Guilty Judgment in 1989 Murder of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador   

On September 11, 2020, Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, found former Salvadoran Colonel, Inocente Orlando Montano (now 77 years old), guilty of the “terrorist murders” of  five Jesuit priests who were Spaniards, in San Salvador, the Capital of El Salvador, 31 years ago. The court found that Montano took part in the decision to “execute Ignacio Ellacuría as well as anyone in the area – regardless of who they were – so as not to leave behind any witnesses.”

The court then sentenced Montano to 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the five murders for a total of 133 years. However, he will not spend more than 30 years in prison, the judges said. This was after a trial of the only Salvadoran military officer who was extradited to Spain to stand trial under the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction authorizing jurisdiction in a state other than the site of the crime for human rights crimes.[1]

The Spanish NGO that was involved in the case, Guernica Centre for International Justice, published a background of the case, daily reports about the trial and the court’s decision. [2]

Also killed  in the same event were a Salvadoran Jesuit and two Salvadoran women, but those killings were not before the Spanish court.

The path to this legal judgment has been long and complicated.

The Murder of the Jesuit Priests

The murder of the Jesuit priests, one of the most horrendous crimes during the country’s civil war, occurred in the early hours of November 16, 1989, when a group of Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the residences of the Jesuit priests, who were UCA professors and advocates for the poor people of the country, and shot and killed the five Spanish priests–Father Ignacio Ellacuria (UCA’s Rector), Ignacio Martin-Barò (UCA’s Vice Rector), Segundo Montes (Director of UCA’s Human Rights Center), Armando Lòpez and Juan Ramôn Moreno.  The murdered Salvadoran Jesuit was Joaquin Lôpez y Lôpez, and the two murdered Salvadoran women were the priests’ cook and her daughter.[3]

Salvadoran Legal Proceedings Over This Crime

Immediately afterwards high officials of the Salvadoran military engaged in attempting to cover up its involvement in this horrendous crime, but international outrage and pressure caused the country to create a Salvadoran commission that investigated and reported that four officers and five soldiers were responsible for this crime and they along with another officer were brought to trial in that country for this crime in September 1991. A jury decided that the five officers were guilty of various crimes and sentenced them to prison, but acquitted the five soldiers. [4]

In 1992 the Salvadoran legislature enacted a General Amnesty Law that led that year to the release from prison of those convicted of the Jesuit murders.[5] In 2016, however, the Salvadoran Supreme Court held that the General Amnesty Law was unconstitutional, and at least one of those who had been convicted, sentenced and then released under that Law (Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno) was ordered to return to prison after the invalidation of that Law.[6]

The Truth Commission for El Salvador[7]

On January 16, 1992, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN rebels signed the peace agreement to end the civil war. One of its provisions was the creation of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, whose report on March 15, 1993 had detailed findings about the murder of the Jesuits, including the following:

  • “There is substantial evidence that on the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of and in collusion with General Juan Rafael Bustillo, then Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, gave Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides the order to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. For that purpose, Colonel Benavides was given the use of a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion, which two days previously had been sent to search the priest’s residence.”
  • “There is full evidence that:

(a) That same night of 15 November, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the officers at the Military College of the order he had been given for the murder. When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.

(b) The operation was organized by then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and carried out by a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion under the command of Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos.”

Prior Proceedings in Spain’s Case[8]

In November 2008 a U.S. NGO (Center for Justice & Accountability) and a Spanish NGO filed a criminal case over the killing of the Jesuits  against 14 Salvadoran military officers and the country’s former President Cristiani. In January 2009 the Spanish court accepted the case against the military officers and soldiers, but declined to do so with respect to Cristiani although reserving the right to do so later.

On May 30, 2011, the Spanish court issued an indictment and arrest warrants for 20 of the top 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 the Jesuit priests in November 1989. One was Inocente Orlando Montano, who in 1989 was the vice minister of public safety.

Subsequently in complicated proceedings El Salvador denied extradition of all these requests for those living in the country. Only Montano, who had been living in the U.S. and who had been tried and convicted for lying in U.S. immigration papers, was extradited to Spain by the U.S.

