Ex-Salvadoran colonel to be tried over murder of six priests in 1989

Inocente Orlando Montano accused of planning atrocity aimed at stopping peace talks.

A former Salvadoran army colonel who served as a government security minister will appear in court in Madrid on Monday to face trial over the murders of six Jesuit priests, a woman and her teenage daughter in 1989.

The attack, at the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, was planned and authorized by senior military commanders and was an attempt to derail peace talks aimed at ending the country’s civil war.

But the atrocity backfired spectacularly, provoking international outrage and contributing to the US’s decision to pull its support for El Salvador’s military regime.

Five of the murdered priests were Spaniards, and the trial is taking place in Madrid under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows human rights crimes committed in one country to be investigated and tried in another.

The principal defendant, Inocente Orlando Montano, was extradited to Spain from the US, where he had lived for 16 years.

Two officers served short sentences in El Salvador but Montano and other high-level officials accused of planning the murders were never charged by authorities in the Central American country.

Although Montano has denied involvement in the killings, a federal judge in North Carolina ruled that evidence “showed” he took part in the plot and approved his extradition to Spain in November 2017.

Spanish prosecutors allege that he and another defendant, former soldier Yusshy René Mendoza, took part in “the decision, design and execution” of the murders.

The trial, which will be held in two sessions – two days this month and then from 8 to 16 July – will be live-streamed to allow people in El Salvador to follow the proceedings.

It will look into the events of 16 November 1989, when soldiers from an elite, US-trained counter-insurgency battalion entered the priests’ lodgings and carried out an attack on the pretext of searching the campus for FMLN rebels.

An AK-47 rifle taken from the guerrillas was used in the murders in an apparent effort to pin the blame on the FMLN and so scupper peace talks.

The UCA’s 59-year-old rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuría – originally from Bilbao and a key player in the peace negotiations – was shot dead, as were Ignacio Martín-Baró, 47, and Segundo Montes, 56, both from Valladolid; Juan Ramón Moreno, 56, from Navarra, and Amando López, 53, from Burgos.

The soldiers killed a Salvadoran Jesuit, Joaquin López y López, 71, in his room before murdering Julia Elba Ramos, 42, and her daughter, Celina, 15. Ramos was the housekeeper for another group of Jesuits, but lived on the university campus with her husband and daughter.

El Salvador’s truth commission, which looked into the country’s 12-year civil war, found that Montano was present at two meetings at which the massacre was planned.

According to the commission, Col René Ponce, the head of the joint chiefs of staff, ordered the troops to kill Ellacuría and leave no witnesses. Ponce died in 2011.

Almudena Bernabéu, a Spanish human rights lawyer who helped build the case against Montano and get him extradited, said the murders had marked a turning point in El Salvador’s civil war. “The people of El Salvador, who are extraordinarily strong and resilient, see this crime as the ultimate proof of what was done to them as a people,” she told the Guardian.

“Some of the victims were sophisticated, white, upper-middle-class Spaniards, but they’d earned the trust of the people – they were their hope and voices around the world. Ellacuría had really engaged in peace negotiations and he was lobbying the US to find some common sense and stop financially supporting the military and to put an end to the war.”

Bernabéu, a member of the prosecution team and co-founder of the Guernica Group, said El Salvador’s postwar amnesty law had allowed some of those behind the atrocity to escape justice and to reinvent themselves as rich businessmen and aspiring politicians.

“It’s not just a crime that happened 30 years ago, it’s about what impunity really means,” she said.

• This article was amended on 8 June 2020 to clarify that Ramos was not the cook for the priests who were killed as an earlier version said but was the housekeeper for a different group of Jesuits.

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