Extradition order in Jesuit priest killings could lead to more arrests

Linda Cooper


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The impunity enjoyed for 25 years by the killers of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador began splintering Feb. 5 after a U.S. judge ordered one of the suspects who'd fled to the United States to be extradited to Spain to stand trial for one of the most notorious crimes of the country's civil war.

Just hours after the U.S. court ruling to extradite Col. Inocente Orlando Montano was made public, the National Civil Police in El Salvador began raiding the homes of other suspects also wanted by Spain for plotting and carrying out the 1989 massacre. Five of the six slain priests were Spanish citizens.

In 2011, Spanish National Court Judge Eloy Velasco Nunez issued indictments for 20 Salvadoran military men in connection with the massacre and then secured Interpol arrest warrants. But Salvadoran authorities refused for years to make the arrests, citing a controversial 1993 Salvadoran amnesty law that has shielded war criminals from prosecution.

Sources familiar with the case said that the historic ruling by U.S. Magistrate Kimberly Swank in the Montano case likely provided Salvadoran authorities the cover they needed to begin arresting former high-ranking officers in a country where the military still holds enormous power.

Montano is the highest-ranking official in recent history to be ordered extradited from the United States for human rights violations. At the time of the massacre, Montano served as the Vice Minister of Defense for Public Safety, in command of the National Police, the Treasury Police, and the National Guard.

In her 23-page ruling, Swank said the evidence shows that Montano participated in the "terrorist" murders and attended the key meetings where the high command plotted the assassination of Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the University of Central America.

Ellacuría was also serving as a key negotiator trying to mediate a peace between the US-backed Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN.) The peace talks included discussions about purging the military of those officers linked to atrocities.

The operation to eliminate Ellacuría and all witnesses was carried out Nov. 16, 1989 by a US-trained anti-terrorist unit, which stormed the Central American University in San Salvador and blew out the brains of the Jesuits with high-powered weapons. The assassins then executed their housekeeper, Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina.

Ellacuría and Jesuit Frs. Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López were citizens of Spain. The sixth priest, Joaquín López y López, was from El Salvador.

In her Montano ruling, Swank concluded that a "government official who acts in collaboration with others outside the scope of his lawful authority [to commit a heinous crime] may reasonably be considered a member of an armed gang under the Spanish terrorist murder statute." 

The judge's findings were "thorough, erudite and sweeping in scope," said Patty Blum, senior legal adviser with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). The U.S.-based non-profit human rights organization filed the original complaint in the Jesuit case with the Spanish court in 2008 in conjunction with the Spanish Association for Human Rights. 

By characterizing Montano as a terrorist, Blum said, the court's finding is "a vindication of the years of struggle of the Salvadoran people against a repressive military which tried to turn reality on its head by calling anyone who defied it – including the Jesuits priests -- terrorists."

Montano holds an engineering degree from the Jesuit university where the massacre occurred. He was also trained at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga., now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

In her ruling, Swank meticulously details Montano's role in the plot.

On Nov. 9, 1989, Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani invited Ellacuría, who was then visiting Spain, to return to El Salvador to join an investigation of a labor confederation bombing. He agreed and sent the government his itinerary. On Nov. 11, the official government radio station – overseen by Montano – made threats against Ellacuría, accusing him "of being an armed terrorist and an intellectual figurehead for the rebel FMLN."

On Nov. 12, a military unit searched the university and cordoned the area off. The next day, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion was sent in by Montano's subordinate to search the housing units of the Jesuit priests. Ellacuría had returned to the campus and was the only person permitted by the military to enter the university premises. On Nov. 15, Montano was present with four senior officials when Col. Rene Emilio Ponce issued an order to Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides to kill Ellacuría.

Montano provided information as to Ellacuría's whereabouts, and in the early morning hours of the next day, the priests were executed. 

In the following days, Swank wrote, Montano conspired with other government officials in trying to conceal the military's responsibility for the massacre. While Benavides ordered the destruction of logbooks showing the movements of the Atlacatl Battalion, Montano "threatened the wife of a witness who asked how it was possible that the government could issue an order to kill the Jesuits." 

Montano, 73, has denied any role in the massacre.

But he also denied that he had ever served in the military. That's what he had falsely claimed on U.S. immigration papers in 2002 and again on later documents in order to maintain his Temporary Protected Status.

In 2011, CJA found him hiding out in Boston. Montano was later arrested and convicted in 2013 for immigration fraud and perjury and served a 21-month prison sentence in North Carolina. Swank, a federal district court magistrate in the Eastern District of North Carolina, has ordered U.S. Marshals to take him into custody pending extradition.

While U.S. law requires the State Department to approve the judge's extradition order, it seems something of a foregone conclusion given the fact the department already scrutinized the case before sending it to prosecutors.

