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Spanish trial of soldiers who killed priests raises hopes of ending impunity in El Salvador

the guardian

Salvadorans commemorate the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women at UCA in San Salvador – one of the civil war’s most notorious crimes Photograph: Oscar Rivera/EPA/Corbis

 

Every so often, Father Jon Sobrino makes the short walk from his office in San Salvador to the pretty little rose garden where, 26 years ago, soldiers forced five of his Jesuit colleagues to lie face down on the ground before shooting each one in the back of the head.

After killing the five Spaniards, the soldiers then shot an infirm Salvadoran priest in his bedroom before opening fire on the Jesuits’ housekeeper and her teenage daughter as they cowered in the guest room.

The 1989 killings at the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador was one of the most notorious crimes committed during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which left 75,000 civilians dead and only formally ended in 1992.

Sobrino – who still works just a few steps away from the site of the atrocity – only escaped because he was teaching missionaries in Thailand at the time. It was the middle of the night when a friend in San Salvador called with the news.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” said Sobrino, now 77. “We’d been persecuted for years for telling the truth.”

Sobrino remained calm as his friend named each of the murdered priests. “It was when he said they’d killed our cook and her daughter that I became angry,” he said. “Later, we held mass around a beautiful altar of flowers and I thought, ‘They’ve killed my whole family.’”

The attack was orchestrated by senior military commanders who targeted university rector Father Ignacio Ellacuría in an attempt to derail peace talks. But the atrocity provoked such widespread international condemnation that it eventually helped push the US to end its support for El Salvador’s military regime.

The attack in 1989 targeted Fr Ignacio Ellacuría (pictured on banner) in an attempt to derail peace talks.

 

 The attack in 1989 targeted Fr Ignacio Ellacuría (pictured on banner) in an attempt to derail peace talks. Photograph: Stringer El Salvador/Reuters

 

Justice for the victims remained elusive, however: a sham trial and a postwar amnesty meant that those behind the attack have escaped punishment. That may now change with a criminal trial in Spain.

In February, a US court approved the extradition of Col Inocente Orlando Montano, who is accused of being one of the crime’s “intellectual authors” – and who had lived illegally in Boston since 2001.

Montano, a former commander and vice-minister of public security, commanded troops responsible for at least 1,169 human rights violations(pdf) including torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.

A day after Montano’s extradition hearing, four of the other 15 military men wanted in Spain were arrested in El Salvador – almost five years after international arrest warrants were issued.

The arrests have raised hopes that the trial could help end impunity in El Salvador, a country still plagued by violence: almost 6,700 people were murdered in 2015 – the bloodiest year since the civil war.

“To have such an important commander like Montano on trial means this case will unpick not just the massacre but the whole story of the conflict,” said Carolyn Patty Blum, senior legal adviser at the Center for Justice and Accountability, which is bringing the criminal case in Spain.

 

The war was fuelled by the US government, which between 1981 and 1990 gave the Salvadoran military an estimated $1m a day in order to defeat what it regarded as a communist uprising. According to the UN Truth Commission, the new infantry battalions financed by US aid became the main perpetrators of war crimes.

Outspoken Catholic priests such as Archbishop Óscar Romero, his mentor Father Rutilio Grande and the Jesuits of UCA were despised by the ruling elites for speaking out against injustice. Grande was assassinated in 1977; Romero was murdered as he said mass in 1980.

“There is nothing more dangerous in this world than telling the truth,” Sobrino said. The UCA was bombed four times – in one attack 17 devices exploded in a single night – and the campus was also searched by security forces.

“The police and army came here with machine guns and sniffer dogs … The newspapers defamed us as atheists, corruptors of the youth, and communists. Why? Because we told the truth,” he said.

Ellacuría, the university rector, was regarded with particular hostility as he was a linchpin in prospective peace negotiations with the FMLN rebels. originally from Bilbao in Spain, he occupied a unique position in the conflict, trusted by the guerrillas and junior military officers.

Archbishop Óscar Romero was murdered as he said mass in 1980 for speaking out against injustice.

 

 Archbishop Óscar Romero was murdered as he said mass in 1980 for speaking out against injustice. Photograph: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis

 

The biggest opponents to peace talks were a group of army officers known as La Tandona, who had graduated from military school in 1966. El Salvador’s military traditionally promoted classes together, so each was guaranteed eventual access to positions of power – and the associated opportunity for self-enrichment.

But by 1989, this mafia-like racket was under threat as both rebels and disgruntled junior army officers demanded a purge of La Tandona as part of a peace deal, said Professor Terry Karl, an expert witness in the Spanish and US legal proceedings.

“The Tandona was the biggest, most powerful, most corrupt graduating class with the worst human rights record in the history of the Salvadoran military. By mid-1988, its members held almost every single key political and military position; it was meant to be their time,” Karl said.