Conclusion

After this decision by the Spanish court, UCA requested the Criminal Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to resolve a long-pending appeal by six other former military officers accused of involvement in the Jesuits murders so that their guilt can be adjudicated. UCA’s Rector, Andreu Oliva, said, “”We are confident that the evidence presented at the Spanish hearing will serve to hold a trial here in El Salvador, since it is evident that, given the indications in the sentence, there are other parties involved who are in El Salvador and that there is no reason why they are not judged in our country.” This requires the “urgent” opening of the archives of the country’s Armed Forces. [9]

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[1] Assoc. Press, Spain imprisons ex-colonel for Jesuits slain in El Salvador, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Ex-Salvadoran colonel jailed for 1989 murder of Spanish Jesuits, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Spanish trial brings hope of justice for victims of Salvadoran death squads, Guardian (Sept. 7, 2020); Marroquin, 133 years in prison for ex-colonel Montano for the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 12, 2020); Spanish court rules in Jesuit massacre case.elsalvadorperspectives (Sept. 11, 2020);

[2] Guernica Centre, Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 18, 2020); (background of case); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial 2020: Daily Trial Briefings: #01 (06/08/20), # 02 (06/10/20), # 03 (06/11/20), # 04 (07/08/20), # 05 (07/09/20), # 06 07/10/20), # 07 (07/13/20), # 08 (07/14/20), # 09 (07/15/20); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial, guernica37.com (Sept. 11, 2020). This NGO’s name memorializes the April 28, 1937 bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by German Nazi warplanes at the request of Spanish General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The number of casualties originally was estimated to be over 1,700, but now is believed to have been under 300. “Guernica” is also the name of a famous Picasso painting about the bombing on display at the Spanish Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. (Bombing of Guernica, Wikipedia; Guernica (Picasso), Wikipedia.)

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

[4] International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 8, 2011).

[5] International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2011).

[6] Reinstatement of Sentence of Former Salvadoran Military Officer for Participating in Murder of Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2017).

[7]  United Nations, El Salvador Agreements: The Path to Peace  From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador (July 1992); Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Mar. 15, 1993).

[8]  International Criminal Justice: The Spanish Court’s Criminal Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of  Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 31, 201i); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 1, 2017). See generally posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommantaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[9] Marroquin, The UCA asks the Criminal Chamber to resolve the appeal of the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 11, 2011); Calderon, Condemnation of Montano gives hope to prosecute masterminds of Jesuit massacre, says UCA, Laprensa Grafica (Sept. 11, 2020)

Request for U.S. Records in Salvadoran Trial Over 1981 El Mozote Massacre

On December 10-12,1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, 978 men, women and children were massacred in the country’s northeastern village of El Mozote, the largest mass killing in Latin America’s modern history. Of those victims, 447 were age 12 and under while 4 were unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs.[1]

Eventually it had become clear that  “the Salvadoran military’s Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the massacre. But details were vague. The commanders of the Battalion remained free. So do the former senior defense officials who allegedly issued orders to the battalion. In the 1990s, the country approved an amnesty that protected war criminals. That law was declared unconstitutional in 2016 by a Salvadoran court, thereby clearing the way for reopening a Salvadoran criminal trial over this massacre.

Early Stages of Salvadoran Trial Over the Massacre[2]

Since that year (2016) a Salvadoran court has been conducting a trial of 16 former Salvadoran military commanders, including a former minister of defense, over this massacre. They are charged with murder, torture, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, forced displacement, acts of terrorism, illegal detention, theft and damages. The evidence implicated the involvement of the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been U.S.-trained, in contradiction of the original Salvadoran and American accounts of the massacre.

