El Salvador is still divided over its brutal, 12-year civil war

A woman presses a flower on a monument to the victims of El Salvador's civil war (PA photo)

We are sitting in the YSUCA, the radio station at the Jesuit Central American University in El Salvador, when a dishevelled, grey-haired priest walks in and starts talking, in pretty good English, about the role of my companions from Cafod and the station. “It’s difficult for young people to grasp what happened,” he says. “Did you grasp Auschwitz? No.”

He is talking about the civil war in El Salvador, a process which claimed the lives of an estimated 75,000 people. In the news at the moment is the massacre El Mozote, where 1,000 Salvadorians were murdered in December 1981. On January 16 of this year the Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes apologised for the first time for the “worst massacre of civilians in contemporary Latin American history”.

Immediately afterwards, military figures like Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez attacked the president (who represents the left-wing FMLN) for his apology. Among his attacks, Ochoa Pérez named as a “hero” Domingo Monterrosa, then head of the murderous Batallón Atlactal, which perpetrated the El Mozote massacre.

The row escalated when Roberto d’Abuisson – the son of Roberto d’Abuisson senior, alleged head of civil war death squads and chief planner of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1981 – who is now a deputy in his own right, put his weight behind Ochoa Pérez.

It is hard to get away from the civil war in El Salvador. A visit to the human rights institute at the Jesuit-run UCA (Central American University) taught me how the university is running courses to help Salvadorans come to terms psychologically with their past. Benjamin Cuella, director of the institute (IDHUCA), explains that his uncle, his cousin and his uncle’s pregnant maid all “disappeared” during the civil war.

The difficulty for the Jesuits and for Cafod is that the military are increasingly taking the moral upper hand in a country that is rife with disorganised gang violence – the military are seen as the only option to keep things under control. Soldiers increasingly replace police as law enforcement, and their methods of control are ever more heavy-handed.