Justice, Finally, for a War Crime in El Salvador

Justice, Finally, for a War Crime in El Salvador

Justice, Finally, for a War Crime in El Salvador

A Spanish court has convicted one perpetrator of the 1989 murder of Jesuit priests—but El Salvador itself is a long way from mounting a credible prosecution.


When the decision dropped this month, it came through the small screen but with a huge impact.

On September 11, a mostly empty Spanish National Court livestreamed its verdict in the trial of a retired Salvadoran military officer for one of the most grievous atrocities of the Central American dirty wars: the 1989 assassination in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The panel of three Spanish judges found former colonel Inocente Orlando Montano guilty on five counts of “murder of a terrorist nature” and sentenced him to 133 years in prison.

Montano, 77 and wheelchair-bound, fidgeted behind plastic dividers meant to keep him safe from Covid-19 as the ruling was read. In the courtroom with him were the magistrates, prosecutors, his defense lawyers, and a smattering of journalists allowed to observe from a distance. But most of those affected by the crime—the Salvadorans, including students, staff, and faculty of the Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, where the six priests and two women were woken from sleep by soldiers on the morning of November 16, 1989, and shot execution-style—watched on phones and laptops from thousands of miles away.

The ruling is a triumph for the many who fought for justice in a case that seemed to founder from the moment the bodies were found. Evidence disappeared, documents were burned, testimony was falsified. Even after El Salvador convicted two army officers widely seen as scapegoats, tried in a sham proceeding in 1991, an amnesty law passed 18 months later quickly led to their release. They served less than two years in prison.

This time, the private prosecutors representing the Jesuit community and families of the victims bet on universal jurisdiction, a legal principle that permits trials of perpetrators of international crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity to take place inside any courtroom, in any country. In the name of the family of Ignacio Martín-Baró, one of five Spanish Jesuits among the six killed, human rights attorneys Almudena Bernabeu and Manuel Ollé filed the case in the National Court of Spain in 2008. After stalling for years for want of a defendant in Spanish custody, the case took on new life in 2017, when the United States extradited Montano to stand trial. The former vice minister of defense will now serve out his time in a Spanish prison, his 133 years reduced to the maximum permitted under Spanish law of 30.

Hours after the verdict was read, the UCA held a press conference. Rector Andreu Oliva and Father José María Tojeira—director of the UCA’s Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), who was living in a separate residence when the soldiers raided the university and murdered his colleagues—expressed their satisfaction, noting that Montano and others accused of the crime “never thought they would be judged. But they were wrong.” Celebrating a ruling that “encourages us and gives us hope,” the Jesuits urged the Salvadoran courts to now take up the case at home.

But if Spain proved that even the most powerful individuals could receive the benefits of due process and still be held accountable, El Salvador is a long way from mounting a credible prosecution.

The case exists in the system; IDHUCA filed a criminal complaint in 2000 against seven men considered the primary “intellectual authors” of the crime—those who planned the murders, ordered a special death squad of soldiers from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion to execute the Jesuits, and orchestrated a cover-up afterwards. They include the former president of the country, Alfredo Cristiani, Montano himself, and four more senior officers (one of the accused, former Joint Chiefs of Staff head Emilio Ponce, died in 2011).

The 1993 amnesty law blocked investigation into the crime until 2016, when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. But multiple obstacles still stand in the way of a judicial reckoning, not only in the Jesuit case but in dozens of others presented by victims since the country’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992.

A lack of political will from the government and justice system has been the most obvious cause for inaction. There are three historic cases technically “under investigation” by court order, in addition to the Jesuit murders: the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the forced disappearance of two young girls who were sisters, and a massacre in a place called “El Calabozo” (both in 1982). All four are stuck on the desk of Attorney General Raúl Melara; they are formally “open,” but they do not advance.

The lack of transparency has also been an enormous obstacle. So far, investigations have relied largely on survivor testimonies and information found in declassified US documents—not on Salvadoran records. In the Spanish case, my own organization, the National Security Archive, contributed to prosecutors hundreds of documents that had been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. By contrast, the lawyers were able to obtain only a handful of military documents as evidence, despite the role the armed forces played in the crime itself.

The failure of El Salvador’s military leadership to grant access to historical records has become a huge point of contention with civil society. During the UCA’s post-verdict press conference, the rector and Father Tojeira explicitly called on the army to allow investigators access to their records. “It is necessary, it is urgent,” declared Father Oliva. “If the armed forces want to demonstrate their commitment to peace and justice, they should…open their archives!”

Former Salvadoran Supreme Court justice and legal scholar Florentín Meléndez has pointed to the lack of civilian control over the army as the central problem. During a 2018 panel discussion to mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Truth Commission report, the jurist lamented that even judges and prosecutors were unable to obtain needed evidence from military archives. “There is no political will to declassify this information,” Meléndez told the audience. “Not a single president has dared to demand that the defense minister turn over information. That just shows the fragility of our institutions.”

The army’s position has only hardened since then. This past March, the government’s own transparency watchdog was blocked from carrying out an inspection of the archives required by a lawsuit filed by the University of El Salvador. When members of the Institute for Access to Public Information—an entity created in 2012 after passage of the country’s first Right to Information Law—showed up at the defense ministry, they were denied entry to the building, harassed, and filmed by military staff with cameras and a surveillance drone overhead.

And in the notorious El Mozote massacre case—the only human rights atrocity committed during the war to make it to trial in a Salvadoran courtroom after the amnesty law was overturned—when presiding judge Jorge Guzmán Urquilla demanded archives from the defense ministry concerning the army’s chain of command and military operations at the time of the massacre, he was flatly denied access. As recently as September 18, the defense minister filed a stay before the Supreme Court of Justice to avoid being compelled to turn over the files.

To add insult to injury, El Salvador’s congress has spent the last year and a half trying to ram through a new “National Reconciliation Law” that contains its own version of a blanket amnesty for human rights abuses committed during the civil war. So far, a furious campaign mounted by victims, human rights lawyers, and national and international civil society organizations has managed to halt the law’s passage, but the fight is far from over.

For all those reasons, the Spanish verdict represents a great victory for the human rights struggle in El Salvador. But it must be viewed as a beginning, not a conclusion. The Salvadoran people watched it unfold from afar; now they deserve their own day in court, at home.

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