Salvadoran Attorney General Requests Reopening of Jesuit Priests Murder Case

On December 5 El Salvador’s Attorney General advised a Salvadoran court that the case over the 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests should be reopened. This follows a similar request on November 27 by the Institute for Human Rights of the University of Central America (UCA), where the priests lived and worked.[1]

The defendants in the case are the alleged intellectual authors of the crime: former president, Alfredo Cristiani; the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, René Emilio Ponce (now deceased); ex-commander of the Air Force, Juan Rafael Bustillo; Deputy Defense Minister, Juan Orlando Zepeda; Public Security Vice Minister, Inocente Orlando Montano; the former commander of the First Infantry Brigade, Francisco Elena Fuentes; and the former Minister of Defense, Rafael Humberto Larios.

Another former Salvadoran military officer and intellectual author of the crime, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, earlier was convicted of the crime in El Salvador and now is imprisoned in that country.

Montano, as reported in previous posts,[2] is now in Spain facing the same charges in a Spanish court. Apparently he is asserting the following defenses: (a) he had no knowledge of the orders to kill the priests, (b) he was not part of the military chain of command; and (c) at the time of the assassination of the Jesuits, former President Cristiani was present in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces. At least one of these defenses is supported by an attorney for the Salvadoran military, who is asserting that Montano had no command over military personnel since as deputy minister he only could give  orders to members of the military corps security.[3]

In response, the prosecution in Spain is arguing that Montano was present at the Salvadoran Military General Staff meetings when the orders were given to commit the murders and that as Deputy Minister of Defense and Public Security he was empowered to command the security forces (National Police, National Guard and Treasury Police) while as a Colonel he had command over the military units.

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[1] Labrador, Prosecutor requests the reopening of the Jesuits case in El Salvador, El Faro (Dec, 7, 2017)

[2] See posts in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[3] Burgos, Montano’s defense sins innocent, El Faro (Dec. 5, 2017).

Update on Spain’s Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuits of El Salvador

Spain’s National Court (Audicencia Nacional) since November 2008 has been conducting a criminal case regarding the murders of six Jesuits priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on November 16, 1989. This lead in January 2009 to the Spanish equivalent of indictments of 14 former Salvadoran military officials and soldiers for murder, crimes against humanity and state terrorism. In May 2011 the court added six indictees and issued 20 international arrest warrants. Thereafter in November 2011 Spain issued requests for extradition of these men to Spain to face the charges. [1]

However, in August 2011 El Salvador’s Supreme Court refused to enforce the Interpol arrest warrants for 13 of the indictees who were living in that country and in May 2012 denied the requests for their extradition on the ground that the country’s constitution prohibited extradition of its citizens. Another indictee, Inocente Orlando Montano, had been living in the U.S. and now is in U.S. prison after pleading guilty to lying multiple times to U.S. immigration officials. (One indictee, former Colonel René Emilio Ponce, died during the prior proceedings.)

Just this October the Spanish court’s Criminal Chamber, en banc, decided that the court did have jurisdiction over all of the charges: murder, crimes against humanity and state terrorism.

Almudena Bernabeu
Almudena Bernabeu

Last week Almudena Bernabeu, CJA’s International Attorney and Transitional Justice Program Director and the lead private attorney for the prosecution in this case, was in El Salvador to discuss the case in connection with the twenty-fifth anniversary of these horrible crimes. [2]

First, she reported that the case is now at a standstill because none of the suspects is physically present in Spain.

Inocente Orlando Montano
Inocente Orlando Montano

Next year, however, she hopes this will change. In April of 2015, Senor Montano will complete his incarceration in the U.S. [3] By then the U.S. must decide whether it will honor Spain’s request to extradite Montano to Spain.

Although the U.S. is not legally required to consult with El Salvador on this issue, as a matter of inter-state courtesy the U.S. probably would do so, she said. Therefore, Bernabeu has conferred with officials of the Salvadoran government, who have confirmed that there is absolute willingness to collaborate with the Spanish process for the extradition of Mr. Montano from the U.S.  Thus, it is important to know that when the U.S. faces the decision whether to extradite Montano, the government of El Salvador has decided not to interfere.