U.S. Congressional Decision To Help Salvadoran Trial[3]

In 2019 in establishing the annual budget for international aid, the Congress directed the U.S. Government to cooperate with El Salvador’s investigation of the El Mozote massacre in the following language:

  • “The [House] Committee [on Appropriations] directs the Secretary of State to work with the relevant federal departments and agencies to, as appropriate, assist the judicial authorities of El Salvador in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the El Mozote massacre. [This includes] the identification of and provision of related documents, correspondence, reproductions of Salvadoran documents, and other similar materials from January 1981 to January 1983.”
  • The Senate version stated, “The Secretary of State… shall encourage the Salvadoran Armed Forces to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators, including providing access to archival documents.” The bill also included a mandate for the Department of State to update its report on the current status of the Salvadoran trial.

In response to the Senate’s direction, the State Department on February 5, 2020, sent a letter to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, with a report on the Salvadoran government’s cooperation with the court’s investigation.[4]

Recent Developments in Salvadoran Case[5]

In January 2020, a retired Salvadoran air force general, Juan Rafael Bustillo, testified in the trial that that the Atlacatl Battalion had carried out the massacre, which was the first time a Salvadoran military official had admitted such responsibility. He said he had not taken part in this event, but that it had been conducted on orders by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of that Battalion who died in a 1984 helicopter accident.

After that testimony, the Salvadoran judge, Jorge Guzman Urquilla, concluded that the court did not have an important set of evidence: “U.S. documents that might shed light on how the massacre was planned and executed.”

 Salvadoran Judge’s Letter to U.S.Government[6]

As a result, the judge on January 27, 2020, sent a letter to  U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo with copies to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Robert P. Ashley, Jr. and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The judge’s letter requested “at minimum, any document in the possession of the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other defense or intelligence agencies” relating to the El Mazote massacre. The letter stated the following:

  • “I recognize and am thankful for Congress’ initiative in asking the State Department to look into information that the United States may have on this case. As a judge, I would hope that it would provide me with greater certainty and clarity on these heinous acts that are now part of our country’s history, something we are not proud of, but which the historical record will demand we adjudicate.”
  • “The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of its investigative phase and will soon move to sentencing. Though some expert military testimony is forthcoming, the main phases of the examination portion have been completed. Service members, including several soldiers and a general, have given their accounts of the relevant events, confirming that the massacre took place as well as the role played by various units of the [Salvadoran] Armed Forces. A lack of documents is the last big hurdle. Despite [Salvadoran] President Nayib Bukele’s assurances that he will collaborate, the [Salvadoran] Army has stuck to the position it’s taken since the investigation began in the 1990s: that no relevant documents exist.”
  • “Even if they no longer can be found in El Salvador, it’s still possible that there are copies or records of these files in the United States, a country that was closely involved with and aware of the [Salvadoran] Army’s operations in the 80s as part of its foreign policy agenda.” Though a good deal of documents were already declassified [by President Bill Clinton in 1983], the letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents.”
  • The letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents” and for files on “the operations of the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the Morazán area, including any information on military planning, operational planning, and war planning, and involving any of the military units that I have mentioned,” between 1981 and 1983.
  • The letter specifically solicited information on General José Guillermo García, General Rafael Flores Lima, and 14 others who were charged and remain alive; on Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, Mayor Armando Azmitia, and 14 others who were charged and are now dead; on the municipality of Arambala and the seven sites where the massacre took place; and on the four military units being held responsible: the Atlacatl Battalion, the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the Fourth Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, and the High Command of the Armed Forces.
  • The letter emphasized the need to “move forward with this case in an expeditious manner” and asks Pompeo for a response “within the period of time set forth by the law.”

A journalist for elfaro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, apparently added, “Among the [U.S.] files declassified in 1993, for example, are several diplomatic cables between San Salvador and Washington from January 1981, which make clear that then-U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton was consistently transmitting details about the operation that would ultimately result in the massacre. ‘[I]t is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote. It is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle… Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the number being cited in other reports circulating internationally,’ read an initial cable from Hinton, from January 1981.”

The elfaro journalist also said, “Later, in another communication, [Hinton] . . .  offered a different account of what may have taken place: ‘The estimated population of El Mozote during the massacre was about 300 inhabitants. The Atlacatl Battalion conducted Operation Rescate from December 6 to 17 of 1981. The guerrilla knew of the operation since November 15. The civilians present during the operation and the battles with the guerrilla may have been killed.’” Following Clinton’s declassifications, several agencies have continued providing documents in response to petitions from human rights organizations.

