International Criminal Justice: The Spanish Court’s Criminal Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests

As previously noted, a Spanish court on May 30, 2011, issued an indictment and arrest warrants for 20 of El Salvador’s former top military leaders and soldiers, 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]

The Spanish indictment essentially follows the factual findings regarding the murders and the cover-up that was set forth in the Report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador.[2] The indictment, however, offers greater factual details.[3]

The indictment also emphasizes the military’s formal chain of command as well as the informal power of the military’s “Tandona of 1966,” i.e., the military officers who had graduated from the Salvadoran military college in 1966 and who in 1989 held the major positions of official power. In 1989 these officers, the indictment says, feared the proposed reform and restructuring of the military that was being discussed as a condition for a peace agreement to end the civil war. Such reforms would result in reduction in the Tandona’s power and ability to embezzle from U.S. military aid. They, therefore, were bitter opponents of the Jesuits, and especially Father Ellacuria, who were major public advocates for such negotiations. [4]

The criminal case was filed in November 2008 by a U.S. NGO (Center for Justice & Accountability) and a Spanish NGO against 14 Salvadoran military officers plus former Salvadoran President Cristiani.[5]

In January 2009, the Spanish National Court accepted the case and formally charged the 14 fourteen former officers and soldiers named in the complaint with crimes against humanity and state terrorism for their role in the massacre.  Additionally the court reserved the right, during the course of the investigation, to indict Cristiani for his alleged role in covering up the crime.[6]

The May 2011 indictment discusses Crisitani’s attending meetings at the military’s headquarters for several hours immediately before the murders were committed and his providing false information months later about a military search of the UCA campus that preceded the murders. But the Spanish court did not indict Cristiani and did not provide reasons for that decision not to charge Cristiani.[7]

The indictment also mentions that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had an office in the Salvadoran military headquarters in November 1989 and that some U.S. military advisors attended meetings at that headquarters with El Salvador’s top military leaders in the 24 hours preceding the murders. But there is no discussion in the indictment as to whether this involvement carries criminal implications for U.S. personnel.[8]

In addition, the indictment states that in January 1990 one of the U.S. officers (Maj. Eric Buckland) told his U.S. superiors that Colonel Benavides had given the order to kill Father Ellacuria. Until January 2010, the indictment reports, public information about the Salvadoran investigation of this crime had not mentioned possible involvement of the country’s top military officers. Thus, the revelation by Maj. Buckland was explosive in El Salvador because Benavides was a member of the “Tandona of 1966.”[9]

The Center for Justice & Accountabilty of San Francisco, California is a human rights organization dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress. CJA uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law and advance the rule of law.[10]

[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues 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); Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 7, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011).

[3] Id.; CJA, Spanish National Court Indictments and Arrest Warrants (May 30, 2011)(in Spanish),;  CJA, Update: Spanish Judge Issues Indictments and Arrest Warrants in Spanish Jesuits Massacre Case (May 31, 2011),

[4] Id.

[5] CJA, Criminal Charges Filed before the Spanish National Court for 1989 Massacre of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador (November 13, 2008); CJA, Summary of Complaint in English (Nov. 18, 2009), Under Spanish law, citizens and NGOs may initiate criminal proceedings by filing criminal complaints as popular prosecutors.

[6]  CJA, El Salvador: The Jesuits Massacre Case,; CJA, Spanish National Court To Pursue Criminal Investigation into 1989 Massacre of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador (Jan. 13, 2009); CJA, Spanish National Court’s Order Admitting the Complaint (Jan. 13, 2009)(in Spanish),

[7] CJA, Spanish National Court Indictments and Arrest Warrants (May 30, 2011)(in Spanish), There was a report that a former Salvadoran military officer testified to the Spanish court that Cristiani had advance knowledge of the planned assassinations and approved them. (Tim’s El Salvador Blog, More developments in Jesuits Case in Spain (July 7, 2010).)

[8] In November 2009 the Spanish court was provided with many declassified U.S. documents relating to the crime from the National Security Archive of George Washington University through the testimony of an analyst from the Archive and the expert testimony of Professor Terry Karl of Stanford University. At the same time, there were newspaper reports that the U.S. military attaché at the U.S. Embassy and a senior State Department official knew in advance that the Salvadoran military was planning to kill Ellacuria. (Id.; The CIA knew that the military of El Salvador would kill Ellacuria, El Mundo (Nov. 15, 2009)(English translation); Doyle, The Right to Information is the Right to Justice: Declassified Documents and the Assassination of the Jesuits in El Salvador (Nov. 16, 2009),; Sainz, CIA documents shed light on Jesuit massacre in El Salvador, (Nov.20, 2009),…-salvador.html (English translation); CJA, First International Witnesses To Testify in Madrid in the El Salvador Jesuits Massacre Case (Nov. 23, 2009); Ayala, El Salvador: Declassified Docs Shed Light on Jesuits Massacre Case (Nov. 27, 2009),; Tim’s El Salvador Blog, Spanish Paper–US know of attack on Jesuits in advance, (Nov. 28, 2009),

[9] Id.