Sally O’Neill, a prominent human rights worker from Ireland who helped investigate the 1981 massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador, in which more than 900 civilians were slain, died April 7 in a car crash in Guatemala. She was 68.
Killed in the car with her were Ana Paula Hernández, 42, a fellow human rights worker from Mexico, as well as Ana Velásquez, 22, a Guatemalan human rights advocate, and the driver, Daniel Tuc, 43, also Guatemalan.
Ms. O’Neill and Hernández were in Guatemala on behalf of the Fund for Global Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that supports local activists in 16 countries, including many in Latin America.
At the time of the accident, which occurred in the Huehuetenango region of western Guatemala, they were visiting some of the fund’s grantees, Regan E. Ralph, the fund’s president and chief executive, said in a telephone interview. Ralph said the road was dangerous and visibility low when the car went off a cliff.
Ms. O’Neill had worked for the fund as a part-time consultant for four years. She had spent most of her career, 37 years, working for Trocaire, the overseas development agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, with a concentration in Latin America. She officially retired in 2015 and started consulting for the fund. She also continued to work voluntarily with prisoners and migrants in Honduras, where she lived with her family.
In 1982 she and Michael D. Higgins, then a member of the Irish Parliament and now president of Ireland, were among the first outsiders to visit the village of El Mozote and investigate reports of a massacre there.
They found evidence of the systematic torture, rape, and slaughter of civilians, who were subsequently confirmed to have been killed by death squads and by Salvadoran army soldiers trained and supplied by the United States.
The New York Times and The Washington Post published prominent articles about the killings. “It is clear that a massacre of major proportions occurred here last month,” The Times reported in January 1982.
The Reagan administration, which was backing the Salvadoran government with military and economic aid in an effort to counter a leftist insurgency, dismissed reports of the massacre, calling them Communist propaganda.
It was not until 1993, long after Ronald Reagan had left office, that a UN truth commission report, relying on classified documents from the US government, concluded that groups of men, women, and children had been tortured and “deliberately and systematically executed.”
Higgins said in a statement after Ms. O’Neill’s death that “when I visited Central America as president of Ireland in October 2013, she was present to hear the massacre — long denied — recognized as genocide. She was pleased to see the names of the dead remembered, and to meet the relatives of those killed.”
He added that as a human rights advocate, Ms. O’Neill was “relentless in calling on those with power to bring their influence to bear on the policies and politics that affected those most vulnerable.”
Ms. O’Neill was born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland and moved to Belfast when she was 18 to attend college. She then took a job in Latin America, where, she told The Irish News in 2018, she was working on a project, and traveling up the Amazon River when her party had to pull over to a small indigenous village because of rough rapids.
“A charity was working there on a health program, and I remember being instantly impressed with the work they were doing,” she said. The charity was Trocaire, and she joined it in 1978, just five years after its founding. She became an integral part of the organization’s growth and development.
‘Sally was the heartbeat of Trocaire for almost 40 years.’
She was soon leading delegations of Irish politicians and bishops to Central America so they could see the atrocities resulting from brutal civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. She also served as a translator for Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador (who has since been declared a saint by the Catholic Church), six weeks before his assassination in 1980.
“Sally was the heartbeat of Trocaire for almost 40 years,” the agency’s chief executive, Caoimhe de Barra, said in a statement.
In addition to her work in Central America, where she oversaw humanitarian aid to more than 2 million refugees, Ms. O’Neill worked in Ethiopia and Somalia during famines there and took charge of the agency’s humanitarian efforts in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
She had seven siblings, all of whom she leaves. She also leaves her husband, Roger, and their children, Roger, Rhona, and Xiomara.
Ms. O’Neill’s first grandchild, Patrick, was born the day before she died; the day she died was her 40th wedding anniversary.