Jesuits case forces Salvadorans to confront concepts of justice

November 16 is the 22nd anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by members of the Salvadoran armed forces in a massacre ordered by the Salvadoran high command.   As readers of this blog know, the failure by the Salvadoran government over that time to bring to justice the high level commanders who ordered the killing, pushed human rights groups including the Center for Justice Accountability ("CJA") to go to court in Spain to prosecute the case.

This video from CNN provides background on the Spanish proceedings.

This past year, developments in the Spanish case, have forced Salvadorans to confront impunity directly. They will see whether their country's institutions can, will, or should ever deal with impunity and assessing responsibility for crimes against humanity committed during El Salvador's brutal civil war. The Spanish court has forced El Salvador's government to take a position when the court issued international arrest warrants in the Jesuits case for former high ranking military officers.

From the CJA:
When it became clear that the Salvadoran National Police were going to honor the arrest warrants, nine of the defendants met on Sunday night (August 7) at a country club outside of San Salvador to presumably discuss next steps. Later that night, at approximately 10:00 p.m., all nine turned themselves into a military facility also outside of San Salvador. The decision to self-surrender to the military was presumably an attempt to defy the usual civilian process involving international arrest warrants and extradition treaties. In an unprecedented development, the Minister of Defense of El Salvador accepted the validity of the international arrest warrants and turned the defendants over to civilian authorities where they are all now being held in custody.

In addition to former Minister of Defense Rafael Humberto Larios and former Air Force Chief General Rafael Bustillo, the following defendants surrendered: Colonel Francisco Helena Fuentes, Vice Defense Minister Juan Orlando Zepeda, Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos and Antonio Ramiro Ávalos Vargas y Tomás Zárpate Castillo.

The Spanish courts have 60 days to formalize the extradition requests. The Salvadoran Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether to honor the arrest warrants and extradite the men to Spain to be prosecuted for their role in these outrageous crimes. One of the main issues confronting the Salvadoran court is whether the amnesty law which was passed in 1993 at the end of the twenty year civil war will continue to protect military officials for human rights abuses committed against the civilian population. While amnesty laws that protect military officials from human rights prosecutions are illegal under international law, how the court will rule is very difficult to predict.
Persons and groups in El Salvador reacted in a variety of ways to the action of the Spanish court.

Alfredo Cristiani, the president of El Salvador at the time of the killings, harshly criticized the Spanish court proceedings as an attack on the sovereignty of El Salvador.  (Cristiani has been mentioned as a potential participant in the cover-up of the killings).  Critstiani claimed that Spain had no right to re-try a case which had already proceeded through the Salvadoran court system, that both sides had committed wrongs during the civil war, and that the Spanish case was unnecessarily opening old wounds.  The GANA party has similarly backed the accused military leaders.

The archbishop of San Salvador elected to stay on the sidelines, stating that the church would support any decision of the Salvadoran courts which were taken in the interests of the country.

A march through the streets of El Salvador towards the Spanish embassy  expressed its solidarity with the nine military officers seeking to avoid extradition to Spain.  Among the marchers was ARENA party deputy Roberto D'Aubuisson, whose father orchestrated death squads and ordered the murder of archbishop Oscar Romero.

The FMLN issued a statement where the FMLN expressed:
The party is committed to truth, respect for human rights, and the application of justice that includes the moral compensation for victims, as elements that lead to achieving the great goal of National Reconciliation, established in the Peace Accords.

That being a subject of national interest, prudence and political responsibility should prevail along with respect for the victims, and we believe that it is improper for the case to be used by groups for partisan or electoral purposes.

We express our interest that this case be resolved in the courts and aired with strict adherence to law.

We are confident that the country's institutions work, and strongly reject the individuals or minority groups who intend to make use of this case  to threaten the country's political stability.
Hopes that El Salvador's institutions might actually be ready to confront impunity dimmed when El Salvador's Supreme Court ordered the release of the military officers.   According to CJA:
But the Supreme Court, sitting en banc, ordered the defendants’ release on the theory that El Salvador had not received a formal extradition request. In the Court’s view, INTERPOL Red Notices authorized only locating, not arresting wanted subjects. Spain has requested that El Salvador clarify the defendants’ legal status. Commentators have noted that the Salvadoran Court’s decision may conflict with treaty obligations to comply with INTERPOL rules, which state that Red Notices secure the “location and arrest” of suspects, prior to a formal extradition request.
An editorial in El Faro perhaps summed up the situation best when it said:
The Jesuit case confirms that the peace process and the amnesty law have been insufficient for the process of national reconciliation, the restoration of the dignity of victims and to finally leave the armed conflict in the hands of historians. El Salvador deserves to know the truth.
In a different approach, Mike at Central American Politics blog wrote:
2012 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended El Salvador’s war. What better time to announce that they will not honor Spain’s extradition request because the government intends to open cases against those suspected of having war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Jesuit case, the murder of Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre and other well known crimes of the war years have not seen the focused light of judicial proceedings in El Salvador designed to get at the truth and provide justice to victims.   Dealing with these crimes of the past requires dealing with many issues:

