This story was co-published with the Atlantic.
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.
“I watched as the bodies were being pulled out of the grave,” he recalled many years later. He asked the town clerk what had happened. “He was surprisingly candid,” White said. The clerk told the American ambassador that death squads used the area as a dumping ground, that the villagers had heard screams the night before, and that “it was the military who had done it.”
The Reagan administration did not want to hear that the Salvadoran army had killed the churchwomen. Soon after the incident, one of Reagan’s top foreign-policy advisors, Jeane Kirkpatrick, told a reporter for The Tampa Tribune, “The nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists.” She didn’t stop there: “They were political activists on behalf of the Frente” — the leftist political coalition formed by five guerrilla groups. Asked if she thought the government had been involved, Kirkpatrick said, “The answer is unequivocal. No, I don’t think the government was responsible.” Kirkpatrick, who became Reagan’s United Nations ambassador, was a principal architect of the administration’s policy in El Salvador and Central America. She argued that the United States should support “authoritarian” regimes as long as they were pro-American. (Kirkpatrick died in 2006.)
Gettinger did not share Kirkpatrick’s foreign-policy views and was sickened by the murders. He had met two of the women, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, at the ambassador’s residence a week or two before they were killed. “Even to this day, the touch of their hands is something that I remember, value, memorialize,” he told me recently. Or, as he put it years after the episode in an unpublished article, which he provided me: “Roman torturers of the early Church martyrs could hardly have come up with a crueler or more humiliating end for these four disciples of Christ.”
When Gettinger returned from his Christmas leave, he realized that there was no serious investigation into the killings — and that there was never likely to be one. He would do his own. He turned to “Killer,” the National Guard lieutenant. “He was the most valuable of contacts, a bad man with a conscience and the means to get information,” Gettinger said.
Within the embassy, Gettinger’s relationship with the lieutenant was carefully guarded. But those colleagues who did know about it, even if vaguely, were astonished at what Gettinger was able to get from him and would ask jokingly if Gettinger had pictures of the officer in compromising situations. The CIA typically uses bribes and blackmail to recruit sources. Gettinger did neither, and he was never quite certain why the lieutenant came to confess so much. “I think we hit it off because I treated him with dignity and respect,” Gettinger told me.
Carol Doerflein, the public-affairs officer in the embassy at the time, had a broader and deeper explanation. “It was his demeanor and his looks,” she said of Gettinger. He wasn’t some six-foot-tall, swaggering blond American. He was short — 5’4” — and half-Mexican. “He’s quiet, unassuming, non-threatening, and spoke perfect Spanish,” she added.
Gettinger assiduously courted the lieutenant, on one occasion taking him for drinks at La Bonanza, a popular steak house in an upscale neighborhood of the capital. “Don’t ever take me there again,” the lieutenant said angrily as they were leaving. It was a hangout for the wealthy, and the lieutenant identified with the poor. It also wasn’t a good idea for him to be seen in public with an American diplomat. After that, Gettinger invited the lieutenant to his home, which was on the edge of San Salvador’s volcano. The lieutenant liked his scotch — “drank it by the glassfuls,” Gettinger said — and Gettinger always kept pouring.
One evening, Gettinger asked the lieutenant if he would find the names of the soldiers who had killed the churchwomen. The lieutenant told Gettinger to go to hell. It was one thing to inform on D’Aubuisson, but he was now being asked to betray his fellow soldiers. “I don’t rat on my own people,” he said. Eventually, Gettinger persuaded him. The lieutenant said, in effect: “You’re helping us beat back these guerrillas who killed my father and brother. And what do we do? We kill your women.”
When Ambassador White went to Washington for Reagan’s inaugural, he was summoned to the State Department by the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, a retired four-star general. Haig told White that he wanted him to send a cable when he got back to El Salvador saying that the Salvadoran government was making progress in its investigation of the murders. “Well, Mr. Secretary,” White replied, “that would not be possible because the Salvadoran military killed those women, and the idea that they’re going to investigate in a serious way their own crimes is simply an illusion.”
White recalled that confrontation when I interviewed him in April of 2014 for Retro Report. He still looked every inch the distinguished diplomat, dressed in a sport coat and tie, and his gravelly baritone voice still had a trace of his New England roots; his mind was as sharp as three decades earlier. He had not yet been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him in January of 2015.
“Later, I got a call from one of Haig’s aides, saying that the secretary is anxiously awaiting my telegram that would affirm that the Salvadorans were conducting a serious investigation into who was responsible for the death of the nuns,” White told me. He said he couldn’t and wouldn’t. The aide replied, “All you’re doing, Bob, is creating problems for all of us.”
A State Department cable released years later confirms White’s story. “I will have no part of any cover-up,” White wrote to Washington in January of 1981. “All the evidence we have, and it has been reported fully, is that the Salvadoran government has made no serious effort to investigate the killings of the murdered American churchwomen.” Haig was furious. He removed White as ambassador and forced him out of the Foreign Service — a rare action against a career diplomat.
