|Salvadoran National Guardsmen, stock photo.|
Less than two years before the assassination of Fr. Rutilio Grande, Óscar Romero had to react to an extrajudicial killing by the Salvadoran army. Most historians view the killing of Romero’s friend, Grande, in March 1977 as the turning point in Romero’s “conversion” to a prophetic ministry of public denunciation of government atrocities, and they see his reaction to the June 1975 Tres Calles massacre in Romero’s previous diocese as a study in contrast—a timid, conservative, and inadequate response. Tres Calles is presented as a missed opportunity to implement the teachings of the Medellín Bishops Conference, which Romero later took up with aplomb. In actuality, Tres Calles was a decisive step by Romero on his prayerful but unstoppable march toward San Salvador.
Although Romero followers and Salvadoran history buffs have heard about the Tres Calles Massacre, at least in passing, this incident from Romero’s years as Bishop of Santiago de Maria (1974-1977) is overshadowed by events from Romero’s period as Archbishop of San Salvador (1977-1980). In 1975, the ruling class of El Salvador was trying to make the country a showcase for all the world. The Miss Universe pageant was held in San Salvador in August of that year. Behind the scenes, security forces loyal to the oligarchy tried to squash all hint of rebellion or discord, brutally repressing a student protest in July, and, in June, after activists blocked the coastal highway to protest the high prices of basic staples, the National Guard hit back by going into the neighborhood (“Tres Calles”) where the organizers lived and killing six peasants—none of them involved in the protests, but related to the demonstrators.
Bishop Romero went to the scene of the crime the morning after finding out about it, late at night. What Romero found shocked him to his core. After consoling the families, he interviewed numerous witnesses and wrote up a report. In fact, what we know about the incident comes from his report. Romero’s write-up is drafted with an objectivity that recalls the U.N. Truth Commission’s summary of the El Mozote massacre, written nearly two decades later. “On Saturday June 21, 1975, at one o'clock in the morning,” Romero wrote, “approximately 40 National Guard officers accompanied by two unidentified civilians riding in several vehicles blasted into the Tres Calles hamlet of San Agustín (Usulután Province) and violently entered the dwelling of José Alberto Ostorga, 58, while the remaining officers surrounded the house.” (Diez & Macho, “En Santiago de María me topé con la Miseria,” Criterio Press, San Salvador, 1995—Compare the U.N.’s similar matter-of-fact intro to El Mozote: “On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazán, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place.”) Romero described the atrocity with a cold, forensic precision that gives credence to his description of the events: “They bound Mr. Ostorga and his 28 year-old son who shares his name, and they took them outside of the house together with Santos Morales, 38, to his house, located about 20 meters from the Ostorga house. Soon thereafter, the three were killed by machine gun fire about 200 meters from the house, and afterward they were hacked by machete throughout their bodies and heads.” (Diez & Macho, Id.) He also described two other killings and other abuses.
After documenting the incident, Romero went down to the local National Guard barracks to demand an explanation from the official in charge, and he sought to speak to the Governor of Usulután. Receiving no satisfactory response (the local commander told Romero the victims were “bad seeds”), Romero sent a letter to the President of El Salvador, whom Romero knew socially. But this was not a friendly dispatch. Romero’s six page letter transcribed his report of the incident, followed by several discrete demands. “I am fulfilling my duty as the Bishop of the Diocese to lodge with you a respectful but firm protest of the way a ‘security force’ assumes for itself the right to kill and abuse without cause,” Romero wrote. “My perspective is only and sincerely that of a Shepherd of the Church who laments before the President of the Republic the way in which dignity and life—to which every man is entitled—even if he is a criminal—have been trampled here,” he wrote. “I would have liked to not have had to use the voice of protest and grievance in my correspondence with you,” he wrote, “but my friendship with you would not be sincere if, in order to preserve it, I did not obey my conscience, which imposes this pastoral duty.” Romero told the President he was speaking “in the name of the voiceless Poor,” and he pointed out that when he interviewed the survivors, “[a]mong the men, one notes, in addition to fear—indignation.” Romero requested a full investigation and indemnification of the victims’ families. (Diez & Macho, Id.)