Second, upon such an extradition and Montano’s arrival in Spain, the Spanish case would be re-activated to prepare the case for trial, presumably within 30 days.

Third, if, however, the U.S. deported Montano to El Salvador, the Salvadoran courts probably would refuse to extradite him in light of their prior refusal to extradite to Spain other indictees in the case who are Salvadoran citizens. In that event, the case in Spain could not proceed further.

Fourth, Bernabeu said she unsuccessfully has tried three times to have former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani added as a defendant and indictee because she believes the evidence shows he ultimately was responsible for the crime committed by the military’s High Command and was an accessory to the killing. Indeed, she said that the testimony of two former Salvadoran military officials and documents, including declassified U.S. documents from the CIA, FBI and Department of Defense, show that Cristiani knew of the plan to kill the Jesuits before the murders happened. Whatever the reasons, the Spanish court has been reluctant to join a former foreign president as a defendant. [4]

Fifth, she said El Salvador’s General Amnesty Act of 1993 was a major problem for this case and others like it. This was so even though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December 1999 decided in the Jesuits case that the Amnesty Law violated the American Convention on Human Rights and ordered El Salvador to declare it null and void and even though the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in December 2012 in another case (the El Mozote Massacre) ordered El Salvador to repeal the Amnesty Act. [5] That has not yet happened, but the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court sometime soon is expected to rule on the constitutionality of that Act.

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[1] The Spanish court has jurisdiction over the case under Spain’s statute for universal jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of international concern. This statute is an implementation of the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction whereby a state has universal jurisdiction over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the victim or perpetrator.  A detailed summary of the Jesuits case along with some of the court documents and other materials is available on the website of the non-profit Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) based in San Francisco, California. CJA, the sponsor of the case in Spain. It is an international 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. It uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law, and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse.

[2] This account of Bernabeu’s comments is based upon Castillo, 25 Yrs After El Salvador Priest Killings, Groups Press for Justice, NBC News (Nov. 13, 2014); Labrador & Fatima, The government of El Salvador has decided not to hinder Montano’s extradition to Spain, El Faro (Nov. 14, 2014); Jaminez, Await Extradition of Montano, DiarioCoLatino (Nov. 15, 2014); Dalton, Cristiani knew at time of slaughter of Jesuits in El Salvador,” El Pais (Nov. 17, 2014). El Faro also recently published (a) a collection of articles from other Salvadoran newspapers evidencing the right’s hatred of the Jesuits before their murders; (b) biographies of the murdered priests, their housekeeper and her daughter and the six Salvadoran military personnel who were prosecuted for the crime in El Salvador (with only two convicted and then subsequently released from prison on the basis of the General Amnesty law); (c) an article describing how that Salvadoran prosecution for this crime was impeded by their attorney general; (d) an archive of U.S. diplomatic cables and other documents about the crime; and (e) a hyperlinked collection of El Faro’s prior articles about the Jesuits case.

[3] The U.S. legal proceedings against Montano are discussed in prior posts and comments: Comment [to “Spain Requests Extradition” post]: Ex-Salvadoran Military Officer [Montano] Indicted for Alleged Violations of U.S. Immigration Laws (Feb. 12, 2012); Comment [to “Spain Requests Extradition” post]: Former Salvadoran Military Officer [Montano] Pleads Guilty to Lying to U.S. Immigration Officials (Sept. 15, 2012); Former Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano To Serve 21 Months in U.S. Prison (Sept. 5, 2013).

[4] On December 16, 2008, the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador sent a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State. It reported that earlier that month senior officials of the Salvadoran government went to Spain and met with its attorney prosecuting the Jesuits case and with other top-level Spanish government officials, who said they were embarrassed about the case’s seeking to add Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador’s former president, as a defendant. The Spanish prosecutor also promised support and cooperation to the Salvadoran officials.

