Home Countries El Salvador El Salvador: Justice closing in on the Jesuits' killers

El Salvador: Justice closing in on the Jesuits’ killers

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In 1989, former vice Minister of Public Safety of El Salvador Inocente Orlando Montano conspired with other high commanders of the Salvadorean armed forces to murder six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her sixteen year old daughter. The group were shot dead in cold blood when a military death squad entered the house they shared just behind the campus of the Catholic university, whose rector was one of those killed. This was one of the last and most desperate attempts by the Salvadorean right to halt the peace process which the Jesuits had done so much to bring about.

Col MontanoMontano never faced justice for his crime until the San Francisco based Center for Justice and Accountability filed the Jesuits Massacre case in Spain and secured an indictment.  As a direct result of CJA’s investigation and case in Spain, Montano was discovered living in Boston and was arrested by U.S. authorities.  The U.S. government charged Montano—not for the massacre—but for committing immigration fraud and perjury by lying about his role in the massacre. 

On August 27, the Montano was sentenced to 21 months in a federal prison on the immigration and perjury charges. CJA welcomed the verdict:

“Today, we are one step closer to justice for the victims of the massacre,” the group said in a statement posted on its website. “CJA commends Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin and his whole team for an exemplary job in this case. The sentence of 21 months sends a message to human-rights abusers that they cannot seek safe haven in the United States and avoid accountability for their actions.

“Now, the extradition process for the trial in Spain can begin, where Montano will be tried for his role as one of the decision-makers who ordered the 1989 killing of the Jesuits in El Salvador. This is the moment of justice that the victims of the massacre deserve.”

The murder of the Jesuits is by no means the only crime attributed to Montero. During the 1980s he commanded the Belloso rapid action infantry battalion, together with the Atlacatl battalion, held responsible for many of the worst atrocities of the Salvadorean civil war. Both units had been trained by the US, the Belloso at Fort Bragg, N.Carolina.

El Calabozo, where the massacre took place.  Credit: Nina Lakhini, Al JazeeraAccording to a report from the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, quoted by the UNHCR on RefWorld, “the Belloso Battalion was involved in a number of massacres in the early 1980s. For example, in May 1982, only months after its formation, the Belloso and other army units were sent into eastern Chalatenango department in an offensive described by one analyst as “clearly aimed at civilians, most of whom supported the FMLN. Hundreds were killed, and the 5,000 who fled were unarmed” (Montgomery 1995, 152). One news report, based on eyewitness accounts, stated, “For a week, the troops killed hundreds of civilians, torched villages, burned crops and chased thousands of peasants into the mountains, where they survived on tortillas and, when necessary, leaves.” (Boston Globe 14 Jul. 1996).

The El Rescate database indicates that the Belloso Battalion also carried out a massacre in Canton Tenango in Cuscatlán department in February 1983, with 29 extrajudicial killings or assassinations recorded. The database, which is extensive though not comprehensive, attributes a total of nearly 80 such killings to the Belloso Battalion between May 1982 and the end of 1985, as well as hundreds of other cases of abuse including torture, illegal capture and sexual assault. A majority of these violations, according to the database, were perpetrated during operations in Morazán and Cuscatlán, two of the most conflictive departments during the war (El Rescate Database, 1992).”

Other crimes of the Belloso battalion under Montero are described by Nina Lakhani in an article on BBC News Magazine. “One is the El Calabozo massacre, in which 200 to 300 campesinos, or peasant farmers, were killed on 22 August 1982 by the Belloso Battalion under Montano’s command, and the equally feared Atlactl Battalion.

“El Calabozo was a scorched-earth operation carried out by the US-trained mobile death squads against alleged guerrilla supporters. The soldiers killed unarmed civilians, kidnapped children for illegal adoptions, bombed homes and destroyed crops.

“The Salvadoran government has never officially recognised that the massacre took place.

“Chunguita Realegeno, 58, who lost her whole family except one son in the massacre, says: “I hid with my baby for three days without food or water because we couldn’t keep walking; I never saw my family again, I only found their bones. I suffer every day and night knowing those who killed my people are still free.”