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.