License to Kill

The Nun Murders and the Presidential Transition Team

During the transition from Carter to Reagan, the Salvadoran death squads started targeting Americans. A cautionary tale about signals sent and messages received.
Christopher Dickey

Christopher Dickey


PARIS — A new president had just been elected in the United States — a hard line president, who, it was said, had no patience with the vacillating, moralizing policies of his predecessor. Around the world thugs who would spit when they heard the phrase “human rights” suddenly took heart. With such a man in the White House, they thought, they had a license to kill. 

This was November 1980, when the confused transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan opened the door to a bloodbath in the little Central American country of El Salvador; when, suddenly, anyone the military suspected of aiding the subversivos was liable to be tortured to death, and even Americans—even American nuns—were fair game.

Now 36 years later, we will soon mark the anniversary of the death of four American churchwomen kidnapped, raped and murdered in El Salvador on the night of December 2, 1980. 

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