Additional support for U.S. production of such documents comes from an analyst for the U.S. National Security Archive, Kate Doyle, who believes the U.S. has additional relevant documents about the Salvadoran civil war that could and should be declassified.[7]

U.S. Government’s Response to the Judge’s Letter

To date, Secretary Pompeo has not responded to the court’s letter; nor have the three others copied on that letter. The subject came up again at a March 11th Salvadoran court hearing in the case when the judge said, ““This information could be very valuable to us. It could clarify what happened.” A State Department spokesman, however, said, “We do not comment on the Secretary’s correspondence.”

Conclusion

 Given the congressional demand that the U.S. cooperate with the Salvadoran investigation of the El Mozote massacre and the U.S. support of human rights by its recent publication of the  latest annual report about human rights in every country in the world and Secretary Pompeo’s proud creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, there is no excuse for any further delay in providing an affirmative response to the Salvadoran judge’s letter and the requested documents.

This conclusion is buttressed by the following words in the March 11, 2020, State Department’s report about human rights in El Salvador:[8]

  • “In February [2019], in a renewed effort to shield the perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, a group of influential legislators proposed a draft national reconciliation law. Despite Constitutional Court rulings in 2016 and 2018 that expressly prohibited a broad and unconditional amnesty, the proposed bill would have granted amnesty to several high-level officials who enjoyed immunity from prosecution due to their positions in the recent administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Victims’ rights groups, other civil society actors, and the international community successfully campaigned against the proposed bill, and President-elect Bukele stated his strong opposition to an amnesty bill and expressed his support for additional consultation with victims. On May 29, [2019] the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to immediately suspend consideration of the proposed law. The proposed bill eventually lost support among legislators and failed to reach a floor vote.” (Section 2.E)
  • “Despite a June 2018 Constitutional Court order directing it to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense had not produced the requested documentation as of November 12 [2019]. On November 1, President Bukele stated that he was committed to the truth and that he would release the records. Previously, the Ministry of Defense claimed the El Mozote archive records were destroyed in an accidental warehouse fire. Civil society and victims’ groups continued to press for release of these archives.” (Section 2.E)
  • “On April 23, [2019] the judge in the El Mozote prosecution issued an order adding three new charges against the 16 remaining defendants: Torture, forced disappearance, and forced displacement. He also imposed several provisional measures on the defendants, including a prohibition on leaving the country or contacting victims, and a requirement that the defendants physically appear in court biweekly. The defendants appealed these rulings, which were affirmed by an intermediate appellate court. On February 14, [2019] the Legislative Assembly approved a transitory law establishing mechanisms designed to allow family members to be added to the El Mozote victims’ registry.” (Section 2.E)

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[1] See generally list of posts in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADORThe massacre of children and others at El Mozote, El Salvador Perspectives (Dec. 10, 2017); Posts about El Mozote. El Salvador Perspectives.

[2] Zabiah, El Mozote judge asks the United States for confidential documents on the massacre, elfaro (Mar. 5, 2020) (Zabiah #1).

[3] Zabiah # 1, supra; H. Rep., 116th Congress, 1st Sess., Rep. 116-78, State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2020 (May 20, 2019); H. Rep., Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill (May 5, 2019); H. Rep. Comm. on Appropriations. Public Witness Hearing: State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (Mar. 12, 2019).

[4] Letter, State Dep’t to Senator Leahy (enclosing three-page report) (Feb. 5, 2020)(hyperlinked to Zabiah #1, supra).

[5] Zabiah #1, supra; Zabiah, General Bustillo breaks the officers’ script and admits that ‘rudeness’ occurred in El Mozote, elfaro (Jan. 26, 2020); Schwartz, What the El Mozote Massacre Can Teach Us About Trump’s War on the Press, The Intercept (Jan. 28, 2020); El Salvador general admits army carried out El Mozote massacre, Aljazeera (Jan. 25, 2020); Pierce, It’s a Bull Market for Bashing the Press. Under Conservative Governments, It Often Has Been, Esquire (Jan.27, 2020); Renteria, Salvadoran general admits army carried out infamous 1981 massacre, Reuters (Jan. 24, 2020).

