Guilty Judgment in 1989 Murder of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador   

On September 11, 2020, Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, found former Salvadoran Colonel, Inocente Orlando Montano (now 77 years old), guilty of the “terrorist murders” of  five Jesuit priests who were Spaniards, in San Salvador, the Capital of El Salvador, 31 years ago. The court found that Montano took part in the decision to “execute Ignacio Ellacuría as well as anyone in the area – regardless of who they were – so as not to leave behind any witnesses.”

The court then sentenced Montano to 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the five murders for a total of 133 years. However, he will not spend more than 30 years in prison, the judges said. This was after a trial of the only Salvadoran military officer who was extradited to Spain to stand trial under the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction authorizing jurisdiction in a state other than the site of the crime for human rights crimes.[1]

The Spanish NGO that was involved in the case, Guernica Centre for International Justice, published a background of the case, daily reports about the trial and the court’s decision. [2]

Also killed  in the same event were a Salvadoran Jesuit and two Salvadoran women, but those killings were not before the Spanish court.

The path to this legal judgment has been long and complicated.

The Murder of the Jesuit Priests

The murder of the Jesuit priests, one of the most horrendous crimes during the country’s civil war, occurred in the early hours of November 16, 1989, when a group of Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the residences of the Jesuit priests, who were UCA professors and advocates for the poor people of the country, and shot and killed the five Spanish priests–Father Ignacio Ellacuria (UCA’s Rector), Ignacio Martin-Barò (UCA’s Vice Rector), Segundo Montes (Director of UCA’s Human Rights Center), Armando Lòpez and Juan Ramôn Moreno.  The murdered Salvadoran Jesuit was Joaquin Lôpez y Lôpez, and the two murdered Salvadoran women were the priests’ cook and her daughter.[3]

Salvadoran Legal Proceedings Over This Crime

Immediately afterwards high officials of the Salvadoran military engaged in attempting to cover up its involvement in this horrendous crime, but international outrage and pressure caused the country to create a Salvadoran commission that investigated and reported that four officers and five soldiers were responsible for this crime and they along with another officer were brought to trial in that country for this crime in September 1991. A jury decided that the five officers were guilty of various crimes and sentenced them to prison, but acquitted the five soldiers. [4]

In 1992 the Salvadoran legislature enacted a General Amnesty Law that led that year to the release from prison of those convicted of the Jesuit murders.[5] In 2016, however, the Salvadoran Supreme Court held that the General Amnesty Law was unconstitutional, and at least one of those who had been convicted, sentenced and then released under that Law (Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno) was ordered to return to prison after the invalidation of that Law.[6]

The Truth Commission for El Salvador[7]

On January 16, 1992, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN rebels signed the peace agreement to end the civil war. One of its provisions was the creation of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, whose report on March 15, 1993 had detailed findings about the murder of the Jesuits, including the following:

  • “There is substantial evidence that on the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of and in collusion with General Juan Rafael Bustillo, then Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, gave Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides the order to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. For that purpose, Colonel Benavides was given the use of a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion, which two days previously had been sent to search the priest’s residence.”
  • “There is full evidence that:

(a) That same night of 15 November, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the officers at the Military College of the order he had been given for the murder. When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.

(b) The operation was organized by then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and carried out by a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion under the command of Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos.”

Prior Proceedings in Spain’s Case[8]

In November 2008 a U.S. NGO (Center for Justice & Accountability) and a Spanish NGO filed a criminal case over the killing of the Jesuits  against 14 Salvadoran military officers and the country’s former President Cristiani. In January 2009 the Spanish court accepted the case against the military officers and soldiers, but declined to do so with respect to Cristiani although reserving the right to do so later.

On May 30, 2011, the Spanish court issued an indictment and arrest warrants for 20 of the top leaders of El Salvador’s civil war, accusing them of crimes against humanity and state terrorism in meticulously planning and carrying out the killings of the Jesuit priests in November 1989. One was Inocente Orlando Montano, who in 1989 was the vice minister of public safety.

Subsequently in complicated proceedings El Salvador denied extradition of all these requests for those living in the country. Only Montano, who had been living in the U.S. and who had been tried and convicted for lying in U.S. immigration papers, was extradited to Spain by the U.S.