[5] Yet another post reviewed the decision in the El Mozote Massacre case by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the 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] 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] Now we examine the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of some of the individuals involved in this crime.[4]

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 it commenced criminal prosecution of five Salvadoran military officers and five soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion. Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, the Director of the Military College, was accused of having given the order to murder the priests. Three Lieutenants were accused of commanding the operation. The five soldiers were accused of committing the murders.

The pre-trial proceedings took nearly two years. During this time, Colonel (now General) René Emilio Ponce, Colonel (now General) Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel (now General) Gilberto Rubio Rubio pressured lower-ranking officers not to mention orders from above in their testimony to the court.

Finally, the trial by jury took place in September 1991 in the building of the Supreme Court of Justice and was broadcast live on television. Several ranking military officers attended the trial with the defendants’ families. On the last day of the trial, during the defendants’ closing arguments, a large crowd outside the courthouse shouted chants in favor of the defendants, interrupting the trial. In closing arguments, defense counsel barely mentioned the crime itself. Instead, they asked the jury to reject foreign intervention and pressure, emphasized that five of the six victims were Spanish born, and argued that the military generally and the defendants in particular were heroes protecting the nation against terrorism.

The five-person jury, whose identity was kept secret, was charged with deciding the charges of murder and acts of terrorism. The other charges were left to the judge to decide.

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.

International observers of the trial thought the jury verdict defied logic and the weight of the evidence.

In March 2000 and soon after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had issued a report on the case that will be discussed in a subsequent post, the Central American University (UCA), where the Jesuit priests had taught, sought to open a new Salvadoran criminal case regarding their murders, ultimately to no avail. UCA asked the country’s Attorney General to do so on the basis of UCA’s charges against former President Cristiani and five members of the Armed Forces High Command, including former General and Defense Minister Emilio Ponce.  Then Salvadoran President Flores opposed the request, and the Attorney General refused to do so, but the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that only a court could decide to reopen such a case.[5]

Thereafter (October 2000), a lower court rejected the prosecutor’s request to reopen the old case because it was “without legal substance” while ordering the prosecutor to conduct a new investigation to determine whether there were legitimate grounds for reopening the case.[6]

The Attorney General then conducted a new investigation and reapplied to a court to reopen the case, this time against Cristiani and four military officers, including Ponce. Once again, however, the lower court refused to do so in December 2000 on the ground that any new charges were barred by the country’s 10-year statute of limitations. Immediately afterwards Ponce and the other three officers held a press conference where Ponce accused left-wing groups of trying to de-stabilize the country by making these charges and admitted that he and his fellow former officers were concerned about developments elsewhere in Latin America, especially the fate of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and former Argentine military officers.[7]


[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal 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).

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

[4] This post’s summary of the Salvadoran criminal case 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 121-208 (Washington, D.C.; Georgetown Univ. Press 1993). In future posts we will talk about the Truth Commission for El Salvador; the country’s general amnesty; 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.

[5]  UCA Press Release (Mar. 27, 2000, http://www.uca.edu.sv/neuvo/pressrelease.html; Lanchin, Salvador ex-president accused of killings, BBC News, Mar. 28, 2000; El Salvador Former Air Force Chief Denies Role in Killings, Miami Herald, Mar. 29, 2000; The Necessity and Importance of the Truth, Processo, April 5, 2000, http://www.uca.edu.sv/publica/proceso/proci897.html;UCA Impugns the Attorney General of the Republic’s Decision on the Jesuit Case, Processo, April 26, 2000,  http://www.uca.edu.sv/publica/proceso/proci899.html#doc;  New Charges Barred in Salvador Killings, N. Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2000; Editorial: The Impunity of Power, Processo, Oct. 25, 2000;  Darling, El Salvador to Reopen Murder Probe; Attorney general, under pressure, will investigate an ex-president and others in 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 2000; No New Trial Set in Deaths of 6 Jesuits, Miami Herald, Dec. 14, 2000; Lanchin, Salvadorean ex-general issues warning, BBC News, Dec. 15, 2000.

