International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the 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] and the provisional facts of the murders themselves[2] and the Salvadoran military’s attempts to cover up its being the one responsible for the killings.[3] Now we examine the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of some of the individuals involved in this crime.[4]

The murders of the Jesuit priests caused such a huge international uproar that El Salvador had to do something to make it appear as if it were pursuing justice in the case. As a result, in January 1990 it commenced criminal prosecution of five Salvadoran military officers and five soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, the Director of the Military College, was accused of having given the order to murder the priests. Three Lieutenants were accused of commanding the operation. The five soldiers were accused of committing the murders.

The pre-trial proceedings took nearly two years. During this time, Colonel (now General) René Emilio Ponce, Colonel (now General) Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel (now General) Gilberto Rubio Rubio pressured lower-ranking officers not to mention orders from above in their testimony to the court.

Finally, the trial by jury took place in September 1991 in the building of the Supreme Court of Justice and was broadcast live on television. Several ranking military officers attended the trial with the defendants’ families. On the last day of the trial, during the defendants’ closing arguments, a large crowd outside the courthouse shouted chants in favor of the defendants, interrupting the trial. In closing arguments, defense counsel barely mentioned the crime itself. Instead, they asked the jury to reject foreign intervention and pressure, emphasized that five of the six victims were Spanish born, and argued that the military generally and the defendants in particular were heroes protecting the nation against terrorism.

The five-person jury, whose identity was kept secret, was charged with deciding the charges of murder and acts of terrorism. The other charges were left to the judge to decide.

Benevides was convicted of all eight counts of murder and instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. One of the Lieutenants was convicted of one count of murder (the 16-year-old girl), instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and being an accessory. Benevides and this Lieutenant were sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. The other two Lieutenants were convicted of instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism; they were sentenced to three years imprisonment, but released on bail and continued to serve in the military. A Lieutenant Colonel was convicted of being an accessory and sentenced to three years imprisonment, but he too was released on bail and continued to serve in the military. The five soldiers were acquitted of all charges.

International observers of the trial thought the jury verdict defied logic and the weight of the evidence.

In March 2000 and soon after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had issued a report on the case that will be discussed in a subsequent post, the Central American University (UCA), where the Jesuit priests had taught, sought to open a new Salvadoran criminal case regarding their murders, ultimately to no avail. UCA asked the country’s Attorney General to do so on the basis of UCA’s charges against former President Cristiani and five members of the Armed Forces High Command, including former General and Defense Minister Emilio Ponce.  Then Salvadoran President Flores opposed the request, and the Attorney General refused to do so, but the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that only a court could decide to reopen such a case.[5]

Thereafter (October 2000), a lower court rejected the prosecutor’s request to reopen the old case because it was “without legal substance” while ordering the prosecutor to conduct a new investigation to determine whether there were legitimate grounds for reopening the case.[6]

The Attorney General then conducted a new investigation and reapplied to a court to reopen the case, this time against Cristiani and four military officers, including Ponce. Once again, however, the lower court refused to do so in December 2000 on the ground that any new charges were barred by the country’s 10-year statute of limitations. Immediately afterwards Ponce and the other three officers held a press conference where Ponce accused left-wing groups of trying to de-stabilize the country by making these charges and admitted that he and his fellow former officers were concerned about developments elsewhere in Latin America, especially the fate of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and former Argentine military officers.[7]

[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 2011).

[2]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 2, 2011).

[3]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 7, 2011).

[4] This post’s summary of the Salvadoran criminal case 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),  [“Commission Report”]. See also Martha Doggett, Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador at 121-208 (Washington, D.C.; Georgetown Univ. Press 1993). In future posts we will talk about the Truth Commission for El Salvador; the country’s general amnesty; 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.

[5]  UCA Press Release (Mar. 27, 2000,; Lanchin, Salvador ex-president accused of killings, BBC News, Mar. 28, 2000; El Salvador Former Air Force Chief Denies Role in Killings, Miami Herald, Mar. 29, 2000; The Necessity and Importance of the Truth, Processo, April 5, 2000,;UCA Impugns the Attorney General of the Republic’s Decision on the Jesuit Case, Processo, April 26, 2000,;  New Charges Barred in Salvador Killings, N. Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2000; Editorial: The Impunity of Power, Processo, Oct. 25, 2000;  Darling, El Salvador to Reopen Murder Probe; Attorney general, under pressure, will investigate an ex-president and others in 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 2000; No New Trial Set in Deaths of 6 Jesuits, Miami Herald, Dec. 14, 2000; Lanchin, Salvadorean ex-general issues warning, BBC News, Dec. 15, 2000.

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.


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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.