Leonel Gómez, 68

Leonel Gómez, Salvadoran human rights activist, dies

Leonel Gómez led an investigation for a 1989 congressional task force that helped put an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador's army.
Leonel Gómez led an investigation for a 1989 congressional task force that helped put an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador's army. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Leonel Gómez, 68, a Salvadoran human rights activist who investigated for a U.S. congressional commission some of the most notorious assassinations in his country's long civil war, died of cardiac arrest Nov. 25 in the capital city of San Salvador.

Mr. Gómez was the lead investigator on the Moakley Commission, the 1989 task force headed by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) that identified the Salvadoran army officers who killed six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers, helped put an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador's army and pushed the Central American country toward peace.

"Without Leonel, we would never have found out the truth in the Jesuits' case," said James McGovern, a Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts who was an aide to Moakley. Mr. Gómez "was somebody who had a long history in El Salvador. He was related to everybody on the left and the right. He was a guy I would trust my life to, and did on numerous occasions."

Mr. Gómez's credibility stemmed from an earlier role as the former deputy director of El Salvador's land reform program, the Institute for Agrarian Transformation. With director Roldofo Viera, he exposed financial corruption of Salvadoran government and army officials on national television and initiated charges against an army colonel for graft.

The pair survived eight assassination attempts until January 1981, when Viera and two American advisers, Michael Hammer and David Pearlman, were killed in a Sheraton Hotel coffee shop. Mr. Gómez, who was late to the meeting, was arrested 10 days later and released after an all-day interrogation.

That night, 60 armed soldiers came to his house and searched for him, while he hid in the countryside. He sought asylum in the United States and within 10 days was testifying before Congress about the death squads, the corruption of the opposition leftists and the web of relationships that kept the army in power. The United States was deeply involved in El Salvador throughout the 1980s, providing extensive support to the Salvadoran military in its fight against the leftist revolutionary guerrilla group FMLN despite the military's repression and indiscriminate killings.

"In conclusion, I ask you: Is this the kind of government you want to support?" he told the Senate subcommittee on inter-American affairs on March 11, 1981. "I ask you to think about the corruption, the bloodshed, the killings that have been perpetuated by the Salvadoran army time after time. This is the same army that once tried to sell 10,000 machine guns to the American mafia. This is the same army that raped and killed four American missionaries. What more do you need to know? How long will you have to wait until the American people rise up and tell you what everyone already knows?"

Bill Walker, who was the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1988 to 1992, had known Mr. Gómez since he was a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in 1974.

"No one could ever figure out where he was on the political spectrum. Some thought he was CIA, others thought he was FMLN. His breadth of knowing people in every single niche was just remarkable," Walker said. "If I wanted to get as close to the truth as I could in any situation, Gómez came closer than anyone else because he could tap into resources in the military, in the church, among the poor people."

Mr. Gómez brokered one of the more unusual meetings in American diplomacy, taking Moakley and Walker to meet with the FMLN in the village of Santa Marta, El Salvador, in June 1991. The meeting was considered a turning point in the guerrillas' ultimate acceptance of the 1992 peace agreement that ended a brutal 12-year war that killed an estimated 70,000 and absorbed more than $5 billion in U.S. government aid.

Leonel Eugenio Gómez was born in Santa Ana on Dec. 31, 1940, to a family of coffee plantation owners, descended from "conquistadors, priests and pirates," he told author Stephen R. Weissman in "A Culture of Deference: Congress' Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy" (1995).

Mr. Gómez attended Kemper Military School in Missouri for three years and graduated in 1958 from Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va. He attended a Florida agricultural college but before graduating, his father died, and Mr. Gómez returned to El Salvador to run the family coffee plantation.

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