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It is remembered as one of the great atrocities of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. In 1989, a Salvadoran army battalion raided a private Jesuit college before dawn and executed six priests, their chef and her teenage daughter.
One of the dead, the president of Ignacio Ellacuría University, pushed for dialogue between the US-backed right-wing government and left-wing guerrillas during the country’s civil war. He and four other priests killed were Spanish citizens.
More than 30 years later, a court in Spain next month is expected to rule murder and terrorism against a former Salvadoran army officer for allegedly being the main decision maker. in murder cases.
Prosecutors demanded 150 years in prison for the main defendant, Inocente Orlando Montano, former deputy minister of public security in El Salvador, for the alleged role in the “decision, design or execution” of murder Spanish priest at Central American University in San Salvador.
Montano, 77, is in a wheelchair at the National Court in Madrid during proceedings that began in June. He denied the charges and, on the last day of the trial, July 16, he dismissed the testimony as a “stream of lies.”
Kiko Huesca / EFE via AP
This is a landmark case for human rights activists, lawyers, families of Spanish and Salvador victims as well as US lawmakers who have worked for years to compel those who order the murder are responsible.
Martha Doggett, who was in San Salvador on the day of the murder, said: “I think we need to see the cause of justice as a relay race. She documented this case in her 1993 book Death Predictions: Murders of the Jesuits in El Salvador. “This is a wound in El Salvador that will never heal completely and it won’t until the full truth is known.”
News of the trial has been closely watched in Spain and El Salvador, but Doggett thinks it is also very important to the American audience.
“We, as US citizens, have funded the military in part. We own this story together. It is important to put the complete truth on file,” she said.
The US gave El Salvador more than $ 1 billion in military aid during a war that Washington saw as an important front in the fight against the spread of communism.
More than 75,000 people were killed, 8,000 were missing and more than a million people were displaced. The conflict ended in 1992 with a United Nations-mediated peace agreement.
Experts say that the murder of the Jesuits in 1989 marked a turning point in El Salvador’s civil war.
“US policy changed with the murder of Jesuits,” said scholar Terry Lynn Karl, who has studied the case for decades. Washington started asking for accountability or else it would cut off aid, she explained. International outrage and a congressional investigation led the US government to withdraw support for El Salvador’s military regime.
Karl testified for six hours as an expert witness, via video, during the Madrid trial. She told the Spanish judges a well-known list had appeared in the press and military radio threats, specifically aimed at these Jesuits. “The murderous army is threatening people,” she then told NPR.
“I have given the Spanish court 34 pages of attacks against the Catholic Church and the Jesuits,” she said. “It’s not easy in Latin America to kill a priest so you have to build an environment that allows you to do that.”
Luis Romero / AP
After the murder, El Salvador’s high command initially tried to blame the rebels for carrying out an attack on the capital days before the priests were killed.
“I know the military has done that,” said Luis Parada, a Salvadoran military intelligence officer. “I didn’t know that the military would cover it up. It wasn’t over my mind.”
Parada said he was meeting with top intelligence and military commanders when the execution was reported back to headquarters on an internal military radio station. He was one of the first officials to go to Central American University. “I went to see them with my own eyes. When I saw the bodies, I was shocked,” he said.
Parada said that he testified during the Madrid trial that there was a “top-level institutional cover-up.”
Currently living in Washington, DC, Parada’s role in court is crucial as a key witness and a former military officer testifying against others. “It is my duty,” he said. “Some people live the principle of silence. I live the principle of honor.”
Montano also resided in the United States, in Everett, Mass., Until the US government extradited him to Spain in 2017. El Salvador refused to hand over the accused officers in Spain. .
“What the Spaniards did was open up a conversation about peace, about justice,” Karl said as he awaited his verdict. “The past has the claws of the future. You cannot have truth, you cannot have historical memories, if you don’t know what happened in the past.”
Spain’s general jurisdiction principle means that it can adjudicate alleged war crimes in any country.
But Karl said, “This trial should be in El Salvador. Justice is always closest to where the crime is committed.”
She hopes the trial in Spain promotes accountability in El Salvador. “It worsens their judiciary, it worsens their political system. The senior people are involved,” she said.
The Spanish court provided a live video of the proceedings for everyone to follow in El Salvador, and the feed was broadcast on social media and various news outlets. The Salvadoran news site, El Faro, recorded 69,000 views on the last day of the trial.
Almudena Bernabéu said: “It is midnight and early morning in El Salvador., a Spanish human rights lawyer. She is a member of the prosecution team and co-founder of the Guernica Group that promotes accountability in international criminal and human rights cases. She appeared in court on video from her home in San Francisco.
Bernabéu has spent more than a decade building the case, building on a declassified US archive of documents, including from the State Department, the CIA and the FBI.
“There is only one positive aspect to time lapse,” she said, referring to the records that persuaded the Spanish judges to proceed.
“It is state terror, killing five Spanish priests using the state apparatus,” Bernabéu told NPR after the trial.
Among the court filings, a telegram from the US Embassy in San Salvador on February 19, 1991, making it clear that embassy officials were aware that the El Salvador army had played a role in murders and cover-ups.
“In the 12 months since ESAF responsible for the killings was revealed,” the telegram mentioned to the armed forces. “The military leadership has resisted all calls for what is honestly calculated [it] must have right from the start – the truth. “