Several weeks later, in mid-March, Haig sought to absolve the Salvadoran military. “Perhaps the vehicle that the nuns were riding in may have tried to run a roadblock … and there’d been an exchange of fire,” he said during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Haig died in 2010.)
White’s dismissal did not slow down Gettinger’s personal quest to identify the killers. On April 10, the lieutenant called him to say he had the information Gettinger wanted. The lieutenant said he couldn’t tell him over the phone — that Gettinger would have to come to him. He was stationed at the time in San Vicente, which is only some 25 miles from San Salvador. But travel on the roads was dangerous for anyone, more so for American diplomats; the hills were crawling with guerrillas, the roads owned by the government’s death squads. J. Mark Dion, the number two in the embassy and another diplomat willing to think and act outside the traditionally cautious diplomatic box, signed off on the trip. If it had gone badly, Dion and Gettinger might both have paid with their careers, and Gettinger with his life.
Dion gave Gettinger his bulletproof car, along with a driver and security guard. On Palm Sunday, Gettinger set off. The lieutenant sent his own security team to meet them partway and guide them to the base. Gettinger was uneasy when “Killer’s” security turned up — men in civilian clothes with bandanas and bandoliers, riding in a pickup truck. A classic death squad.
At the base, the lieutenant took Gettinger to his cubbyhole and whispered for fear of being overheard by soldiers in the barracks. He scrawled a name on a piece of newspaper — “Colindres Aléman” — and handed it to Gettinger. “That’s the guy you want.” Sub-Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aléman, he said, was the leader of the operation involving the churchwomen. It was an extraordinary piece of intelligence, and there would be more.
Gettinger rushed back to San Salvador. The next morning, he and Dion went to see the charge d’affaires, Frederic Chapin, at his residence. Chapin had been sent to fill in as ambassador after White’s dismissal. As Chapin dug into his bacon and eggs, Gettinger, who hadn’t eaten much in the last 24 hours, wished his boss would offer him something to eat; he didn’t. Though tired and excited, Gettinger dispassionately related what he had learned. The embassy sent a highly classified cable to Washington that named Colindres Aléman.
The lieutenant’s disclosure rocketed to the senior levels of the Reagan administration, at a time when human-rights groups and their allies in Congress were demanding that El Salvador prosecute the murderers as a condition for further U.S. military aid. The American embassy notified El Salvador’s president, José Napoleón Duarte, “that it might be necessary to request a meeting with him on short notice later in Holy Week.”
Gettinger had hoped to get additional names of those involved before that meeting, but he heard nothing more from the lieutenant. And so on April 21, Chapin sat down with Duarte and handed him a slip of paper with Colindres Aléman’s name on it. He told the president that this soldier had been the sergeant in charge of the National Guard detail at the airport on the night the women were murdered. Then, diplomatically but pointedly, Chapin noted that Colindres Aléman’s fingerprints had not been turned over to the FBI forensic team that had been sent from Washington to investigate the case. He said the source of his information was highly credible — without identifying him — but was unlikely to contact the embassy again.
Chapin had underestimated Gettinger. Three days later, on a Friday evening, Gettinger got another call from the lieutenant. “Take this down,” he said, and then whispered two names. He announced that he would come to San Salvador on Monday, and asked Gettinger not to take any action until then. “I am now scared,” he said, and hung up. The embassy fired off a cable to Washington: “We expect to have on Monday a complete list of the six Guardsmen at the airport checkpoint on the night of December 2. We may have, in addition, specifics about the events of the night.”
Acting on his own initiative, without telling the ambassador or anyone in the embassy, Gettinger had given the lieutenant a microcassette tape recorder and asked him to surreptitiously record a conversation with Colindres Aléman. When he showed up at Gettinger’s house on Monday evening, the lieutenant proudly handed Gettinger the tape. He had spent an hour riding around in a military vehicle with Colindres Aléman.
Gettinger wanted to start transcribing the tape immediately; the lieutenant wanted to drink whiskey to celebrate that he had had the smarts and machismo to get the recording. The lieutenant eventually left, and Gettinger spent the night working on the tape, going over and over some sections. The men’s words were sometimes hard to hear over the grinding of gears. But enough was clear, and it was incriminating.
Extreme measures were taken to keep the tape from ever becoming public. It was put in a safe in the embassy “where it sat and from where it was roused infrequently,” Gettinger noted in a memorandum to the State Department’s legal officer in 1983. It was never mentioned in cables between the embassy and Washington. (The transcription, and Gettinger’s accompanying memorandum, were declassified and released in 1998.)
The lieutenant and Colindres Aléman had known each other for many years, and he told Colindres Aléman that he came as a friend.
