‘The soldiers killed the fathers!’

Lucía Cerna is not supposed to be alive. But because she is, Cerna can tell the haunting story of what many regard as a mass martyrdom that occurred 25 years ago, on Nov. 16, 1989, in El Salvador.

She was an eyewitness to the slayings of six Jesuits along with their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador. Together with historian Mary Jo Ignoffo, she has written La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs” (Orbis Books, $20).

Cerna was another housekeeper. On the night of the assassinations, she happened to be staying in a building next door with her husband, Jorge, and their young daughter. The next day, she stepped forward to tell what she saw, despite knowing the Salvadoran military was seeking to eliminate witnesses.

“We did nothing but tell la verdad, the truth. ... That’s it,” Cerna says at the start of the book, referring to her and Jorge. At the time, the family narrowly escaped the country and eventually settled in California.

A quarter-century later, the case of the murdered Jesuits is prompting new action. None of the top military commanders who allegedly gave the orders was ever prosecuted for the crimes. But now, the long-delayed arm of international justice is shadowing them. Ramping up the pressure are global human rights groups and the Spanish government, which claims jurisdiction in the case because five of the six Jesuit victims were Spaniards. For years, a court in Madrid has sought to extradite some of the commanders to stand trial there.

Details of murders

The facts were established long ago, with the help of a U.S. Congressional investigation and a United Nations-sponsored truth commission.

The day before the massacre, the Salvadoran military’s high command issued an order to assassinate Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuría, rector-president of the University of Central America, “and leave no witnesses,” according to the 1993 U.N. report. A Spanish-born theologian, Father Ellacuría had spoken out repeatedly against human rights violations by the U.S.-backed military. At the time, he was working to broker a peace agreement between the Salvadoran government and rebel forces.

In the predawn hours, dozens of soldiers forced their way into the university’s Jesuit residence. Soldiers dragged five priests, including Father Ellacuría, out of their beds and into a courtyard, made them lie facedown on the grass and fired bullets into their heads. They went back in and killed another Jesuit.

Then, searching the residence further, they found the housekeeper and her teenage daughter crouching in the corner of a bedroom, holding each other. The soldiers shot them, too.

Before leaving, the gunmen spray-painted rebel slogans on the walls — an attempt to divert blame for the atrocity. They thought they had killed every would-be witness. But early the next morning, a woman popped up at a house not far from campus where the leader of El Salvador’s Jesuits lived.

She burst in on the Jesuit provincial while he was shaving and said, “They killed the fathers! The soldiers killed the fathers! I saw them.” The woman was Lucía Cerna, and the provincial was Jesuit Father José Tojeira, who tells the story in his preface to “La Verdad.”

Eyewitness account

The night before, from a window next door, Cerna couldn’t see the faces of the killers. But in the light of a full moon, she could see the uniforms — clearly those of the Salvadoran military. She and her family did not live on campus, but the rebels were launching a military offensive in their neighborhood of San Salvador, where Jorge owned a bakery. So the Jesuits invited the family to spend the night in their old (and normally empty) residence.

During the rampage, Jorge had stopped Cerna from running out to see what was happening. But at dawn, she went outside, as she recounts in “La Verdad.” Each chapter includes her verbatim interview, followed by Ignoffo’s elaborations. An excerpt:

“I saw the bodies of the priests on the lawn. ‘Ooh, Father Ellacu’ [Ellacuría], I said his name when I saw him. I thought he was in Spain. ... I had just cleaned his office on Saturday, and I knew he was in Spain. I did not know he had returned until I saw his body on the grass. Father Segundo [Montes] never liked robes, but Father Ellacu was in a brown robe. Father [Joaquín] López y López always slept in his clothes. There was Padre Nachito [Ignacio Martín-Baró], in his blue shirt. Dead. Blood on his head. Oh, Nachito ... [He] was happy during dinner and playing guitar for the Fathers.”

That morning, Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani went on radio to declare the Jesuits had been killed by guerrillas.

The U.N.-sponsored commission would later find that Cristiani was with the high command at military headquarters during the hours leading up to the raid.

Interrogation

Feeling that the Cernas were in extreme danger, the Jesuits rushed them to the Spanish Embassy. Lucía (and Jorge, reluctantly) gave widely publicized testimony to a Salvadoran judge there, contradicting Cristiani’s account. At that point, the Spanish ambassador reportedly told Lucía, “We cannot protect you.”

The Cernas fled to the French Embassy, where officials, together with Jesuits, decided to escort them to the airport. At the gate, Salvadoran military personnel caught up to the entourage but French Embassy soldiers formed a protective circle around the family.

Their arrival in Miami did not end the ordeal for the Cernas. It only made it more bizarre, by nearly all accounts.

Officials of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador took the family to a hotel. There, Lucía and Jorge soon realized they and their daughter were “not under protection [but] under arrest,” Ignoffo writes. For several days, FBI agents and an unidentified Salvadoran interrogated Cerna, accusing her of being a communist and a prostitute, according to Cerna and Ignoffo.

After interrogators allegedly threatened to deliver the Cernas to the Salvadoran military, she briefly recanted her testimony. The interrogation became the subject of a CBS “60 Minutes” segment that aired in April 1990 in which U.S. officials denied mistreating the family in Miami.

In 1990, Congress voted to throttle back U.S. military aid to El Salvador by one half, chiefly in response to the Jesuit massacre.

Cristiani began negotiations with the rebels, which led in 1992 to the end of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. By then, more than 70,000 Salvadoran civilians had lost their lives, primarily at the hands of their military and paramilitary death squads, according to Congressional and U.N. findings.

Inspired by the past

Father Tojeira says the search for truth in the Jesuit case began with Cerna. “Lucía and Jorge’s example helped us see that establishing the truth was more important than protecting our own lives,” he writes.

Lucía Cerna learned to speak English and became a nursing assistant in California, where she and Jorge currently live, with their daughter close by.

But Ignoffo, who teaches at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, writes that for Lucía, “The scars [from both the massacre and the interrogation] have not completely healed, even 25 years later.”

For her part, Cerna says her Catholic faith has sustained her.

“I think of God, always, because he is the basis of life. I had nobody with me — no parent, no father,” she says, alluding evidently to the trauma in Miami. “And to not have God in my heart? I believe totally.”

Cerna now takes a surprising view of the new push for prosecutions in the 25-year-old case. She reveres the six Jesuits — “They empowered me with faith. ... They had respect for me, and they taught me self-respect” — but Cerna believes the time has passed for locking up those responsible for the killings.

“We don’t like venganzi, revenge,” she explains, referring also to Jorge. But she adds, “We told the truth, always.”

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.