[6] Zabiah #1 , supra.

[7] Alvarado, “The attorney general can ask the United States for information about El Mazote,” elfaro (Mar. 23, 2018).

[8] State Dep’t, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador (Mar. 11, 2020).

Other Legal Proceedings Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests of El Salvador and Their Housekeeper and Her Daughter

As we have seen in a recent post, the Spanish criminal investigation and prosecution of former Salvadoran military officers and soldiers for the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter are still pending and hopefully the case will go to trial in 2015 against at least one of the 19 Salvadoran military officers and soldiers charged with the crime.

There, however, have been other legal proceedings regarding this horrible crime. Here is a summary of these proceedings.

 Other Proceedings

 Salvadoran Investigations. Immediately after the murders, the Salvadoran military took steps to destroy evidence and to cover up their involvement in the crime while supposedly conducting an independent investigation of the crime. With widespread international outrage at the crime, the Minister of Defense was forced to establish a Special Honor Commission, consisting of five officers and two civilians to do a more thorough investigation. It concluded that nine people were responsible for the murders: four lower-ranking officers and five soldiers. International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 7, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/07/international-criminal-justice-salvadoran-militarys-attempted-cover-up-of-its-committing-the-murders-of-the-jesuit-priests/.

Salvadoran Criminal Charges. 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 the Salvadoran government commenced a criminal prosecution of five Salvadoran military officers and five soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. The highest-ranking officer was Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, the Director of the Military College, who was accused of having given the order to murder the priests. (International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).)

Salvadoran Criminal Trial. After lengthy pre-trial proceedings, this criminal trial finally took place in September 1991. 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. (Id.)

Salvadoran Truth Commission Investigation and Report. The Peace Accords of January 1992 that ended the Salvadoran Civil War established the Truth Commission for El Salvador to investigate the most serious crimes that had occurred during the war, including the murders of the Jesuits. Its March 1993 final report found the following facts regarding the murders:

  • On the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of ad in collusion with General Juan Rafael Bustillo, then Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, gave Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides the order to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. For that purpose, Colonel Benavides was given the use of a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been sent to search the priests’ residence two days previously.
  • That same night, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the officers at the Military College of the order for the murder. When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.
  • The operation was organized by then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and carried out by a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion under the command of Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos.
  • Subsequently, all these officers and others, including General Gilberto Rubio Rubio, knowing what had happened, took steps to conceal the truth, including destruction of evidence.

(International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in The Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011).)

Adoption of Salvadoran Amnesty Law. Five days after the delivery of the Truth Commission Report in March 1993, El Salvador’s National Assembly adopted the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of the Peace (Decree 486). Its provisions included “a full, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those who participated in any way in the commission, prior to January 1, 1992 [the end of the civil war], of political crimes or common crimes linked to political crimes or common crimes in which the number of persons involved is no less than twenty.” (International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011).)

Implementation of Amnesty Law. Immediately after the adoption of the Amnesty Law and pursuant to this Law, Colonel Benavides and the Lieutenant who had been convicted and imprisoned in the Jesuits case were released from prison. (Id.)

Instigation of Case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, on the same day the Jesuit priests were murdered (November 16, 1989), Americas Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization, filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that the Salvadoran government had violated the American Convention [Treaty] on Human Rights with respect to the murder of the Jesuits and their cook and her daughter.  (International Criminal Justice: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Case Regarding the Jesuit Priests (June 13, 2011).)

