Politically motivated justice?
What does justice look like? The 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador along with a female co-worker and her teenage daughter still raises questions in El Salvador about how justice for such a horrific crime is achieved.
From the time of that crime until today, the UCA has insisted that justice for this massacre by troops of the Salvadoran military must be achieved within the Salvadoran judicial system following legal norms of due process and judicial independence. And in the 32 years since, that has yet to be achieved.
It was not achieved in the 1991 proceeding which only convicted two soldiers. It was not achieved when the Legislative Assembly passed a broad Amnesty Law in 1993 which remained in effect until 2016. It was not achieved when El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court blocked extradition of defendants to a court in Spain which was willing to render justice in the case. It was not achieved after the Amnesty Law was nullified as Salvadoran prosecutors opened but never pushed the case forward. And justice seemed more distant when the Criminal Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court finally dismissed all charges against the military command defendants in November 2020.
Then on November 16 of last year, as the UCA was commemorating the 32nd anniversary of the atrocity, Bukele's attorney general made a surprise announcement that he had filed a petition with the country's Constitutional Chamber to have it set aside that dismissal granted by the Criminal Chamber. The UCA reacted with surprise, because neither it nor the victims' families had been consulted or advised this was coming.
That brings us to the past week. El Salvador's Constitutional Chamber has now overturned the dismissal against the high military defendants which will allow the case to proceed. The Attorney General tweeted "The case will be reopened. We are going to prosecute those responsible, to achieve justice for these vile murders."
The leaders of the UCA now see a path to justice reopening in this case, but expressed concern about the process used to get there. In an editorial they wrote:
In this sense, it is regrettable that, despite the ethical necessity that those operating the justice system listen to the interests and needs of the victims, the filing which started the constitutional process resulting in the recent ruling was carried out without prior notice and without any participation of the relatives of the victims, the UCA or the Society of Jesus. It is absurd that the petition to overturn was filed without having directly considered the expertise and above all the ethics of those who know the most about the case. However, the UCA will seek to participate in all judicial instances that address the martyrdom of Elba, Celina and the Jesuit priests.
The UCA demands that the case not be exploited politically and that the wishes and suffering of the victims not be played with; demands that due process, the rights and guarantees of all the parties involved be respected; and rejects any type of pressure from external actors on the judicial branch. The case of the massacre in the UCA may constitute a first response to the lament of the victims of El Salvador, who for the most part have not obtained true justice, but rather immoral and tendentious judicial decisions.
Apparently believing that the UCA was not sufficiently grateful for the ruling obtained by the attorney general installed by the Legislative Assembly, from the Constitutional Chamber installed by the Assembly, Assembly president Ernesto Castro tweeted:
The UCA piece is ridiculous and sad. They are not really interested in justice, it seems, but something else. Now it turns out that they regret that the case has been reopened because they were not notified. What do they want? Justice or to continue to take advantage of the image of the martyrs with a show?
It is possible to believe both things -- that the Constitutional Chamber reached the correct decision in reopening the massacre case and that the magistrates who reached that decision have their jobs through an unconstitutional process. It is possible to urge that the attorney general prosecute this case, while at the same time critiquing how he got his job.