After 30 Years of Impunity, the Jesuits Massacre Trial Commences in Spain

Monday, after a decade of pre-trial litigation, a trial that is seeking justice for the 1989 massacre in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests (Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, Juan Ramón Moreno, and Segundo Montes), their housekeeper (Elba Julia Ramos), and her daughter (Celina Maricet Ramos) finally began in a courtroom in Spain. The massacre was committed by members of the dreaded, and U.S.-trained, Atlacatl Battalion during the Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992). Even as they fought a bloody civil war with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Salvadoran military and security forces carried out a reign of terror against the civilian population.

The priests, who were living on the campus of the University of Central America (UCA), had been vocal proponents of liberation theology, a movement originating within Latin America and dedicated to ending all forms of injustice, including economic injustice. They had long advocated a negotiated solution to the conflict, were attempting to broker peace talks between the government and the rebel forces, and were known for speaking out against the escalating repression. In the middle of the night, members of the Salvadoran army stormed the UCA, forced the priests to kneel in the courtyard, and subsequently shot them in the back of the head. Five of the priests were Spanish nationals.

Although there was much violence within El Salvador during the civil war, the bloody conflict was bookended by the rape and murder of four American churchwomen in 1980 and this tragic incident at the UCA. The massacre of these men of the cloth sparked global outrage and in many respects marked a turning point in the war. It also prompted a U.S. congressional investigation that concluded that the U.S. military had trained members of the armed forces who participated in the killing in “unconventional warfare” and other harsh military tactics. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the Salvadoran government bore responsibility for the massacre and  violated the victims’ rights to life, to judicial guarantees and protection, and to truth. A United Nations-sponsored truth commission, which emerged out of the Chapultepec Peace Accords and focused on the massacre as an emblematic case, concluded that 85% of the abuses committed during the civil war were attributable to the government (with the rest either unattributed or the responsibility of the FMLN).

Although the Salvadoran government did open an investigation into the massacre and convict some of the suspects, the defendants were later released upon the passage of an amnesty law in 1993. The Salvadoran Constitutional Court has since invalidated the law, opening the way for civil war-era crimes to be prosecuted domestically, including the El Mozote massacre and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. (Our coverage of the unconstitutionality of the Salvadoran amnesty law is here.)

In 2008, lawyers from the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) and the Spanish Pro-Human Rights Association invoked the Spanish law on extraterritorial jurisdiction to seek the indictment of 20 former Salvadoran military officials alleged to have been involved in the Jesuit massacre. Lawyers with the Guernica Centre for International Justice, part of the Guernica Group of international lawyers, and Spanish co-counsel Ollé & Sesé Abogados are acting as private prosecutors. The complaint was admitted by Chamber No. 6 of the Spanish National Court and the investigation began, led by Judge Eloy Velasco (a longer timeline is available here). Incidentally, this is the same investigating magistrate who dismissed the so-called “Bush 6” case involving abuses on Guantánamo. Named in that case were former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Assistant AG Jay Bybee, former Deputy Assistant AG John Yoo, former DoD GC Willian J. Haynes II, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, and Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel, David S. Addington. (See my coverage here.) That suit was eventually dismissed on complementarity grounds (see here for background).

The violence in El Salvador during its dirty war has given rise to a number of different justice efforts abroad. Additional Salvadoran defendants have been successfully sued civilly in the United States by CJA under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. And, in January 2020, the United States rendered 13 individuals and their families ineligible for entry into the United States due to their involvement in the extrajudicial killings of the Jesuits and other rights abuses.

The Spanish case is going forward with only one defendant in custody, former Colonel and Vice-Minister of Public Security Inocente Orlando Montano, who has been charged with state terrorism and murder. A second former defendant, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos (a former Lieutenant in the Salvadoran army), is appearing by videolink from Chile as a witness for the prosecution. The United States played an important positive role in enabling the case against Montano to go forward. Montano was discovered living in Everett, Massachusetts, and working at a candy factory. Having lied about his military service when he entered the United States and applied for Temporary Protective Status (TPS), he was charged in the United States with immigration fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1546). He eventually pled guilty in September 2012 and was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment. My Stanford colleague, Professor Terry Lynn Karl, submitted an expert report in the case detailing Montano’s involvement in a range of human rights abuses, including the murder of the Jesuits. The Salvadoran Truth Commission, declassified documents collected by the non-profit National Security Archives, and the diary of one of the co-conspirators all reveal that Montano was present when the order was given to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.

While these U.S. proceedings were underway, Spain sought Montano’s extradition from the United States; this eventually went forward in November 2017 (see our coverage here). Montano is the highest ranking individual ever extradited by the United States. The rest of the defendants are presumed to be in El Salvador, and the Spanish extradition requests to El Salvador have not borne fruit.

This trial also comes at a time when Salvadoran civil society is struggling to address the legacy of abuse during the civil war in light of the Supreme Court’s repeal of the Amnesty Law in 2016. Certain political elements within El Salvador have threatened to enact new “reconciliation” legislation that could shield those most responsible from prosecution and criminal sanctions.

Upon a motion from the victims’ families, the trial before the Spanish High Court will be live streamed by the Basque Public Television to enable Salvadorans and others to follow the proceedings. Daily briefings are here. After the hearings this week, the trial will take a pause until July when it will resume.

Image: A man and a girl stand in front of a mural in homage of six Jesuit priests and two employees murdered during the civil war on the 30th anniversary of the crime in San Salvador, on November 16, 2019. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).