Conclusion

After this decision by the Spanish court, UCA requested the Criminal Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to resolve a long-pending appeal by six other former military officers accused of involvement in the Jesuits murders so that their guilt can be adjudicated. UCA’s Rector, Andreu Oliva, said, “”We are confident that the evidence presented at the Spanish hearing will serve to hold a trial here in El Salvador, since it is evident that, given the indications in the sentence, there are other parties involved who are in El Salvador and that there is no reason why they are not judged in our country.” This requires the “urgent” opening of the archives of the country’s Armed Forces. [9]

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[1] Assoc. Press, Spain imprisons ex-colonel for Jesuits slain in El Salvador, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Ex-Salvadoran colonel jailed for 1989 murder of Spanish Jesuits, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Spanish trial brings hope of justice for victims of Salvadoran death squads, Guardian (Sept. 7, 2020); Marroquin, 133 years in prison for ex-colonel Montano for the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 12, 2020); Spanish court rules in Jesuit massacre case.elsalvadorperspectives (Sept. 11, 2020);

[2] Guernica Centre, Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 18, 2020); (background of case); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial 2020: Daily Trial Briefings: #01 (06/08/20), # 02 (06/10/20), # 03 (06/11/20), # 04 (07/08/20), # 05 (07/09/20), # 06 07/10/20), # 07 (07/13/20), # 08 (07/14/20), # 09 (07/15/20); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial, guernica37.com (Sept. 11, 2020). This NGO’s name memorializes the April 28, 1937 bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by German Nazi warplanes at the request of Spanish General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The number of casualties originally was estimated to be over 1,700, but now is believed to have been under 300. “Guernica” is also the name of a famous Picasso painting about the bombing on display at the Spanish Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. (Bombing of Guernica, Wikipedia; Guernica (Picasso), Wikipedia.)

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

[4] International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 8, 2011).

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

[6] Reinstatement of Sentence of Former Salvadoran Military Officer for Participating in Murder of Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2017).

[7]  United Nations, El Salvador Agreements: The Path to Peace  From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador (July 1992); Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Mar. 15, 1993).

[8]  International Criminal Justice: The Spanish Court’s Criminal Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of  Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 31, 201i); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 1, 2017). See generally posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommantaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[9] Marroquin, The UCA asks the Criminal Chamber to resolve the appeal of the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 11, 2011); Calderon, Condemnation of Montano gives hope to prosecute masterminds of Jesuit massacre, says UCA, Laprensa Grafica (Sept. 11, 2020)

The Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador Continue To Inspire Others

Bodies of Jesuits, November 16, 1989
Bodies of Jesuits,         November 16, 1989

Twenty-five years ago today (November 16th), six Jesuit priests and professors at El Universidad de Centro America (the University of Central America or UCA) in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, were brutally murdered along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The priests were: (1) Ignacio Ellacuría, the Rector of the University; (2) Ignacio Martín Baró, an UCA social psychologist whose research focused on the psychic problems of living in a context of structural violence; (3) Segundo Montes, an UCA anthropologist interested in the effects of social stratification and displaced victims of the country’s civil war; (4) Amando López Quintana, the chair of UCA’s philosophy department, a parish priest and director of a mass-literacy campaign; (5) Joaquín López y López, director of UCA’s Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy), a vocational training program for impoverished youth; and (6) Juan Ramón Moreno, who served at UCA’s Center for Theological Reflection, which addressed questions of faith and justice.

