El Salvador / Historical Memory

In Jesuit Massacre Trial, Montano Shifts Blame to Ministry of Defense, Joint General Staff

Friday, June 19, 2020
Gabriel Labrador

“Soldiers committed the crimes, not the police who reported to me,” said Inocente Orlando Montano, former vice minister of public security, in the second day of his trial at Madrid’s National Court for the 1989 Jesuit massacre. In deflecting blame from the police force to the armed forces, Montano attempted to distance himself from the order passed from the military High Command to the infamous Atlacatl Battalion to execute father Ignacio Ellacuría, president of the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and mediator in the peace negotiations, as well as five other priests, their cook Elba Ramos, and Ramos’s daughter, Celina.

Montano’s answers on the stand bear similarities to his first statement before the National Court in December of 2017, given shortly after his extradition to Spain from the United States, where he was convicted of falsifying his immigration paperwork to hide his ties to the military. His 2017 defense was the first indication of his long-term legal strategy, in which he sought to decouple his past leadership of the state security apparatus—including the now-defunct National Police, National Guard, and Treasury Police—from the decisions made by those in direct control of the army.

Montano, who is the only Salvadoran official on trial for the killings in Spain, responded to questions from his attorney Jorge Agüero in 2017 while refusing to acknowledge, let alone respond to, prosecutors’ questions during cross-examination. Whereas in 2017 he downplayed the clout he held in 1989, his most recent testimony goes further, tracing a chain of command behind the order leading to Defense Minister Humberto Larios, Vice Minister Juan Orlando Zepeda, and René Emilio Ponce, chief of the Joint General Staff.

“The military investigation revealed that the killing was carried out by soldiers [...]. Soldiers committed the crimes, not the police who reported to me. If [the Ministry of] Public Security had been involved, they might have called on me,” Montano told his attorney, when asked about whether he had been called to testify before the postwar Truth Commission.

“The minister and vice minister of defense were in charge of national security, so it was they who were dealing with the attacks from the FMLN, which is a terrorist organization. My role in public security was administrative. Only the General Staff of the Armed Forces ran operations, and at the time it was run by General René Emilio Ponce,” he continued, when asked about his role in the military.

Ponce passed away in 2011, months after judge Eloy Velasco signed the indictment that allowed National Court prosecutors to procure the arrest of some 20 Salvadoran military officials. “At the time [of the FMLN offensive], the most powerful officer was the chief of the General Staff and his chief of operations,” explained Camilio Hernández, assistant director of the Military Academy at the time of the massacre, in a 2011 interview with El Faro. Hernández admitted that he received the order from Colonel Benavides to inform the Atlacatl Battalion of their raid, but while he claims he refused to verbally pass along the order, he admits he “handed [the battalion] the rifle to kill Ellacuría.” 

According to the flow chart of the civil war-era Armed Forces, there were two leadership structures: government officials, which included the minister and vice ministers of defense; and the General Staff, which included the chief and deputy chief. These two hierarchies overlapped at the High Command, a body composed of Colonel Montano, President Alfredo Félix Cristiani, the minister of defense, Vice Minister Zepeda, and the chief of the General Staff. According to the Truth Commission, officials from the High Command and the General Staff met in the offices of the Ministry of Defense on November 15, 1989 to plan the murder of Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the UCA. In what appears to be an effort to evade culpability, Montano now insists that the High Command and the General Staff were two separate entities.

But prosecutors challenged the assertion. “It’s widely known in El Salvador that the security forces, led by Montano, and the army, led by Zepeda and the General Staff, always worked in conjunction with each other. Montano is trying to highlight that he was only in charge of the security forces, but it was the security forces who cordoned off the area and formed the perimeter around the UCA,” argued prosecution attorney Almudena Bernabéu—who has worked on the case since 2008—before the National Court.

Montano’s testimony represents a potential rupture in La Tandona (“the Big Batch,” roughly), which is the nickname for his 1966 graduating class at the Military Academy, and from which most of the perpetrators of the Jesuit massacre graduated. Normally, 15 to 20 officers graduated in each ‘batch,’ but 46 officers graduated in La Tandona, which went on to become the most powerful ring of officers in Salvadoran military history. By July of 1988, officers from La Tandona commanded five of the six infantry brigades, five of the seven military details, all three civil security forces (Treasury Police, National Police, and National Guard—all of which were under Montano’s command), the intelligence commandos, operations of the General Staff, and several of the positions in the High Command. Several of La Tandona’s members, including Montano, have been accused of violating the human rights of civilians. But Montano, to the contrary, insists that he and his classmen “stand out as good, competent officers, and we never got into problems with terrorism as we have been accused by human rights [advocates] in El Salvador. We never had problems with the law,” he claimed.

