El Salvador’s Current Controversy over Its General Amnesty Law and Supreme Court

As indicated in a prior post, the issue of the constitutionality under Salvadoran law of the General Amnesty Law has not gone away. Indeed, that issue and a new law regarding its Supreme Court (Decree 743) have precipitated a major, still-unresolved controversy in the country.[1]

As an outsider, I have found it difficult to understand and analyze this controversy. I, therefore, will try to summarize what has been happening. I cannot predict how this will turn out, but will conclude with my observations and questions.

The first step in this still unfolding drama was the May 30, 2011, decision by a Spanish court to issue criminal arrest warrants for 20 Salvadoran military officers and soldiers for their alleged participation in the November 1989 murder of the six Jesuit priests.[2]

The next step was the adoption without debate three days later (June 2, 2011) of Decree 743 by the votes of the conservative political party legislators of the Salvadoran legislature (the National Assembly) with abstentions from all but two of the FMLN legislators and by the signing of the law the next day (June 3, 2011) by  President Funes of the FMLN party. Decree 743 requires through July 2012 the five-member Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court to act unanimously in order to declare a law unconstitutional.[3]

Decree 743 and the highly unusual and hasty manner in which it was adopted have caused major citizen protests in the capitol city and debate in the media and various organs of the State.[4]

Much debate and speculation has centered on why the Decree was proposed and adopted by the legislators from the conservative political parties. Foremost, as former President Cristiani, who is now the President of the ARENA political party, has admitted, was concern that the Constitutional Chamber would invalidate the General Amnesty Law. Was there worry that a decision invalidating that amnesty law would facilitate a Salvadoran court’s enforcing the Spanish arrest warrants? The conservative political parties, it is true, also disliked some of the recent decisions by the four moderate or progressive members of the Chamber that have invalidated various laws. Was that the main reason? If so, why did the Decree have to be adopted so quickly without debate? The “sunset” provision of Decree 743 is also seen as an implicit recognition that it is aimed at the four progressive members of the Chamber in that their current three-year terms expire in July 2012.

So too there is debate and speculation as to why President Funes from the FMLN political party quickly supported the Decree when the FMLN itself did not. Was there pressure by the U.S., which does not want El Salvador to withdraw from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and to stop using the U.S. Dollar as the country’s currency and, therefore, feared the Constitutional Chamber’s invalidating those laws? Was something not yet known promised Funes by the conservative political parties in exchange for his supporting the Decree? Some speculate that Funes did so to gain support in the National Assembly for a moderate legislative agenda. True?

The third step in this drama was the Constitutional Chamber’s decision in a case on June 6th (only three days after the adoption of Decree 743) that decided, by four of the five magistrates, that the country’s Budget Act 2011 was unconstitutional in two respects and that the just-adopted Decree 743 itself was unconstitutional. Decree 743 was held to violate the principle of separation of powers and to interfere with the constitutional powers of the Chamber; the decree, according to the court, was also adopted by the legislature in an unconstitutional manner.[5]

Yet another wrinkle was added to this controversy by the announcement on June 8th by Cristiani, as President of the ARENA political party. He said that ARENA had supported Decree 743 on June 2nd because of rumors that the Chamber was about to declare the General Amnesty Law unconstitutional.  On June 8th (only six days after the legislature’s adoption of the Decree), however, Cristiani said that the information about the Chamber’s impending invalidation of the General Amnesty Law was erroneous and that instead the Chamber had made a “clear demonstration” that it did not intend to invalidate the amnesty. Therefore, Cristiani said, ARENA would be introducing a bill to repeal that Decree. This about-face, he said, was to end the conflict over the Decree and to promote dialogue among the three branches of government.[6]

This ARENA reversal itself has created more controversy and speculation. Why did it change its mind in only six days? Did it really want to end the conflict over the Decree and promote dialogue? Did it receive secret and improper leaks from the Chamber that it would not invalidate the General Amnesty Law? Was there in fact no pending case regarding the Amnesty Law? Was it discovery that the Chamber seven years ago had ruled that the Amnesty Law did not apply to the murders of the Jesuits because no administration may grant amnesty to itself?[7] Was it due to the Chamber’s June 6th decision holding that the Decree was unconstitutional and by respected attorneys publicly taking the same position?[8]

However, later on the very same day as the ARENA announcement of changing its position (June 8th), an attorney filed two cases with the Chamber challenging the constitutionality of the General Amnesty Law and El Salvador’s being a party to CAFTA. Will this cause ARENA to change its mind again?

