Salvadorans remember peace accords, celebrate martyrs, dream of a different possible world

by Jim Hodgson

This is a historic week in El Salvador. January 16 was the 30th anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended the country’s long civil war. And this weekend, four Christian martyrs will be beatified – a step toward sainthood – by the Roman Catholic Church.

The commemorations take place in a political and social context that is not what we hoped for when we watched news coverage showing the government and the rebels sign the accords at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1992. The president today, Nayib Bukele, has dismissed the Accords as a “farce.” The country is on the edge of insolvency; Bukele flirts with cryptocurrencies that no-one understands; between 200,000 and 300,000 people leave the country each year.

Sometimes looking at the past can offer some signs for the future, and that’s why the celebration of the lives and witness of the martyrs this weekend matters.

Beatification of the Servants of God, Saturday, Jan. 22. Celebrant is Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez.

Best-know in the group is Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was driving with 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus and 72-year-old Manuel Solórzano, to the small town of El Paisnal to join the town’s celebration of the feast of St. Joseph when they were gunned down on March 12, 1977, in Aguilares, 33 km north of San Salvador. 

The fourth man celebrated is Father Cosme Spessotto, an Italian missionary priest of a Franciscan order who had served in El Salvador since 1950, and was murdered on June 14, 1980, as he prepared to celebrate an evening Mass in his parish church in San Juan Nonualco, La Paz department. Like other church leaders, including Saint Oscar Romero (the archbishop of San Salvador, slain March 24, 1980), he had denounced the crimes of the military junta in the 1970s including the murder of Fr. Rutilio, thus drawing threats against his own life.

Fr. Rutilio’s death came as El Salvador’s civil war was beginning. Over the next dozen years, at least 75,000 people were killed; about 8,000 more were made to disappear; a million people fled. In 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission report attributed at least 85 per cent of the killings to government security forces and related paramilitary death squads. 

Salvadorans recognize many martyrs, among them the four U.S. church women who were killed near the San Salvador airport in December 1980, and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter who were killed in November 1989 at their home in the University of Central America (remembered in the photo above). May they all be recognized soon too! As James T. Keane wrote in America magazine this week, “We need more dangerous saints.” Photo: Jim Hodgson (2019).

It’s important to remember what the martyrs represent: a persistent witness to life as experienced by people long oppressed, marginalized, landless, impoverished, unemployed, violated on a daily basis. Their sacrifice amplifies the cry of the poor, and I believe influenced the negotiations that produced the Peace Accords in 1992.

The Peace Accords brought about a new legal regime in El Salvador. One of the negotiators for the Farabundo Martí Liberation Movement (FMLN) at Chapultepec was Nidia Díaz, who spoke recently with Jacobin magazine:

“All those laws that oversee the new institutions that are the product of the peace accords were made in COPAZ, the National Peace Commission. They weren’t a whim. In COPAZ, you had the FMLN and the government as parties, and, as observers, the Catholic Church and the UN and the parties that were in the legislature at that moment. All the laws — the law for the National Civil Police, the army, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Human Rights Ombudsman, etc. — were made in COPAZ and sent to Congress. There was a debate process. 

“Now Bukele comes along and says, ‘I don’t agree with these responsibilities and powers,’ and he tries to annul the laws and the constitution. He’s dismantling the democratic process that permitted his very election.”

Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro speaks at a Romero memorial event, March 24, 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Another prominent defender of the peace accords is Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church (known by its Spanish acronym, IBE). Speaking with the newspaper Diario Co Latino this week, he said:

“There is a lot of criticism of the Peace Accords and an attempt to diminish their value. I think we have to commemorate them, and why not celebrate that the Accords put an end to the armed confrontation? Of course there are various sectors, particularly in the city of San Salvador, and perhaps in other cities where people did not live the intensity of the war as it occurred in other parts of the country. We saw so many people suffer, our brothers and sisters in those communities, places where the war was very harsh and caused greater damage: those people celebrated the end of the war with much joy. And that cannot be hidden.

“And there’s more than one reason that it is important to commemorate and to give thanks to God for the end of the armed confrontations: it’s to say to our sons and daughters that we do not believe in hatred or in confrontation. The Peace Accords give a place for us to say to our younger generations that we want peace, a peace that reaches everyone and a peace that is the hand of justice.”

He was asked what his message would be on this 30th anniversary of the Accords:

“We say that there are two things that we have not been able to accomplish since the Peace Accords. As churches, really there are two themes: on truth, because we have not been able to close the chapter on the Accords without knowing the facts behind the conflict. That’s important; the United Nations recognized it. The second is reconciliation, because you can’t talk about Peace Accords without reconciliation. The church in that has a great responsibility, but it is also an ethical, more and spiritual debt with our people.

“Supposedly we were to go towards reconciliation, but there was an agenda of priorities and the theme of reconstruction was in first place, when reconciliation should have been the principal theme. Apart from whether we lived a conflict or no, the call of God is to see each other as sisters and brother, to build a spirit of family nation, where everyone of us makes an effort so that all of us have lives of dignity. It’s humiliating that every day people leave because there are no conditions here for that life. Something is going wrong.”

The model of reconstruction imposed after 1992 resulted in shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, not sustainable and participatory development or comprehensive land reform.

Even in the face of the current crises in Central America – violence, migration, the impacts of climate change – what gets proposed derives from tired models from the past. Social movements have a different vision.

In the United Church’s Mandate magazine (summer 2020), I reported on a conversation with Miguel Tomás and youth peace-makers in his church:

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