“I am not going to allow them to fuck you. … You can be in deep shit because the Command can take you down if they’re put in a bind,” he said, adding that he would help Colindres Aléman leave the country “if I see any shit go your way. I will even give you my car, gas. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes,” Colindres Aléman said.
“I have known you since you were a kid,” the lieutenant said at one point. “I remember you were disciplined, and today you were the first one ready for the operation. One sees all that shit. And I know you have done it for a special cause. It’s everyone’s cause and one day they’ll still want to fuck you. I know so. I am telling you Colindres. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, yes, thank you lieutenant,” Colindres Aléman replied.
Colindres Aléman told the lieutenant that five other soldiers were involved in the operation, and gave him their names. (It was discovered later that the men, wearing civilian attire, had maneuvered traffic at a checkpoint and then captured the women there.) He admitted to murdering the women in a remote area, but did not mention raping them. The women had $48 on them, Colindres Aléman told the lieutenant. He had kept $12.
Colindres Aléman went into considerable detail about how Major Lizandro Zepeda Velasco, the National Guard’s investigating officer, had sought to cover up the crime. Colindres Aléman said he had admitted his responsibility to Zepeda, who took statements from some of the men indicating that they knew nothing about the murders and gave them new rifles. The rifles used in the crime were then kept in a secret location.
Armed with this evidence, Chapin went back to President Duarte; this time, he took the legal attaché for Central America, FBI Special Agent Stanley Pimentel, with him. They handed Duarte a three-by-five card with the names of the soldiers on it. Five months after the crime, the president of El Salvador still did not know who had committed the murders, and Duarte asked Chapin how the Americans had obtained the names. “We just indicated that a reliable source had provided the names to us,” Pimentel recounted in an interview for the Oral Histories Project of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
Pimentel had grown up on a small dairy farm in Northern California and had once thought he’d become a priest. He was appalled by this “heinous crime,” and became as determined as Gettinger to see the perpetrators held to account, even if doing so ran counter to the prevailing views in Washington. “The Ambassador and I informed Duarte that we would expect some action be taken by the National Guard of El Salvador to detain these six individuals,” Pimentel said.
The game was over. The day after Chapin gave the names to Duarte, Defense Minister José Guillermo García telephoned the embassy chief. The six individuals identified by the lieutenant had been arrested. Their fingerprints would be sent to the FBI. The U.S. embassy demanded access to their weapons, and Pimentel and an embassy security officer confronted Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the head of the National Guard. They told him that the embassy had learned through an unnamed source that he had ordered the weapons be switched. Vides Casanova was “absolutely chagrined that we had caught him in this lie, in this action, and he became of course very irate,” Pimentel recalled. (García and Vides Casanova managed to emigrate to the United States in the late 1980s. The Obama administration brought deportation proceedings against them, and immigration judges found in separate hearings that each man had “assisted or otherwise participated in” attempts to cover up the killing of the churchwomen. Both men have since been deported to El Salvador.)
In May of 1984, Colindres Aléman and four other Guardsmen went on trial (charges had been dropped against the sixth man after further investigation). It was an extraordinary event. No one could recall a Salvadoran soldier being prosecuted for a human-rights abuse. The trial, held in a ramshackle courtroom in Zacatecoluca, not far from where the women had been murdered, lasted some 19 hours, over one day. Villagers peered through open windows to watch the proceedings. In his closing argument, after being on his feet for hours, the prosecutor grew emotional. The women had come to help Salvadorans, he said, only to be savagely murdered; too many people had been killed with impunity in the country, and by finding these soldiers guilty, maybe the jurors would save other lives. Then, as he approached the end of his argument, his voice rising even more, he reached over to a table and picked up four pictures that had been lying face down. They were photographs of the four women, smiling beatifically. The prosecutor flourished two photos in each hand and showed them directly to the accused. Four of the defendants held their heads in their hands, refusing to look. Colindres Aléman “sat staring straight ahead, motionless and stony,” Gettinger recalled.
The National Guard lieutenant, the source of the information that had led to the men being on trial, “was nowhere near the place,” Gettinger said. Nor was the tape of the source’s interview introduced into evidence. Gettinger understood that without the tape, the outcome of the trial was in doubt. But he had argued strongly against its being used. “You said you would never say it was me,” the source had reminded him before the trial. And Gettinger knew that introducing the tape would mean death for the lieutenant.
The jury — two women and three men — was sent out to deliberate before midnight. Hours passed. Rain beat down on the courtroom roof. It was 4 a.m. when the jury returned. Guilty on all counts. “It was all I could do to not jump up on my chair, pump the air with my fist, and say ‘YES,’” Gettinger recalled. He was by then working on the El Salvador desk at the State Department in Washington, and had returned for the trial. Tears poured down his face. (The men were sentenced to 30 years in prison but released in the late 1990s, when the Salvadoran government needed prison space for young men incarcerated as gang warfare beset the country.) The day after the trial, Congress increased military aid to El Salvador.
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.