Murdered on November 16, 1989, The Martyred Jesuits of San Salvador Massacre Find a Semblance of Justice in 2020

Original paintings by Mary Pimmel-Freeman, Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador and Their Companions courtesy of the National Security Archive.

The sun had not yet risen on November 16, 1989 when a group of Salvadoran Army soldiers surrounded the Pastoral Center of the University of Central America in San Salvador, and began pounding upon the doors and windows. They yelled for the Jesuit priests sleeping inside to come out.

One of the priests appeared on the balcony above them and admonished the soldiers, “Wait, I am coming to open the door, but don’t keep making so much noise.”

Five startled priests emerged – Fathers Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López – and were led to a courtyard where they were told to lay on the grass. They began to pray before being shot and killed.

The soldiers then entered the center, where they found and killed Father Joaquín López y López, the Jesuits’ housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter Celina. 

The priests were targeted by the Salvadoran Army after Ellacuría had attempted to negotiate a peace deal between the Salvadoran Army and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), with whom it had been engaged in a brutal, bloody civil war for nearly a decade. Ellacuría and his colleagues had been marked for death after proposing a peace deal which called for the removal of a number of the Army’s senior officers known to have been responsible for the death of thousands of innocent civilians. 

The soldiers painted graffiti on the walls implicating the FMLN in the massacre before leaving, but after a decade of fighting there was little doubt about who was responsible for the massacre.

For thirty years the family and friends of those murdered on November 16, 1989 had sought in vain to achieve some semblance of justice for this crime. This year, on September 11, 2020, they finally got a little bit.

Read on for a post from the National Security Archive describing this year’s extraordinary developments. Visit the Archive for the original post and an abundance of further information on this case, much of it from official U.S. documents which the organization has developed considerable expertise obtaining. – RR


Washington D.C., September 11, 2020 – In a highly-anticipated, and long-awaited ruling, the National Court of Spain today convicted a retired Salvadoran military colonel for acts of state terrorism and murder in the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenaged daughter more than thirty years ago.  The tribunal, presided by lead judge José Antonio Mora Alarcón, found retired Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano “guilty … of five counts of murder of a terrorist nature.”

The historic judgement marks the culmination of decades of work by the families of the victims, the Jesuit community, lawyers, experts, scholars, eyewitnesses, and human rights organizations in the United States and in El Salvador to bring to justice those responsible for the shocking crimes committed on the morning of November 16, 1989.

And it represents another milestone for the unique legal concept of “Universal Jurisdiction” as applied in the Spanish courts.  “Without justice there is no peace, no reconciliation and no forgiveness,” observes Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, the human rights legal advocacy firm which represented victims in the Jesuit case. “Universal justice is not only justice, it is solidarity and hope for the victims.”

The ruling in Madrid also validates the work of the National Security Archive, which supplied hundreds of declassified documents as evidence in the case against Montano. Since its founding in 1985, the Archive has fought to open the secret U.S. archives on El Salvador, amassing a vast collection of records through the Freedom of Information Act and discretionary declassifications. Exhuming the buried secrets of the U.S. role in Salvador’s bloody civil war has been “trabajo de hormiga,” as they say in Spanish–ant’s work, tiny step by tiny step. But over the years it has led to the accumulation of an extraordinary trove of official reporting, new details, context, and corroborative evidence that has proven crucial in the prosecution of human rights violators.

Almudena Bernabeu, the Spanish human rights attorney who originally filed the case against the Salvadoran high command for killing the Jesuits, and co-founder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, high-lighted the value of the records in a videotaped statement she posted in August. The prosecution team chose to draw on testimonies, expert analysis, and documentary evidence, she explained, so that they could tell “not only the story of how the crime happened but also to establish the political context in which El Salvador was living in 1989.” According to Bernabeu, “that is the most important aspect of these trials: not to have only legal rigor but a historical rigor as well.”

While witnesses in the Jesuit case detailed the massacre, the declassified documents provided the historical context in which it occurred, as well as clear evidence of the military’s culpability despite a massive coverup. Embassy cables, CIA reports and Defense Intelligence Agency accounts described how US officials reluctantly arrived at the realization that it was their own allies in the El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF) who ordered and implemented the plot to kill the priests.

“Despite advancements in other areas,” cabled then-Ambassador William Walker in bitter frustration in 1991, “on the Jesuit case the ESAF remains committed to a hermetic conspiracy to protect its own at whatever cost.”

“In the 12 months since ESAF responsibility for the murders was revealed,” he continued, “the military’s leadership has resisted all appeal for an honest accounting of what it must have possessed from the beginning – the truth.”

This document, titled, “The ESAF and the Jesuit Case: Reaching the End of the Rope,” among so many others, was provided to the Spanish authorities as evidence in the case.

As director of the National Security Archive’s El Salvador Documentation Project, in 2009, I flew to Madrid to testify before the National Court of Spain and authenticate the hundreds of documents the Archive turned over to prosecutors. Stanford University specialist Professor Terry L. Karl drew on the declassified records for her expert analysis of the Jesuit case; the investigating magistrate, Judge Eloy Velasco, cited the U.S. records in his 77-page decision to indict 20 military officers for the assassinations and order a trial of the defendants.

The Salvadoran government refused to cooperate with the Spanish court, delaying the legal proceedings for years. But in 2017, the United States took the unusual step of extraditing Montano to Madrid, six years after he had been arrested while living outside of Boston and convicted on charges of immigration fraud. (He had been living quietly in the United States since 2001 and when he was arrested he worked in a candy factory.)

Although Montano is only one of 19 senior officers indicted for planning the murders, ordering a special death squad of soldiers from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion to execute the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, and orchestrating a cover up of the military’s actions, Montano’s conviction is larger than one man and one crime. His conviction stands as a historic victory for accountability over impunity for the thousands of human rights atrocities committed under his command.

“These acts were not an aberration,” as Terry Karl concluded in her expert report:

“Throughout his 30-year military career, Colonel Montano demonstrated a pattern of ordering, abetting and assisting, and/or commanding troops that participated in state terror against civilians. Documented human rights abuses include extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearance and arbitrary detention, the toleration of military-led death squads operating inside units under his command, rural massacres of hundreds civilian non-combatants at a time, and the forced disappearance of children.”

In the Madrid courtroom today, Montano was sentenced to 133 years in prison: 26 years and 8 months for each of the five victims represented in the case.

I have participated in a dozen historic human rights trials throughout the Americas. I have witnessed convictions of perpetrators who enjoyed ten, twenty, even thirty years of impunity before justice caught up with them. These cases send a universal message to the torturers, the murderers in repressive regimes that the world is watching. Montano’s conviction demonstrates anew that there are countries, lawyers, organizations, and victims who make up a community of human rights advocates who are going to find them and bring them to justice.

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