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El Salvador: Madrid trial for the UCA murders

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  • On 16 November 1989 six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year old daughter were shot dead at their home in San Salvador by army soldiers. Five of the six priests were Spanish citizens.
  • Ex-Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano is on trial in Madrid, accused of involvement in the murder.
  • The hearings took place before the Audiencia Nacional, a division of the Spanish High Court, in June and July 2020. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the public was not allowed in the court, but the hearings were transmitted by a Basque TV channel and the YouTube channel of the Audiencia Nacional. A verdict is expected in the near future.
  • The civil war in El Salvador is estimated to have cost over 70,000 lives, mostly non-combatants. The report of the UN-backed Truth Commission lists almost thirty major atrocities during the twelve-year period between 1980 and the signing of the peace agreement in 1992.
  • Some cases stand out: those of St Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, the four US American women missionaries, and the victims of the atrocity carried out at the Central American University of San Salvador (UCA) on 16 November 1989. 
  • Six of the 1989 victims were Jesuits: Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice-Rector; Segundo Montes, director of the Human Rights Institute; Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, all teachers at UCA; with them were killed Julia Elba Ramos, their housekeeper, and her 15-year old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos.
  • In 1991 two members of El Salvador’s military were convicted of the murders, but released 15 months later under an amnesty. 
  • In November 2008, a new case was filed, this time in Spain, by the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) and the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA).
  • El Salvador refuses to extradite any suspects, but one of those allegedly involved, Inocente Orlando Montano, former colonel and former deputy public security minister of El Salvador, was serving a sentence in the US for immigration fraud, and was extradited from there to Spain.

Stop-press

On Friday 11 September, Inocente Orlando Montano was convicted by the Audiencia Nacional (the equivalent of the UK’s Old Bailey criminal court) in Madrid for the murder of the five Jesuits, and sentenced to 133 years imprisonment.

Three other victims (a Jesuit priest, the housekeeper and her daughter) were not included in the indictment because they were Salvadorean citizens.

June hearings

Video: “Trial begins in Spain for the murder of Jesuit priests”. Canal 12 El Salvador. YouTube. 8 June 2020.

I had nothing to do with the military, and ‘my responsibilities were limited to the security forces of the police’, was the implausible assertion of Inocente Orlando Montano, former colonel and former deputy public security minister of El Salvador, as he began his evidence on Tuesday 10 June at his trial in Madrid for involvement in the murder of six Jesuits, their cook and her daughter at El Salvador’s Central American University (UCA) on 16 November 1989.

No cross-examination of the ex-minister was allowed, as he had exercised his right to answer only questions from his counsel. A request from the human rights organisations that had helped to bring the case to have their questions read into the court record was refused in case it affected his right not to make statements.

Sr.Montano nevertheless agreed that he had been a member of the army year group known as la tandona, the ‘class of 1986’, whose members ended up ‘by chance’ in the senior posts of El Salvador’s General Staff. Montano also admitted being aware of a well-known death squad known as Los Maneques (“the mates”), which he described as ‘a group of extreme right-wing civilians who ran the capital of El Salvador’.

Montano insisted he had nothing against Fr Ellacuría, whom he described as an eminent political scientist who had good relations with Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani and was an adviser to him, and also had good contacts with the FMLN guerrillas. He claimed that the Jesuits had orchestrated the 1979 coup that overthrew the military regime of General Francisco Romero. The former colonel then claimed that there were photos and videos showing the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino ‘training 10 or 12-year old boys to use AK47s’. The Salvadoran Jesuits have denounced this claim as false. Fr Rodolfo Cardenal, director of the UCA’s Monseñor Romero Centre, said that there is a photo of the ceremony at which the guerrillas handed over their weapons in which another Jesuit, Fr Jon Cortina, is shown holding a rifle.

This was perhaps the one point at which the court heard the real Montano, recycling the lurid fantasies about the Jesuits that circulated in the 1980s among the Salvadoran military. The picture ex-colonel Montano painted of himself in the Madrid court varies considerably from the account given by the UN-backed El Salvador Truth Commission in 1992. According to the Commission, on the night before the murder Col. Montano attended a meeting with the Chief of the General Staff, Col. Emilio Ponce, at which Col. Alfredo Benavides was given orders to kill Fr Ellacuría and leave no witnesses. The Commission report also describes Montano as saying publicly that the Jesuits were in sympathy with the guerrillas.

