TEXT ON SCREEN: December 4, 1980
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-4-80): JOHN CHANCELLOR: It is reported today from El Salvador, that four Americans have been killed there.
SCOTT GREATHEAD (BOARD MEMBER, HUMAN RIGHTS FIRST): This was the first time that Americans seemed to have been singled out by a death squad. They were shot, execution style, bullets to the back of the head.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 12-5-80): NEWS REPORT: Later, their bodies were found in a shallow grave.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 12-4-80): NEWS REPORT: Apparently victims of a terrorist attack.
ROBER WHITE (US AMBASSADOR TO EL SALVADOR, 1980-1981): That was a wake-up call. There was a great outcry.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-83): GEORGE LEWIS: But El Salvador continues to be plagued by human rights abuses.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 121-83): NEWS REPORT: The kind of violence that turns the stomach.
PEGGY HEALY (FORMER MARYKNOLL SISTER): Of course, the families totally believed that the US government would do whatever was necessary to bring those who had killed them to justice.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: I think, after 30 years, that its more than enough time to make the truth known.
A SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
PEGGY HEALY: They were people that were real, you know. They were funny. Maura loved a great Irish joke and an occasional Irish whiskey. Ita had the best and the driest sense of humor you can imagine.
NARRATION: Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were among a group of American nuns working in El Salvador. Their mission was to bring social justice, by ministering to the poor, as Maura explained in an interview during a visit to the US.
ARCHIVAL (AUDIO, HUNTLEY ARCHIVES, 1980): MAURA CLARKE: In my work, it has been very much trying to help people realize their own dignity. To realize the great beauty that they have.
NARRATION: But El Salvador was a country in growing crisis.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 219-80): ROBIN LLOYD: Each day, El Salvador comes closer to civil war.
NARRATION: Military repression of popular dissent had fueled a growing leftist insurgency. The US backed the Salvadoran military in response, fearing the country would become the next communist domino to fall.
Right wing death squads further escalated the violence hunting down even moderate leftists seeking political change.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1211-81): NEWS REPORT: Death squads are believed to be responsible for more than half of the political murders committed.
NARRATION: Among those assassinated was peace advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
PEGGY HEALY: I believe they understood the danger of it. It wasnt as though they lived naively, but, the violence was rampant, and it was intended to create fear.
ARCHIVAL (AUDIO, HUNTLEY ARCHIVES, 1980): ITA FORD: In my estimation, there is a state of war. Its a civil war. And the people just feel that there is no defense. There is no place to go.
ROBERT WHITE: They were doing wonderful work. They were helping the poor people, helping the children. But in the eyes of the military, identification with the poor was the same as identification with revolution.
ARCHIVAL (HUNTLEY ARCHIVES, 1980): MAURA CLARKE: Our people there are suffering tremendously right now. There is a great deal of fighting going on. Im hoping very much to go back in December.
NARRATION: On December 2, Maura and Ita flew into San Salvadors airport, where they were met by fellow churchwomen, Jean Donovan and Dorthy Kazel. The following day their friend, Peggy Healy, got a call.
PEGGY HEALY: The priests had already checked everywhere. The Asuncion sisters had checked. We knew that they were missing. And so, really, that night, it was just waiting.
They found their van that they were driving burned and by the side of the road. We knew something terrible had happened. And, of course, you never want to believe that, or think that its possible.
ARCHIVAL (HUNTLEY ARCHIVES, 1980): BILL FORD (ITA FORDS BROTHER): We go a call in our house in Montclair, about 10 oclock Wednesday night. Told me that Ita and three other nuns had disappeared and she said that we should assume the worst. She told us that missionaries who disappear in El Salvador are usually found dead.
PEGGY HEALY: It wasnt until December 4th we found out.
ROBERT WHITE: I went to the scene. They were just disinterring the bodies. They were women that I had known.
PEGGY HEALY: It was I who had to call our other sisters and I had to tell them. It was clear that they had been raped. It was clear that they had been killed and thrown by the wayside. It was clear that there was tremendous foul play.
ROBERT WHITE: I found the town clerk. He told me that they had heard the screams and the shots the night before; and that it was the military who had done it. And you realize at that point that the Salvadoran military were out of control. I mean they would kill anybody.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 126-80):NEWS REPORT:A State Department official said that there is a strong emotional reaction to the murders in the United States, particularly in Catholic congregations.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 125-80): MAX ROBINSON: This country today announced its suspending all economic and military aid to El Salvador.
NARRATION: Up until this point, the Carter Administration had been sending millions in aid, while also pressing the Salvadoran military to stem human rights abuses.
ARCHIVAL (HUNTLEY ARCHIVES, 1980): REPORTER: Why is there so much violence in in El Salvador? JOS GUILLERMO GARCA (DEFENSE MINISTER): Perhaps violence is the only alternative to the subversives.
ROBERT WHITE: Garca would say things like you have to respect our traditions, which simply meant the Salvadoran military had the right to kill anybody they wanted.
NARRATION: But Salvadoran officials assured the US that the military had played no role in the churchwomens murder and promised a full investigation.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 126-80):REBECCA SOBEL: At the State Department, diplomatic sources say they do not believe government forces in El Salvador killed those four American women.
NARRATION: Within weeks, the pressure of a new leftist offensive caused the US to restore Salvadoran military aid and a new American Administration pledged to do even more.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 227-81):NEWS REPORT: Thirty more advisers along with 18 more helicopters to counter what the US claims is Soviet involvement with the guerrillas.
