Guilty Verdict in the Massacre of Jesuits Marks a “Milestone of Justice” for El Salvador

Inocente Montano, a former deputy defense minister of El Salvador, retired military man, and ex-member of one of the bloodiest commando units operating during that Central American country’s civil war of the 1980s, has become the first Salvadoran convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“The conviction marks a milestone of justice in the crimes against humanity and war crimes that have occurred in El Salvador,” said David Morales, director of Strategic Litigation for the Cristosal organization. “Justice had been denied in this country and now criminal justice has been done, at least for one of those responsible. It is the first time that these war crimes have been addressed in a criminal proceeding and reached a conviction,

The Spanish court sentenced Montano to a historic sentence of 133 years for the massacre of six Spanish Jesuit priests and two Salvadoran employees who worked at the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. The murders were carried out on the university campus by a military commando on the night of November 16, 1989.

“The sentence reflects the truth that has been reconstructed from extended testimony, and from studies by researchers, academics, and independent experts, as well as input from participants in the crime who had the courage to tell the truth,” said UCA Rector Andreu Oliva in a press conference in San Salvador after the conviction became known.

Since Judge Eloy Velazco ordered legal proceedings for terrorist, murder and human rights violations to proceed against seventeen ex-members of the Salvadoran military, Montano is the only one who has been tried and convicted by the Spanish court. After the Audiencia Nacional, a high-level court with jurisdiction over international crimes that affect Spain, solicited the capture and extradition of the suspects, the three Salvadoran government officials informed of the request either refused to cooperate with Spanish authorities or remained silent. Montano, however, was living in the United States at the time, so he was able to be extradited to Spain in 2017 to face charges for the crime.

“The process carried out by the Audiencia Nacional of Spain has clearly shown that the Salvadoran Armed Forces used their power to act as a criminal and cover-up apparatus for serious attacks on the citizenry,” reads a communiqué from the Jesuit congregation.

During the hearing’s final arguments, Montano placed the blame for the crime on the soldiers who physically carried out the attack on the university campus, attempting to exonerate himself and his group, known as “La Tandona”. La Tandona is well known to have ordered the murder of opponents of the government at the time and was named by the Truth Report as being responsible for the massacre of the Jesuits.

According to the Spanish authorities, it was Montano himself, along with the ruling elite of the Salvadoran military and then-President Alfredo Cristiani of the rightwing ARENA party, who planned and ordered the massacre. Spain also solicited the extradition of Cristiani, but to date the Salvadoran authorities have not responded.

Two Salvadorans who had taken shelter in the university were the first to help with the reconstruction of the crime by giving testimony. Furthermore, declassified documents, reviewed by Stanford professor Terry Karl and a U.S. political analyst, were entered into the evidence, helping the Spanish authorities discover the perpetrators.

The trial in Madrid was triggered by a complaint filed in 2011 by relatives of the six murdered clergymen: then-UCA Rector Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Armando López, and Joaquín López y López. The two lay employees — Elva Ramos and Celina Ramos —were also included as plaintiffs

EL Salvador’s Flawed Justice System

After the 1992 peace accords were signed, ending El Salvador’s civil war, a Truth Commission released a report naming the Armed Forces as the perpetrators of the massacre of the Jesuit clergymen and the two lay women. The commission further declared that certain politicians and lawyers obstructed the investigation of the case.

“The sentence sends a clear message of how the Salvadoran justice system should be seen,” said Morales, the Cristosal director. “Those responsible for the murders of the Jesuits and of Elva and Celina have been protected by the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office. Our courts eliminated any possibility of a legal investigation of the case.”

In 1999, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also accused the Salvadoran state of the crime against the Spanish priests and the two Salvadoran women. According to the UCA, the legal process in Spain has exposed the impunity that still exists in El Salvador.

“It is patently clear that the Armed Forces, and in a certain sense the Salvadoran state, have maintained a systematic cover-up and impunity in the face of extremely serious violations of human rights committed during the civil war,” said the UCA after the verdict.

In El Salvador, the judicial proceedings that began and ended with the conviction of two soldiers for the crime, were later re-opened, but as of now remain frozen due to the negligence of Salvadoran authorities. After the conviction of Montano, the Salvadoran attorney general, Raúl Melara, has not commented on the case, nor has he referred to the other individuals that the Spanish authorities have named as suspects.

Melara only said that the conviction of Montano “generates a historic step for us to obtain information.”

According to declassified documents relevant to the case, and others obtained by attorneys and journalists, the high command of the Salvadoran military ordered the murder of the Jesuits whom the considered terrorist threats. A former lieutenant, Guillermo Benavides, revealed in documents that he received the order to kill Ellacuria because the Jesuit rector ‘had become a danger to the interests of the military’.

The Refusal to Open Military Files

Since the 1992 peace accords, Nayib Bukele is the only president who has promised to open up the military records of the war. However, his words have not resulted in deeds. Human rights NGOs and even a judge have made multiple requests since 2019 to the president to fulfill his promise, to no avail.

Deputy Defense Minister Ennio Rivera declared in July of 2019 that President Bukele “is ready to cooperate in support of the investigations, but there is no specific directive to deliver the archives in specific cases.”

Then in September of that year, a Salvadoran judge, Jorge Guzmán, ordered Bukele to release the military documents pertaining to the1981 El Mazote massacre, in which the Armed Forces killed close to a thousand persons in that rural town in the eastern region of the country. Bukele is now saying that no such military records exist.

“To continue denying access to the military records of those involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict to those who are seeking truth, justice and reparations, is a biased action that favors impunity,” wrote Celia Medrano of Cristosal.

In 2016, the Salvadoran Supreme Court repealed the Amnesty Law that had been approved by lawmakers from both the left and the right in the 1990s. Among the cases that can be re-opened as a result are the murder of the Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and the massacre of the Jesuits. However, no authority in the executive or legislative branch has shown any willingness to re-open those cases.

Translated by Kelly Garrett.

Carmen Rodríguez is a journalist in San Salvador, El Salvador and has five years of experience in digital journalism. She specializes in security and judicial matters, and has collaborated with the Americas Program since 2014.