International Attorney Almudena Bernabeu, who will lead CJA's case in Madrid, said: "Holding a senior military officer accountable for the Jesuit massacre is significant on so many levels. First, we will be able to find the [full] truth that the Jesuits and all Salvadorans have demanded for so long. Truth and accountability will give strength to all those who are trying to end the cycle of violence in El Salvador that has resurged to levels not seen since the civil war. Magistrate Judge Swank's decision is an affirmation of Spanish Judge Eloy Velasco's efforts to keep Spain's universal jurisdiction law alive, challenge impunity, and prosecute human rights abusers."

The raids by the National Civil Police in El Salvador, which began just hours after Swank's ruling was filed, have so far yielded four of the other 16 men wanted by the Spanish court in addition to Montano.

Originally, Velasco indicted 20 Salvadorans, but two agreed to cooperate with the court and the third, Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, the Joint Chief of Staff, died in 2011. It was Ponce, an SOA graduate who later became Defense Minister, who gave the orders to kill Ellacuría.

Among the four arrested was Col. Guillermo Benavides.

According to the 1993 U.N. Truth Commission, Benavides was the Director of the Military College who was ordered by Ponce to kill Ellacuría and leave no witnesses. Benavides in turn gave the order to officers under his command and later replaced the barrels of the murder weapons so they couldn't be identified in ballistic tests. Benavides also ordered that all Military College arrival and departure logs be burned. In a 1991 show trial, he was found guilty of all the murders and of instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. He and Lt. Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos were the only ones to go to prison for the atrocity. 

The U.N. Truth Commission stated their imprisonment was "unfair… when the people responsible for planning the murders and the person who gave the order for the murder remain at liberty." 

As it turned out, the two were released in 1993 as the result the amnesty law that was pushed through the Salvadoran legislature by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) – just five days after the Truth Commission announced that the Salvadoran military and its death squads had committed 85 percent of the war's worst atrocities. 

In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the amnesty law cannot protect perpetrators of war crimes. But the Salvadoran Supreme Court has yet to rule on a suit challenging the amnesty law, a suit filed by the Central American University's Human Rights Institute and other groups.

The ongoing arrests in the Jesuit case are expected to force the Supreme Court's hand to issue a ruling, not only on the amnesty law, but on Spain's extradition requests.

In addition to Benavides, the other three arrested are Deputy Sgts. Tomas Zarpate Castillo and Jose Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, and Corporal Angel Pérez Vásquez. 

According to the Truth Commission, Zarpate Castillo shot and wounded the priest's housekeeper, Julia Elva Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina; Avalos Vargas shot and killed Frs. López and Moreno; and Pérez Vásquez shot and killed Fr. Joaquín López y López. Avalos Vargas and Pérez Vásquez are both SOA graduates.

Interpol arrest warrants were originally issued for Maj. Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and Lt. Rene Yusshy Mendoza Vallecillos. Both, however, have turned state's evidence.

Hernández Barahona was Deputy Director of the Military College at the time. According to the UN, he organized the operation to kill Ellacuría and, with others, arranged for him to be assassinated with an AK-47 rifle captured from the FMLN to pin responsibility on the guerrilla organization.

Mendoza Vallecillos was one of the commanders of the operation. He was convicted in 1991 of murdering the housekeeper's daughter, but was released from prison with Benavides as soon as the amnesty law was passed.

Among the dozen suspects still on the run are former members of the high command, including Gens. Juan Orlando Zepeda and Rafael Humberto Larios.

Zepeda, a two-time SOA graduate in Counterinsurgency Operations, was Vice Minister for Defense. According to the Truth Commission, he publicly accused the Jesuit university of being the center of operations for guerrilla and terrorist strategy sessions.

The Truth Commission said he and Larios -- another two-time SOA graduate who was defense minister when the Jesuits were assassinated – were both at the Nov. 15 meeting where the atrocity was planned.

Roy Bourgeois, the former Maryknoll priest who founded SOA Watch, welcomed the news that authorities are finally taking steps to bring the Jesuit killers to justice.

It was the Jesuit massacre, he said, that gave birth to his human rights organization 25 years ago and helped shine a national spotlight on the U.S. Army school and its extensive role in training Latin American militaries, including the killers of the Jesuits, Archbishop Oscar Romero, four US churchwomen and tens of thousands of nameless victims.

 "Over the years, we've heard the stories of so many Latin American people, about their fear, their suffering, the deaths of their loved ones," he said. "Yet they always had such hope. It was hard to understand. But they always felt that one day the truth would come out, that justice would come, that the lies couldn't be kept covered up forever. It brings me joy that they were right, but it's sad that after all these years, so many people won't see it."

[Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.]

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