“A peace agreement would mean losing their power and privileges.”

The murder of the Jesuits was ordered after the guerrillas launched a major offensive on the capital on 11 November 1989, seizing control of several areas and even attacking the president’s house. The scale of the offensive caught the military by surprise, but La Tandona saw it as an opportunity to remove troublesome opponents.

 

 

Several days before the atrocity, soldiers from the elite – and US-trained – Atlacatl battalion searched the UCA on the pretext that guerrilla fighters were hiding on the campus.

On the night of 15 November, the head of the joint chiefs of staff Col René Ponce held two meetings at which the atrocity was planned. Ponce ordered Col Guillermo Benavides to kill Ellacuría and leave no witnesses. Troops from the Atlacatl battalion were told to make the attack appear to have been committed by the guerrillas, the truth commission later found.

Ponce died in 2011 without facing justice. Montano was at both meetings, according to the commission.

In the early hours of 16 November, the soldiers entered the university campus and surrounded the priests’ modest lodgings. When the five Spanish priests emerged, they were ordered to the ground and then shot.

Ellacuría, 59, still in his dressing gown, was shot with an AK-47 rifle seized from the FMLN.

The other Spanish victims were Ignacio Martín-Baró, 47, and Segundo Montes, 56, both from Valladolid; Juan Ramon Moreno, 56, from Navarra, and Amando López, 53, from Burgos.

Their elderly Salvadoran colleague Joaquin López y López, 71, was shot in his room. The priests’ cook Julia Elba Ramos, 42, and her daughter, Celina, 15, were killed in the guest room where they had been sleeping on a sofabed.

Before they left, the soldiers wrecked the campus, launching rockets and grenades and scrawling guerrilla slogans such as “Victory or death, FMLN”.

The scene of carnage was discovered by Ramos’s husband Obdulio, who later planted two yellow rose bushes in the garden in memory of his wife and daughter, and six red roses for the slain priests. It is now a blooming tropical garden filled with the sweet sound of singing birds, where Sobrino comes to remember his friends.

Amid mounting international pressure, the Salvadoran authorities tried eight of the soldiers in 1991. Six were acquitted, even though four of them had admitted before the trial to participating in the murders.

July 1989 photograph showing head of the joint chiefs of staff Colonel René Ponce (left), who died in 2011, and Col Inocente Orlando Montano (second from right), who is accused of being one of the crime’s ‘intellectual authors’.

 

 July 1989 photograph showing head of the joint chiefs of staff Col René Ponce (left), who died in 2011, and Col Inocente Orlando Montano (second from right), who is accused of being one of the crime’s ‘intellectual authors’. Photograph: Luis Romero/AP

 

Benavides, the officer who oversaw the killing, and his point man at the scene Lt Yusshy Mendoza were found guilty of murder and terrorism, but were freed less than two years later when the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) government passed a sweeping amnesty law.

The UN commission found that before the trial, evidence had been destroyed and testimonies altered to protect high-ranking officers.

The Jesuits have chosen to forgive the men who carried out the atrocity, arguing that they were merely tools.

Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the UCA Human Rights Institute until 2013, told the Guardian: “They sent the army’s most elite unit to kill six peaceful priests and two women, but it could have been anyone, that’s why the two condemned men were pardoned.”

But Cuéllar’s testimony helped convince a Spanish judge that the Salvadoran justice system has failed the victims, first by conducting a fraudulent trial and subsequently by refusing to prosecute the intellectual authors.

Cuellar still believes the case should and could be heard in El Salvador. “It would finally open the door to justice for crimes committed before, during and after the war, as it would transcend impunity,” he said

Technically, that would still be possible. The constitutional court is expected to rule imminently on the constitutionality of the amnesty law, and the case remains open at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights which could order El Salvador to reinvestigate the massacre.

But David Morales, the country’s human rights attorney general, is pessimistic. “I see little possibility of justice in El Salvador. The legal process has been manipulated and the most senior judges have violated the constitution, international treaties and national laws,” he said.

The four men arrested in February have applied for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that they have already been tried. Last week, lawyers acting for Montano filed a petition asking for a federal court to overturn the decision to approve his extradition. His appeal is unlikely to succeed, but it will delay his extradition.

Thirteen other men implicated in the crime – including the other intellectual authors – are still at large.

Today, Father Sobrino remains an outspoken proponent of peace and social justice, but says he is uninterested in the legal developments surrounding the atrocity, especially as the country he has chosen to call home remains mired in violence.

In his office full of theological readings and homilies, Sobrino points to framed photos of Ellacuría, Romero and Grande, and says: “All my friends are on the wall, and all of them are dead, assassinated. And the killing continues.”

Source: The Guardian

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