The FMLN positions in this controversy are even more baffling. On June 2nd all but two of the FMLN legislators abstained on voting on Decree 743, saying it was a blow to democracy. The June 8th ARENA reversal of position on the Decree, therefore, presumably would be welcomed by the FMLN. The FMLN, however, also reversed its position. Its spokesman now said that the Decree had “no reverse gear” and that the Chamber’s June 6th invalidation of the Decree was a danger for the other institutions of the government. Why was the FMLN party taking these positions?[9]

President Funes from the FMLN appears to be the only participant who has had a consistent position. When he signed the Decree, he has said he did so because it was constitutional, it would prevent a looming conflict between the legislature and the judiciary and it would not obstruct the operations of the Chamber. Was this the real reason? After the ARENA reversal of position, he still supported the Decree and said that ARENA’s change appeared to reflect an improper agreement with the Chamber not to declare the amnesty unconstitutional and an improper attempt to influence the Chamber and cast doubt on the independence of some judges.[10] (The next day both ARENA and the President of the Supreme Court denied the existence of any agreement regarding the amnesty law between the Constitutional Chamber and ARENA or Cristiani.)[11]

As an outsider without full knowledge of all the facts, all I can do is speculate and raise questions.

The timing and manner of the adoption of Decree 743 and the comments by Cristiani suggest to me that the Decree is most directly connected with the Spanish court’s issuance of the indictment and warrants.

First, I had thought that the validity or invalidity of the General Amnesty Law had become a theoretical issue. That Law grants amnesty for certain crimes committed before January 1, 1992 (the end of the Civil War) or over 19 years ago. But for that time period, El Salvador had a 10-year statute of limitations for such crimes that in December 2000 was held to bar a new Salvadoran criminal case over the murders of the Jesuits without regard to the General Amnesty Law.[12] Although there is a basis under international law for challenging the validity of such a short statute of limitations for such horrendous crimes,[13] that appeared to me to be unlikely to succeed in El Salvador.

Second, the Spanish indictment was issued on May 30th and gave the defendants, the majority of whom are still Salvadoran residents, only 10 days (until June 9th) to surrender themselves to the Spanish court before additional steps would be taken to secure their arrests.[14] On June 2d (only three days after the issuance of the indictment) the National Assembly without debate adopted Decree 743, and the next day (June 3) it was signed by President Funes and enacted into law. This suggests to me a desire by the conservative political parties (and the President) to have Decree 743 in place before the Spanish court would take steps to have the Salvadoran courts issue arrest warrants for the defendants and thereby give those defendants a possible legal basis (the General Amnesty Law) to resist the arrest warrants. Is this what happened?

Third, Cristiani was a subject of the original criminal complaint in Spain and a potential additional indicted defendant in the Spanish case.[15] Thus, he has a profound personal interest in having Salvadoran legal defenses to any future attempt by the Spanish court to have him arrested in his home country. Just this month he has been the principal spokesman for ARENA regarding its original support of Decree 743 and tying it to trying to ensure that the General Amnesty Law is not invalidated. Was this at least part of Cristiani and ARENA’s motivation for their original support of Decree 743?

Fourth, it is much more difficult to understand the reasons why President Funes immediately signed the Decree when his political party (the FMLN) was opposed. His rationale as stated on June 10th is not persuasive to me as an outsider. I, therefore, wonder if President Funes had received threats that the Salvadoran military (or a paramilitary organization) would intervene to prevent the removal of these officers from the country? Was the perceived elimination of a threatened invalidation of the General Amnesty Law by requiring unanimity in the Constitutional Chamber seen as a way to prevent the extradition of the military men through the courts and thus avoid a military intervention or coup?

