UPDATE: The judgment is available here (in Spanish).
A Spanish court has convicted Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano for his role in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Montano, who was Vice-Minister for Public Security at the time, was sentenced for 26 years’ imprisonment for each of the murders (although the Spanish maximum sentence is 30 years)—effectively a life sentence for a man of his age. Montano’s claims of innocence were contradicted by a key former soldier who turned “state’s witness” and testified against him as well as expert testimony from my colleague Terry Karl. The case was initiated by the Center for Justice & Accountability and tried by lawyers with the Guernica Centre for International Justice, part of the Guernica Group of international lawyers, and Spanish co-counsel Ollé & Sesé Abogados, acting as private prosecutors.
As I discussed earlier, the United States extradited the defendant in 2017, after a drawn out process following his conviction for visa fraud. El Salvador refused to extradite other individuals charged in Spain, so Montano was alone in the dock. Because he was technically extradited only to stand trial for the murders of the five Spanish victims, the court did not convict Montano for the deaths of the three Salvadoran victims. This is by operation of the international law principle of specialty, which states that when a person is extradited to stand trial for a certain criminal offense, they may only be tried for that offense and not for any additional charges without the express consent of the surrendering state. That said, the court determined that Montano was responsible for all the deaths as well by virtue of his involvement in the conspiracy.
To date, most cases arising out of the “dirty war” in El Salvador have proceeded in foreign courts, including here in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act. For many years, a blanket amnesty law blocked cases—civil and criminal—in El Salvador. That law was declared unconstitutional in 2016. As such, a few cases are moving forward in El Salvador, the most important being the case involving the horrific El Mozote massacre, which is proceeding notwithstanding the pandemic. In an important new development, a Salvadoran judge recently issued an order to protect military files related to the massacre.
Declassified documents collected by the indomitable National Security Archive (NSA)—from the State Department, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency—coupled with the testimony of NSA analyst Kate Doyle played a key role in securing this conviction. Not all files from this era have been declassified, however. The United States should declassify the remaining U.S. government files relating to the conflict in El Salvador (as it has done with respect to Chile and Argentina) given the passage of time and the global movement to reckon with Cold War era atrocities. In a statement, the lead lawyer Almudena Bernabeu explained that this case was perhaps easier to prosecute after the events in question because more evidence—documentary and testimonial—was available than would have been in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.
Coming 31 years after the events in question, this verdict is a testament to the patience and tenaciousness of victims, the inevitability of justice, and how impunity can be ephemeral.
Image: Former Salvadoran colonel and Defense Deputy Minister Inocente Montano looks on before the start of trial for his participation in the murder of six Spanish Jesuit priests and two collaborators in 1989, in Madrid on June 8, 2020. (Kiko Huesca/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)