Update on Status of Extradition of Defendants in Spain’s Criminal Case Regarding the 1989 Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests 

Previous posts have reported that the National Court of Spain in 2008 commenced a criminal investigation of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. In May 2011 the Spanish court issued the equivalent of an indictment of 20 former Salvadoran military officials for their alleged involvement in those murders.[1]

One of these defendants had died; one had been living in the U.S.; two have been cooperating with the Spanish investigation; and the whereabouts of three are unknown. The other 13 are believed to be living in El Salvador.

Ever since May 2011 Spanish authorities have been seeking extradition of 13 of these men from El Salvador and one from the United States. But extradition has not happened yet. Here is an update on the status of those efforts.

 Developments in El Salvador

In December 2011 Spain requested extradition of 13 of them who were then believed to be in El Salvador. In May 2012, however, the Supreme Court of El Salvador denied extradition of the 13 on the ground that the country’s constitution prohibited extradition of its citizens.

In August 2015, in an unrelated case, the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that, according to a treaty on international cooperation in criminal matters to which El Salvador is a party, an INTERPOL red notice requires both the identification of the location of the defendants and their arrest and detention pending an additional filing, such as an extradition request. This decision appeared to be in direct conflict with the just mentioned Court’s May 2012 ruling against extradition in the Spanish case.[2]

In response to the August 2015 ruling, the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, David Morales, on November 16, 2015, petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to review its 2012 decisions refusing to arrest and order the extradition of 13 former military officials who were subjects of the INTERPOL arrest warrants.[3]

The Ombusman also issued a resolution asking Spanish authorities to re-issue the arrest warrants for extradition purposes in this case. This request was endorsed in the Spanish case by the U.S.-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE).

On January 4, 2016, the Spanish court’s Judge Velasco honored that plea by requesting INTERPOL to re-issue the international arrest warrants for all the Jesuit Massacre case defendants who reside in El Salvador for their extradition to Spain to face the charges.

On January 6, the Salvadoran government said it will cooperate in the execution of those warrants and the extradition of former Salvadoran military officials and soldiers, but that the country’s Supreme Court would make the final decision.

In February 2016 Salvadoran authorities arrested and detained four of the former Salvadoran military officials who are sought for this Spanish criminal case. The four were former colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno; former sergeants Ramiro Ávalos Vargas and Tomás Zárpate Castillo; and former corporal Ángel Pérez Vásquez. The Salvadoran National Civilian Police (PNC) force said that it would “continue the search and capture of the rest of the wanted persons and will inform the public in the opportune moment.” To date, however, no additional arrests have been reported.

On July 14, 2016, the full Supreme Court of El Salvador was scheduled to release its decision on the latest request to issue extradition warrants in this case. The day before, however, the Constitutional Chamber of the Court decided that the country’s Amnesty Law was unconstitutional, which was discussed in a prior post. As a result, the full Supreme Court stayed further proceedings about the extradition warrants.

On August 16, 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously, 15-0, decided that former colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno could not be extradited.[4] The court, 11-4, also ordered that Benavides be detained in a Salvadoran prison in accordance with his conviction and imposition of a 30-year sentence by a Salvadoran court before passage of the amnesty law; after the passage of that law Benavides was released from prison. As a result, extradition was barred by a provision of the El Salvador-Spain extradition treaty that says extradition can be denied “if the person whose extradition is requested “has been tried and finally acquitted or convicted [of the same crime].”

The Supreme Court, however, has not yet ruled on the request to extradite the other three men– former sergeants Ramiro Ávalos Vargas and Tomás Zárpate Castillo; and former corporal Ángel Pérez Vásquez. They also were tried by a Salvadoran court for illegal homicide, which is an essential element of the crime now being pursued in Spain, but these three men were acquitted in a Salvadoran trial with many alleged irregularities. Strict application of the rationale of the above Supreme Court decision and the cited provision of the extradition treaty and the underlying notion of no double jeopardy suggest that they too should not be subject to extradition, but the irregularities in their trial are impediments to that analysis.[5] We now await the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s ruling on these three men.

Developments in United States

As explained in a prior post, a Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on February 5, 2016, upheld the requested extradition of Orlando Montano Morales to Spain in this case. https://dwkcommentaries.com/2016/02/06/resumption-of-spanish-criminal-case-over-1989-salvadoran-murder-of-jesuit-priests/

On April 1, 2016, Montano filed in that court an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, which is the only way for him to appeal or challenge that decision.[6]

On April 26, the U.S. moved to dismiss that habeas application. Its brief argued that the certification of extraditability would not be overturned if there was any evidence warranting the finding that there was a reasonable ground to believe that the individual was guilty of the crime in the foreign country and that there was such evidence in this case. On June 10 the U.S. submitted its reply to the petitioner’s opposition to the dismissal motion; it argued that the response raised no issues needing further rebuttal.[7]

Montano Morales, however, was not finished. On July 21, he submitted another brief arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the certification order’s probable cause conclusion. He also asserted that the court should consider certain declassified U.S. government cables with respect to the probable cause conclusion. On August 10, the U.S. again rejected Montano’s arguments, emphasizing that the habeas review was “limited to ascertaining ‘whether there was any evidence warranting the finding that there was reasonable ground to believe the accused guilty of the asserted crimes’” and that there was such evidence.[8] (Emphasis added.)

The matter is now submitted for decision by U.S. District Judge Terrance W. Boyle.

