by Sally O’Neill, Head of Region, Latin America writing about President Michael D Higgins recent visit to El Salvador in the Irish Independent
Michael D Higgins’s first visit to El Salvador didn’t last long. He had barely set foot inside the country when the army put him on a plane and deported him to Nicaragua.
This was early 1982 and myself and the future President of Ireland were attempting to investigate reports of more than 1,000 people being massacred in the village of El Mozote.
The head of the army was determined not to let in the visiting Irish delegation but he eventually caved to diplomatic pressure and we were allowed access, albeit under heavy surveillance.
That trip was the start of Michael D Higgins’s association with El Salvador. Today, few Irish people are aware of how significant a role he had in bringing to an end one of the bloodiest chapters in recent Latin American history. In El Salvador, however, he is remembered.
It began with a phone call on St Stephen’s Day 1981. Mr Higgins had been a TD for only six months when he was told of reports of a massacre in El Salvador. Trócaire had been working for almost a decade with communities affected by the war and so a few weeks later we accompanied Galway’s newest TD to Central America.
The year 1981 was the bloodiest year in El Salvador’s civil war, which was to run from 1979 to 1992. An estimated 16,000 people were killed during those 12 months alone as government death squads roamed the country, killing activists, journalists and ordinary civilians.
The people of El Mozote were amongst those included in the gruesome death toll that year. We found a survivor of the massacre – a young woman who to this day is the only known survivor of what happened there on the night of December 11, 1981.
She told us that the army had separated the men from the women and children. They shot dead all the men and then gang-raped the women before also killing them. By the time it was the children’s turn to die, the army had run out of bullets, so they beat them to death.
Mr Higgins made contact with journalists from ‘The New York Times’ and ‘Washington Post’. They covered the story extensively, resulting in a huge international outcry. Here, finally, was proof that US-trained soldiers were massacring civilians at will.
The publicity cast the Galway East TD into the centre of an international diplomatic storm. Led by people such as Tipp O’Neill, the US Senate held hearings into allegations of American collusion.
Trócaire came under huge pressure to stop highlighting the massacres in El Salvador.
American officials were particularly critical, claiming that we were grossly exaggerating the number of people being killed.
The row between Trócaire and the US government culminated in Bishop Eamon Casey, then chairman of Trócaire, boycotting a state function to welcome US President Reagan to Ireland in 1984.
For a leading church figure to take such a stance was hugely brave, but Bishop Casey knew the truth about El Salvador – he had worked closely with Archbishop Oscar Romero and had come under gunfire attack himself while attending the funeral of the murdered archbishop in 1980.
Left: Bishop Eamon Casey being interviewed following a gun attack on funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Right: Trócaire’s Sally O’Neill with Digna, the face of the 2011 Lent campaign, in Honduras
Mr Higgins, too, continued to highlight the slaughter of the people of El Salvador. Ireland was one of just three countries – France and Mexico being the other two – to recognise the opposition FMLN, then considered purely a guerrilla army, as a legitimate political force. By recognising the FMLN, Ireland helped to allow its political wing to emerge and, eventually, to negotiate peace.
Thirty years later, Mr Higgins is still thought of with great affection in this small Latin American country.
Today, he will receive a state welcome by El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes before receiving an award at the University in San Salvador.
Far from the hostile welcome he received as a newly elected TD in 1982, he will arrive into El Salvador this week as President of Ireland and will be embraced as a dear friend.