On the night of December 2, 1980, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel, Catholic missionaries from the United States, were kidnapped, beaten, raped, and murdered by a U.S.-backed death squad while working to help the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador.
In their lives, work, and tragic, untimely deaths, the women inspired people in El Salvador who, deeply moved by their ultimate sacrifice, would at long last prevail in their freedom struggle.
Four Women, One Calling
Maura, Jean, Ita, and Dorothy were four very different women united in their common calling to serve their God and the suffering Salvadoran people. Maura, who was 49 when she was killed, was the oldest and most experienced missionary of the group. She grew up in an Irish American family in Queens, New York and joined the Maryknoll Sisters, an order of nuns dedicated to helping needy people overseas, when she was 19.
Ita, 40 at the time of her murder, was from Brooklyn and had wanted to be a Maryknoll sister since she was just 15. Initially rejected for health reasons, she worked as an editor at a publishing company before finally being accepted into the order when she was 31. Ita loved to dance and sing and among her sisters was known for her "twinkling eyes and elfin grin."
Dorothy, a Cleveland native, was born in 1939 and joined the Ursuline Sisters, a 16th century order devoted to teaching the poor, when she was 21. By the time she left for El Salvador in 1974 she had already taught in a women’s prison and to poor and critically ill people in the United States.
Jean, who originally hailed from wealthy Westport, Connecticut, left behind a promising career as a manager at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in Cleveland to join the Maryknoll lay mission in 1977 when she was 24. Described by her friends as a "joker," the youngest of the four martyred missionaries loved riding her Harley-Davidson motorcycle – which she gave away before departing for El Salvador – and sipping scotch, which she once poured over her breakfast cereal.
The Road to El Salvador
Maura was working in the slums of Managua when a devastating earthquake killed some 10,000 people in the Nicaraguan capital and left another 250,000 homeless two days before Christmas in 1972. Maura shared in survivors’ suffering as she worked in refugee camps following the disaster. Although she wasn’t previously political, living and working in a country ruled by the brutally repressive, fantastically corrupt – and U.S.-backed – Somoza dynasty changed Maura, who increasingly spoke and acted out against the regime’s many injustices.
Ita was also exposed to the bloody realities of U.S. imperialism as she served in both Bolivia and Chile before El Salvador. She arrived in Bolivia in 1972, the year after Gen. Hugo Banzer, a graduate of the notorious US Army School of the Americas, seized power in a coup d’état with the Nixon administration’s aid and blessing. Shortly after Ita’s arrival in Chile in 1973, that country also experienced a CIA-backed coup. This one overthrew the democratically elected government of socialist reformer Salvador Allende and replaced him with the murderous military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
According to her brother James, Dorothy "wanted to work with people who didn’t have the advantages of the people in the United States." In El Salvador, 2% of the population owned or controlled 60% of the land and disproportionate distribution prioritized profitable commercial crops while leaving landless campesinos, or peasants, often unable to grow enough food to feed their families. In 1980 the country had been ruled by a succession of military dictators backed by both the oligarchs and the US for 47 years, and beset by ever-growing inequities, numerous leftist militant groups coalesced into the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN in Spanish, and rose up to fight the ruling junta.
A Deadly Calling
For Salvadoran clergy, choosing the "wrong" side in the nascent struggle could mean a death sentence, as the March 12, 1977 assassination of Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande by a right-wing death squad demonstrated. Grande dedicated – and sacrificed – his life to the cause of organizing the marginalized campesinos as they demanded basic human rights His murder turned an erstwhile conservative Óscar Romero, newly installed as the Catholic archbishop of El Salvador, into an outspoken social activist overnight. Romero, too, would pay for his tireless advocacy for the poor with his life.
But first he would inspire a nation with his words and deeds, and the American churchwomen were among those who heeded his call to action. Jean, described by her mother Patricia as a "gutsy, loving, caring person," arrived in El Salvador in July 1979 amid rapidly worsening regime brutality. Like Romero – with whom she would closely work – Jean, a former Republican who once found the peace movement "dumb and unproductive," would undergo a profound transformation in the face of the daily horrors she witnessed in El Salvador.