If Montano now decides to testify against his classmen, he will subvert the code of silence of the corps. “Above any branch of the armed forces, loyalty was to the graduating class,” wrote U.S. academic expert Terry Lynn Karl in a 2013 report commissioned by the U.S. government. “We’re talking about 30 guys with fear of calling each other out because in so doing they would likewise be called out,” said a U.S. military advisor to Vanity Fair journalist Phillip Bennet in November of 1990.

Montano also blamed the General Staff for ordering the raid on the Jesuit residence in the evening of November 13—a separate but related operation that predated the massacre by two days. “The General Staff gave the order to Colonel Benavides to send people under his command to raid the university,” said Montano, when his defense attorney asked him who had given the order for the raid. According to the 2011 indictment, the raid was a pretext for the Atlacatl Battalion to conduct reconnaissance on the university before the killings.

The defendant added that the General Staff authorized the final Atlacatl assault in the evening of November 15, just hours before the crime. “Through its informants, the General Staff learned that the group [of guerrillas] was at the university on the 15th, and gave the order to Colonel Benavides to send people to investigate and suppress the threat. That’s what happened,” concluded Montano. In his December 2017 testimony, though, he had gone into more detail. “The chief of the General Staff [René Emilio Ponce] gave the order to the area chief [Benavides], who was tasked with security… he was the director of the Military Academy. But he was only in charge of cadets, who couldn’t be sent into combat nor… it’s just a training unit, so the director of the academy asked the chief of the General Staff to request personnel for the raid. The chief told him, “Look, you have a rapid response battalion, the Atlacatl Battalion. Use that unit,” and so that was the one he used. He didn’t send cadets,” he explained.

Montano claimed that Ponce alone participated in the 11 pm meeting on November 15 and, therefore, that Montano could not have ordered the raid at the meeting. In a High Command meeting shortly before the massacre that he did attend, though, he denies that the assassination order was given. When asked in court if the order was given at the meeting, he responded: “No. The president [Cristiani] was informed about the situation that was ongoing from three days before—that is, on November 11—when the terrorist forces began forcing their way into citizens’ homes in the capital and forcing them to take up arms against the government. The president said, ‘let’s let the situation develop a bit more, because you are right—we can’t use indiscriminate force. That will only lead to condemnation from the people and international community.’” In December 2017, he testified that an alternative to suppress the guerrilla offensive was to resort to “extreme [targeted] violence.”

Protected by the United States?

The defense attorney’s line of questioning attempted to cast the Truth Commission’s initial 1992 investigations into the killings as having identified Montano as someone not involved in the crime. For example, when asked if the Truth Commission had summoned him, Montano responded, like in 2017, that it had not. Then, Montano unfurled a new argument in an attempt to clear his name. 

“I had never brought this up before [...]. After ending my term as vice minister and military attaché in Mexico, I left for the United States because my sisters live there and they asked me to join them and offered me a job. Out of the entire High Command, nobody received U.S. visas except for me and my family. They gave us a visa to travel to and stay in the United States. If I had anything to do with the killing, the United States wouldn’t have granted the visa,” he argued.

The United States did, in fact, take in many Salvadoran military officials after the war: former defense ministers Eugenio Vides Casa Nova and Guillermo García, who were deported to El Salvador in 2016; military officer and CIA informant Nicolás Carranza; Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, in command of the Atlacatl Battalion at the time of the Jesuit massacre; and Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, also from Atlacatl. Montano’s new statement on his entry to the United States contradicts the filings of U.S. prosecutors cited in his extradition paperwork, which note that he entered on July 2, 2001 through the Temporary Protected States (TPS) program, but lied about his ties to the Salvadoran Armed Forces on his application. The TPS designation for El Salvador, approved in 2001, was designed to shield Salvadoran immigrants from deportation following the devastating earthquakes in January and February of that year. After a federal conviction for falsifying his immigration paperwork sped up his extradition to Spain, Montano admitted to having repeatedly lied to obtain the TPS benefit.

“I think it’s laughable, if not ridiculous, that a person who has been convicted for those crimes and who lied on his TPS application is claiming that the United States gave him a visa on the grounds of his innocence, on top of the fact that they extradited him for his role in the killing,” said Bernabéu, who is working the case on behalf of Guernica 37.

A 2017 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice says that Montano was in the United States at least by 2002. When El Faro asked what type of visa Montano was granted upon entry into the country, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in El Salvador declined to answer, saying that visa records are confidential under U.S. law. “We do not discuss individual visa cases,” said the spokesperson.

Since 2003, the United States has arrested around 450 people that it has connected to human rights violations for a range of immigration-related and other crimes. “During that same period, ICE obtained deportation orders against and physically removed 1030 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States,” according to an Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) press release on January 29, 2020. “The United States has realized who these guys are,” said Bernabéu.


*Translated by Roman Gressier

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