The 1991 trial

On the third day of the hearing the court heard from José Luis Navarro and Enrique Arnaldo, two lawyers who in 1991, as representatives of the Spanish parliament, attended the trial in El Salvador of nine soldiers accused of the UCA murders . Arnaldo said that the whole procedure had consisted in the reading of documents: the accused were not questioned; no evidence was presented and there were no expert witnesses. 

The jury refused to visit the crime scene. Even the judge had been uncomfortable. The Spanish observers felt the atmosphere to be hostile. The families of the accused were in court, and the defence lawyers called on the jury to ignore international pressure. Outside the court, there was the noise of sirens and a military helicopter flying so low that it was hard to hear what was being said.

The trial lasted two and a half days, and on the last afternoon the observers went to the Spanish embassy to rest, expecting to have to wait a day or more for the verdict. To their surprise they were summoned back to court that evening to hear that the seven most senior officers had been acquitted and two more junior had been convicted; these two were subsequently amnestied in 1993.

Now in Madrid, in 2020, the hearing was then been suspended until 8 July, when the court was to hear evidence from René Yushy Mendoza, a former lieutenant who took part on the attack on the UCA. At the opening of the hearing on 8 June, the court accepted that Mendoza’s own crime was covered by the statute of limitations and that the former soldier was willing to give evidence for the prosecution.     

In a commentary as the trial opened, the Central American Jesuits and the UCA issued a statement in which they said: ‘The pain caused by a crime is not healed by allowing it to be forgotten, but by recognition of the truth, repentance and the restoration of the victims’ dignity.  This is the path of Christian forgiveness. The Society of Jesus and the authorities of the UCA have expressed their readiness to forgive those who planned and carried out this horrendous crime. Nevertheless, it is necessary that the whole truth should be known, and the various responsibilities elucidated, which is the task of the courts, so that forgiveness can afterwards be offered.’

Knowing the truth of what happened in this and other cases will be a benefit for El Salvador, will contribute to justice for the victims, will be a huge step in the process of reconciliation and will bring peace to the killers themselves.

Society of Jesus & Universidad Centro-Americana José Simeón Cañas

July hearings

Video: “If there was no counter-order to assassinate the Jesuits, Cristiani had to have approved it”. Summary of the fourth day of the trial of the Jesuit case. This video contains important moments from the statements of Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza, Henry Campos, Lucía Barrea de Cerna and Jorge Cerna. YouTube. 9 July 2020.

The trial of Inocente Orlando Montano resumed in Madrid on 8 July. The first day was devoted to the evidence of Yushy René Mendoza, who had been a lieutenant in the Salvadoran army and had accompanied the unit of the élite Alacatl battalion that carried out the murders.  Mendoza gave evidence by video-link from Chile since on his release from prison in 1993 he had been advised to leave El Salvador for his own safety. The Spanish prosecutors had accepted that sufficient time had elapsed since the murders for a prosecution of the witness to be impossible, and he gave evidence for the prosecution.

Mendoza said he had accompanied the El Alacatl unit to the UCA, but had not fired a weapon. When he first arrived he saw Elba and Celina sitting in their house, but when he returned a few minutes later Elba had been ‘almost cut in two by bullets’, and she was lying over Celia’s body as though to shield her.

Much of the questioning of Mendoza focused on who had given the order for the killing. Mendoza said Colonel Guillermo Benavides, who ordered the attack on the UCA, had been at a meeting of the high command on the premises of the General Staff, which would have included Montano. According to Mendoza, Benavides said that the Salvadoran president, Alfredo Cristiani, had been informed of the decision to kill the Jesuits and might countermand the decision, but he did not. This version was confirmed by a diary written by Benavides, which was presented in evidence. Asked by Montano’s defence counsel if he had not returned to El Salvador because he feared arrest, Mendoza said it was because he was afraid he might be killed, ‘among other things, because I am giving evidence here’.

The court also heard from two Salvadoran human rights prosecutors who had investigated the murders, Álvaro Henry Campos and Edward Sidney Blanco. Campos said that there was so much security in the area surrounding the UCA that it would have been impossible for a military unit to enter the UCA without senior officers being aware of it. He also described the trial that took place for the murders in El Salvador as ‘strange’, and said that a verdict was ‘imposed’. Sr Blanco said the state had ‘invented a story’.

