Spanish court rules in Jesuit massacre case.

The court in Spain which heard the case of the 1989 Jesuit massacre, issued its ruling today, more than 30 years after Salvadoran troops killed six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her daughter.  The court has been trying ex-Salvadoran vice minister of security Inocente Orlando Montano for his involvement as part of the military high command in giving the orders and subsequently covering up the massacre.  

The judges of the court unanimously found Montano guilty of being one of the persons who directed the massacre.   He was sentenced to 26 years in prison for each of the 5 Jesuit priests who were Spaniards.

As Almudena Bernabéu, the Spanish human rights lawyer who helped build the case against Montano and get him extradited from the US, was quoted in The Guardian saying: “It’s not just a crime that happened 30 years ago, it’s about what impunity really means.”    

Montano during trial

Montano was the only defendant in Spain because the Supreme Judicial Court of El Salvador has continuously protected the remaining military officers involved from being extradited to Spain.  Although only Montano sat in the dock, the trial offered another chance for El Salvador and the world to hear and reflect on the events of November 1989 and to consider what justice requires more than thirty years later.

The evidence was damning against the entire military high command.  (Although none of the evidence was a surprise).   The evidence left open the question of whether then-president Alfredo Cristiani had foreknowledge of the plot, but his knowledge of the subsequent cover-up to shift blame from the military was clear. 

This is the second court case bringing criminal charges.  The first occurred in the final days of El Salvador's civil war, when Salvadoran prosecutors tried several mid-ranking officers for the massacre, convicting only two.   One of those convicted, Lieutenant Yusshy Mendoza, was a key witness in this most recent trial in Spain.  The other, Colonel Guillermo Benavides, sits in a Salvadoran prison.   Yet the 1991 trial, marked by wide-ranging procedural irregularities, failed to convict anyone in the chain of command.

The trial in Spain represented another chance to assess the fault of the military high command in a judicial process.   The court acted under a theory of universal jurisdiction for prosecution of crimes against humanity, but also because 5 of the 6 Jesuit priests were originally from Spain.   The court in Madrid had sought to have a much larger group of former Salvadoran military officers as defendants.  El Salvador's courts, however, refused to extradite any defendant to Spain.   Montano ended up in Spain only because he was found living in the US, which subsequently extradited him to Spain.  

In El Salvador, a court case was reopened in 2018 in El Salvador against the top military officers with authority to order the massacre. In March, 2019, an appeals court ruled that this case may proceed.  Despite the permission to proceed, the Salvadoran prosecutors office has shown little signs of moving the case forward.

As professor Terry Karl, a key expert witness in the case told NPR:  "This trial should be in El Salvador. Justice is closest always to where the crime was committed."

What impact will this decision in Spain have in El Salvador?  The decision is an important signal that, perhaps, impunity for war crimes will not continue to be absolute in El Salvador.   Perhaps justice may arrive, even thirty or forty years late, for the victims of the massacres, disappearances and atrocities of the civil war.   Even though this trial took place in Spain, it offers a road map for those judges courageous enough to follow it in El Salvador.   For example, the officers of the military high command are also being tried for crimes against humanity in the El Mozote massacre case still moving forward in a Salvadoran court room.   

Unfortunately, it may still be that the verdict passes largely unnoticed by most in the country.  The result in the trial comes when so many other challenges are afflicting the county with the pandemic, the economic crisis as a result, conflicts between the president and the press, and conflicts among the branches of government.   The human rights community is celebrating.  The Jesuit community has received a measure of justice for what happened to their brothers.  But the rest of El Salvador, especially the majority who were born after the war or were too young to appreciate, may skim over a headline and little more. 

Worth reading today are these reflections of Ignacio Martín-Baró’s elder brother, Carlos, about the priest, his legacy and this path towards justice in The Guardian.  
The University of Central America, where the Jesuits and their co-worker and her daughter worked and were slaughtered, released this video saluting the step forward towards justice but noting the ongoing debt of the Salvadoran justice system.


ixa said…
Tim are you still running this? I ran geocities/teslsalvador back in 96 and have ran salvamento dot org since 99, I see you became a Doctor?
Tim said…
Not a doctor, just a lawyer. I've been writing this blog since 2004 when it was only called Tim's El Salvador Blog. I haven't written about the Comandos in a while. I probably should.
ixa said…
That’s great to hear. Who would have thought we’d end up w the clown 🤡 we have in the White House now.
I am sure your are advocating for a lot of people that need it now. Yep, I’ve been following you from the start.
We recently lost a veteran comando Manuel Funes. I worked side by side with him during street riot, Hurricane Mitch and Las Colinas during the 2001 earthquake. Last time I saw him is when we covered the IRON Maiden show in 2016.