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A martyr for human rights

For 34 years now the voice of Marianella García Villas, the advocate of the poor and of peasant farmers and a privileged daughter of the rich bourgeoisie of Salvador, but elected in parliament by the women of the people, has been silent. She was forgotten from that day in March 1983 when the military junta in power in her country decided to torture her brutally and to assassinate her. Her denunciations and the positions she took in defence of human rights became unacceptable to the authorities. Therefore, as had happened three years earlier to Óscar Romero with whom she had long collaborated, her voice too was silenced for ever. Killed on 24 March 1980 while he was celebrating Mass, Romero had for years been denouncing the injustices in his country and the violence of the police and the military against the weakest people. He had seen Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, one of his closest collaborators, fall under the blows of the paramilitaries. His murder deeply affected Romero, who said some time later, “When I looked at Rutilio lying dead in front of me I thought: ‘If they killed him for what he was doing, I must follow his same path’”. That path had a precise date, 24 November 1977, the date on which the ways of Msgr Romero and of the young Marianella Garc García Villas converged. It was at the moment when the country’s legislative assembly approved the law for the defence and guarantee of public order, which de facto gave a free hand to the government in its activity of repression. Side by side with the arrests there began to be disappearances too: thus the phenomenon of the desaparecidos likewise became a fact in Salvador. In this situation of widespread violence, the Archbishop of San Salvador, together with six young lawyers, promoted the creation of a group for “juridical assistance”, a body which provided help for those accused and at the same time prepared precise and circumstantial information of occurrences for the Archbishop to denounce in his homilies. Every weekend Marianella let Romero have a detailed report on what was happening in the country: murders, tortures, massacres and disappearances. In this way Romero prepared his Sunday homilies.

Detail of the monument to Memory and Truth (San Salvador)

Romero’s homilies were very long. They lasted for as much as two hours and were followed on the radio throughout Salvador and the neighbouring countries, disseminating knowledge of the situation of degradation into which the civil war was plunging the country. The Catholic Radio, YSSX, “The Panamerican Voice”, on which Archbishop Romero broadcast his homilies, rapidly became a point of reference. Every homily was divided into three sections: a first part devoted to the text of the Liturgy of the Word with applications to the liturgical season and to the Christian life of the faithful who listened to it, a second part which was rather more pastoral and diocesan, and lastly, a third part with an analysis of the situation in the country and a detailed and circumstantial report of episodes of violence and of kidnappings. To prepare the last part of his homilies, Romera would consult daily the Juridical Assistance Group coordinated by Marianella, as well as various diocesan bodies created for the protection of human rights. It was for this reason that the radio station was blown up twice. On 23 March 1980 the Archbishop openly invited all the officials and all the armed forces not to execute orders if they were contrary to human morality. The following day Óscar Arnulfo Romero was slaughtered while he was celebrating Mass. At his funeral the army opened fire on his faithful, perpetrating yet another massacre.

Thirty-five years had to pass before it was recognized that the Archbishop of San Salvador had been martyred in odium fidei [in hatred of the faith], and was thus worthy of beatification, while Marianella was more or less forgotten. On the first anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s assassination Marianella commemorated the Archbishop in the bulletin of the Human Rights Commission, demanding loudly that “The prophet’s words not be buried with him”. Threatened with death several times, she visited various European countries between 1981 and 1982. During one of her visits to Italy in 1981, while taking part in a demonstration in the city of Padua, she bore witness to the drama being experienced by her people, underlining the insufficient and inadequate commitment at an international level in the defence of human rights. Her commitment to the marginalized took her home. Having returned secretly to El Salvador, she was brutally assassinated on 13 March 1980. The Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army tortured her to death to prevent her from denouncing their recourse to chemical weapons, including napalm and white phosphorus, used in the slaughters of Salvadoran peasant farmers.

All that remains of her is the book Marianella e i suoi fratelli, published in Italy in 1983 [Raniero la Valle, Linda Bimbi, Rome, Icone-Cipax], which resulted from some conversations with Marianella between 1981 and 1982, during her stay in Europe. The authors at first thought of entitling it Antigone and her brothers, given Marianella’s affinities with the mythological figure. However, Marianella had no need to be likened to a myth. She herself was a myth, for her courage and for her death.

Silvina Pérez




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 21, 2020