International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests

A Spanish court yesterday issued arrest warrants for 20 of the top military leaders of El Salvador’s civil war, accusing them of crimes against humanity and state terrorism in meticulously planning and carrying out the killings of six Jesuit priests in November 1989.[1]

Among the men named in the indictment were Rafael Humberto Larios, who was the Salvadoran defense minister at the time; Juan Orlando Zepeda, the vice defense minister; Rene Emilio Ponce, leader of the Army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Inocente Orlando Montano, the vice minister of public safety. Mr. Ponce, who is believed to have given the order for the killings, died this month in El Salvador. Mr. Montano is in custody.

The Jesuit priests were the leader and professors at the Universidad de Centro America (UCA) in San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador. The Rector of the University of Central America, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, had organized an open public forum about the country’s problems. All six were noted professors who had published papers about the country’s problems, and most of them also had served as pastors in communities around the capital city.[2]

At the time of the murders, El Salvador was engaged in a civil war with leftist guerillas, and supporters of the Salvadoran government said that UCA was the “logistical center of Communist subversion.” The Jesuits at UCA were “agents of the Marxist conspiracy at the service of the Kremlin.” Ellacuria, they said, directed “all Marxist-Leninist strategy in Central America.” The Jesuits, according to these government supporters, were “the intellectual authors who have directed the guerillas.” [3]

This important development raises many issues that will be discussed in subsequent posts: (a) the work of the priests and UCA in the life of El Salvador; (b) the facts relating to the murders; (c) the criminal prosecution of some of the military officers in El Salvador; (d) the investigation and report about this horrendous crime by the Truth Commission for El Salvador; (d) the subsequent general amnesty adopted by the Salvadoran legislature; (e) the investigation and report about this crime by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; (f) the background of the case before the Spanish court; (g) the important work by international human rights non-governmental organizations like the Center for Justice & Accountability that has been a leader in the case in Spain; and (h) the international law principle of universal jurisdiction and Spain’s implementation of that principle.

As a result of my involvement with El Salvador over the last 26 years, my six visits to the country and to UCA itself and my investigation of the above issues, the latest development in the Spanish case is very important to me legally, spiritually and emotionally. Through all of these activities, I have come to see that there is an ever-evolving interactive global struggle against impunity for violators of human rights and that many courts, other international and domestic governmental and non-governmental institutions and people play different and important roles in this process.  [4]


[1] Malkin, From Spain, Charges Against 20 in the Killing of 6 Priests in El Salvador in 1989, N.Y. Times (May 31, 2011); Center for Justice & Accountability, Spanish Judge Issues Indictments and Arrest Warrants in Jesuits Massacre Case (May 30, 2011), http://www.cja.org/article.php?id=1004.

[2] Martha Doggett, Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador  (Washington, D.C.; Georgetown Univ. Press 1993) [“Doggett”]; Jon Sobrino, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books 1990).

[3] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 49 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html;  Doggett at 17.

[4] See Post: My First 10 Years of Retirement (April 23, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Introduction (April 26, 2011); Post: The Sanctuary Movement Case (May 22, 2011); Post: Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011); Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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