Finally, is it possible that all of this controversy is unnecessary? Could the Constitutional Chamber hold the General Amnesty Law constitutional, but like the U.S. federal courts conclude it is not applicable to proceedings in other countries?[16]


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

[2]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 15, 2011).

[3] Marinero, Funes sanciona reformas para que fallos de amparos e inconstitucionalides sean por decision unanime, (June 3, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com; ?Donde se gesto el decreto que le puso el freno legal a la Sala de lo Constitucional?, (June 4, 2011),www.lapagina.com.sv; Voices from El Salvador, Institutional Coup in El Salvador (June 4, 2011), http://voiceselsalvador.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/institutional-coup-in-el-salvador; Voices from El Salvador, Salvadorans Protest the Government’s Actions Against Constitutional Court (June 6,2011), http://voiceselsalvador.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/salvadorans-protest-the-governments-actions-against-constitutional-court; Tim’s El Salvador Blog, Broad opposition to Decree 743 (June 8, 2011),   http://luterano.blogspot.com/2011/06/broad-opposition-to-decree-743.html.

[4] Id.; Ortiz, Attorney Oscar Luna condemns the decree 743 (June 13, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv (English translation; Luna is El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman); Discussions in the Constitutional Court in El Salvador (June 13, 2011), http://www.centralamericadata.com (Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce and Industry calls for repeal of Decree 743); Voices on the Border, The Debate Over Decree 743 Continues (June 14, 2011).

[5] Arauz, Constitutional Chamber hereby declared the decree that would tie the hands, elfaro (June 6, 2011), http://www.elfaro.com.sv; Merinero, Guerra de poderes en El Salvador: La Corte Suprema declara inapplicable el articulo que exige unanimidad en fallos de la Sala de lo Constitucional, (June 6, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[6] Huete, Henriquez & Cabrera, ARENA perida derogatoria de decreto 743, La Prensa Grafica (June 8, 2011), http://www.laprensagrafica.com; Arauz, ARENA retract the decree against FMLN urges Chamber and fulfill, elfaro (June 8, 2011).; Perez, ARENA se retracta y promote pedir la derogacion del decreto 743, (June 8, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv; Otto & Marinero, ARENA contra la pared: ya hay dos recursos de inconstitucionalidad contra la Ley de Amnistia y el TLC (June 8, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[7]  I have not seen this case myself, but it is referenced in one of the articles about the current controversy. I solicit information about this case.

[8] See n.6.

[9] E.g., FMLN reiterated it would not support repeal of Decree 743 (June 14, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[10] Guzman, Funes: “Aqui no ha habido ningun compadre hablado entre el presidente y la derecha, (June 6, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv; Guzman, Funes: La confesion publica de ARENA es una injerencia inacceptable en el Organo Judicial, (June 10, 2011), http://www.lapagina.com.sv.

[11] Voices on the Border, The Debate Over Decree 743 Continues (June 11, 2011).

[12]  No New Trial Set in Deaths of 6 Jesuits, Miami Herald, Dec. 14, 2000.

[13]   E.g., Barrios Altos v. Peru, 2001 Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (Ser. C) No. 75, ¶ 41 (Mar. 14, 2001); Convention on the Non-Applicabilty of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Art. I (war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide); European Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitation to Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes, Art. 1 (crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and “any other violation of a rule or custom of international law which may hereafter be established and which the Contracting Party concerned considers . . . as being of a comparable nature to [the previous crimes]”); Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons, Art. VII; Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Art. 29 (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity). Moreover, El Salvador apparently has a new statute that has no time limit for criminal prosecutions for torture, genocide, war crimes and certain other crimes occurring after sometime in 1996. (Ruth A. Kok, Statutory Limitations in International Criminal Law at 45 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press 2007).)

[14] CJA, Spanish National Court Indictments and Arrest Warrants (May 30, 2011)(in Spanish), http://www.cja.org/downloads/JesuitsArrestWarrants.pdf;  CJA, Update: Spanish Judge Issues Indictments and Arrest Warrants in Spanish Jesuits Massacre Case (May 31, 2011), http://www.cja.org/article.php?id=1004.

[15]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 15, 2011).

[16] See Post: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law in U.S. Federal Court Cases (June 14, 2011).