According to Patty Blum, senior legal adviser with the Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the original complaint in the Jesuit case with the Spanish court in 2008 and which supported the request for extradition of Montano, the habeas corpus application is unlikely to “get much traction substantively” as the order granting extradition already rejected the core arguments of the new petition and the Magistrate Judge “did a thorough job of reviewing the record and giving a reasoned, detailed opinion.”[9]

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[1] Prior posts covered the marvelous ministries of these Jesuit priests and their university (University of Central America or UCA); the circumstances of their horrible murders; the Salvadoran military’s attempted cover-up of their involvement in these crimes; the flawed Salvadoran criminal prosecution of a few of the military personnel so involved and their absolution by a Salvadoran amnesty law; the investigation and report on these crimes by the Truth Commission for El Salvador; other legal proceedings regarding these crimes; the Spanish criminal case over these crimes; El Salvador’s 2012 denial of Spain’s request for extradition of most of the suspects in the case; and the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs in November 2014. These posts are identified in reverse chronological order of posting in a computer-generated list.  They also are identified in logical sequence in “The Jesuit Priests” section of my manually prepared List of Posts to dwkcommentaires—Topical: El Salvador. There also is extensive discussion of the Spanish case in the website of the Center for Justice and Accountability, the U.S.-based human rights organization that is involved in that case.

[2] Spanish Judge Re-Issues Request for the Arrest of Military Officials, CJA (Dec. 2015); Dalton, Spain calls for arrest of 18 soldiers accused of killing priests in El Salvador, El Pais (Dec. 23, 2015); Reuters, El Salvador will cooperate in arrest of 17 former soldiers accused of killing priests, Guardian (Jan. 6, 2015); Labrador, Spain orders again capture Jesuit Salvadoran military case, El Faro (Jan. 5, 2016).

[3] Human Rights Ombudsman asks extradition slaughter of Jesuits, El Mundo (Nov. 16, 2015).

[4] Labrador, Arauza & Zabiań, Court refuses to extradite Colonel Benavides, but agrees to send him to prison, El Faro (Aug. 17, 2016); Melendez, Supreme Court Decides Not To Extradite Jesuit Case, LaPrensa Grafica (Aug. 17, 2016); Reuters, El Salvador Court Denies Extradition of former Colonel to Spain, N.Y. Times (Aug. 17, 2016).

[5] The Salvadoran trial was covered in a prior post as was the release of Colonel Benavides under the Amnesty Law.

[6] Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2241, et seq, Montano Morales v. Elks, No. 5:16-HC-2066-BO (April 1, 2016).

[7] Memorandum in Support of Motion To Dismiss Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Montano Morales v. Elks, No. 5:16-HC-2066-BO (April 26, 2016); Response in Opposition to Federal Respondents’ Motion To Dismiss Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, and Request for Hearing, Montano Morales v. Elks, No. 5:16-HC-2066-BO (May 18, 2016); United States’ Reply to Petitioner’s Response in Opposition Regarding Motion To Dismiss Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Montano Morales v. Elks, No. 5:16-HC-2066-BO (June 10, 2016).

[8] Supplemental Filing To Support Petition for Write of Habeas Corpus and Request for Hearing, Montano Morales v. Elks, No. 5:16-HC-2066-BO (July 21, 2016); Government’s Response to Supplemental Filing To Support Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Montano Morales v. Elks, No. 5:16-HC-2066-BO (Aug. 10, 2016).

[9] Cooper & Hodges, Extradition appeal among setbacks in Jesuit massacre, Nat’l Cath. Rep. (April 13, 2016); Assoc. Press, Ex-Salvadoran colonel fights extradition in Jesuit killings (Apr. 1, 2016).

U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals Affirms Deportation (Removal) of Former Salvadoran General José Guillermo Garcia

As mentioned in a prior post, in October 2009, the Department of Homeland Security charged that General Jose Guillermo Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable (or deportable) from the U.S. under the Immigration and Nationality Act on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.

The seven-day trial or hearing on these charges before an immigration judge was held in February 2013, and a year later the judge issued his 66-page decision in the case ordering that Garcia should be removed (or deported) from the U.S.This conclusion was based upon the judge’s findings that:

  • “As head of the armed forces and the most powerful person in El Salvador, [García] fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran Armed Forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives. Instead of institutional changes that would decrease the incidents of killings and torture by the military, [García] failed to stamp out death squads within the security forces.  Likewise, despite contemporaneous evidence that members of the military had been involved in the [1980] assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, [1] a man who could have been an ally in bringing about change and peace in El Salvador, [García] failed to adequately investigate.”
  • García helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980.[2]
  • He “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981.[3]

On December 15, 2015, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals upheld and finalized the removal order of Garcia in a decision that has not yet been made public. Whether he would exercise his right to appeal to a U.S. court of appeals was not immediately known.

This case has been conducted under the auspices of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a California-based human rights non-governmental organization. Its Legal Advisor Carolyn Patty Blum applauded the BIA’s decision. She said: “Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo García was the most powerful man in El Salvador during a reign of state terror in which tens of thousands of innocent Salvadorans were slaughtered.  CJA applauds the Department of Homeland Security for its vigorous pursuit of García before the Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals and thanks our client Dr. Juan Romagoza, once again, for testifying in court proceedings against General García, as he had in the case of former Minister of Defense Eugenio Vides Casanova, deported earlier this year. We hope that García can be swiftly removed from the U.S. and face justice in El Salvador for the El Mozote massacre and the many other crimes committed under his command. It has been a long battle for justice for our clients and other victims who suffered horrendous repression during García’s rule in El Salvador.”

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[1] This blog has published many posts about Oscar Romero.

[2] This blog has published many posts about the American Churchwomen.

[3] This blog has published many posts about El Mozote.