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The article below has been adapted from Raymond Bonner’s “Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War,” which is being republished with a new prologue and epilogue. The book which received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award is also available from Amazon here. Raymond Bonner is a former foreign correspondent for The The New York Times and staff writer at The New Yorker. He is also the author of the memorable Waltzing With a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy. (Below republished under Creative Commons).
In December of 1980, Salvadoran soldiers brutally raped and murdered four American churchwomen. A young U.S. diplomat singlehandedly cracked the case, cultivating an improbable source who risked everything to gather the key evidence.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen — an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary — sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Two days later, White and a crowd of reporters gathered as the bodies of the four Americans were pulled by ropes from a shallow grave near the airport. The black-and-white photos snapped that day document a grisly crime. The women were dressed in ordinary clothes — slacks and blouses. Investigators would conclude that all had been sexually assaulted before they were dispatched with execution-style gunshots to the head. White, grim-faced and tieless in the heat, knew immediately who was behind the crime. This time, he vowed, the Salvadoran government would not get away with murder, even if it cost him his career.
In the years since, much has come to light about this pivotal event in the history of U.S. interventions in Central America. But the full story of how one of the most junior officers in the U.S. embassy in San Salvador tracked down the killers has never been told. It is the tale of an improbable bond between a Salvadoran soldier with a guilty conscience and a young American diplomat with a moral conscience. Different as they were, both men shared a willingness to risk their lives in the name of justice.
In November of 1980, just weeks before the churchwomen were abducted, H. Carl Gettinger was sitting at his desk in the U.S. embassy when the phone rang. On the line was Colonel Eldon Cummings, the commander of the U.S. military group in El Salvador, who said there was a lieutenant from the Salvadoran National Guard in his office who could tell Gettinger about the harsh tactics of the guerrillas. The soldier was well-placed; El Salvador’s National Guard was an essential part of the country’s internal security apparatus. It operated as “a kind of landlords’ militia in the countryside,” as White wrote in a prescient, 1980 cable that analyzed the forces that would fuel the country’s civil war.
Gettinger, then 26 years old, was considered something of a liberal, in part because, like White, he supported the pro-human rights approach of President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan’s predecessor. Adding to his reputation as a “proto-communist,” as Gettinger mockingly described himself, was that he had a beard and was often incorrectly assumed to be Jewish (he was called “Getzinger” when he first arrived). “I looked like a lefty rabbi,” Gettinger told me.
Gettinger informed Cummings that he did not need to hear more about the cruelty of the guerrilla forces. “I already know that,” he said. But Gettinger viewed his job as talking to everyone, and he had a knack for putting people at ease. His mother, who was Mexican, had taught him, Hablando se entiende la gente (“By talking, people understand each other”). He was born in Calexico, California, and spent many youthful days with his cousins, aunts, and uncles across the border in Mexicali, where his mother was born. Growing up in San Diego, Carl lost himself in National Geographic magazines and would dream about going to exotic lands. One day, when he was about 14, Carl asked his father what he should do with his life. “Try the Foreign Service,” his father said, without looking up from his newspaper.
Gettinger’s first posting had been in Chile, where he was assigned to the consular section. He quickly grew bored handling visa requests, and used his fluency in Spanish to moonlight for the embassy’s political section. When the State Department asked for volunteers to work in El Salvador, he didn’t hesitate. It was the place for a young diplomat to make his mark. In neighboring Nicaragua, the Marxist Sandinistas had come to power, and Washington was worried that El Salvador would be the next domino to fall. Gettinger arrived in the first months of a decade-long civil war that would be marked by peasant massacres and the loss of some 75,000 civilian lives, most killed by government forces.
Cummings walked the Salvadoran lieutenant, who was dressed in civilian clothes, over to Gettinger’s office, introduced him, and left. The lieutenant, whom Gettinger described as “mean and low-brow with the flattened face of a boxer,” began by saying that the guerrillas had killed both his father and a brother, and that he was playing a role in the dirty war. On one occasion, he said, soldiers under his command had picked up three “kids” who were suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers. After briefly interrogating them, the lieutenant thought they should be released, but a sergeant told him they were “unreformed.” The lieutenant ordered them executed. He had also killed several men who he thought might pose a threat to his own life. “He seemed to have a lot that he wanted to get off his chest,” Gettinger recalled.
But the diplomat was not prepared for what was to come. “It was the single most ironic twist in my 31 and something-year career,” Gettinger told me. (He retired from the Foreign Service in 2009 after several years in Japan and tours in Pakistan and Iraq — a decision he described as “wrenching” since the service “had been my whole life.”)
After expressing his distaste for the left, the lieutenant lashed out with equal contempt for El Salvador’s right. The lieutenant, who was born into a lower-class family, said the country’s oligarchs were using the military to do their dirty work. Soldiers should fight to defeat communism, not to enrich powerful landlords, he said.