International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case

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]  We also have summarized the Salvadoran criminal case regarding this crime[4] and the work of the Truth Commission for El Salvador as it pertains to this crime.[5] Now we look at El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and its impact on the Jesuits’ case.[6]

Adoption of the General 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). It granted in Article 1: “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.”

This law’s Article 6 stipulated that the amnesty shall apply “to the persons referred to in article 6 of the National Reconciliation Law . . . of January 23, 1992 [i.e., to those who would be named or implicated in the anticipated Truth Commission Report].” In addition, Article 2 of the Law broadened the definition of “political crime” to include “crimes against the public peace,” “crimes against the activities of the courts,” and crimes “committed on the occasion of or as a consequence of the armed conflict, without regard to political condition, militancy, affiliation or ideology.” Article 4 stated that all pending cases should be dismissed and all individuals being held should be released while anyone charged in the future could obtain dismissal of the charges. In addition, Article 4 provided that the amnesty extinguished all civil liability.[7]

This legislation had been recommended by then President Cristiani and passed by the ARENA- party-controlled Assembly over objections by the U.N. Secretary General and the new Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman. It should also be noted that the Truth Commission had not recommended any amnesty as the Commissioners thought that was a decision for the people to make after an appropriate dialogue on the subject. But the manner in which the General Amnesty Law was rushed through the legislature was later seen by at least one of the Truth Commissioners as “unseemly at the very least, indicative of a lack of respect for the democratic processes, and thus incompatible with the spirit of the Peace Accords.” [8]

In passing the General Amnesty Law, the Government overruled the agreed-on terms of the National Reconciliation Law of January 23, 1992, that provided amnesty for combatants in the civil war, but not for (1) persons convicted by juries and (2) those named by the Truth Commission as responsible for serious human rights violations, but that allowed the latter exception to amnesty to be overruled by the National Assembly six months after the issuance of the Truth Commission Report and presumably after public debate about any such overruling. Significantly the National Reconciliation Law of 1992 was a political compromise. The right-wing ARENA party that controlled the government wanted a blanket amnesty that would have immunized all persons committing any war crimes while opposition parties wanted a more limited amnesty, and the two sides instead agreed to the compromise provision just noted.[9]

Impact of the General Amnesty Law on the Jesuits Case in El Salvado

In 1993, pursuant to the General Amnesty Law, Colonel Benavides and the others who had been convicted in the Jesuits case were released from prison.[10]

 Salvadoran Litigation over the General Amnesty Law

 Immediately after the adoption of this law, Salvadoran human rights organizations brought a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality, but the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 1993 rejected that claim. The court, in part, justified its conclusion by relying upon the following provision of Article 6(5) of the Protocol II to the Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts: “At the end of hostilities, the authorities in power shall endeavour to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those   deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict, whether they are  interned or detained.” [11]

This broad reading of the above provision of Protocol II of this Geneva Convention, however, is not sustained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has primary responsibility for monitoring world-wide compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Instead, the ICRC says it is inappropriate to grant amnesty to persons who have violated international humanitarian law, i.e., the law of war; Article 6(5) instead was intended to encourage amnesty or immunity for combatants so long as they act in accordance with that humanitarian law.[12]

Moreover, notwithstanding this provision of Protocol II, El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and similar laws in other countries have been criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as violating the American Convention on Human Rights. Similar criticisms have been leveled against this and similar laws in other countries under the American Convention on Human Rights and other multilateral human rights treaties by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the U.N. Secretary-General, several U.N. human rights bodies, the European Court of Human Rights and international criminal tribunals.[13] These arguments also have been advanced by human rights NGOs.[14]

Again in 2000 the Salvadoran Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the General Amnesty Law, but this time it also held that each investigative judge could determine whether application of the law in a particular case would interfere with the country’s treaty obligations or with reparation of a fundamental right, and if it would so interfere, the judge would not have to apply the law.[15]

The importance of the General Amnesty Law and whether it is constitutional under Salvadoran law has not gone away. Indeed, right now these are hot topics in El Salvador, as we will see in the next post.

