The Murder of US Churchwomen in El Salvador That Exposed a Government Coverup

The murder of four American churchwomen focused attention on the United States’ involvement in El Salvador. Decades later, the case continues to take surprising turns.

In 1980, four American churchwomen, working as missionaries, were raped and then murdered in El Salvador. The killings created a storm of protest in the United States, revealed the brutality of the civil war in El Salvador and raised awareness about America’s policies in Central America. Now, the families of the slain churchwomen are still hoping to find justice — this time in American immigration courts.

Related: Laying Out a Case for Deporting Human Rights Abusers by Clyde Haberman Massacre in El Salvador produced with PBS, Frontline and ProPublica Remembrance of a Massacre — El Mozote: Foreward by Raymond Bonner, photographs by Susan Meiselas First-Hand Account: Lessons From the El Mozote Massacre by Clyde Haberman The High Price of Doing Journalism in El Salvador by Nelson Rauda

For teachers
  • Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Producer: Raymond Bonner

For Educators


This 13-minute video explains how Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had implications across the globe. In Latin America, the United States sought to assert influence over national governments through economic and military means, with far-reaching consequences. When Ronald Reagan, a strong anti-communist, took office as president in 1981, he was determined to assert America’s power and put a stop to any Soviet influence around the world. This was the centerpiece of his foreign policy and influenced everything from U.S. military buildup to funding and covert military support for countries in Central America. This lesson examines how the actions of the Reagan administration were in line with and a departure from previous administrations.

Background reading

When Ronald Reagan, a strong anti-communist, took office as president in 1981, he was determined to assert America’s power and put a stop to any Soviet influence around the world. This was the centerpiece of his foreign policy and impacted everything from U.S. military build up, to funding and covert military support for countries in Central America.

In El Salvador, the military-led junta government was fighting a civil war against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of leftist groups that included guerillas, unions, peasants, and political activists.

FMLN was seeking social and political reforms in a country long known for chronic poverty, repression, and economic inequality: 10 percent of the landowners held 78 percent of the arable land.

The struggle for reform was supported by the Catholic clergy and lay workers, who were seeking social justice and the protection of human rights, especially in rural communities.

To quell the popular uprising, the government relied on the army, national police, and military-backed death squads to carry out a campaign of terror.

This posed a dilemma for the Reagan Administration, as Congressional approval of aid to El Salvador in the early 1980s depended on the government improving its disastrous record on human rights. And then four American churchwomen who were working in the country were killed.

Lesson Plan 1: A Search for Justice

Students will learn how President Reagan’s administration, trying to stop Soviet communist influence around the world, supported authoritarian regimes, and the impact that had in El Salvador and in the U.S. then and now.


Students will:

  • Explain the continuities and change of American foreign policy in Latin America.
  • Explain the rationale for U.S. involvement in Latin America.
  • Analyze the Latin American foreign policy of the Reagan Administration.
Essential questions
  • How was U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America influenced by the global Cold War?
  • How does U.S. foreign policy in Latin America demonstrate change and continuity over time?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5:Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.8:Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9:Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.4.9-12.Explain how supporting questions contribute to an inquiry and how, through engaging source work, new compelling and supporting questions emerge.
    • D2.Civ.11.9-12.Evaluate multiple procedures for making governmental decisions at the local, state, national, and international levels in terms of the civic purposes achieved.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.12.9-12.Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.
    • D2.His.16.9-12.Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 9: 1980-Present
    • KC-8.1The United States responded to an uncertain and unstable postwar world by asserting and working to maintain a position of global leadership, with far-reaching domestic and international consequences.
    • KC-8.1.IUnited States policymakers engaged in a cold war with the authoritarian Soviet Union, seeking to limit the growth of Communist military power and ideological influence, create a free-market global economy, and build an international security system.
    • KC-8.1.I.AAs postwar tensions dissolved the wartime alliance between Western democracies and the Soviet Union, the United States developed a foreign policy based on collective security, international aid, and economic institutions that bolstered non-Communist nations.
    • KC-8.1.I.ECold War competition extended to Latin America, where the United States supported non-Communist regimes that had varying levels of commitment to democracy.
    • KC-8.1.IICold War policies led to public debates over the power of the federal government and acceptable means for pursuing international and domestic goals while protecting civil liberties.
    • KC-9.3The end of the Cold War and new challenges to U.S. leadership forced the nation to redefine its foreign policy and role in the world.
    • KC-9.3.IThe Reagan administration promoted an interventionist foreign policy that continued in later administrations, even after the end of the Cold War.
    • KC-9.3.I.AReagan asserted U.S. opposition to communism through speeches, diplomatic efforts, limited military interventions, and a buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons.
    • KC-9.3.I.CThe end of the Cold War led to new diplomatic relationships but also new U.S. military and peacekeeping interventions, as well as continued debates over the appropriate use of American power in the world.