  • Is amnesty necessary for the ongoing peace of society? 
  • What crimes are so grave that an "amnesty" should not be permitted to allow the guilty parties to escape? 
  • What is the consequence of opening old wounds?  
  • If you open up the Jesuit case, where do you stop?   
  • Should the killing of a civilian family on the slopes of the Guazapa volcano get the same treatment?  
  • Does assigning blame and responsibility require (a) punishment (b) reparations to the victims (c) apology?   
  • How do you weigh the costs and benefits?

An open dialogue among all elements on Salvadoran society on these issues has never occurred, but must occur, if each anniversary of the Jesuits massacre is to stop being a symbol of justice ignored.  Contrary to those who say that amnesty provides healing in the country, consider the points made in this article titled Justice heals: The impact of impunity and the fight against it on the recovery of severe human rights violations’ survivors which describes the impact of impunity on the ongoing psycho-social trauma which the victims suffer.

It is the victims who need to be represented.   It is the victims who have lacked an advocate.  The late Margaret Popkin in her article The Salvadoran Truth Commission and the Search for Justice wrote:
[M]any factors have contributed to the lack of justice in El Salvador. The parties to the negotiations were more interested in recommendations for legal and institutional  reform;  they  sought  to  ensure  the  future  but  abandoned  the  past.  By  asserting  the impossibility  of  justice  in  the  existing  context,  the  Truth  Commission  for  El  Salvador  did  not challenge the justice system to undertake investigations, and the government’s negative reaction to the Truth Commission’s report and the immediate passage of a broad amnesty law apparently foreclosed the possibility of justice. 
Essentially abandoned by political leaders and not consulted in the process of  developing  the  truth  commission  or  its  recommendations,  victims  had  little  recourse.  In  this context,  victims  and  their  representatives  in  El  Salvador  have  not  been  able  to  bring  sufficient pressure to achieve justice or secure compensation. Despite important advances in judicial reform, the justice system has yet to rely on the Truth Commission’s findings, implement the recommendations of the   Inter-American   Commission   on   Human   Rights,   or   otherwise   rely   on   international   law developments in the struggle against impunity. 
For a detailed examination of all the available information about the murder of the Jesuits and the subsequent cover-up, I recommend Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuria and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador, by Teresa Whitfield.


Wayne said…
Tim, great report on a very sticky question. Part of the problem here in El Salvador seems to be the old notion of "what's good for the goose, is good for the gander." While opinions may differ as to frequency and severity of the incidents, it is nonetheless fairly well known and accepted that during the civil war the leftist forces didn't have exactly clean hands either, and if the Supreme Court is going to open the door to negating the amensty provisions of the Peace Accords as they apply to government actors, then they ostensibly would be obliged to do likewise with regard to actors on the left, particularly the FMLN. And - hmmmmmm - how many of them are members of the current administration? Hmmmmm - would this possibly have anything at all to do with Minister Melgar's sudden resignation last week? After all, he has been directly linked to the U.S. Marines massacre in the Zona Rosa. So it's just not as clear-cut as everyone would like to believe.

There's also a very palpable feeling of "can't we just move forward"....
billmart said…
That is a nice comment Wayne, however, not only has no country so far accused, indicted or asked for extradition for any of the members of the leftist organizations, but, the leftist did not murdered priests nor nuns during the armed conflict. Let's be careful no to fall into hipocresy here. If there's any country out there that consider advisable to proceed or prosecute any of the leftist organization, no body is going to stop them therefore they should go ahead. But, so far, the international community through the UN has accused us of being the most violent country in the world, that was of course the political fall out of our incapacity for not only demonstrate our lack of responsibility in regards to functionality of our authorities and political leaders, etc. but also, challenge and violate an international agreement signed between our country and Spain.
Remember Wayne, we are not talking here about the big bulk of mass murders committed during the conflict by the armed forces, we're talking here about an specific massacre executed against defenceless and unarmed group of religious people whom never held a weapon in their hands. Let's be honest would you ???