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Nov. 16 marked the 20th anniversary of the brutal murder in San Salvador, El Salvador, of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The event sparked a change in U.S. public opinion about the war in that country and our country’s role in supporting it. Commemorations of the events took place last weekend.

Madison has a long history with the people of El Salvador: a sister-city in Arcatao, other sistering projects, and a solidarity with the Salvadoran people trying to build a peaceful and just society.

I attended many of the commemoration events last weekend in San Salvador, and it was amazing to see the changes that have taken place.

At the time of the murders, I reported on the story for Madison’s community radio station, WORT. During that time, the U.S. government sent over $550 million of aid to El Salvador, nearly $120 million of it in direct military aid.

When the bodies of the Jesuits were discovered on the morning of Nov. 16, 1989, it sent shock waves through the world. Attempts were made by the Salvadoran military to cover up its involvement in the killings, but clear evidence, along with the testimony of an eyewitness, placed the military on the scene. Our reporting on WORT helped bring to light many of the details of that violent event.

It was later revealed that many of the officers involved in the killings had been trained at the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). A protest, now in its 19th year, is scheduled to take place outside the school’s gates in Fort Benning, Ga., Nov. 20-22.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., knew several of the murdered Jesuit faculty at the Central American University in San Salvador. He has been tireless in his efforts since 1989 to get the intellectual authors of the killings brought to justice. (In a 1991 trial, two officers were convicted, but they received amnesty in 1993, following the signing of El Salvador’s peace accords.)

Last weekend, McGovern was in San Salvador to receive an honorary doctorate for his work on human rights issues in El Salvador and elsewhere. McGovern has also tried for many years to close the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, using the power Congress holds over its funding. McGovern told me he did not think this would happen anytime soon, but that he was able to recently pass legislation requiring that the names of the school’s graduates could not be kept classified.

“When it comes to upholding human rights in El Salvador, the problem comes that the United States has had a hand in some of the difficulties down here, and it has made the establishment up there a little more reluctant to expose the truth. But we are moving, we have a new president who understands the importance of human rights more than the previous one did, and we’re going to keep pushing,” McGovern said.

Meanwhile, in El Salvador, they have a new president. Mauricio Funes was elected in March of this year in an election that placed the FMLN party, which grew out of the guerilla insurgency of the 1980s, into the presidency. Funes, a former journalist who was not a guerilla fighter, has moved the country forward in spite of the lack of a majority in the legislature. His recent reforms have included lowering electricity bills by 10 percent, ceasing the solicitation “voluntary fees” for public health care services, and giving free school supplies, uniforms, and shoes to all students in the public schools. On Nov. 16, Funes awarded the martyred Jesuit priests El Salvador’s highest honor -- the National Order of Jose Matias Delgado -- in what he called a “public act of atonement” for mistakes by past governments.

As Jose Maria Tojeira, rector of the Central American University, told me following Sunday’s Mass in the National Cathedral, “Finally, after 20 years and a change in government, the Jesuit martyrs have recovered their dignity, but it is not just the Jesuits, it is all the victims of our country. We can create a country without victims.”

The U.S. Congress last month also passed a joint resolution, authored by McGovern, honoring the Jesuits and their social justice work in El Salvador.

I stood this weekend in the courtyard, now a rose garden commemorating the slain Jesuits, at the Central American University. I could see vividly where each body had been that November morning. But I could also see images of everyday Salvadorans rebuilding their country after a brutal civil war; opening new spaces and creating a new, more just, society. A new El Salvador, at peace, requires addressing the crimes of the past, and building forward into the future.

Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and operations coordinator for WORT/FM community radio. He has periodically worked as a reporter in El Salvador and Nicaragua, most recently covering the Salvadoran presidential elections of 2004 and 2009. In 1989 he covered the murder of the six Jesuit fathers of the Central American University for WORT. He attending last weekend’s commemorations in El Salvador.

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