Jean attended as many of Romero’s sermons – which had become lightning rods for both revolutionary action and reactionary repression – as she could. She also baked the archbishop chocolate chip cookies every week. Even amid those darkening days of imminent civil war, she never lost her sense of humor. Locals dubbed her "St. Jean the Playful."
On March 24, 1980, Romero was shot through the heart by a sniper acting on the orders of far-right death squad leader and School of the Americas graduate Roberto D’Aubuisson as he finished delivering a sermon. Jean and Dorothy stood vigil at the future saint’s coffin and were present when his somber funeral was transformed into a panic-driven hell as death squad gunmen massacred more than 40 mourners.
‘Atmosphere of Death’
Heeding Romero’s call for more Maryknoll sisters, Ita arrived in El Salvador on the day of the murdered monsignor’s bloody funeral. She worked with Carol Piette, a fellow Maryknoll sister she knew from her days in Chile, until August 24, 1980, when their Jeep was swept away in a flash flood. Carol’s final act was pushing Ita from the Jeep just before the deadly current washed it away. She was 40 years old.
Death was a constant companion in those days. As friends were disappeared and murdered by death squads – she personally witnessed one such killing – Jean remained steadfast as loved ones tried in vain to talk her out of El Salvador. "They don’t kill blond-haired, blue-eyed North Americans," she once retorted. But they did kill thousands of other people, and Jean, Dorothy, and their colleagues spent many days engaged in the macabre work of collecting and burying the tortured, twisted bodies dumped on roadsides or in fields by death squads.
Jean was extraordinarily courageous, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t also terrified. In May 1980 she wrote to tell a friend that "people are being killed daily" and how "three people from our area had been taken, tortured, and hacked to death." Things were even worse by the time Maura arrived in El Salvador in August 1980 and set to work searching for missing people, praying with families of the disappeared, and caring for refugees. Weeks before her murder, she wrote that "there are so many deaths everywhere that it is incredible."
“A family of seven, including three small children, was machine-gunned to death in a nearby town just last week," wrote Maura. "It is a daily thing – death and bodies found everywhere, many decomposing or attacked by animals because no one can touch them until they are seen by a coroner. It is an atmosphere of death."
‘No Greater Love’
Still, Maura believed fervently in the words of John 15:13: "No greater love is there than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." Leaving was not an option. Nor was it an option for Dorothy, who threw herself into her work as a "rescue squad" driver shuttling refugees away from the front lines of the civil war. On October 3, 1980 she wrote home to a friend: “We talked quite a bit today about what happens IF something begins. Most of us feel we would want to stay here…we wouldn’t want to just run out on the people." Her last letter home, which arrived the day before her murder, said she must show "faith and courage" and "continue preaching the word of the Lord, even though it may mean ‘laying down your life’ for your fellow man in the very real sense."
After her two closest friends were assassinated after walking her to a cinema, Jean took a six-week break, traveling to Miami to visit her parents for what would be the last time and then jetting off to London to meet her boyfriend and attend a wedding in Ireland. But El Salvador called her back, and despite the worsening security situation, she dutifully returned.
"Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity," she wrote to a friend two weeks before her murder. "Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine."
The last week of November, 1980, Maura and Ita traveled to Nicaragua, where the leftist Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship the previous year, to attend the Maryknoll Regional Assembly. At the closing liturgy, Ita read a passage from one of Archbishop Romero’s final sermons: "Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, he who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be captive – and to be found dead."
The next day – December 2, 1980 – the pair boarded a flight back to El Salvador, where Jean and Dorothy met them at the international airport outside San Salvador shortly after 9:00 pm to drive them home. Shortly thereafter, Five National Guardsmen stopped their van and drove it to an isolated area were the women were beaten and raped before being shot in the back of head and hastily buried in a shallow grave in a field. Campesinos who heard gunfire and saw the guardsmen speeding away from the scene in the missionaries’ van alerted authorities.
Two days later, US Ambassador Robert White was present as the murdered missionaries were exhumed. Incensed, he vowed that "this time, the bastards won’t get away with it." But they nearly did, thanks in very large part due to the incoming Reagan administration.
