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Field Notes: Meeting with Alfredo Cristiani

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Photo of President Cristiani taken in London in Sept 1989. Image uploaded by Chelsea Troy, (CC).

Photo of President Cristiani taken in London in Sept 1989. Image uploaded by Chelsea Troy, (CC).

Alfredo Cristiani was the president of El Salvador when, in November 1989, members of the military murdered six Jesuit priests from Spain, their Salvadoran housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter. He also presided over the peace accords that ended the war, as well as the subsequent amnesty law that sealed it against legal scrutiny. While he'd escaped censure in the Jesuits case, he had not entirely erased his involvement in it. In the winter of 2008, when Spanish judges first began preparing indictments in the case, a group of prominent left- and right-wing politicians from El Salvador, all of whom had something to lose by the renewed attention to crimes committed during the war, held a series of meetings with Spanish authorities in Madrid to get Cristiani’s name removed from the list. (They succeeded, but left a paper trail.)

Early one morning, in February 2016, I went to meet Cristiani at his house. My driver and I plunged into the dense rush-hour traffic of downtown San Salvador. We wended among battered food stalls and storefronts with roofs of rusted tin and roadside carts with small grills spitting oil and wafting the burnt-garlic aroma of pupusas. Eventually, we arrived at a Starbucks, where a young conservative congressman dressed in a suit was waiting to take me the rest of the way. Along with him were two thick-bodied men in checkered flannel—a low-key security detail. The four of us piled into an enormous teal jeep, and we drove toward a gated community on the southern edge of the city. Cristiani’s house is known among city-dwellers as the casa en la colina, “the house on the hill,” and it overlooks San Salvador to the north from a lush and leafy vantage, tucked away and protected.

Cristiani greeted me with a cigar in his mouth in a cool, unlit room with floor-to-ceiling windows. For half an hour we sat and talked about some recent news: an American judge had just ordered the extradition, to Spain, of a Salvadoran ex-colonel involved in the Jesuit murders. In the aftermath of the ruling, the Salvadoran National Police arrested four ex-military men who’d also been responsible. Cristiani spoke softly, without betraying the slightest trace of unease. The country’s amnesty law, which blocked the prosecution of crimes committed during the war, was the only bulwark against utter chaos, he told me; the calls for extradition were an attack on that careful order. “If they were to open cases [from the war], half of the current government would go to jail,” he said. That included the president himself, a leftist ex-guerilla named Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

There was some truth to Cristiani’s claim. Cerén had been a rebel commander during the war, and the guerrilla forces had also killed innocents, albeit on a more reduced scale than the military. (Ninety-five percent of the crimes enumerated by the U.N. after the war were attributed to the military, the remaining five percent to the rebels.) For years, Sánchez Cerén paid lip service to the cause of repealing the amnesty law; he had elements of his base, on the left, to appease. But at the time, the prospects of actually undoing the 1993 law were remote—so talk was cheap. “Here, everything is, if not forgotten, at least forgiven, and no one wants to take a step back into all that,” Cristiani said. “It’s unfortunate that abroad they want to continue playing up that whole subject.”

We circled each other in conversation—he drew tidy rings around each of my questions, as though to cordon off any argument. Every couple of minutes the younger congressman, who was sitting beside us scrolling through his blackberry, added something more biting about the shameless opportunism of the local left. This took the form of a tirade about corruption. A host of new stories was already threatening to overtake the news about the Jesuits when the three of us met. One of them was about the elaborate graft schemes carried out by Cerén’s predecessor, who, in 2009, became the first leftist elected president since the war ended.

Cristiani let his acolyte make the uglier accusations. He remained stolid. As he walked us out, he asked me if I’d watched the Super Bowl the night before. This was a man who was very used to talking to Americans.