Spain: Trial Begins for Former Salvadoran Colonel Accused of ’89 Jesuit Massacre

The trial of a former US-trained Salvadoran military officer accused of involvement in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter began Monday in Spain’s national court in Madrid.

El País reports former colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, who was El Salvador’s vice minister of public security in 1989, stands charged with murder, while another defendant, former army lieutenant René Yusshy Mendoza has agreed to assist in the prosecution of Montano, his former boss. Both men are accused of participating in the “decision, design or execution of the [Jesuit] killings." Both are also graduates of the notorious US Army School of the Americas.

According to National Catholic Reporter, Montano, 76, appeared in court seated in a wheelchair to face charges that carry a potential sentence of 150 years in prison. Spain decided to pursue the case under the country’s landmark universal jurisdiction law, its stance bolstered by the fact that five of the six slain priests were Spanish. Universal jurisdiction allows states or international organizations to claim legal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where they are from or are currently located, or where the alleged crime occurred.

Like many former officials from the US-backed Salvadoran military dictatorship, Montano had found refuge in the United States, where he lived for 16 years before being extradited to Spain in 2017. El Salvador has refused to extradite 16 other suspects charged in connection with the case.

Mendoza, who led the patrol that murdered the eight civilians, has confessed to his role in the massacre. Crux reports that his lawyer argued Monday during the opening session of the trial that his client should be excluded from the case under the statute of limitations.

Many Salvadorans and human rights advocates around the world welcomed the start of the trial. "For us, holding this trial is a very important step," José María Tojeira, a colleague of the victims who went on to become rector of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA El Salvador), the campus where the massacre occurred, told El País. "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."

According to Spanish Judge Manuel García-Castellón of the Audiencia Naciónal (national high court), Montano, who was jailed after his extradition, was part of "a structure outside the law that gravely altered the public peace with executions of civilians and forced disappearances. The prosecution partially relied upon declassified US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents during its investigation.

Tojeira said that he has no problem with the defendant being granted clemency due to his age. "We believe in truth and justice, so that these crimes will not take place again," he told El País. "And we also believe in forgiveness."

In the pre-dawn darkness of November 16, 1989, more than 20 members of the elite Atlacatl Battalion forced their way into the residence of six prominent Jesuit priests on the UCA campus in the capital, San Salvador. Along with leftists, indigenous campesinos and academics, clergy who spoke out in defense of the military regime’s victims were favorite targets of Atlacatl atrocities. The six Jesuit priests had made the fatal mistake of supporting a negotiated settlement between the regime and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels after a decade of bloody civil war, and they paid for it with their lives.

According to a report by El Salvador’s postwar United Nations Truth Commission, Atlacatl troops disguised as rebels rounded up five of the six priests – university rector Ignacio Ellacuria Beas Coechea, vice-rector Ignacio Martín-Baró, social sciences dean Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López – before ordering them to lie face-down on the ground in a garden where they were executed. The attackers then discovered Father Joaquín López y López and killed him too, along with housekeeper Julia Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Celina Ramos.

The Atlacatl Battalion was created in 1980 at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), then located in Panama but since relocated to Ft. Benning, Georgia and renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). SOA is sometimes called the School of Assassins and the School of Coups because it has produced so many of both, including the drug trafficking Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, Bolivian despot Hugo Banzer, Haitian death squad dictator Raoul Cédras and Argentine "Dirty War" dictator Leopoldo Galtieri, to name but a few. Banzer, who sheltered the Nazi fugitive Klaus Barbie, aka the "Butcher of Lyon," is among the alumni honored in the school’s "Hall of Fame."

At least hundreds of war criminals from throughout the hemisphere have been trained at the SOA by US military and intelligence operatives, sometimes with US manuals that taught murder, torture, kidnapping and democracy suppression. Salvadoran SOA graduates planned, approved, committed or concealed some of the most infamous atrocities of the civil war, including the March 1980 assassination of the country’s beloved archbishop, Oscar Romero and the kidnapping, rape and murder of four US churchwomen later that same year.

Although the Atlacatl Battalion was hailed by US officials as "the pride of the United States military team in El Salvador," it is also notorious for committing some of the worst human rights crimes during the country’s 1979-1992 civil war. Atlacatl officers and troops, many of them SOA alumni, carried out mass rape and the wholesale murder of more than 900 villagers, mostly women, children and the elderly, at El Mozote on December 11, 1981, the slaughter of 117 civilians at Lake Suchitlan in 1983 and the massacre of 68 people, many of them children, at Los Llanitos the following year, to name but a handful of the unit’s many crimes.

According to the Truth Commission report, 26 Salvadoran soldiers were involved in the Jesuit massacre. Of these, 19 were SOA graduates, including General Juan Rafael Bustillo and three others soldiers believed to be responsible for the 1989 torture, rape and murder of French Médecins Sans Frontières nurse Madeleine Lagadec.

Elliott Abrams, the Reagan administration’s "death squad ambassador" in Central America, hailed the US record in El Salvador as "one of fabulous achievement." More than 70,000 men, women and children died during the Salvadoran civil war. The Truth Commission investigation concluded that 85 percent of the more than 22,000 atrocities that were reported during the war were committed by the US-backed military regime and associated forces.

In 2018 it emerged that beginning in 2003 the US quietly resumed funding and arming elite Salvadoran paramilitary units accused of extrajudicial murder and other human rights crimes, with support for the government’s brutal "Mano Dura" ("Firm Hand") security program increasing significantly during the Obama administration.

Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.