EVIDENCE has appeared here that higher-level military officials were involved in or helped cover up the murders of six Jesuit priests last November. While the government's official investigation stopped at the level of an Army colonel and seven other soldiers, two questions have remained: Did Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides disregard the Army's strict command structure and make a unilateral decision to kill the Jesuits? Or did the well-disciplined military man have the backing of a higher authority?
Emerging evidence, while inconclusive, suggests that Colonel Benavides's superiors in the high command either implicitly made the Jesuits an acceptable target or helped protect those who carried out the crime afterward - or both.
At approximately 9 p.m. on Nov. 15, the Minister of Defense, Col. Ren'e Emilio Ponce, convened an emergency meeting of senior military officers - including Benavides - in which they vowed to go after the rebels more aggressively, says Army spokesman Mauricio Chavez Caceres.
Shaken by the snowballing strength of the five-day-old rebel offensive, the senior officers decided to escalate the war by using heavier artillery and a beefed-up air attack to force the guerrillas out of their strongholds in San Salvador's poorest neighborhoods. Major Chavez Caceres says it was agreed to ``put more emphasis on guerrilla command posts'' in each zone.
Benavides apparently translated the meeting's general mandate into a specific order to eliminate the priests. Such an interpretation would not require a huge leap of faith, diplomats say, since the Army had always labeled the priests as ``intellectual authors'' of the guerrilla movement.
An official radio station broadcast death threats against Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria and other leftist figures from the first day of the offensive. The Jesuits were the only prominent leftists who did not go into hiding.
``Looking at this as the Army does, killing Ellacuria would be the right thing to do,'' says one source with close ties to the high command. ``It would be perfectly consistent with the goals of eliminating communism.''
Shortly before midnight last Nov. 15, at the height of a fierce urban offensive launched by leftist rebels here, Benavides summoned two lieutenants from the elite Atlacatl Battalion into his office at the General Gerardo Barrios Military School.
According to the testimony of Lt. Jos'e Ricardo Espinoza, Benavides gave them urgent instructions: ``OK, men, we're playing all or nothing. This is a situation in which it is us or them,'' he said. ``We will start with the ringleaders. Within our sector we have the university and Ellacuria is there.''
Two hours later, Lieutenant Espinoza watched as his troops carried out his orders to assassinate Father Ellacuria - a prominent leftist intellectual and rector of the Central American University (UCA) - along with five other Jesuit priests and two employees.
BY wiping out El Salvador's most thoughtful proponents of a negotiated solution to the 10-year-old civil war, the massacre became a grisly symbol for the elimination of reasoned dialogue.
It also became an instant crisis for President Alfredo Cristiani.
The right-wing leader faced a stark choice: Either find and prosecute the murderers or jeopardize more than $300 million in annual United States aid.
Prodded in part by the US Embassy here, the government investigation broke through the military's code of silence and led to the arrest last month of eight Army soldiers involved in the murders. Among them was Benavides, an ex-intelligence chief and now the highest ranking officer ever arrested for human-rights abuses in El Salvador.
Despite a climate that perhaps encouraged the killings, no direct evidence has emerged to tie the massacre itself to the high command. Critics complain that the official investigation has avoided looking for links, preferring to focus largely on material evidence.
But the doubts won't go away.
An article scheduled for the next issue of Central American Studies (ECA), a UCA journal, says that ``it's unthinkable that a reasonable person would dare to carry out such a brutal act without someone behind him.''
The article points out that Benavides was shifted temporarily to his post as zone commander just two days before the massacre. According to Colonel Ponce's testimony on Dec. 9, the violent search of the Jesuit's residence on Nov. 13 was ordered by Ponce, not by the new commander.
In fact, if the testimony is to be believed, Benavides gave the order to kill the Jesuits to two lieutenants he hardly knew.
``How could this commander ask these soldiers to go kill the priests without knowing them?'' asks Jos'e Maria Tojeira, the Jesuit Provincial for Central America. ``He must have had support. He could only have ordered that [massacre] if he felt invulnerable.''
Evidence of a coverup, however, is more compelling.
When an Army captain interrupted a regularly scheduled intelligence meeting the morning after the massacre with news of Ellacuria's death, the officers clapped and cheered, according to the Boston Globe.
The news spread rapidly. ``Soon after the event, the high command must have known exactly what happened,'' says one diplomat. ``A decision must have been made to close ranks.''
The Army code of silence quickly enshrouded the event.
Army officers and some civilian officials stuck to an official version that blamed the massacre on the guerrillas of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN).
For their part, the 47 elite Atlacatl troops who participated in the Jesuit operation used one guerrilla-style AK-47 rifle and left a crudely written sign to implicate the guerrillas.
As they departed at around 3 a.m., the soldiers say they staged a mock firefight whose site, intensity, and damage coincide perfectly with a 12:30 a.m. entry already penned into Benavides' log book.
``All this organization shows that there was some kind of conspiracy either before or after,'' says one source close to the investigation.
Even President Cristiani and US Ambassador William Walker were shielded for a time from the true story by the wall of military loyalty.
The case was pushed forward in early January in part because the US confronted the high command with evidence of Army involvement, saying the information had come from a Salvadoran colonel.
Such US intervention has spurred an angry backlash in some sectors of the military.
Meanwhile, lawyers warn that successfully prosecuting Benavides will be difficult since, under Napoleonic law, codefendants cannot testify against each other. Benavides' only accusers so far are three lieutenants who are also codefendants in the case.
But analysts suggest that the case is so important for El Salvador that charges against one soldier will be dropped to have a material witness in the Benavides case.
Says Gerardo LeChevalier, a Christian Democrat leader, referring to the importance of US assistance: ``There are 385 million reasons to have him convicted.''