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A Decades-Old Atrocity Finally Sees Its Day in Court

In a potential test case for international law, the murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador is now being prosecuted—in Spain.

This article was released 29 June 2020 at The Nation by Peter Kornbluh

(Kiko Huesca / Getty)

In the dark early morning hours of November 16, 1989, an elite unit of the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the Pastoral Center of the Central America University (UCA) in San Salvador. The soldiers rousted six Jesuit priests who lived there and executed them in their pajamas, one-by-one, with an AK-47 shot to the back of the head. On orders to “leave no witnesses,” they also murdered the Jesuits’ cook and her 16-year-old daughter, who were found lying together in “an embrace full of bullets,” according to a poignant description of one witness who did survive the massacre.

More than 30 years after this shocking human rights crime generated outrage around the world, a high-ranking Salvadoran military official finally has gone on trial—not in El Salvador, but in Spain. Opening arguments in a Madrid tribunal known as the Audiencia Nacional began on June 8; on June 10, the defendant, former vice minister of public security Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, took the stand to deny charges of terrorism and murder that carry a possible prison sentence of 150 years. The historic proceedings are due to resume in early July when Spanish prosecutors and lawyers for the victims will present witnesses, evidence, and experts to prove that Montano actively participated in what prosecutors called “the decision, design, and execution” of this infamous atrocity.

Montano’s day of reckoning marks the culmination of decades of tenacious efforts to seek justice for the Jesuits—and accountability for those who killed them. Some 12 years have passed since a Spanish lawyer named Almudena Bernabeu, then head of transnational justice at the San Francisco–based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), filed the first petitions in Madrid to initiate legal proceedings. Like the Spanish legal efforts against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet 20 years ago, the Jesuit trial has rejuvenated the cause of universal jurisdiction—the unique legal principle that gross violations of human rights demand adjudication, if necessary by nations outside the jurisdiction in which the crimes were committed. “This trial represents a key moment for universal jurisdiction,” states the Guernica Centre for International Justice, which represents the victims in this case, as well as “accountability as a crucial element in transitional justice processes and international criminal law.”


El Salvador’s bloody civil war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992, cost the lives of some 70,000 civilians alone. Fueled by billions in US counterinsurgency assistance, the Salvadoran military flagrantly deployed death squads and commando battalions throughout the country, which committed some of the most infamous crimes against humanity in recent memory. Few can forget the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he held mass; the rape and murder of four US churchwomen; and the massacre at El Mozote during which over 800 men, women, and children were slaughtered by the Atlacatl Battalion.

Beyond their brutality, those atrocities share another common factor with the execution of the Jesuits: the impunity with which those who gave the orders got away with those crimes. In the aftermath of the Jesuit murders, a broad coalition of human rights activists, lawyers, and agencies—among them the priests’ families, the Jesuit order, conscientious members of the US Congress, and UN and OAS investigators—initiated a concerted campaign to ascertain who ordered the massacre, and to hold them accountable.

The decision to eliminate the Jesuits came amid a Tet-like offensive in San Salvador by the leading guerrilla army, the FMLN. Infuriated by the strength of the insurgency despite a decade-long “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign, senior Salvadoran officers led by armed forces Chief of Staff Col. Emilio Ponce decided to kill as many civilian “subversive elements” as they could find.

At the top of Ponce’s target list was the Spanish-born Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the UCA, and an influential interlocutor for a peaceful settlement to the bloody civil war—a settlement that threatened the power and stature of Salvador’s senior military officers. At a November 15, 1989, meeting of the high command that Montano attended, an investigation by the UN Truth Commission later determined, “Colonel Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and, in front of the four other officers, ordered him to eliminate Father Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses.”

Executed alongside Ellacuria were two other priests involved in the peace talks, vice rector of the UCA Father Martín-Baró and Father Segundo Montes. Along with the cook, Julia Elba Ramos; and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Ramos, three other Jesuits were also murdered: philosophy professor Amando López, theology professor Juan Ramón Moreno, and the director of UCA’s low-income children education project, Joaquín López y López. Before the soldiers withdrew, they planted a piece of cardbord at the scene reading: “FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN.”


