International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests

We already have looked at a Spanish court’s recent issuance of 20 criminal arrest warrants regarding the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.[1] Here we examine the provisional facts of the murders themselves and of the surrounding circumstances.[2]

The Murders

In the early hours of November 16, 1989, a group of Salvadoran soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the Pastoral Centre, which was the residence of Jesuit priests Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice-Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; and Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, all teachers at UCA.

The soldiers tried to force their way into the Pastoral Centre. When the priests realized what was happening, they let the soldiers in voluntarily. The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into the back garden and lie face down on the ground.

The lieutenant in command gave the order to kill the priests. Fathers Ellacuria, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by a Private, Fathers López and Moreno by a Deputy Sergeant. Shortly afterwards, the soldiers found Father Joaquín López y López inside the residence and killed him. Another Deputy Sergeant shot Julia Elva Ramos, who was working as a cook in the residence, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos. Another Private shot them again, finishing them off.

The soldiers then took a small suitcase belonging to the priests containing photographs, documents and $5,000. They also fired a machine gun at the façade of the residence and launched rockets and grenades. Before leaving, they wrote on a piece of cardboard: “FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN.”

The FMLN’s “Final Offensive” and the Salvadoran Military’s Response

This horrible crime occurred in the midst of what the FMLN guerrillas called “The Final Offensive.” Most of the nine-year old civil war had been fought in the mountains and countryside. On November 11, 1989, however, “The Final Offensive” was launched to bring the war into the capitol city of San Salvador for the first time.

This assault reached alarming proportions that the Salvadoran armed forces had not expected. The guerrillas gained control of various areas in and around the capitol. They attacked the official and private residences of the President of the Republic and the residence of the President of the Legislative Assembly. They also attacked the barracks of the First, Third and Sixth Infantry Brigades and those of the National Police. In addition, guerrillas blew up one of the main gates of UCA and crossed UCA’s campus.

On November 12, the Government declared a state of emergency and imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

The next day, November 13, at a meeting of the Salvadoran Armed Forces’ General Staff, security commands were created to deal with the FMLN offensive. Each command was headed by an officer under the operational control of Colonel René Emilio Ponce, Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff. Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides was designated to head the military complex security command zone. It included the Military College, the Ministry of Defense, the Joint Staff, the National Intelligence Department, two districts where many members of the armed forces lived, the residence of the United States Ambassador and the UCA campus. (It takes less than five minutes to drive from the Salvadoran Ministry of Defense complex (Estado Mayor) to the UCA campus, as I know from visiting them both.)

A national radio channel also was established, the pilot station being Radio Cuscatlán of the armed forces. Telephone calls to the station were broadcast in a “phone-in” in which callers lofted accusations at Father Ellacuria and called for his death.

Salvadoran Military’s Focus on UCA

The Salvadoran military’s response to the FMLN offensive devoted a lot of effort to UCA, which was very close to the Ministry of Defense complex and which was seen by many in the armed forces as a “refuge of subversives.” Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Vice-Minister for Defense, publicly accused UCA of being the center of operations where FMLN terrorist strategy was planned. Colonel Inocente Montano, Vice-Minister for Public Security, stated publicly that the Jesuits were fully identified with subversive movements. Sectors of the armed forces identified the Jesuit priests with FMLN because of the priests’ special concern for those sectors of Salvadorian society who were poorest and most affected by the war.

On November 12th, a Salvadoran military detachment was stationed to watch who went in and out of UCA. Starting the next day no one was permitted onto the campus.

On November 13th, Colonel Ponce ordered a search of UCA premises. According to Colonel Ponce, he ordered the search because he had been informed that there were over 200 guerrillas inside the UCA campus.

The search was entrusted to a Lieutenant with 100 men from the Atlacatl Battalion. Another Lieutenant  of the National Intelligence Department joined the troops at the entrance to UCA to assist with the search. One of the Lieutenants personally directed the search of the Jesuits residence. They found no signs of any guerrilla presence, war material or propaganda. After completing the search, one of the  Lieutenants reported the results to higher officers.

On November 15th at 6.30 p.m. there was a meeting of the General Staff with military heads and commanders to adopt new measures to deal with the offensive. Colonel Ponce authorized the elimination of ringleaders, trade unionists and known leaders of FMLN, and a decision was taken to step up bombing by the Air Force and to use artillery and armored vehicles to dislodge FMLN from the areas it controlled.

The Minister of Defence, General Larios, asked whether anyone objected. No hand was raised. It was agreed that Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani would be consulted about the measures.

After the meeting, the officers stayed in the room talking in groups. One of these groups included Colonel Ponce, Colonel Zepeda and Colonel Montano. Colonel Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, who was the Director of the Military College. In front of four other officers, Ponce ordered Benavides to eliminate Father Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses. He also ordered him to use the unit from the Atlacatl Battalion which had carried out the search two days earlier.

That same night, November 15th, between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., Benavides met with the officers under his command. Colonel Benavides told them that he had just come from a meeting at the General Staff at which special measures had been adopted to combat the FMLN offensive. Colonel Benavides said that the situation was critical and it had been decided that artillery and armored vehicles should be used. He also told them that all known subversive elements must be eliminated.

Colonel Benavides specifically said that he had received orders to eliminate Father Ignacio Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses. Colonel Benavides asked any officers who objected to this order to raise their hands. No one did.

After the meeting, the leader of the Atlacatl Battalion decided that in order to try to blame the deaths on the FMLN, they would use an AK-47 rifle that had been captured from the FMLN, instead of regulation firearms, and that they would leave no witnesses. After the murders, they would simulate an attack and leave a sign mentioning FMLN.

Two pick-up trucks with the soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion left the Military College and joined other soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. They then proceeded to the Pastorale Center of UCA and committed the murders as previously described.


[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May31, 2011).

[2] This post’s factual recitation is extracted from the Commission for the Truth for El Salvador’s Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 45-54 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html  [“Commission Report”]. See also Martha Doggett, Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador at 37-71 (Washington, D.C.; Georgetown Univ. Press 1993). Although, as will be discussed in a subsequent post, the Truth Commission adhered to an objective and reasonable methodology in conducting its investigations and writing its report, it must be recognized that there was no cross-examination of witnesses by attorneys for the accused or full opportunity for them to present evidence in their own defense. Thus, the findings of the Truth Commission must be taken as provisional in nature. In other future posts we will talk about the Salvadoran military’s efforts to cover up their participation in this crime; the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of some of the military officers who were involved and the subsequent Salvadoran general amnesty for them and others; the Jesuits case before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights; the Spanish implementation of the principle of universal jurisdiction; and more details about the Spanish case regarding this crime.

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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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