RESOLUTION Nº 17/83
June 30, 1983
1. In a
communication dated December 4, 1980, the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights transmitted to the Government of El Salvador the following
message by telex:
COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS HAS RECEIVED FOLLOWING COMPLAINT: "WE
DENOUNCE THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THREE NORTH AMERICAN NUNS, SISTERS ITA
FORD, MAURA CLARK (MARYKNOLL) AND DOROTHY KOESEL (URSULINE) AND A LAY
MISSIONER, JEAN DONOVAN, WHOSE VAN WAS FOUND COMPLETELY BURNED ON THE
ROAD FROM THE AIRPORT TO LA LIBERTAD. BECAUSE OF THE MILITARY VIOLENCE
AGAINST THE CHURCH THIS YEAR AND THE DISAPPEARANCE OF TWO PRIESTS ON
MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, WE FEAR FOR THE LIVES OF THESE RELIGIOUS
WISH TO INDICATE TO YOUR EXCELLENCY THAT UNDER THE TERMS OF ARTICLE 31
OF THE IACHR REGULATIONS PRESENT REQUEST FOR INFORMATION DOES NOT ENTAIL
PREJUDGMENT OF ADMISSIBILITY OF COMPLAINT. ACCEPT, EXCELLENCY, RENEWED
ASSURANCES OF HIGHEST CONSIDERATION.
2. On December 8
of the same year, the Commission remitted to the Salvadoran Government
the following additional information furnished by the petitioner:
March 2 of this year, at approximately 7 p.m., the nun Dorothy Koesel
(Ursuline) and the social worker Joan Donovan were on their way back
from the El Salvador airport from picking up two nuns of the Maryknoll
order, Ita Ford and Maura Clark, when they were detained. They have not
been seen since that date.
vehicle they were driving turned up the next day on the road between the
airport and the port city of La Libertad. It had been burned along the
edge of the coastal highway at Km 41. Early Thursday morning, the
cadavers of the four missionary workers, brutally murdered and with
signs of mistreatment and torture, were found. They had been buried by
local residents of the place known as Hacienda San Francisco, Santa
Teresa Canton, jurisdiction of San Juan Nonualco, La Paz Department.
should be noted that a short distance from where the aforementioned
vehicle was found, shortly before the missionary workers had passed that
point, a security force check point had been set up which had earlier
stopped two vehicles with other priests and nuns.
record of the medical examination of the cadavers reveals that the
direct cause of death was bullet wounds to the heads of the four and the
nude bodies showed inflammation of the genital organs.
view of these grave violations of human rights it is considered that
these criminal acts are part of a qualitatively and quantitatively
growing number of violations of the most elementary human rights of
citizens and foreigners, an illegitimate aggression against the rights
of people, based on the lack of defense of the majority of the victims,
and aggravated by premeditation, treachery and madness that are
characteristic of the impunity and freedom of action enjoyed by the
perpetrators and planners of these violations.
3. During the
course of December, 1980, and the following months of 1981, the
Commission continued receiving other communications of charges in
connection with the same events covered in the investigation, all of
which contained pieces of background information on the murder of the
nuns and exhorted the Commission to request the Government of El
Salvador to make the most exhaustive investigation into the commission
of such a horrendous crime and appropriate punishment of its
4. On January 16,
1981, the Government of El Salvador remitted the following note of reply
to the IACHR:
this connection, I wish to communicate to you that the Salvadoran
Government has ordered law enforcement agencies, the Office of the
Attorney General of the Republic and the Supreme Court of Justice to
make all necessary efforts to clarify this case as promptly as possible
and to determine the responsibility for it. To date the following
investigations have been carried out:
The case was opened at 8 a.m. on December 3rd of last year, when
the Justice of the Peace of Santiago Nonualco was informed of the
discovery of the cadavers of four unidentified women by the Canton
Commissioner of San Francisco Hacienda, Santa Teresa Canton, of that
The place was inspected at 9:30 a.m. and the legal examination of
the victims was conducted at 10:30 a.m., both on December 3. The latter
examination found the wounds that presumably caused the death of the
nuns and the social worker.