PEGGY HEALY: Of course, all of the families believed that the US government would do whatever was necessary to bring those who had killed them to justice. It just became increasingly clear over time that they were going to be a roadblock.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: Jeane Kirkpatrick got up and said that, These werent just nuns.
ARCHIVAL (AUDIO, THE TAMPA TRIBUNE): JEANE KIRKPATRICK (REAGAN ADVISOR): The nuns were clearly not just nuns. The nuns were some sort of political activist. We have to be a little more clear cut about this than we usually are.
ROBERT WHITE: One, that was not true, and two, as if that would justify the killing of these women.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: The families were just outraged by it.
ROBERT WHITE: And then Secretary of State Alexander Haig said that the women couldve been killed running a roadblock.
ARCHIVAL (HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE TESTIMONY, 319-81):ALEXANDER HAIG (SECRETARY OF STATE): Perhaps the vehicles that the nuns were riding in were trying to run a roadblock. Or may have been accidentally perceived to have been doing so and there been an exchange of fire.
PEGGY HEALY: How the US government handled this case was one of the gravest damages the signal was not sent that, you cannot do this.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: They were mostly concerned about waging the war against communism in Central America and persuading Congress to give them the money they needed to do that.
ARCHIVAL (310-83):RONALD REAGAN: El Salvador is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts. Central America is simply too close and the strategic stakes too high for us to ignore the danger of governments seizing power there with ideological and military ties to the Soviet Union.
NARRATION: Six weeks after the murders, White says he was pressured by Secretary of State Haig to send a telegram stating that the Salvadoran government was making progress in its investigation. He refused.
ROBERT WHITE: I said, Well, Mr. Secretary, the Salvadoran military killed those women, and the idea that theyre going to investigate in a serious way their own crimes is simply an illusion.
NARRATION: White was shown the door.
But evidence secretly gathered by the US eventually led to the arrest of several low-level national guardsmen. And a US State Department investigation produced other disturbing news.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 524-84): JUDGE HAROLD TYLER: For months, there was a cover-up.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 524-84): ANNE GARRELS: Military authorities transferred the killers to obstruct the investigation, switched rifles to make detection more difficult, destroyed evidence.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 523-84): JANE WALLACE: It would take Salvadoran authorities a year to even arrest the right men and then another two years, nine investigations, 200 American delegations and Congress withholding $21 million worth of military aid to bring the men to trial.
NARRATION: Since the State Department said it didnt find compelling evidence that higher ups ordered the murders, the conviction of five guardsmen in 1984 promised to close the case for the US.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: But it wasnt the end of the story. Bill Ford, in particular, was determined to force the government to continue the investigation.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 524-84):BILL FORD: The question still remains who ordered, who directed, who paid for this crime; and then who participated in the cover-up.
NARRATION: Years of war hampered Fords efforts. But, the fall of the Soviet Union and the horrific 1989 assassination of six priests, a mother and a child by US-trained Salvadoran troops caused the US to eventually pull back support of the Salvadoran military.
Peace talks later led to a UN Truth Commission which documented thousands of instances of war crimes predominantly at the hands of government security forces.
It also found that two top Generals, Jose Guillermo Garca and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, had tried to cover up military involvement in some of these crimes including the murders of the churchwomen.
But Ford wanted to hear what happened from the convicted guardsmen themselves and in 1998 four of them agreed to talk.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: The sergeant said, We have superior orders to take care of them. And everybody knew what that meant.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 75-88): NEWS REPORT: Private Daniel Ramirez says his sergeant got orders to kill the nuns from a colonel by phone. PRIVATE DANIEL RAMIREZ: This was planned by the high command of the armed forces. KILLER 2: We didnt even know who these people were.
NARRATION: Greathead told the US Ambassador to El Salvador that they wanted to interview the two generals who had been in charge of the military.
SCOTT GREATHEAD: She looked at us, and she said, Oh. Theyre both retired and living in Florida. These two guys who had been implicated in crimes by the Truth Commission, including the murders of the churchwomen, were living in retirement in Florida? I was just astonished.
NARRATION: Years earlier, Garca had been given political asylum, while Vides Casanova became a permanent legal resident.
Itas brother, Bill Ford whod lost a civil suit seeking to hold the generals responsible for the murders was outraged.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 112-00):BILL FORD: It is shocking that people like Garca, people like Casanova should be allowed a comfortable retirement life in the United States.
NARRATION: It took Congress to change that. Citing the churchwomens case, it passed a new law targeting accused human rights abusers for deportation. Immigration judges eventually ordered the Salvadoran generals removed from the US.
They are appealing the decisions, saying they had no role in the murders of the churchwomen and are innocent of any crime.
DIEGO HANDEL (LAWYER FOR VIDES CASANOVA): General Vides most certainly feels that theres been a certain level of betrayal by the US government, given all that he did for his country, which was aligned with the vital interests of the US.
ROBERT WHITE: That is not a sufficient excuse. But, there is something a bit unjust about punishing the marionettes and letting the organ grinder go on his merry way.
NARRATION: Ford died before the cases were decided, but White was there to testify more than thirty years after he watched the unearthing of the bodies at the scene of the crime.
ROBERT WHITE: One of the primary tasks of an American ambassador is to protect American citizens. I regard this as completion of duty.