An U.S. journalist, Mary Jo McConahay, was in El Salvador that day, and after hearing reports that morning of the murders she was one of the first individuals to see the bodies of four of the Jesuits in a garden near their UCA apartments. In a recent article in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter she recounts what is was like to be there that morning:

  • “On the grass a few feet from the residence lay the forms of four bodies covered with white sheets. What appeared to be blood stained some of the sheets. . . .
  • In the hall [of the residence] with doors open to rooms on both sides, a body lay face down on the floor. A strip of what looked like blood marked the floor, as if the body had been dragged.”
  • [Fr. José María Tojeira, the Jesuit provincial for Central America] . . . bade me step inside one of the rooms, where another man lay dead . . . .”
  • We stepped outside past the white sheets and turned to descend a few steps to stand at the open door of a small apartment. Inside lay two bodies, a woman and a young girl, fallen backward a few feet from the threshold . . . . I recorded how the girl’s pelvic area looked as if the killer had emptied his gun there, how the woman’s legs had fallen over the girl’s, as if she had stood in front when the killers entered . . . . “
  • “[Back in the garden] the sheets came off [the bodies] and there in death were the priests I had known in life. . . . There was Ellacuría, his clear voice silenced, lying face up, as if he had looked at his killers at the moment of death” joined by Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró and Amando López.”

Subsequent investigations have revealed that members of the country’s Armed Forces under the direction and command of higher officials committed these horrible crimes. They did so in order to silence Fr. Ellacuría’s publicly criticizing social injustices in the country and calling for peace negotiations to end the civil war and persecution of the poor and to leave no witnesses to the murder of Ellacuría.

UCA’s Commemoration

Jesuit Martyrs & Housekeeper & Daughter
Jesuit Martyrs & Housekeeper & Daughter

UCA is marking this anniversary with nine days of programs and masses. This post will discuss two of those events, and subsequent posts will cover others as they become available on the UCA website.

In a discussion about the legacy of the martyrs, Hector Saymour said the legacy was the mission of social projection for UCA and other universities.  Such universities by engaging in rational and scientific research seek to increase understanding of the current situation and to create viable theoretical alternatives. For UCA and other Jesuit universities Jesus Christ is the inspiration for this struggle to transform unjust structures and to construct a new civilization based on solidarity. Omar Serrano, the Director of UCA’s Social Projection, added that UCA “has a continuing commitment to continue the legacy of the martyrs and to ‘transform the reality of Salvadoran society.’”

UCA also published an essay–“Freedom and Martyrs”—by the previously mentioned José Maria Tojeira, now the Director of UCA’s Campus Ministry and the former UCA Rector (1997-2010). It focused “on one of the fundamental characteristics usually common to all martyrs, since the dawn of Christianity until today, including, of course, Romero and many other Salvadorans. This is freedom. As St. Paul said, “for Christ has set us free” (Gal 5: 1).

The martyred Jesuits, Tojeira continued, were “universal fellow human beings of goodwill, [who] lived their freedom in an exceptional way. They started practicing it very soon with their youthful decision to come to America, leaving their roots, family and familiar environment. Their maturing love opened them to the new world . . . with a true devotion to the particular world of the poor of El Salvador. The option for the poor is already an act of freedom, and they demanded the Latin American Church take the matter seriously. And they used [UCA] . . . to find the roots of reality, not only opted for the poor, but also for their causes: social change, liberation from injustice, fully incorporating human rights into existence, creating a new culture in which they predominate over having and work over capital.”

“The severe social tensions (the fruit of injustice), repression and later civil war posed new challenges. . . . When words soar and thinking intellectuals become an enemy to the military, it is not easy to keep . . . [one’s] balance and safeguard life. The Jesuits’ decision to stay, to continue speaking freely, to continue publishing, to continue to defend the victims, risking life even looking at the face of death without defending their trust in reason and the Gospel, shows their tough libertarian convictions. For freedom is not measured by speeches defending money, property, or self-interest, but by the life choices of defending human rights.”

According to Tojiera, “In the exercise of this freedom . . . the martyred Jesuits maintained [UCA as] a quality university in a time that viciously persecuted intelligence and condemned the national university. At the same time, they multiplied their analysis and social criticism, their choice for peace with justice and human rights, while the government encouraged the creation of universities to promote conservative ideologies. The martyred Jesuits wanted to remain faithful to the intellectual quality of their voices so that victims would be protected, so that peace would emerge. And from that intellectually respectable quality, they started to speak of dialogue and negotiation as the only valid way out of the conflict.”