On December 4, at 1:05 p.m., the nun Teresa Alexander and the
priest Pablo Schindler, both United States citizens, appeared before the
court of San Juan Nonualco and stated that, judging by the descriptions
of the persons who had been buried as unknown persons, they suspected
that the bodies were those of the four United States citizens, and
consequently they requested the exhumation of the cadavers. This was
done at 1:30 p.m. of the same day, in the presence of the Ambassador of
the United States of America to our country, Mr. Robert White, the
Consul of that country, Mrs. Patricia Lansbury, and the requesters
themselves, who identified the bodies.
On December 5, the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic
joined the criminal proceedings and assigned three of its own agents to
the case, in addition to the prosecutor of the First Criminal Court of
Zacatecoluca, the Court of First Instance which has jurisdiction over
the Court of the Justice of Peace of San Juan Nonualco. These agents
requested the directors of the National Guard, the National Police Force
and the Treasury Police Force to undertake the extra-judicial
investigations that would be necessary to clarify the facts. The report
of the National Police Force has now been received. This report includes
the declarations of the local residents of the place where the cadavers
were found and an inspection of the burned vehicle, a Toyota Hi-Ace
model, no license plates, which was owned by the parish priest of the
port city of La Libertad.
The First Criminal Court of Zacatecoluca ordered, in addition to
other measures, that the deaths be recorded in the local civil register
and an examination of the cadavers, with approval of records, be made
and it requested a report from the Court of Justice of the Peace of San
Salvador to which the bodies had been transferred to determine whether
the victims had been raped. Local newspaper accounts stated that there
had been no such rape.
The Office of the Attorney General of the Republic has undertaken
efforts to locate and take declarations from the persons who found the
bodies, who buried them and who later helped to exhume them as well as
of persons living in the area where they were found, and any others who
may be helpful in clarifying the events. On December 15, instructions
were sent to the Ministry of Defense and Public Security to summon the
local Commander of Santiago Nonualco and several members of the San
Francisco Hacienda Canton Patrol to appear before the Public Ministry to
present evidence on the case in question. In addition, the Office of the
Attorney General instructed the Director General of Migration to
determine the time; flight and airline by which the four religious
workers had entered El Salvador last December 2.
the requests made by the agents of the Attorney General's Office to the
Court of the Justice of Peace of San Salvador, which was the Court on
duty at that time, to undertake a legal examination of the cadavers of
the United States nuns and social worker to determine whether they had
been the victims of rape or some other sexual crime, the examination was
made on December 4. No signs of violence giving evidence of the
perpetration of such crimes were found.
January 12, 1981, the Office of the Attorney General requested the
Second Criminal Court Judge of Zacatecoluca, Department of La Paz, since
the bodies of the nuns Ida Ford and Mary Elizabeth Clark had been buried
in the cemetery of the city of Chalatenango, to conduct other legal
investigations to fill any voids that earlier investigations might have
left, and to undertake a new legal medical examination for which two
experts of recognized prestige in medical pathology and with sufficient
capacity in forensic medicine and criminology should be appointed.
should be pointed out, Mr. Assistant Executive Secretary, that the
Salvadoran Government intends to clarify this case for which the
appropriate official bodies will continue all investigative work
necessary, and we shall keep the honorable Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights informed of its findings.
5. The Commission
transmitted to the petitioners the pertinent parts of the communication
from the Salvadoran Government and requested them to forward their
observations about this matter.
communications dated September 16 and October 17, 1981, the petitioner
remitted his observations to the response of the Government of El
Salvador. The petitioner made the following remarks and posed the
The report indicates that extreme care was taken in examining the
wounds which presumably were fatal.
the attorney of the families of the religious workers be given the
original burial certificate of December 3?
did the persons present at the act--the Justice of Peace, the Mayor, the
National Guard and the Police Force--proceed to bury persons of obvious
foreign origin without notifying the United States Embassy or other
embassies, and why did they not check the records of airports to
determine whether there were any persons among the recently arrived
travelers about whom no word had been received?