In the wake of the missionary massacre, President Jimmy Carter briefly suspended – but within weeks reinstated – military aid to El Salvador. Possessing none of the purported reverence for human rights that tempered some – but far from all – US support for brutality around the world during the Carter administration, President Ronald Reagan, who delighted El Salvador’s army and oligarchs when he defeated Carter in the November 1980 election, dramatically increased support for the regime. Under Reagan, El Salvador would receive some $2 billion in annual aid, mostly of the military variety, even as U.S.-backed forces committed a series of increasingly horrific massacres.
The worst of these took place in the remote village of El Mozote, where on December 11, 1981 troops from the elite Atlcatl Battalion – created by the US at the School of the Americas – slaughtered more than 900 civilians, most of them women, children, and elders. The day after news of the massacre made headlines in the US, Reagan certified that El Salvador’s human rights record was improving and that its regime was working "to bring an end to the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens."
Such certification was a prerequisite for continuing US aid and offered a preview of the Reagan administration’s policy of ignoring atrocities perpetrated by right-wing dictators who sided with the West during the final decade of the Cold War. Reagan supported regimes in Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, as well as the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, who were trained in kidnapping, assassination, and democracy suppression by American advisers using UStorture manuals. There was very little the administration would not countenance – up to and including genocide in Guatemala – in service of crushing communism in Latin America.
Blaming the Victims
The Reagan Administration even perpetrated a smear campaign to try to blame the four slain churchwomen for their own deaths. Top Reagan adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick shocked and infuriated the victim’s loved ones when she declared that "the nuns were not just nuns, they were political activists," as if that somehow excused raping and executing them. Secretary of State Alexander Haig preposterously proposed an incredible scenario in which the women were involved in a shootout with Salvadoran authorities. Adding insult to injury, the State Department billed Jean’s family $3,500 for the return of her body.
All the while, Haig and other administration officials were pressuring White to say the Salvadoran regime was making progress investigating the massacre. The ambassador refused to play along with their charade, defiantly declaring that he would "have no part of any cover-up." For his honesty, White was labeled a "social reformer" by the incoming administration and fired for sticking to the principles his country claimed – but usually failed – to uphold.
A 1993 New York Times bombshell report revealed that the Reagan administration ignored some of the Salvadoran regime’s worst atrocities – including El Mozote, the Romero assassination, and the missionary massacre – in service of the unrealized goal of winning the war.
As hard as the Reagan administration fought to hide the terrible truth about the missionary massacre, the churchwomen’s relatives fought even harder for justice for their loved ones. "Jean deserves, at the very least, that her native land not reward her killers," her mother asserted.
But in 1989 the US, now under the George H.W. Bush administration, did just that, granting stateside residency to the two highest ranking Salvadoran military officers ultimately responsible for the massacre – both of them School of the Americas graduates. Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who commanded the National Guard at the time of the killings, and Gen. José Guillermo García, who was the minister of defense, were both granted US residency in 1989. They would live comfortably in Floridian exile for over a quarter century.
The fight for justice for Maura, Jean, Ita, and Dorothy was fraught with frustrating setbacks. Although four low-ranking National Guardsmen were convicted in 1984 of murdering the women and sentenced to 30 years in prison, the commanders who planned and ordered the deadly attack remained above the law. However, following an unsuccessful lawsuit by the women’s relatives, a US jury in 2005 found Vides and García liable for the torture of three Salvadorans and ordered the former generals to pay their victims $54.6 million.
Around that same time the Center for Justice and Accountability and other advocates succeeded in expanding US anti-terrorism law to permit the deportation of anyone who has participated in acts of genocide, torture, or extrajudicial killings. Deportation proceedings against Vides and García began in 2009, and the war criminals were sent back to El Salvador in 2015 and 2016, respectively. However, they continue to enjoy impunity for their crimes to this day.
The Salvadoran civil war finally ended in 1992, with more than 75,000 men, women, and children killed – 85% of them by the army and paramilitary death squads, according to the United Nations. While each and every one of those deaths is tragic, some them – Father Grande, Archbishop Romero, the six Jesuit priests massacred in 1989, and the four American churchwomen, to name but a few – transcend the conflict at hand and become universal icons of righteousness that endure through the ages.
Brett Wilkins is is staff writer for Common Dreams and a member of Collective 20.