Progress in Jesuit murder case on 28th anniversary
Today is another anniversary of the November 16, 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by soldiers of the Salvadoran armed forces. With this anniversary comes some progress towards justice in the case.
The United States Supreme Court rejected yesterday a last ditch effort by former Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to stay his extradition from the US to Spain where he is a defendant in a court case against the military officers behind the massacre and its cover-up. At the time of the massacre, Montano served as the Vice Minister of Defense for Public Safety, in command of the National Police, the Treasury Police, and the National Guard.
Montano had been fighting his extradition case for two years while in federal prison for immigration fraud. He had earlier been convicted for lying when he first entered the US in the years following the Salvadoran civil war. Spanish authorities sought his extradition, and the Obama and Trump administrations have cooperated.
The most recent action was a brief by the Solicitor General of the United States before the US Supreme Court opposing Montano's request for a stay of his extradition so he could appeal to the Court that Spain was exceeding its jurisdiction in seeking to extradite him. That brief summarizes some of the evidence surrounding Montano's involvement:
[T]he government of Spain submitted evidence to the United States showing that in the days leading up to the murders, the ESAF-controlled radio station that [Montano] oversaw made threats against the Jesuit priests, ...; that on the day before the murders, [Montano] participated in a meeting at which one of his 3 fellow officers gave the order to kill the priests, ... ; that [Montano] provided “necessary information” -- namely, the location of one of the priests -- to those who carried out the murders, ...; and that following the murders, [Montano] attempted to conceal ESAF’s involvement by threatening the wife of a witness.Yesterday's action by the US Supreme Court means Montano can be immediately sent to Spain. The remaining defendants named in the case in Spain, however, are safely sheltered in El Salvador where El Salvador's Supreme Court has twice rejected attempts to extradite them to Spain for trial in the case.
The lead internaional human rights lawyer in the case in Spain, Almudena Bernabeau, has explained what can now happen with Montano's extradition:
“I like to believe that he will be in Spain before the end of the year,” she says. Bernabeu believes there will be no more legal obstacles to his extradition and trial.
Once the hearing starts, Spain’s high court will consider declassified documents and the report of the U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador. The case will also gather many testimonies, including one from Father Tojeira.
Ms. Bernabeu hopes that this case will bring justice to an unresolved crime against humanity, but also help fight impunity in El Salvador. “For a country, it’s hard to accept when its criminals are being judged in other courts…. No one wants their criminals to be judged elsewhere,” she says. “International pressure for investigations, prosecutions and extraditions, in this case coming from Spain and the United States, shakes the institutions of a country, including when impunity is rampant,” she explains. “We hope that things will get better in El Salvador.”
Meanwhile, there has been no visible progress on a possible prosecution in El Salvador of the military officers involved. Such a prosecution would be possible following the nullification of the 1993 amnesty law and is being sought by local Jesuit leaders, but does not yet appear likely. Earlier this year, a Salvadoran appeals court ratified the 30 year sentence of Colonel Alfredo Benavides for his role in the Jesuit murders. Benavides was originally found guilty in a trial in 1992, but was set free as a result of the 1993 Amnesty Law. When the Amnesty Law was nullified in 2016, however, Benavides' sentence was reinstated. That action by the court helps the Salvadoran legal system maintain the pretense that justice has already been done in the case and no more proceedings are necessary.