It's hard to imagine how the rape, beating, and execution of three U.S. nuns and a Catholic lay missionary by a U.S.-backed government would play out in the age of blogs and YouTube. But in the 1980s, the outrage in America didn't translate to government action. In a new mini-documentary, Retro Report looks back at the brutal murders of Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel, and fellow aid volunteer Jean Donovan, by the Salvadoran military.
The tale unfolds through TV news footage and interviews with former Maryknoll nun Peggy Healy; Robert E. White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time; and Scott Greathead, a lawyer for the families of the churchwomen. "Of course, all the families believed that the U.S. government would do whatever was necessary to bring those who had killed them to justice," Healy says now. "It just became increasingly clear over time that they would be a roadblock.... How the U.S. government handled this case was one of the gravest damages."
President Jimmy Carter briefly suspended all aid to the Salvadoran government, but resumed the money when leftist guerrillas started an offensive against the U.S.-backed government. Ronald Reagan's administration greatly increased support, and top-level Reagan officials suggested publicly that the nuns had been "political activists" who maybe ran a government roadblock. After outside pressure and the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests by U.S. trained death squads, five Salvadoran national guardsmen were convicted of the murders. In 1998 they admitted they were ordered to kill the U.S. nuns.
The last part of the 13-minute video looks at the current effort to deport two top Salvadoran generals — who retired to Florida — found by a U.N.-sponsored truth commission to have at least covered up the military's involvement in the killings of Ford, Clarke, Kazel, and Donovan, plus hundreds of others. Watch the video below, but be warned there is mildly graphic violence. --Peter Weber