In any event, as a result of the General Amnesty Law, the author is not aware of any new Salvadoran criminal prosecutions of those named in the Truth Commission Report, and the Commission’s recommendation of eventual punishment of the guilty by the Salvadoran government has been rejected. Moreover, in the years since the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision announcing the ability of a judge in an individual case to not apply the amnesty law, the author is not aware of any instance in which that has been done.

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

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

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

[4]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Criminal Prosecution of the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).

[5] See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011) .

[6]  In subsequent posts, we will examine the Jesuits case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Spanish court.

[7]  I-A Comm’n Human Rights, Report on the Situation in El Salvador § II (4) (Feb. 11, 1994); Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d at 1133;  U.S.State Dep’t, El Salvador Human Rights Practices, 1993, at 1 (Jan. 31, 1994); Hemisphere Initiatives,  Justice Impugned: The Salvadoran Peace Accords and the Problem of Impunity at 6-7 (June 1993); Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, El Salvador’s Negotiated Revolution: Prospects for Legal Reform at 62-79; Popkin at 135, 150-52; Brief Amici Curiae [26 international human rights law professors] in Support of Appellees and Affirmance at 4, Chavez v. Carranza (6th Cir. May 14, 2008) [“Law Professors Amici Brief”].

[8]  Miller, Compromise Amnesty Law OK’d in Salvador–Central America, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24, 1992; Popkin at 150-52; Buergenthal at 536-38.There, however, was no significant political support for repeal of the General Amnesty Law, and in 1994 the FMLN said that if the Law were held unconstitutional, it would support a new, narrower amnesty law. Popkin at 157.

[9]   Id.

[10]  IACHR, Ellacuria v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 136/99 ¶ 36 (Case No. 10.488 Dec. 22, 1999); New Charges Barred in Salvador Killings, N. Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2000.

[11]  Popkin at 152-53; International Comm. of Red Cross, http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/WebList?ReadForm&id=475&t=art. Subsequently courts in South Africa and Chile apparently followed this ruling of the El Salvador Supreme Court. (Popkin at 153.)

[12]  Roht-Arriaza, Combating Impunity: Some Thoughts on the Way Forward, 59 Law & Contemp. Problems 93, 97 (Fall 1996); Roht-Arriaza, The Developing Jurisprudence on Amnesty, 20 Hum. Rts. Q. 843, 865-66 (1998); IACHR, Cea, et al, v, El Salvador . Rep. No. 1/99, ¶ 116 (Case No. 10.480 Jan. 27, 1999); Popkin at 154.

[13]  U.N. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances–Mission to El Salvador ,  ¶¶  62-75, 83 (Oct. 26, 2007); U.N. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances  ¶  426 (Jan. 10, 2008); U.N. Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Committee: El Salvador   ¶ 6 (July 22, 2003);  U.N. Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Committee: Republic of Congo  ¶ 12 (2000); U.N. Human Rights Comm., General Comment 20, ¶ 15 (Mar. 10, 1992); U.N. Comm. on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Concluding Observations of the Committee: El Salvador   ¶ ¶ 15, 22 (April 4, 2006); U.N. Hum. Rts. Comm’n, General Recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Torture ¶ (k) (2003); U.N. Gen. Ass’bly Res. 47/133, Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances , Art. 18 (1) (Feb. 12, 1993); IACHR, 1985-1986 Annual Report of IACHR, ch. V (“only the appropriate democratic institutions—usually the legislature—with the participation of all the representative sectors, are the only ones called upon to determine whether or not to decree an amnesty of [sic] the scope thereof, while amnesties decreed previously by those responsible for the violations has [sic] no juridical validity”);  Law Professors Amici Brief at 8-29; Weissbrodt at 500-01.

[14]  E.g., Equipo de Concertacion por la paz, la dignidada y la justicia social, Evaluacion de 15 anos despues de la firma de los Acuerdos de Paz en El Salvador  (Jan. 16, 2007);  Equipo Regional de Monitoreo y Analisis de Derechos Humanos en Centroamerica, Derechos Humans y Conflictividad en C.A.: Violencia, impunidad y megaproyectos contra la vida y la dignidad  (June 2008); Equipo Regional de Monitoreo y Analisis de Derechos Humanos en Centroamerica, 2008-2009 Informe Sobre Derechos Humanos y Conflictividad en Centroamerica at 30, 67-68 (2009).