Identification of bodies made on December 4 at the Office of the
Justice of Peace.
According to eyewitnesses, the place is Santiago Nonualco and not
San Juan. Neither Sister Teresa Alexander or Father Paul Schindler went
to San Juan Nonualco that day. Sister Teresa Alexander was alone when
the Secretary, not the Justice of the Peace, read the description of the
four women, and it was she who authorized the request to disinter the
During the identification process, a Maryknoll ring was found.
This ring, Sister Teresa was assured, would be turned over to the United
States Embassy. We do not have any information as to whether the ring,
in which we are extremely interested, was delivered.
Not only Sister Teresa Alexander and Father Paul Schindler, but
all the persons present when the exhumation was performed--Ambassador
White, Miss Patricia Lansbury, Sister Teresa Alexander and Father Paul
Schindler--as well as Sister Madeline Dorsey, Sister Elizabeth Kochik
and Father Kenneth Meyer identified the bodies.
As part of the procedure, the Secretary of the Justice of the
Peace went to the local National Guard station to inform of the
exhumation. Several members of the Guard accompanied the Secretary to
the place and were present during the act but did not notify their
superior officer of the discovery of the cadavers of the four United
States women. If the all points alert order had been given during the
afternoon of December 3, as the Chief of the National Police, Carlos López
Nuila, and the Minister of Defense, José Guillermo García, had assured
Ambassador White, the local Guard Members would have had to notify their
superior officers of the finding of the bodies. By not reporting to
their superiors, the Guard voluntarily demonstrated that the all points
alert order had not been given, a fact which might indicate a cover-up
and official implication at the highest level in the homicide of the
four religious women.
A post-mortem examination, not a complete autopsy of the four
cadavers, was conducted at the María Auxiliadora Funeral Home in San
Salvador the day the bodies were disinterred. Could the attorney of the
families of the victims learn the results of those examinations?
reference is made to San Juan Nonualco. Can you explain why, if all the
actions were taken before the Justice of Peace of Santiago Nonualco?
the interest of the Minister of Justice in this case come from within
his office or from another source? Could this matter be clarified?
Time magazine, December 22, 1980: "...the Salvadoran Government
belatedly named a 'high-level civilian and military commission'... But
the three military members of the new four-man commission included two
close friends of Defense Minister Garcia and a first cousin of Police
Chief López Nuila,"
naming the individuals or groups who were requested to help clarify the
facts, no mention was made of having contacted the Sisters Teresa
Alexander and Madeline Dorsey, the persons closest to those who died.
However, Pat Lansbury asked them whether they wanted to be interviewed
by the Commission.
Reference is made only to local journalists even though
journalists from other countries were present to report on the funeral
of six leaders of the FDR.
Actions of the Ministry of Justice.
Statements of Military personnel.
the order to take depositions given to the Minister of Defense and
Public Security before the Public Ministry communicated with Lieutenant
Colonel of Santiago Nonualco? What were the results of that order?
Statements of witnesses.
any record been kept of the statements made by the local residents and
other persons who were involved in the discovery, burial and
disinterment of the cadavers? What procedures should be followed to have
those declarations delivered to the attorney of the families of the
report indicates that the Minister of Justice gave the autopsy order on
January 12 and that the autopsy was carried out January 26. The Sisters
Teresa Alexander and Madeline Dorsey who were in Santa Ana, did not
receive any official notification of this decision of the Salvadoran
Government. The first news they had of the autopsy order came in a
newspaper dated January 24. We understood that Mr. Duarte and Ambassador
White had decided that the autopsy would be conducted in San Salvador,
and that Miss Pat Lansbury had informed the nuns that the date set for
that procedure would be January 27. However, the autopsy was conducted
in Chalatenango on January 26.
can these discrepancies of time and place be explained? We would also
like to know who attended the exhumation of the bodies of Sisters Clark
and Ida Ford on January 26.
