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)

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.