They disappeared Father Gallego 52 years ago tonight


On this night in 1971, they took the parish priest away…

by Eric Jackson

On the evening of June 9, 1971, the guardia came for Father Gallego. The 33-year-old parish priest of Santa Fe de Veraguas was beaten and dragged from his home by a squadron of the Machos del Monte infantry of old Guardia Nacional — later in the dictatorship years to be divided between the army and police. There is some question as to whether civilians were also directly involved in his abduction. Three men, all uniformed members of the guardia, were identified.

In December of 2000 forensics experts dug up a mass grave beneath a parking lot at the old Puma infantry barracks near Tocumen Airport. But the boss, soon to be replaced, made a big televised show of mishandling and mixing the bones. They didn’t want the remains to be identified. Especially those who would erase the memory of Father Gallego didn’t want a body found and identified. It wasn’t until 2018 that DNA tests funded by the Catholic Church identified some of the bone fragments as belonging to Father Gallego

Why the phobia about identification, by folks who had nothing directly to lose? It’s a bit of Catholic dogma, wherein to be canonized as a saint, a person’s body needs to be found and identified with miracles. A lot of Panamanian Catholics want Gallego to be recognized as a saint — he’s already considered a martyr of the church — and then there are people who had nothing to do with his disappearance and death who would rather not see the man celebrated for the things for which he stood.

Detractors — including accusers — would have connected him to the radical priests of his native Colombia who were among the founders of the leftist ELN guerrilla army. In years before his arrival in Santa Fe, in the nearby mountains rebels had taken up arms in ephemeral guerrilla movements. Gallego had nothing to do with that, but it was thought to be a good story to scare the guardia into action.

Gallego preached the dignity and worth of all, regardless of class or race. It was and is a major strain in Catholic thinking, with opposition within the church, to be sure. At the time Archbishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath, born in the old Canal Zone to an Irish-American father and a French-Costa Rican mother, was trying to steer Panamanian Catholicism clear of some of the severe left versus right divisions that manifested themselves in some other Latin American countries. McGrath was getting complaints from some of the wealthier Catholics about this radical young priest, but Gallego was in good standing.

So what did Father Héctor DO to get himself martyred, other that preach social equality in a place where the dominant landowners and businesspeople didn’t believe in any of that?

He founded a cooperative store, the Cooperativa Esperanza de los Campesinos — the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative — with an eye toward it growing into a multi-services movement. The local elitists who didn’t like Gallego also didn’t like the modest agrarian reforms that General Torrijos was supporting, nor the adult literacy programs in which both church and state had a hand. But some of them also had the general’s ear.

Gallego was beaten up, briefly arrested, and denounced as a terrorist. The church stood up for him, but on June 9, 1971, the state came for him.

He wasn’t seen again, but the cooperative thrived and grew in his absence. It’s now a conglomerate of local businesses, the flagship of which is the coffee mill that produces Cafe El Tute, which mostly gets exported to cooperatives in Germany and elsewhere.

And every June 9 committed Catholics, cooperative members and labor unionists gather in church and march in and around the town of Santa Fe to preserve the memory of Father Gallego, who still may yet become a saint.


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