UCA’s “publications, conferences, studies [in 1989 and before] were mainly aimed at saving lives. The Jesuits said they stayed in El Salvador to fight for peace: ‘Basically what we want and where we direct our efforts is to save lives.’ Wanting to save the lives of many is what eventually led to the Jesuits’ death.  Finally, the Army, by a compact of silence and concealment, took the decision to kill the Jesuits, a crime against humanity, for which the military still has not apologized nor has recognized it as such.  What 25 years ago was cause for tears, now is a cause for rejoicing. Because our comrades still are alive generating critical thinking, lucid intelligence and true freedom.”

U.S. Jesuit Conference

Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, who is the president of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, said, “The slaughter of eight innocents had a visceral impact on me and my Jesuit brothers, one that continues to shape us. More importantly, 25 years later, it helps highlight the continuing failures of U.S. policy toward Central America. Back in 1989, the UCA killers were instructed to leave no witnesses, but by silencing eight people, they unintentionally and, ironically, gave voice to a generation of activists proud to walk in the footsteps of the martyrs. We need that same sense of urgency and mission now, as we struggle to help those suffering in Central America today.”

Last week Fr. Kesicki led a visit to El Salvador by Jesuit provincials, the incoming international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the presidents of nine Jesuit universities. They visited UCA, participated in its forum and commemorated the martyrs at Mass at the Cathedral in San Salvador and at the Romero Chapel, where Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980.

In addition, more than 1,300 participants from Jesuit universities, high schools and parishes converged on Washington, D.C. this weekend for the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. It will feature a wide array of speakers and the premiere of a documentary about the martyrs, “Blood in the Backyard.” Other scheduled events include a Capitol Hill rally and congressional visits. Each of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities also marked the anniversary with lectures, panel discussions, Masses and prayer services.

An article this month in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter remembered these words by Fr. Ellacuría when in 1982 he received an honorary degree from California’s Santa Clara University, “Our work is oriented . . . above all on behalf of a people who, oppressed by injustice, struggle for their self-determination—people often without liberty or human rights. The university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.”

The website for the U.S. Conference of Jesuits has other fascinating relevant features: (a) “Legacy of the Martyrs: Lives Changed, Causes Embraced,” that contains recollections of 38 U.S. Jesuit priests and other religious workers of what they felt when they first heard the news in 1989 of the murders of the six priests in El Salvador; and (b) U.S. Jesuits’ recollections of the martyrs.

Fr. Michael McCarthy, S.J.

 Fr. Michael McCarthy, another fellow Jesuit priest and a professor and the executive director of California’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, also has expressed in the New York Times his inspiration by the martyred Jesuits. He credits Ellacuría’s recognizing “the responsibility of his institution as lending intellectual support to those who did not have the academic qualifications to legitimize their rights. His life has challenged me to keep my sights not on conventional measures of success but on what really matters: the contribution I am making to the world.”

In addition, McCarthy treasures Ellacuría’s “vision of a university that would be an ‘inescapable social force’ for good. That is no less important in 2014 than it was in 1989. I still believe that an education not grounded in justice is a farce and that we desperately need wise, courageous, even heroic academic leaders to realize the highest purposes of education.”

 Conclusion

 Many others have been transformed and inspired by the witness and ministry of the Jesuit priests of El Salvador.

One of them, Fran Rossi Szplczym, Pastoral Associate for Administration, Immaculate Conception Church of Albany, NY, said, “the lust for power, control, and domination is essentially the way of the world. That is one of the reasons we who are Catholic [and other] Christians live our faith as we do. We are not here to be against the world, nor to withdraw from the world. Jesus might have gone to the desert now and then, but he did not come here to simply be alone and pray, or to hide out with the apostles and feel superior to everyone else. Jesus came to transform us and the world with it.”

She added, “We cannot give up, we cannot turn away, we cannot turn to violence. To walk to the cross with Christ might mean lying face down on the ground with part of your brain splattered nearby, but it also means that we must all be changed. That is the call of discipleship put into action, no matter the cost. Let the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador remind us of this daunting task of loving and changing the world in Jesus’ name. No matter what tiny and beautiful, or grand and magnificent ways that we are called to be that change in Christ.”

As a Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion, I too have been inspired by the Jesuit martyrs as I will discuss in a subsequent post.

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.