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

.

International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the 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] and the provisional facts of the murders themselves.[2] Now we look at the provisional facts regarding the Salvadoran military’s attempts to cover up its being the one responsible for the killings.[3]

Immediately after the killings in the early morning of November 16, 1989, two of the military officers who were involved went to Colonel Ponce’s office to report on everything that had happened at UCA. They said that they had a small suitcase with photographs, documents and money which the soldiers had stolen from the Jesuits a few hours earlier. Colonel Ponce ordered it destroyed because it was evidence of the armed forces’ responsibility. They destroyed the suitcase at the Military College.

On returning to his unit after the killings, one of the Lieutenants who was involved informed the Commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Alberto León Linares, of what had happened.

Colonel Benavides, who was in charge of carrying out the order to kill Father Ellacuria and leave no witnesses, immediately after the murders told Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Antonio Rivas Mejía, the Head of the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal Acts (CIHD), what had happened and asked him for help. Mejia recommended that the barrels of the weapons that had been used be destroyed and replaced with others in order to prevent them from being identified during ballistic tests. This was later done with the assistance of Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Alberto León Linares.

Lieutenant Colonel Rivas Mejia, the Head of CIHD, also advised Colonel Benavides to make sure that no record remained of those entering and leaving the Military College the prior night and following morning so that it would not be possible to identify the military personnel involved in the murders. Subsequently, Colonel Benavides and another officer ordered that all Military College arrival and departure logs for that year and the previous year be burned.

Soon after the murders, President Cristiani entrusted the investigation of the crime to CIHD, whose head already had been involved in attempting to cover up the military’s involvement in the crime.

Shortly after the CIHD investigation began, Colonel René Emilio Ponce arranged for the head of a unit of the Armed Forces’ General Staff to join CIHD in order to assist in the investigation of the case. Yet this person also had been in charge of the General Staff Tactical Operations Centre during the entire night of 15 to 16 November.

Later in November 1989, CIHD heard two witnesses who testified that they had seen soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion near UCA that night. They later changed their statements.

An UCA employee said that she had seen, from a building adjacent to the Jesuits’ residence, soldiers in camouflage and berets the night of the murders. In the United States, where she went for protection, she was questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and retracted her earlier statement. Lieutenant Colonel Rivas Mejía, the Head of CIHD, was present when she was questioned by the FBI. Subsequently, she confirmed her original statement.

CIHD did not take a statement from Colonel Benavides, even though the incident had occurred within his command zone. According to the court dossier, the first statement Benavides made was in January 1990 to the Special Honor Commission of the Salvadoran military.

On 2 January 1990, a month and a half after the murders, Major Eric Warren Buckland, an officer of the United States Army and an adviser to the armed forces of El Salvador, reported to his U.S. superior that he recently had been told that Colonel Benavides had arranged the murders, that a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion had carried them out and that Benavides had asked Lieutenant Colonel Rivas Mejia for help. In a subsequent meeting with Buckland’s source, the source denied that he had so stated to Buckland.

In early January 1990, the Minister of Defense established a Special Honor Commission, consisting of five officers and two civilians, to investigate the murders. The Commission thereafter questioned some 30 members of the Atlacatl Battalion and a number of officers of the Military College, including Colonel Benavides. Three of the Lieutenants and the soldiers who had participated in the murders confessed their crime in extrajudicial statements to the Honor Commission.

A civilian member of the Commission and a legal adviser to the military’s General Staff altered these confessions in order to delete any reference to the existence of orders from above. He also deleted the references to some officers.

On January 12, 1990, the Commission submitted its report to Salvadoran President Cristiani. The report identified nine people as being responsible for the murders, four officers and five soldiers; they were arrested and later brought to trial. Subsequently, another Lieutenant Colonel was included in the trial. The Salvadoran criminal case will be discussed in a subsequent post.


[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal 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).

[3]  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 73-194 (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 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.

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.