7. On November 18,
1981, the IACHR remitted to the Government of El Salvador the contents
of the reply from the complainants. In accordance with the Regulations
of the Commission, specifically, Article 31.8, the government had a term
of thirty days to present its final observations so that these could be
considered by the Commission at its 55th regular session.
8. The Government
of El Salvador has not made any reply to the communication that the
Commission sent to it on that date nor has it furnished any additional
information in connection with the investigations requested by the
1. The procedures
followed in connection with the present denunciation have complied
strictly with all regulatory provisions and the opportunity has been
given to each of the parties, both petitioner and petitioned, to
express, to the fullest possible extent, their respective positions, and
to offer and show to the Commission the evidence considered pertinent;
2. As a result of
the information provided and the background information placed at the
disposal of the Commission, it has been clearly established that the
United States nuns Ita Ford and Maura Clark, of the Maryknoll Order,
Dorothy Koesel, Ursuline, and Jean Donovan, a lay missioner, were
murdered on Tuesday, December 2, 1980, after a security force patrol of
the Salvadoran Armed Forces intercepted the vehicle that was conducting
them from the San Salvador airport to the capital city at approximately
3. Likewise, it
has been shown that the place in which the events took place "was
an uninhabited part of Santa Teresa Canton, the jurisdiction of San Juan
de Nonualco, in the Department of La Paz, in whose immediate
surroundings the bodies of the missionary workers were later
4. The record of
the medical examination made immediately after the bodies were
discovered notes, "the direct cause of death were bullet wounds to
the heads of the four and the nude bodies showed inflammation of the
5. This record of
the medical examination mentioned by the petitioners is contradicted and
denied by the Government of El Salvador in its reply to the Commission.
The Government of El Salvador submitted the legal examination conducted
by the Justice of the Peace who, acting under special order of the
Criminal Court of Zacatecoluca to determine whether these persons had
been the victims of rape or any other sexual crime, reached the
conclusion--which the Government of El Salvador brandishes in its
defense--that no signs of rape were found in evidence of the
perpetration of this of crime;
6. The Commission
has since received information of investigations carried out by the
Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States, with the approval
of the Government of El Salvador, which have helped to identify the
military persons allegedly responsible for the facts denounced;
7. Despite the
statements made by the Government of El Salvador to the IACHR in its
communication dated January 16, 1981, Salvadoran authorities have not
provided facilities to help conduct the investigations that the case
required but have actually, as stated in the reply of the petitioners,
obstructed the domestic investigatory work ordered by the government
8. Despite the
statements of public officials to the effect that the government lacks
sufficient evidence to bring to trial the military persons charged with
the commission of the murder of the United States religious women, and,
despite the attempts to keep secret the findings of the investigations,
it is a matter of common knowledge that in late January, the former
member of the National Guard, Carlos Joaquín Contreras Palacios, and
another member of the same Guard, confessed to the murder and rape of
the nuns and furnished the names of the other members of the National
Guard who participated in the events;
9. The Commission
has in its possession a description of the manner in which the murder of
these persons was carried out, the tenor of which has also been made
public through different press organs. These stories reveal that the
crime might have been committed in the following manner:
and Donovan had gone to the airport near San Salvador on December 2,
1980, to welcome Ford and Clark who were returning from a meeting of
Maryknoll workers in Nicaragua.
Perez Nieto, on duty at the airport, saw Koesel and Donovan when they
arrived and became suspicious of them. He said that he thought the women
were carrying weapons in their bags and that he called his superior
officer, Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán.
Joaquín Contreras Palacios, the former National Guard who confessed to
the crime, said that Colindres Alemán ordered him and other former
National Guard, Francisco Orlando Contreras Roceinos, José Roberto
Moreno Canjura, Daniel Canales Ramirez and Salvador Rivera Franco, to
wear civilian clothing that afternoon.
sergeant sent the men to the airport and ordered all vehicles leaving
the airport, with the exception of the missioners' truck, to be stopped.