Investigation and Report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ten years later (December 22, 1999), the Inter-American Commission issued its report. Relying heavily on the findings of the Truth Commission, the report made detailed findings about the murder and subsequent events and concluded that the state had violated the American Convention. As a result, the Commission recommended that the government conduct an expeditious, effective investigation and prosecute and punish those who were involved “without reference to the amnesty,” to make reparations and to render the General Amnesty Law null and void. (The Commission did not, and does not, have the power to order any of the states to do anything. (Id.)[1]

Conclusion

 Now twenty-five years after the crimes and 15 years after the Inter-American Commission’s report, no one has been convicted of the crime and imprisoned other than the two officers who were convicted by a Salvadoran court and who briefly were in prison before being released under the Amnesty Law.

Moreover, the government of El Salvador has not fully complied with the Commission’s recommendations.

In November 2009, however, El Salvador presented the nation’s highest award (National Order of Jose Matias Delgado) to the Jesuit priests’ relatives as an act of atonement and formally advised the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the Salvadoran state accepted the binding nature of their past decisions involving the country and the state’s responsibility to implement their recommendations in those cases.

In addition, in January 2010, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes admitted that during the civil war state security forces “committed serious human rights violations and abuses of power,” including “massacres, arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary deprivation of freedom” and other acts of repression. Funes then made a formal apology to all of the victims of these crimes and asked for their forgiveness and created a commission to offer redress to the victims. (Id.)

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[1] There has been much debate in El Salvador about whether or not the Amnesty Law is valid and/or should be abolished. The country’s Supreme Court is expected in the next several months to decide whether the Law is constitutional.   Meanwhile, U.S. courts have determined that the Salvadoran Amnesty Law is not applicable to litigation in U.S. courts.

The 1981 El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador

   On December 10 and 11, 1981, the Salvadoran military (Atlacatl Battalion) detained and systematically executed virtually all of the men, women and children in the small northern village of El Mozote. The men first were tortured and then executed. Then the women were killed. Finally the children were killed. Over 200 of the victims subsequently were identified plus many others who were not so identified. This happened as part of the military’s “Operacion Rescate” that sought to eliminate the guerrilla presence in the area and that also committed massacres in other villages at the same time.[1]

In late January 1982 information about the massacres started to become publicly available, and protests began. The Salvadoran government, however, “categorically denied” that a massacre had taken place and did not conduct any judicial investigations of the events.

Over eight years later (1990) criminal proceedings were commenced in El Salvador, and in November 1992 court-ordered exhumations started. By September 1993, however, there were no identifications of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre, and the trial court, therefore, dismissed the case. Thereafter there was no appeal of that dismissal. Thus, no one was ever convicted for this crime.

These horrible crimes have reverberated ever since then. The Truth Commission for El Salvador in 1993 delivered its report on the massacre. In 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human rights (IACHR) made a preliminary decision in a case about the massacre, and in 2011 it referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court). And this year, 2012, the Salvador President made an important statement about the crime.

Truth Commission

The Truth Commission for El Salvador in its April 2003 report found “full proof” that Atlacatl Battalion  soldiers “deliberately and systematically killed . . . more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population” of the village. There was “sufficient evidence” that these troops committed other massacres at the same time in nearby other villages. Names of the officers in charge were given. The Commission’s findings on what happened at El Mozote were aided by its retention of an international forensic team that conducted exhumations at the village and by its interviewing eyewitnesses. These efforts constituted a major advance in establishing the truth of the most egregious crimes.

In addition, the Truth Commission found that the Armed Forces High Command “repeatedly denied” that a massacre had occurred and that Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia (“full evidence) and Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff General Rafael Florez Lima (“sufficient evidence”)  had initiated no investigation of the matter. Finally, the Commission found that the President of the Supreme Court “had interfered unduly and prejudicially, for biased political reasons, in the ongoing judicial proceedings on the case.”

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In October 1990 the Oficina de Tutela Legal of the San Salvador Archbishop’s Office filed a petition with the IACHR alleging various human rights violations by the State of El Salvador in connection with the massacres in El Mozote and five other nearby villages.[2]

The government did not seriously challenge the allegations as to what happened in the villages. Instead, it asserted that (a) the case was not admissible to the IACHR because the petitioners had not exhausted their remedies in the country; (b) there was a criminal investigation precipitated by a complaint that was not made until 1990; (c ) the investigation proceeded properly despite great external difficulties caused by the war; (d) the case properly was dismissed in accordance with the General Amnesty Law; and (e) and the petitioners had failed to appeal that dismissal.