[15]  Brief of Amicus Curiae Republic of El Salvador, Carranza v. Chavez, 2009 WL 1511733 (U.S. Sup. Ct. No. 08-1497 May 28, 2009); Brief Amici Curiae [26 international human rights law professors] in Support of Appellees and Affirmance at 14-15, Chavez v. Carranza (6th Cir. May 14, 2008) [“Law Professors Amici Brief”].

International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in The Truth Commission for El Salvador

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]  We also have summarized the Salvadoran criminal case regarding this crime.[4] Along the way we have encountered the findings regarding this crime by the Truth Commission for El Salvador. Now we see what that Commission was and how it did its work.[5]

In January 1992, under United Nations’ auspices, the Government of El Salvador and the FMLN, a Salvadoran guerrilla group, successfully concluded their long negotiations to end the 12 years of civil war. The Peace Accords represent a genuine compromise: the FMLN renounced its aspiration to seize the state by military force and impose radical economic changes while the government and its political supporters relinquished their historical control and violent opposition to change.[6] The Accords laid out sweeping reforms to permit the FMLN to participate in political life, to transform the institutions that had accounted for the major human rights violations and to achieve greater equity in the economic and social life of the country.[7]

The Peace Accords also created the Commission for the Truth for El Salvador.[8] Its inclusion developed out of the desire of both sides for at least symbolic justice focused on the most notorious cases with the U.N. providing the compromise formula for such a commission.[9] The U.N. Secretary-General appointed the three members of the Commission. Notably none of its members was Salvadoran because its work was perceived to be too dangerous for anyone who lived in the country.[10]

The Commission was charged to consider and resolve “the need to clarify and put an end to any indication of impunity on the part of officers of the armed forces, particularly in cases where respect for human rights is jeopardized.”[11]

More specifically, the Commission was to investigate “serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980 and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth.”[12] In conducting these investigations, the Commission was to take into account “the exceptional importance that may be attached to the acts to be investigated, their characteristics and impact, and the social unrest to which they gave rise” and the “need to create confidence in the positive changes which the peace process is promoting and to assist the transition to national reconciliation.”[13]

In addition, the Commission was to make “legal, political or administrative” recommendations for specific cases as both sides had agreed that the Commission could recommend criminal prosecutions.[14] More generally, the Commission recommendations “may include measures to prevent the repetition of such acts, and initiatives to promote national reconciliation.”[15] Under the Peace Accords, the parties “undertake to carry out the Commission’s recommendations.”[16]

The Commission was to conduct its activities “on a confidential basis.” It was not to “function in the manner of a judicial body.” It could use “whatever sources of information it deems useful and reliable.” It could “interview, freely and in private,” anyone. Its procedures should “yield results in the short term, without prejudice to the obligations incumbent on the Salvadoran courts to solve such cases and impose the appropriate penalties on the culprits.”[17]

In evaluating and implementing this Mandate regarding its procedures and methodology, the Commission made the following decisions:

  • It would investigate individual cases or acts that outraged Salvadoran society and/or international opinion as well as a series of individual cases with similar characteristics revealing a pattern of violence or ill treatment that also outraged Salvadoran society.
  • Its sources would be confidential.
  • It would interview people and receive reports from governments and international bodies.
  • It would take all possible steps to ensure the reliability of the evidence used to arrive at a finding; to verify, substantiate and review all statements of facts by checking them against a large number of sources whose veracity had been established and by not basing any finding on a single source or witness or only on a secondary source.
  • It would name perpetrators of human rights violations.
  • Its report would specify the degree of certainty for each finding.  “Overwhelming evidence” would indicate “conclusive or highly convincing evidence.”  “Substantial evidence” would indicate “very solid evidence.”  “Sufficient evidence” would indicate “more evidence to support the . . . finding than to contradict it.”[18]

On March 15, 1993, the Commission delivered its report to the U.N. Security Council, the Government of El Salvador, the FMLN and the National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ). The Report made findings on 32 cases of serious acts of violence, one of which was the murders of the Jesuit priests.[19]

