By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
More than 30 years after the assassination of six Jesuits and two of their collaborators in El Salvador, those accused of planning the murders are going on trial on Monday in Madrid, Spain. The trial begins at 15:00 (Madrid time) and will be broadcast live.
Five of the murdered priests were Spaniards. The trial is taking place in Spain under the principle of "universal jurisdiction", which allows human rights crimes committed in one country to be tried in another.
Spanish prosecutors allege that the principal defendant, Innocent Orlando Montano, an ex-Salvadorian colonel and a former soldier, Yusshy René Mendoza, took part in the “decision, design and execution” of the murders.
Welcoming news of the trial, the Director of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (UCA) and former provincial of the Central American Jesuits, Father José María Tojeira, SJ, said that it is “good news for justice.” He added that it “strengthens the pending case” of the murder of six Jesuit intellectuals and their two collaborators.
16 November 1989
Nearly thirty-one years ago, in the early hours of 16 November 1989, soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the UCA and murdered Jesuit Fathers Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Amando López, Juan Ramón Moreno, and Segundo Montes, all Spaniards; and Joaquín López y López, the only Salvadorean. The soldiers also killed Julia Elba Ramos, the wife of the caretaker at the UCA and a collaborator of the Jesuits, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Celina.
The attack at the UCA was allegedly planned and authorized by senior military personnel in an attempt to derail peace talks aimed at ending the country’s civil war.
The long road to justice
Father Tojeira remembers that it took almost a month and a half of confronting the Salvadoran government before it accepted responsibility for the actions of the soldiers.
The initial trials, which took place between 1989 and 1992 in El Salvador, ended with the acquittal of the perpetrators of the crime.
However, in 1993, the Truth Commission created to investigate the crimes committed during the country’s twelve-year civil war, divulged the names of five senior officers involved in authorizing the assassination. Among them was Colonel Montano, the vice-minister of public security at the time of the killings.
Soon after, the Legislative Assembly passed a general amnesty law covering all crimes committed during the war.
Reopening the Case
In 1999, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) asked El Salvador to reopen the case but the request was refused by the then-President, Francisco Guillermo Flores.
One year later, the Jesuits filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office accusing the officials named by the Truth Commission as the masterminds behind the murders. The complaint also involved former president Alfredo Christiani and former Minister of Defense, General Larios, who were both accused of involvement by the omission of their duty to protect. The complaint was dismissed on grounds of the amnesty law that had been passed earlier.
After failing at these attempts to obtain justice, the case was moved to the Spanish courts at the request of some relatives of the assassinated Jesuits.
Father Tojeira remarks that great headway was made in 2017 with the extradition of Colonel Montano to Spain from the United States where he had been detained. “The opening of the trial in Spain was an important step not only for the Jesuit case, but also for the revision of the amnesty law which was declared unconstitutional in 2016,” Father Tojeira said.
Finally, in 2017, the case was reopened after a judge ruled to declare the dismissal in 2000 null and void. Father Tojeira added that this was “after many and repeated appeals by the defense of the soldiers implicated” in the assassinations.
Father Tojeira said that “the insistence on following up on the case during these thirty-one years is to prevent the repetition of events like this.” He added that despite “knowing that impunity offers no guarantee that crimes against humanity will not be repeated, any effort to bring the alleged perpetrators of crimes to justice contributes to guaranteeing non-repetition of those crimes.”