In March 2006 (16 years after the filing of the petition), the IACHR issued a report determining that the petition was admissible, i.e., eligible for further proceedings. The parties (petitioners and the government) were proper parties under the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition alleged violations of the Convention occurring within the territory of a party to the Convention after it had become such a party. Most importantly for admissibility, the exception to the requirement for exhaustion of domestic remedies was satisfied: the systematic violations of human rights in the country made it impossible to file a complaint prior to 1990, appeals of dismissals based on the General Amnesty Law were not necessary, and the state had the responsibility to initiate criminal proceedings based on the Supreme Court’s recognition or creation in 2000 of possible exceptions to that Law and had not exercised that option. In reaching these conclusions, the IACHR relied, in part, on the Truth Commission Report.

Apparently sometime before March 2011, the IACHR issued its decision on the merits apparently concluding that El Salvador had violated various provisions of the American Convention on Human rights, but this decision is not available on its website.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

 On March 11, 2011, the Commission referred this case to the Court. The Commission’s press release about this referral stated:

  • “Due to the application of the General Amnesty Law for Consolidation of the Peace, as well as repeated omissions on the part of the Salvadoran State, these grave acts [at El Mozote and other surrounding villages] remain in impunity. To this day, the massacres have not been clarified judicially, nor have appropriate sanctions been imposed, despite the fact that a significant number of the persons responsible have been identified through various sources. Some exhumations were performed in subsequent years, but these did not lead to a reopening of the investigations, despite repeated requests made to the relevant authorities. The case was sent to the Inter-American Court . . .  because the Commission deemed that the State had not complied with the recommendations contained in the report on the merits.”

Presumably the Court will be holding a hearing in this case and thereafter rendering a decision on the merits.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’ Statement About El Mozote

El Mozote Memorial
President Funes @ El Mozote

January 16, 2012, was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Salvadoran Peace Accords. On that date President Funes went to El Mozote where he made an important speech about the massacre, He publicly acknowledged that Atlactal Battalion soldiers committed the massacre and apologized on behalf of the State for this atrocity. He asked for forgiveness for what he called “the biggest massacre of civilians in the contemporary history of Latin America.” (A video of the speech in the original Spanish is on the web.)

Funes said there could be no true peace until there is justice to provide compensation to victims and penalties for perpetrators. He also announced the following in response to the massacre:

  • He asked the Attorney General to review existing legislation and propose amendments or new laws to allow criminal sanctions to be imposed on those who participated in the worst human rights violations. Funes also noted that the Salvadoran Supreme Court already had decided that the General Amnesty Law did not protect those guilty of war crimes and could not be used to self-amnesty those who were in charge of the military during the period 1989-1994 (government officials from the Arena political party).
  • Funes instructed the Armed Forces to stop honoring former officers who were linked to this massacre, including Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, who was the commander of the Brigade involved.
  • Funes also requested political parties and others to stop honoring people who could be linked to such violations, which was interpreted as a message to the ARENA political party to stop honoring its founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson, and to the FMLN party to do likewise with Shafik Handal.
  • The government will conduct an investigation to identify all victims of the massacre.
  • The government will create a National Reparations Program for Victims of massacres and other human rights violations.
  • The government will declare El Mozote a cultural center.
  • The government will establish a community health clinic for El Mozote.
  • The government will assist agricultural production in the area, construct paved roads and improve potable water service, build a lodging house for elderly people without families and provide computers to the local school.

This presidential statement at El Mozote went far beyond the previous apology Funes had made for the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the one for the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.


[1]  This preliminary factual statement is based upon the Truth Commission Report  and Mark Danner’s  The Massacre at el Mozote . The mandate and procedures of the Truth Commission were discussed in a prior Post.

[2]  Background about the IACHR is set forth in a prior Post.