The guards later went to a toll booth where they stopped the truck and
searched it for thirty minutes.
guards took their jeep and the truck to Rosario de La Paz where the jeep
was incorrectly parked at a National Guard post and the truck was parked
and placed under surveillance.
his confession, Contreras Palacios said that that was a deserted place.
It was there that Colindres Alemán told the National Guardsmen to take
out their weapons and kill the four women.
order was obeyed by the witness (Contreras Palacios) and the other
members of the group...before murdering them, the witness and the others
sexually abused the victims.
Later on, a former high official of the Government of El Salvador
gave the following version of the event in a public statement:
Colindres ordered the others to stop the women as they were going to the
capital of El Salvador from the airport on the night of December 2. The
soldiers put the women into the truck and drove them along a dirt road
to a remote place. Following orders, they raped at least two of them.
They then shot all four in the head.
The aforementioned versions which have been printed in an endless
list of press organs have not been officially denied or corrected by
Salvadoran authorities and are completely consistent with the statements
of the denunciations.
A recent report on the status of the investigations into the
murder will be tried or not, but also new difficulties have arisen which
will delay even more the final decision. These difficulties are:
The civil judge, responsible for deciding whether the persons
charged will be tried, could not allow the evidence gathered by the
military authorities who preceded him in gathering the information
because, under the law of El Salvador, evidence gathered by military
authorities may not be used as evidence against a person charged in a
The investigations made by the FBI, which were of a technical and
scientific nature involving ballistics and fingerprints, would also be
disqualified and ruled out of order because, under Salvadoran law, such
proofs would constitute evidence that has not been obtained within the
territorial jurisdiction of the judge but obtained outside the
boundaries of his jurisdiction since these were processed by the FBI in
Washington at its investigative laboratories.
Other important obstacles to continuation of the investigation
are the enormous political pressures being put on the judges, and the
situation of intimidation and threats under which the members of the
judicial branch must perform their functions;
Three years are about to lapse since the commission of this
detestable murder and there is still no sign of firm will on the part of
the political and judicial authorities of El Salvador to cooperate
effectively in preventing this crime--one that was committed with the
support and the participation of the armed forces and security forces of
the country--from going unpunished;
INTER-AMERICAN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, RESOLVES:
1. To declare that
the facts covered in the denunciation constitute extremely grave
violations of the right to life (Article 4), the right to humane
treatment (Article 5), the right to privacy (Article 11) and the
obligation of the state parties to respect and enforce the American
Convention on Human Rights (Article 1).
2. To deplore the
delay and denial of justice implied in the fact that, despite the time
that has lapsed, it has still not been possible to bring to trial and
punish the perpetrators of the murders and the abuses committed against
the United States nuns, Ita Ford and Maura Clark of the Maryknoll Order,
Dorothy Koesel of the Ursuline Congregation, and Jean Donovan, according
to the denunciation and the evidence offered by members of the
Salvadoran armed forces during the development of a military operation.
3. To request the
Government of El Salvador to remit to this Commission copies of the
investigations conducted to determine the responsibility of the
perpetrators and planners of these events.
4. To recommend to
the Government of El Salvador that it call for the following: a) that
the investigation of the denounced facts be concluded as promptly as
possible; b) that it punish the perpetrators and planners of the
aforementioned events and those who have, in some manner or another,
obstructed and impeded the investigation of the same; and c) to report
to the Commission within the term of ninety days on the measures taken
in connection with the above.
5. To communicate
this resolution to the Government of the Republic of El Salvador and to
6. To include this
resolution in the Annual Report of the Commission to the General
Assembly of the Organization of American States unless information
regarding compliance with the recommendations contained in this
resolution is received within the term of sixty calendar days.
Dr. Francisco Bertrand Galindo disqualified himself from the
discussions and the drafting of this resolution.