Attempting to frame the FMLN was the first step of a cover-up that included spreading disinformation, destroying evidence, intimidating legal authorities, and even killing potential witnesses. “All these officers, and others, knowing what had happened, took steps to conceal the truth,” states the UN Truth Commission report, “…in order to conceal the responsibility of senior officers for the murders.”

But the official cover-up eventually unraveled under international scrutiny of the murders. Colleagues of the Jesuits quietly arranged for the surviving witnesses, housekeeper Lucia Cerna and her husband, to relocate in California so they could safely share what they saw. In Washington, Representative Joseph Moakley established a congressional task force to investigate. In August 1990, his lead investigator, Jim McGovern, traveled to San Salvador and obtained “breakthrough information on Jesuit slaying and coverup” from one of the military’s “most senior and respected officers,” according to a secret cable titled “The Jesuit Case: Another Big Jolt.” “If the basic story is true,” US Ambassador William Walker reported in a panic to Washington, “…our policy is in peril since the difficult-to-dismiss implications would be that the decision to kill the Jesuits was a deliberate one made at the highest levels of the ESAF [El Salvador Armed Forces].”

Now exposed, the Salvadoran military hierarchy was forced to offer up scapegoats: four mid-level officers and five soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion. In what was widely perceived as a sham trial, in 1991, seven were acquitted on the grounds that they were just following orders. But Colonel Benavides and an intelligence officer, Lt. Yusshy Rene Mendoza, were convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In March 1993, however, the government of Alfredo Christiani passed an amnesty law; the two officers were then released after being in prison less than two years.


For more than a decade after the 1992 peace accords were signed, there was little movement toward judicial accountability in the Jesuit case. In 2004, however, Almudena Bernabeu, then based at the CJA, began traveling to San Salvador to meet with colleagues and relatives of the Jesuits about the possibility of filing a case in Spain. “We had a lot of wine together,” as she recalled her efforts to convince the Jesuit authorities and human rights advocates in El Salvador, who preferred to advance the cause of justice inside the country.

At the time, Spain had become a pioneering nation in the application of universal jurisdiction, a controversial tenet in international human rights law that individual nations can, and should, address unresolved crimes against humanity committed outside their borders. Only a few years before, a Spanish judge, Baltazar Garzon, had attempted to extradite Gen. Augusto Pinochet from London to Madrid to stand trial for human rights abuses committed during his dictatorship in Chile. In 2006, Bernabeu herself became involved in an effort to use Spain’s unique legal structures to pursue Guatemala’s former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide, building a case that eventually led a Guatemalan judge to indict and prosecute Rios Montt in Guatemala City. “This lawyer is the nightmare of torturers and those who commit genocide,” Spain’s leading newspaper,El País, wrote about her.

In November 2008, the CJA and the Spanish Human Rights Association filed a 126-page legal complaint on the Jesuit case in the Spanish National Court. Spain had standing in the matter, their petition argued, because five of the slain Jesuits were Spanish citizens. After a series of evidentiary hearings, on May 30, 2011, Judge Eloy Velasco issued a 77-page indictment for 20 Salvadoran military officers; Spain formally issued arrest warrants and subsequently asked Interpol to detain those officials.


The Spanish indictment threatened, but did not breach, the wall of immunity for Salvador’s top military officers. In El Salvador, nine of the indicted officers were briefly detained but then released pending a formal extradition request from Spain. Predictably, Spain’s request was denied by the Salvadoran courts, leaving the legal proceedings in Madrid without the presence of any defendants to prosecute.

At that critical point, the Jesuit case took a dramatic turn. Bernabeu had received a tip from veteran Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada that one of the defendants, Colonel Montano, was living outside of Boston; employing a private detective, she was able to locate his address in Everett, Mass. Montano had immigrated to the United States in 2001, lying on his immigration papers about his 31-year career in the Salvadoran armed forces. After the CJA notified US authorities of his whereabouts, federal agents arrested Montano on August 23, 2011. In February 2012, he was indicted for perjury and immigration fraud; Montano pleaded guilty on September 11, 2012, and was sentenced to 21 months in the penitentiary.

