Two months ago, the Spanish National Court seemed poised on the brink of proceeding with a long-delayed trial on one of the most notorious crimes of El Salvador's civil war: the 1989 assassinations of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
In a landmark ruling on Feb. 5, U.S. Magistrate Kimberly Swank ordered the extradition to Spain of former Salvadoran Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, who's been illegally living in the U.S. since 2002 when he lied on immigration papers.
Spain indicted him and 16 others for plotting and carrying out the Jesuit murders. Five of the six slain priests were Spanish citizens. Because under Spanish law a defendant in a criminal case cannot be tried in absentia, at least one of the defendants had to be present before the trial could commence. With the extradition order, it seemed as if that requirement would no longer be an obstacle.
Swank's ruling was another blow to once untouchable high-ranking Salvadoran military officers who'd been former allies of the United States. Last year, U.S. officials deported two retired Salvadoran generals living in Florida who were implicated in the 1980 murders of four U.S. churchwomen, among other crimes.
The pair -- Gens. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia -- were both recipients of the U.S. Legion of Merit award. And like Montano, the former Vice Minister of Defense for Public Safety, they were trained at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
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The effect of Swank's ruling was immediate. Just hours after her ruling was made public, the National Civilian Police in El Salvador began raiding the homes of other suspects and quickly made four arrests on Interpol warrants that had been re-issued weeks earlier, but never acted on.
International human rights groups hailed the breakthrough and the coming trial. After more than a quarter of a century, the full details would finally spill out about the early morning of Nov. 16, 1989, when a U.S.-trained anti-terrorist unit stormed the Central American University in San Salvador and blew out the brains of the priests with high-powered weapons, and killed their housekeeper and her daughter.
The prospect of an imminent trial, however, has dimmed considerably in the last two months.
On April 1, Montano's lawyer filed a last-minute petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court in North Carolina, seeking to reverse the extradition order and to have him released from custody, in part due to bladder cancer and other health issues.
The request to reverse the extradition is unlikely to "get much traction substantively," said Patty Blum, senior legal adviser with the Center for Justice and Accountability, which filed the original complaint in the Jesuit case with the Spanish court in 2008.
Swank already rejected the core arguments in the appeal, and she "did a thorough job of reviewing the record and giving a reasoned, detailed opinion," Blum said. The appeal "raised no material issues that he had not raised before."
While hopeful that Montano, 72, will one day be put on a plane to Madrid, Blum estimates it will take three to six months for the appeal to be resolved.
The extradition appeal will keep him rooted in the U.S. -- unlike Vides and Garcia, who were deported last year even though that federal appeals were pending in their cases. Unlike deportation laws, statutes and regulations governing extradition require that habeas corpus issues be resolved before a subject can be extradited.
The case is complicated by Montano's health. His appeal includes documentation that bladder cancer surgery left him with "a urine bag attached to his stomach that requires careful maintenance to avoid" life-threatening infections. Further, he suffers from diabetes and progressive arthritis in both legs, requiring him to use a walker.
Montano's appeal and health issues are not the only setbacks to the Spanish court. The National Civilian Police in El Salvador has failed to arrest any other suspect in the case since Feb. 5, leaving 12 of the indicted men at large.
The 12 include several members of the high command who sat in the room along with Montano to plan the Jesuit murders, according to the U.N. Truth Commission. They have ignored a plea from Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to turn themselves in.
None of the four arrested in February were members of the high command; they were lower-level participants who faced charges in 1991 at a show trial that ended in the convictions of two officers who were released as soon as the amnesty law passed.
Sánchez Cerén, a former leftist rebel commander, wants the Salvadoran Supreme Court to decide both the amnesty and extradition issues.
A lawyer for the four is seeking their release, which could force the Salvadoran Supreme Court to rule on the issues that have polarized the country.
The right wing, meanwhile, has mounted a fierce opposition to the extraditions in the Jesuit case, fearing it could dismantle the amnesty law and thus open the door to future prosecutions of other major atrocities -- atrocities like the massacre at El Mozote, where the army slaughtered nearly 1,000 peasants in cold blood, many of them women and children.
The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the right-wing party in power at the time of the Jesuit massacre, has pressed the Supreme Court not to rule in favor of the extraditions, saying it would open up old wounds.
It was ARENA that pushed the amnesty law through the legislature in 1993 -- just five days after the U.N. Truth Commission announced that the Salvadoran military and its death squads had committed 85 percent of the war's worst atrocities.
Norman Quijano, the ARENA candidate who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential race to Sánchez Cerén, called the 17 Salvadorans indicted by Spain "our heroic and brave soldiers."
Retired generals have also publicly denounced the Feb. 5 arrests and attempts by Spain to put the defendants on trial. Among them were a former minister of defense, retired Gen. Jaime Guzmán, a graduate of the School of the Americas and an instructor there from 1989 to 1990.
What's more, four former members of the high command indicted by Spain released a statement, denying their involvement and claiming they were "victims" of political persecution and "a smear campaign" by El Salvador's human rights ombudsman David Morales.
All four are SOA graduates and were present at the meeting where the Jesuit murders were planned: Gens. Rafael Humberto Larios, Juan Rafael Bustillo and Juan Orlando Zepeda, and Col. Francisco Elena Fuentes.
What effect the political and military pressure will have on the Supreme Court in deciding whether to end the blanket impunity enjoyed for decades by war criminals is not clear. The court has yet to act on a suit challenging the amnesty law filed by the Central American University's Human Rights Institute.
But Morales, the human rights ombudsman, is not hopeful. He was quoted by The Guardian April 8 as saying he sees little possibility of justice in El Salvador.
"The legal process has been manipulated and the most senior judges have violated the constitution, international treaties and national laws," he said.
[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.]