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The Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs & Justice in El Salvador Today



By Geoff Thale*

Candlelight_procession_UCA_5Candlelight procession at the UCATwenty-two years ago this week, Salvadoran troops—under orders from senior military and government officials—executed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter on the campus of the University of Central America. Most people know that the brutality of the November 1989 killings caused international outcry, strengthened the call to end unconditional support for the Salvadoran military, and contributed to the momentum for a negotiated end to the war. The Jesuits are still honored today, in El Salvador and elsewhere, as martyrs for social justice. This week the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador will host a number of commemoration events, and WOLA will be in attendance.

The legacy of the Jesuits is alive today, and evident in two important issues now being debated in El Salvador. The first has to do with amnesty and impunity—whether those with power and influence can commit human rights abuses without fear of prosecution. The second has to do with the strength and role of the military.

Amnesty and Impunity

This past summer, there was a new flurry of interest in the Jesuit case in El Salvador. Five of the six Jesuits, who were executed by Salvadoran soldiers during a rebel offensive in the civil war, were born in Spain. A Spanish judge, at the urging of a Spanish human rights group and its U.S. partner, had opened an investigation into the killings, and in May he issued indictments against twenty retired Salvadoran military officials, including several members of the High Command of the Armed Forces, who he charged with having ordered the executions. One of the twenty died recently. By late July, nine of the accused had been located in El Salvador, and one in the United States. Through Interpol, the judge requested that they be detained while he sought a formal extradition request.

The United States doesn’t typically detain people based on this kind of Interpol request, preferring to wait for a formal extradition request. In this case, however, it has arrested the accused, Colonel Montano, on an immigration charge. What will happen from here remains to be seen.

El Salvador, on the other hand, typically does detain people based on these kinds of requests. When word leaked that the Salvadoran police were preparing to detain the nine accused, the retired officials quickly turned themselves into a military barracks, and through a lawyer, asked the Salvadoran Supreme Court to consider the question of whether they could be legally detained.

In what most observers view as a blatantly political decision, the Court ruled that the defendants could not be detained by the police, and that no legal action against them could be considered until an extradition request was received. The nine retired officers walked jubilantly out of the military barracks, and interest in the case faded again. But now, on the anniversary of the slayings, the case has come back to life. The Spanish judge filed a petition asking Spain’s attorney general to formally request the extradition of thirteen of the defendants.

The Supreme Court of El Salvador—which formally reviews extradition requests—will have to decide whether to honor its international agreements and extradite the defendants. When U.S. authorities receive a request, they too will have to decide how to respond.

For many years politicians on the right (and some on the left as well) in El Salvador have argued that the amnesty law, which was approved in the context of the peace accords, was vital to the end of the war and the political stability of post-war El Salvador. They have made legal arguments about the amnesty law; more significantly, they have made the political argument that investigation and prosecution of wartime human rights abuses would threaten powerful political actors, and that amnesty was the price of peace.

Arguments of that sort are common in post-civil war transitions. But in Latin America, as the experiences of Chile, Argentina, and most recently, Uruguay, show, amnesties that may be politically expedient at a particular historical moment do not have to be locked in place for all time. General Pinochet’s detention order by a Spanish court, eight years after he left office, prompted a debate in Chile that led to a re-opening of wartime human rights investigations. Argentina’s retired generals, after years of living safe from prosecution, have faced a new era in which they may be held to account. Uruguay’s legislature has just overturned a twenty-year-old amnesty agreement.

This suggests to El Salvador that, whatever the ups and downs of the current Spanish investigation may be, the impunity that many human rights abusers have enjoyed may not last forever. The murdered Jesuits stood, among other things, for the notion that the impunity of the powerful—their ability to act without fear of criminal prosecution—undermined justice and equality before the law. On this anniversary, the murdered Jesuits would be pleased to see that their cases, and by extension that of thousands of other Salvadorans, live on.

The Military and Public Security

The Jesuits also stood for the notion that El Salvador ought to be a democracy, ruled by a civilian government, with a military committed to national defense and not involved in domestic politics. One of the great advances of El Salvador’s peace accords was to enshrine that notion. It defined the military’s role as defense of national sovereignty, and it limited their involvement in policing and internal domestic affairs.

Press reports say that the president, in the face of serious problems of crime, is considering naming the current minister of defense, a retired general, as head of the National Civilian Police. This would be a troubling step—a step that the head of the Jesuit University has labeled a ‘golden calf’ solution to the real problems of crime and impunity in El Salvador. The original editorial is available online here, and an English translation is available here.

If the Jesuits would be happy that the struggle for justice continued, they would be disappointed to see that the country is poised to take a step backwards on the role of the military.

* Geoff Thale, WOLA’s director of programs, oversees the entire range of WOLA’s research and advocacy on Latin America policy and human rights issues.

Photo by Thomas Gearty.

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