the diplomat. For El Salvador’s war-weary civilians, that remained a terrifying prospect.
ANDREW BILSKI with JOSEPH GANNON in San Salvador and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington
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