Some of the most moving evidence came from Lucía Barrerra and her husband Jorge Cerna. Lucía did cleaning for the Jesuits at the UCA and the provincial house. Because of the guerrilla offensive, they felt unable to stay in their house in Soyapango on the other side of San Salvador, and Lucía asked Fr Martín-Baró if he could put them and their four-year-old daughter up at the UCA, and he agreed. 

In the middle of the night of the 15/16 November, they were awakened by the sound of shooting. Lucía went to a window and saw soldiers. When the soldiers left she ventured out and saw the bodies of the Jesuits. She ran to the provincial house and told the provincial, Fr José-María Tejeira. The Jesuits later took them to the Spanish embassy, where they gave a statement. They were later moved to the French embassy, where there was greater security.

The Jesuits advised them to leave El Salvador for their own safety, and a French minister arranged for them to be taken on a French military aircraft to Miami. On the flight, they were intercepted by Richard Chichester, a legal officer of the US embassy in El Salvador. When they reached Miami Chichester diverted them from the Jesuits who had come to meet them and handed them over to the FBI, who subjected them to bullying and hectoring, and succeeded in getting them to withdraw their original statement.

We forgave the murderers right from the start. We are Jesuits. We have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and it’s that attitude: Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

Fr José María Tojeira

On Thursday 9 July, the court heard from Fr José María Tojeira, at the time of the murders Jesuit provincial in Central America and also a former rector of the UCA. Asked about the claim that the UCA was ‘a nest of communists’, he replied that ‘all sorts of people’ studied at the university, including the children of military officers. Commenting on a letter from Lt Mendoza in which he asked for forgiveness for not doing anything to prevent the murders, Fr Tojeira said: ‘We forgave the murderers right from the start. We are Jesuits. We have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and it’s that attitude: Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’

Final session

‘So many lies,’ says Montano as the El Salvador murder trial ends.

Video: “Former Colonel Inocente Montano in trial of Jesuits”. YouTube. 15 July 2020.

On Wednesday 15 July, the last day of his trial in Madrid, Inocente Orlando Montano devoted most of his closing remarks to defending his fellow officers in the ‘class of 1986’, the so-called tandona, whose members occupied senior positions in the Salvadoran army. Having previously exercised his right not to be questioned by the prosecution, he asserted his right to have the last word. In addition to defending the tandona, he attacked the report of the El Salvador Truth Commission, set up as part of the peace agreement sponsored by the United Nations that ended the civil war. The report, Montano said, has been written: ‘by our enemies, the political advisers in the UCA’.

The former minister opened his address to the court by criticising the Madrid hearing for ‘various defects, not only technical but also moral’. The evidence of the experts who had given evidence on behalf of the Jesuits’ families had been ‘a stream of lies’. ‘The tandona of which I was a member for my thirty years of service, and still am – because this organisation hasn’t gone away,’ was a sort of dining club. ‘Every year we meet in December to celebrate birthdays and significant events. The accusation against my comrade Colonel Benavides was largely based on what was said in El Salvador by the soldiers who took part in the operation. They didn’t say anything about people higher up.’ 

‘The people higher up… because it was our turn ‘

The people higher up, according to the prosecution, included Montano, and it was they who ordered Benavides to send members of the Atlacatl battalion into the UCA. Montano stressed his Catholic faith: ‘I am a Catholic, a believer, and I ask my Lord Jesus to enlighten me as I speak.’ He insisted that there was no ‘preconceived plan or intention or desire to murder the fathers. It was a very big mistake made by the soldiers. I deny any responsibility on the part of the high command. I deny all responsibility on the part of those of us who were mentioned by the Truth Commission report. The report was written in the UCA, nowhere else. It was written by the UCA political advisers and they labelled the whole class of 1986 real delinquents, kidnappers, thieves, rapists, common murderers. President Cristiani did not choose us as members of the high command because we were exceptional in the armed forces, but for length of service, because it was our turn. We had had 25 years’ service when he promoted us, and he made the decision also on the basis of our service records. There is nothing against me in the records of the courts in El Salvador.’

As he ended his address, Montano turned to counsel for the family of Ignacio Martín-Baró to offer – he struggled for the word – his condolences.


This article is a revised version of reports by the same author that appeared in The Tablet and in Romero News.

A moving interview with Carlos Martín-Baró, Ignacio’s brother, was published in The Guardian on 7 September 2020.

Main image: Mural of the martyrs of the UCA. By GuanacoSolido503. 23 April 2019.

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