Gettinger banged out a cable recounting his hour-long conversation with the lieutenant, who was unofficially dubbed “Killer” around the embassy. The message was stamped NODIS [no distribution], a higher classification level than SECRET, and only a limited number of copies were made. Gettinger described the lieutenant as “badly educated,” and “a savage individual who feels victimized both by the left and by the GN [National Guard] hierarchy.” In cables to Washington about the information it was learning, the embassy tended to refer to Gettinger as “the officer” and the lieutenant as “the source.” (In 1993 and 1994, shortly after the end of El Salvador’s civil war, the Clinton administration released thousands of previously classified documents pertaining to human-rights abuses during the conflict.)
In subsequent cables, the embassy told Washington that the “source” had been “deep inside extreme right wing fringe group activities” and “closely associated with rightists such as Major Roberto D’Aubuisson,” the notorious and charismatic right-wing leader. The lieutenant said that he had bombed a Catholic radio station and the Jesuit-run Central American University on orders from D’Aubuisson’s aides. (In the 1970s and 80s, as many priests and nuns in Latin America embraced the doctrine of “liberation theology,” which focused on the poor and oppressed, the rich and powerful came to view the Church as an enemy.) But he said that he had grown disenchanted as D’Aubuisson and his followers morphed into gunrunners and smugglers, motivated as much by money as political ideology.
The lieutenant told Gettinger that D’Aubuisson had been an architect of the assassination of the revered Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered inside a church while saying Mass in March 1980. A couple days before the shooting, the lieutenant said, he had attended a meeting chaired by D’Aubuisson at which soldiers drew lots for the chance to kill the archbishop. There had long been rumors of D’Aubuisson’s involvement in the assassination, but this was the first concrete evidence the Americans had. (No one has ever been prosecuted for the murder. In 2015, Pope Francis declared that Romero had died a martyr and would be beatified, the final step before sainthood. D’Aubuisson died in 1992, at the age of 48, of throat cancer.)
Two weeks after Gettinger first met the lieutenant, on December 2, 1980, the Maryknoll nuns Maura Clarke, 49, and Ita Ford, 40, were returning from a Maryknoll conference in Nicaragua, where left-wing guerrillas had recently toppled President Anastasio Somoza and his American-backed dictatorship. They were met at the airport shortly after 6 o’clock in the evening by the two women who had joined White over dinner the previous evening: Dorothy Kazel, 41, and Jean Donovan, 27, a lay missionary who was engaged to be married.
The next day, the burned-out shell of their white Toyota minivan was found about five miles from the airport. On December 4, the vicar of San Vicente called the U.S. embassy to report that the bodies of the four women had been discovered near the airport. When White heard this, he rushed to the scene.
A handful of insiders knew that the trial would never have occurred were it not for Carl Gettinger. “It was through his persistent efforts” that the names of the perpetrators were obtained, wrote Pimentel, the FBI agent, when he recommended that Gettinger be honored by the FBI. “He did this knowing full well that inquiries of this nature could very well bring about physical harm to his person.” FBI Director William Webster agreed. “It is doubtful this matter would have been resolved so quickly without your aggressive pursuit and your personal interest in seeing justice served,” Webster wrote Gettinger in June of 1981. Gettinger couldn’t talk about the honor. Pimentel’s recommendation and Webster’s letter were classified secret. They have since been declassified and released, but the identity of Gettinger’s source — the National Guard lieutenant — remains a secret to this day.
Gettinger believes the lieutenant was killed in the early 1990s, by which point he had left the military and was operating a bus service. In 1998, an American diplomat relayed the story to Gettinger: One day, a bus the former officer was driving was stopped on the highway, whether by soldiers or guerrillas is unclear. “Killer” wasn’t one to go down without a fight, and he came out guns blazing. He lost.
The exceptional secrecy surrounding Gettinger’s work was evident when he received one of the State Department’s highest honors, the W. Averell Harriman Award for “creative dissent,” in the fall of 1982 during a public ceremony in the department’s auditorium. In presenting the certificate, Harriman, one of the “wise men” of American foreign policy, commended Gettinger for having “argued his conclusions whatever the potential risk to his own career.” Harriman offered no details about how Gettinger had earned the honor, only that it involved American citizens. The handful of officials who knew the story smiled; nearly everyone else in the audience was left wondering what highly classified issue could have prompted “creative dissent” by such a junior officer.
Read in full, The Diplomat and the Killer via ProPublica.
Here is a short video from retroreport.org on the search for justice. See the site for more on this.
We’ve mentioned Hugo Carl Gettinger in passing here when we blogged previously about the May 2006 Accountability Review Board To Examine the Circumstances of the Death of David E. Foy and Mr. Iftikhar Ahmed in March 2006, Karachi, Pakistan. Secretary Rice appointed him Executive Secretary to that Board.