That period of detention gave Bernabeu the opportunity to work with both Spanish and US authorities to arrange Montano’s extradition to Spain. Indeed, the extradition proceedings became a dress rehearsal for the trial in Madrid. On February 5, 2016, Judge Kimberly Swank ruled that Montano had committed a “terrorist” crime and approved his extradition. “Montano’s arrival to Spain,” Bernabeu told the press when the extradition order was implemented in late November 2017, “brings hope not only to the families and the Jesuit community but to all victims of El Salvador who have been waiting for justice since the end of the war.”


When the Audiencia Nacional reconvenes on July 8, the Spanish prosecutors and lawyers representing the victims—Bernabeu and Manuel Ollé—will present their full case against Montano. The first scheduled witness, Col. Yusshy Rene Mendoza, is expected to provide an insider’s account of the planning and execution of the Jesuit massacre. Along with Colonel Benavides, Mendoza was convicted in the 1991 trial in El Salvador but released after the amnesty; he left El Salvador and repented his role in the slayings. Mendoza was originally a codefendant with Montano in the Spanish proceedings. But the judges granted a motion by Mendoza’s lawyers to drop all charges against him and allow him to testify as a witness for the prosecution.

Other witnesses will follow, among them the housekeeper Lucia Cerna and former US ambassador to El Salvador William Walker. Secret cables sent by Walker after the massacre are among the hundreds of declassified State Department, Pentagon, and CIA records submitted as evidence in the trial. Many of those documents were gathered by Kate Doyle, who directs the Salvador Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. “The declassified documents contain critical details about the killing of the Jesuits,” explains Doyle, who previously testified in Madrid in November 2009 to authenticate the documentation when it was first submitted, and is scheduled to testify again on July 10. “The United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting El Salvador’s military: We trained them, we armed them, we fed them intelligence…. So US officials—military, intelligence, and diplomatic—had really good access and connections, and wrote a lot of secret cables back to Washington about what was unfolding.” Drawing on the declassified evidence, Stanford University professor Terry Lynn Karl, who also testified in Spain in 2009 and presented evidence against Montano during the immigration fraud proceedings, is expected to provide expert analysis about the context and circumstances of the Jesuit massacre.

The prosecution is expected to sum up its case against Montano by mid-July, at which time a panel of three judges will begin to evaluate the evidence. Their ruling is expected by early August.

Whatever the verdict, the Jesuit trial carries a historic significance—for Salvadorans, for the future of universal jurisdiction, and for the simple act of providing justice for the victims. “I counted these priests as friends, and I will never forget their wisdom and strength—their lives were about more than just faith, their lives were a call to action,” said Representative Jim McGovern, now a 12-term congressman from Massachusetts. “We must look at this trial not as an end, but as a milestone on the road to justice and peace in El Salvador.”

The Jesuit case is also likely to renew international debate on the need for, and practice of, universal jurisdiction in Spain, and elsewhere. The trial is “extremely significant” and “has the potential to reopen the discussion in Spain about the necessity and importance of an effective universal jurisdiction law,” states the Guernica Centre for International Justice, which Bernabeu cofounded in 2017. “It also supports the ongoing realization that countries like Spain need to ensure that victims of human rights violations can find redress when legal avenues have been foreclosed in other jurisdictions due to restrictive legislation, corrupt judiciaries, impunity, or political opposition.”

But for the human rights lawyers and Spanish prosecutors inside the Madrid courtroom, the ultimate goal of the trial is to finally provide the truth and accountability the victims have been denied for over 30 years. “At the end of these proceedings,” Bernabeu toldThe Nation, “my hope is for a true and official record on those really responsible for this horrible crime. There will be no gray, no more doubt. And with that formal truth, we will honor the victims and achieve some justice.”

Peter Kornbluh TWITTER Peter Kornbluh, a longtime contributor to The Nation on Cuba, is co-author, with William M. Leo Grande, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. Kornbluh is also the author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.


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