Thirty years after Jesuit killings in El Salvador, trial begins in Madrid

Five Spanish priests were among those murdered in the 1989 massacre, including Ignacio Ellacuría, a prominent figure who defended dialogue between the guerrillas and the government during the civil war

In this Aug. 22, 2013 file photo, former El Salvadoran military colonel Inocente Orlando Montano walks out of federal court in Boston.
In this Aug. 22, 2013 file photo, former El Salvadoran military colonel Inocente Orlando Montano walks out of federal court in Boston.Steven Senne / AP

After a legal battle lasting more than 30 years, two men will stand trial in Madrid on Monday accused of involvement in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador.

The killings, perpetrated at a time when the United States was backing El Salvador’s anti-communist military regime, drew international attention to the civil war in the Central American country.

On November 16, 1989, six Catholic priests, their cook and the latter’s teenage daughter were shot inside their lodgings at the Central American University (UCA). One of them was the university rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, a prominent figure who defended dialogue between the guerrillas and the government.

Five of the victims were Spaniards, and the Spanish justice system has been trying for years to bring their killers to trial.

The defendants are former colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, who was the vice minister of public security of El Salvador at the time, and one of his aides, René Yusshy Mendoza. Both are accused of participating in the “design” and “execution” of the killings. Prosecutors are seeking a prison term of 150 years for Montano.

“For us, holding this trial is a very important step,” said José María Tojeira, a colleague of the victims who went on to become rector of UCA, in a telephone interview on Sunday. “The legal proceedings in Spain have always had great repercussion in El Salvador, and have served to bolster the Salvadoran proceedings against other alleged intellectual authors behind the murders – proceedings that were practically at a standstill.” The country passed an amnesty law in 1993, one year after the end of the 12-year war.

Spanish public prosecutors and the Pro Human Rights Association of Spain, which filed a private criminal complaint over the slayings along with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), are focusing their accusation on Montano, who is now in his seventies.

The former Salvadoran commander is described as a prominent member of La Tandona, a graduating class of far-right army officers who held key positions in the army and in government. He was allegedly part of a group of officials who gave the orders to kill the Spaniards Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Amando López, Juan Ramón Moreno, as well as the Salvadoran priest Joaquín López, the cook Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina.

The victims have been described as “the martyrs of UCA” by the university, which in 1990 was granted Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and the Humanities for its “defense of freedom and dialogue.”

Montano was extradited to Spain by the US in November 2017 after a long legal battle that began in 2011 when a Spanish judge charged him and others with murder. The former Salvadoran official had been living in Boston since 2001.

He was placed in pre-trial custody by Judge Manuel García-Castellón of Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, who noted that just days before the multiple murders, Montano had used the state radio network to issue death threats against the victims.

He was also part of “a structure outside the law that gravely altered the public peace with executions of civilians and forced disappearances,” according to the public prosecution. The investigation includes declassified material from the US State Department, Defense Department and the CIA.

Uncomfortable presence

Father Ellacuría, a native of the Basque town of Portugalete, had become a very uncomfortable public figure for the government of El Salvador, and he was viewed as an enemy by far-right groups operating in the country during the long civil war.

A proponent of liberation theology, a doctrine that focused on the plight of the poor, Ellacuría also supported holding peace talks between the revolutionary guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the government.

“It takes great courage to live in a country where the weapons of death explode with despairing frequency and threateningly close,” said Ellacuría just a few days before his own death, during a trip to Spain. “I am overwhelmed by the reality of terrorism. I am ready to work to promote human rights [...] I would like to support all reasonable efforts to maintain the dialogue/negotiation in the most effective manner possible,” he wrote in a letter dated November 9, 1989 and addressed to Colonel Juan Antonio Martínez Varela, then the minister of the Presidency of El Salvador.

José María Tojeira, who served as UCA rector, believes that the trial will help reactivate legal proceedings in El Salvador against five other men accused of helping plot the killings.

“There has always been a lot of reluctance here to an investigation. But in 2016, thanks in part to international pressure, we managed to get the amnesty law declared unconstitutional,” he said. “That allowed the case to be reopened.”

“It’s been a long time,” he adds. “We don’t have a problem with them [the defendants] being granted clemency measures after the trials, due to their advanced age. We believe in truth and in justice, so that these crimes will not take place again. And we also believe in forgiveness.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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