I remember visiting the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador with Jesuit Fathers Paul Locatelli and Steve Privett in 1988 and speaking with Father Ignacio Ellacuria, the president of the university. Father Ellacuria used the word coyuntura countless times during our lengthy conversation.
Coyuntura is the collecting of all the pieces of data concerning the reality of an actual historic moment in a country. During the years of civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992), when our office, Centro Pastoral Rutilio Grande in Los Angeles, would bring delegations of U.S. congressmen and religious to visit the Jesuits of the UCA, the word coyuntura described the efforts to educate the world about the marginal existence of the majority of the Salvadoran population, the crucified.
Soldiers massacred six Jesuits Nov. 16, 1989 at the university, including Father Ellacuria. The Jesuits had been suspected of aiding the rebels. The soldiers also killed housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina.
The present coyuntura in El Salvador is a great gap between the rich and the poor in a country controlled by two gangs.
During the civil war, some of the Jesuits who were later martyred would celebrate Mass in the mountains in Guarjila, Chalatenango, a village of repatriated people who had lived in refugee camps in Honduras. A church worker who has lived in El Salvador for 30 years spoke to me last week from Guarjila.
“I never thought the gangs would make it up to where we are,” he said. “But they are everywhere and now they are trying to intimidate me. They threw the dead body of a mutilated woman in front of my house last night. They are trying to get the youngsters to join the clique of their gang and begin to collect taxes. This is 10 times worse than when we lived here during the civil war.”
If we were able to speak with Father Ellacuria, now 25 years later, most certainly he would again use the word coyuntura. El Salvador’s current coyuntura is not a civil war between the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the military, but rather of widespread gang violence. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
All six Jesuits and the two women martyrs would plead with those honoring their sacrifice: Take the present day coyuntura seriously and find solutions.
I can hear Ignacio Ellacuria saying, “I am glad you are here on this soil in 2014. El Salvador is still very poor. But now we deal with the daily violence suffered from the hands of two gangs with an estimated 80,000 members.”
I can hear Elba and Celina, the two female martyrs, saying, “Do not forget the sexual violence done to women here in our country, which is even much worse than during the civil war.”
The official statistics state that 239 women have been tortured and murdered so far this year. But these statistics do not tell the widespread atrocities inflicted on women in the El Salvador, which has the highest rate of femicide (gender-motivated killing) in the world.
The United States deports gang members who have no families here, leaving them with no hope. In 2014 they live with a new kind of terror.
How is it possible to build up the infrastructure of the country if there is no hope for the young and they see gangs as the only solution to their misery? Jobs, education and health care are still grossly lacking.
This coyuntura on a global scale is what Pope Francis had in mind when he called for economic equality for the poor. The country’s two most powerful gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara Dieciocho, are the response of a people without any hope to survive, driven by a lifestyle of death.
May the memory of the martyrs give us the courage to help rebuild an impoverished country torn by violence of gangs and the coyuntura of its crucified people.
It is fitting that Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero will be consecrated as “blessed” in the Church, one step before canonization, almost to the exact day of the 25th anniversary of the martyrs. His own prophetic voice and martyrdom was so important to the poor of El Salvador.
On this, the 25th anniversary of the martyrs, the Jesuit Provincials from Oregon and California challenge us to pray for peace in El Salvador as well as Guatemala and Honduras. Such a peace would allow young people to find peace and prosperity in their home countries.
Jesuit Father Mike Kennedy is the founder and executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative (www.jrji.org), a nonprofit that promotes and seeks healing for offenders, victims and their families through Ignatian spirituality, and advocates for just laws for juveniles in prison.