When Father Grande was killed two years later, Archbishop Romero also sent a private letter to the President asking for redress. This letter was more emphatic and, although the letter itself was not published, it had very public repercussions. Romero’s tone was markedly different now. “A number of commentaries are being made regarding this incident,” he wrote the President, “many of them unfavorable to your government.” Romero added that, “The Church is not willing to participate in any official act of government while it does not make every effort to make justice shine over this outrageous sacrilege that has shocked the entire Church.” (EL FARO.) Romero kept his promise. Romero’s different reaction to Tres Calles and events such as the Grande assassination are explained by differences between the cases, as Romero explained in a memo to fellow bishops at the time of the Tres Calles incident.
First, it must be noted that massacres were a new development in El Salvador in 1975. See, Almeida, Waves of Protest: Popular Struggle in El Salvador, 1925-2005, University of Minnesota Press 2008, p. 124 (“[F]rom 1962 to 1971, it is difficult to document a case of government agents killing more than three persons at a time,” but such killings spiked in 1975). As such, it is not valid to compare Romero’s reaction to Tres Calles, which was a case of first impression, to his reaction much later when distinct patterns of violence had emerged. Romero saw Tres Calles as a sui generis event for which the most efficient recourse was a private complaint, geared toward obtaining concrete results for the affected families. Second, Romero tells the bishops, he did not make a public statement because the incident did not involve the Church directly. As Romero later said to explain his more public stances (paraphrasing Pope Pius XI), “The Church is not involved in politics, but when politics touches the altar, the Church defends the altar.” (May 8, 1977 Homily.) He similarly justified his very public reaction to the Grande assassination: “one who attacks one of my priests, attacks me.” (March 20, 1977 Hom.) Third, Romero felt constrained in reacting to Tres Calles by his lack of background knowledge. “I am still not sure about the real motives of the event or the private conduct of the victims,” Romero stated. (Diez & Macho, Id.) By contrast, when Romero denounced atrocities as archbishop, he assembled a legal team to investigate and verify the underlying facts and he liked to boast that no one ever proved an error on his part.
Most importantly, Tres Calles was a shock to Romero’s system, which reshaped his views of oligarchic military rule in El Salvador and propelled him toward his prophetic ministry in San Salvador. “It tore my soul apart,” Romero wrote the President, “to hear the bitter weeping of widowed mothers and orphans, who narrated the cruel blow … between incontrollable sobs and bewailed the state of orphanage in which they had been left.” (Id.) He had been “no less struck,” Romero said, “by the semblance of terror and indignation reflected in the numerous faces” of the peasants he met with. (Id.) That October, Romero issued a statement saying that, “Before the ambition for power and money, let us cultivate a sense of service and solidarity, to empathize with the needy and effectively assist them to gain full realization in a peaceful society ordered in justice.” (Collected in “Praxis del Martirio,” CEPLA Bogotá 1977, p. 109.) It was now sixteen months until the assassination of Rutilio Grande.
Romero had unfortunate occasion to update Tres Calles after he became Archbishop, when, in April 1979, he narrated a sad prologue to the massacre. “I have been informed that in Tres Calles, a village in the Diocese of Santiago de María,” Romero said, “a new military operation was undertaken.” He explained why it was ‘new:’ “This operation was similar to the one that took place on June 21st, 1975 when I lived there,” Romero said. Then he told the faithful that soldiers had returned to the Ostorga home, the focus of the 1975 massacre, and dragged out the surviving Ostorga boy to torture and make him one of the Disappeared. “Juan Francisco was a child when, four years ago, soldiers arrived at his house and killed his father and his three brothers,” Romero recounted. Romero would have met the young boy when he visited the house after the massacre. He lamented that the compensation he requested for the family had never come and, instead, the security forces had piled on more oppression, “as if some kind of family sin had to be eradicated.” (Apr. 1, 1979 Hom.)
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