The Commission had no power to prosecute anyone, and it recommended against immediate prosecutions by the Salvadoran government because the Commission believed the Salvadoran judicial system was not capable of handling such cases.[20] Instead, the Commission’s findings on specific cases were intended to be used by the Salvadoran judicial system after it had been reformed to make “whatever final decisions they consider appropriate at this moment in history.”[21]

Finally  the Truth Commission Report has been held by U.S. federal courts to meet standards of trustworthiness and thus was admissible into evidence in cases involving El Salvador.[22]  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has reached the same conclusion for cases from the country.[23]


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

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

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

[4]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Criminal Prosecution of the Murders of the Jesuit Priests (June 8, 2011).

[5]  Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 13-14, 26-171 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html  [“Commission Report”]; Margaret Popkin, Peace without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador at 3, 6-7, 41, 46-48, 50-57 (University Park, PA: Penn. State Univ. Press 2000) [“Popkin”]; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report 1991, ch. IV (Feb. 14, 1992); Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in El Salvador § I (1) (Feb. 11, 1994).

[6]  Terry Karl, El Salvador’s Negotiated Revolution, 71 Foreign Affairs 147, 148 (1992).

[7]  United Nations, El Salvador Agreements: The Path to Peace (1992) [“Peace Accords”]; Unitarian Universalist Service Comm.,  Provisional Summary of Key Accords by Salvadoran Negotiators (Jan. 15, 1992); Search for Justice, The Salvadoran Peace Accords: A Synopsis (circa Jan. 15, 1992) [“Accord Synopsis“]; El Rescate Human Rights Dep’t, The Salvadoran Peace Accords: An Outline (1992); Popkin at 3-4, 83-95; Human Rights Watch, World Reports: El Salvador (2001); Human Rights Watch, World Reports: El Salvador (2002).

[8]  Id.

[9]  Popkin at 87-94.

[10]  Accord Synopsis; Commission Report; Popkin at 87-88, 94-95, 121-24; Buergenthal, The United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, 27 Vanderbilt J. Transnat’l L. 497, 499-500, 503-04 (1994) [“Buergenthal”]. Thomas Buergenthal was one of the members of the Truth Commission, and from 2000 to 2010 he was a judge on the International Court of Justice. (Int’l Court of Justice, Judge Thomas Buergenthal, http://www.icj-cij.org/court/index.php?p1=1&p2=2&p3=1&judge=11.)

[11]  Peace Accords at 53; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 109-11.

[12]  Peace Accords at 17, 29; Commission Report at 18.

[13]  Peace Accords at 17, 30; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 109-11.

[14]  Peace Accords at 30; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 94.

[15]  Peace Accords at 30; Commission Report at 18; Popkin at 109-11.

[16]  Peace Accords at 31; Commission Report at 19.

[17]  Peace Accords at 30, 53; Commission Report at 22.

[18]  Commission Report at 22-25; Popkin at 112-20. The El Salvador Government tried to persuade the Commission not to name individuals. Buergenthal at 519-22 (Commissioners assumed from the start that alleged perpetrators would have to be named and not to do so would reinforce the impunity that was supposed to end); Popkin at 113-14; David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process  at 499-500 (4th ed. 2009) [“Weissbrodt”].

[19]  Commission Report at 43-171.

[20]   Commission Report at 177-79; Popkin at 131-39, 140-43.

[21]  Commission Report at 13.

[22]  Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112, 1131-32, 1255 (E.D. Cal. 2005); Chavez v. Carranza, 413 F. Supp. 2d 891, 903-04 (W.D. Tenn. 2005), aff’d, 559 F.3d 486, 496 (6th Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 130 S. Ct. 110 (2009); Fed. R. Evid. 801 (c), 803 (8).

[23]  Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 37/00, ¶¶ 30-54, 88, 120 (IACHR April 13, 2000); Ignacio Ellacuria, et al. v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 136/99, ¶¶ 79-86 (IACHR Dec. 22, 1999); Admissibility of El Mazote Massacre, Rep. No. 24/06, ¶¶ 30-42 (IACHR Mar. 2, 2006).

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.