El Salvador / Impunity
Breadcrumbs of Justice

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Gabriel Labrador

I’m writing these lines the night before we are to learn the verdict against Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano over the 1989 massacre at the Central American University in San Salvador, when a mother, her daughter, and six Jesuit priests were murdered by Salvadoran security forces. I’ve been following this for more or less a decade, and I’m surprised by my own lack of trepidation in awaiting the results. In some way, I already know. The trial, which took place before the National Tribunal in Madrid, and which I viewed through a virtual transmission as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, left no doubt as to the former vice-minister for public safety’s participation in the crime. In fact, I found his defense to be weak and scattered. I send a message Benjamín Cuéllar, Human Rights activist who, along with Almudena Bernabéu, had the idea 16 years ago to present the complaint in Madrid, and he tells me that he’s also feeling optimistic.

Colonel Inocente Montano was sentenced to 133 years in prison for his role in the Jesuits Massacre at the Central American University  José Simeón Cañas (UCA), on the night of November 16, 1989. The trial in Spain declared Montano as one of the principle authors of the crime. September 11, 2020. Photo from El Faro: from the Transmisión de la Audiencia Nacional Española.
Colonel Inocente Montano was sentenced to 133 years in prison for his role in the Jesuits Massacre at the Central American University  José Simeón Cañas (UCA), on the night of November 16, 1989. The trial in Spain declared Montano as one of the principle authors of the crime. September 11, 2020. Photo from El Faro: from the Transmisión de la Audiencia Nacional Española.

Yet, something is missing. That sensation of awe when it’s still impossible to see the end of something, even if it’s actually ending. In this case, for the last ten years, I’ve been hearing and reading the evidence that implicates Montano in the massacre, over and over again. I have sensed the fear in other military men when, for example, they sought shelter in Army barracks to avoid capture in 2011, when they became the targets of arrest warrants. I have also seen the rage in their family members and brothers-in-arms in press conferences in which they have soundly rejected the idea of extraditing the accused to Spain, and have heard them paint the Spanish judges as interlopers and colonizers. I’ve seen politicians of every stripe, particularly those who were on the opposing side in the 80s, agree to cease further arrests related to the case on Salvadoran soil. I have watched them prepare new amnesties and design laws to protect war criminals. Everything I have witnessed leaves me with the feeling that the outcome in Spain can be nothing except the conviction of Montano.

Some ask, who cares anymore about Montano and the Jesuits, seeing as we’re talking about an event from 31 years ago? My answer is that the massacre didn’t just take place during those couple of hours in which the Atlacatl Battalion invaded the UCA. Taken together with the happenings I will recount in this column, I am convinced that the operation lasted many more years, and remains in force even today. The High Command designed a strategy of total impunity, which has worked like a charm for the vast majority of soldiers implicated, except for Montano. His trial, whatever tomorrow brings, is collateral damage, an accident of fate, as no one would have suspected that after leaving El Salvador, leaving behind his crime at UCA, he would be captured and extradited to Madrid, where some attorneys had decided to file a complaint against him.

I was six years old when the Jesuits were killed. I certainly don’t remember any details from the time. But I mention it because it has impacted me to realize that, as I grew up in this country, perhaps taking to heart what my parents and teachers had said about this being a beautiful, dignified, and prosperous place to live after the war, in reality it has done nothing but rub its historical impunity in our faces. My elementary school studies, my first time in camp, my high school graduation, my volleyball training, my time in university… it’s emotional to know that it was all against the backdrop of the great impunity that was always lurking, stealthy and perennial... Laughing at us. “My country, you do not exist, you are merely my warped silhouette, the word of an enemy I took as fact,” as the poet Roque Dalton said.

I studied with the Jesuits at the San José Day School and at the UCA. But with total frankness I’ll say that’s not what led to a certain obsession with the case. What has led me to follow along for so long is realizing that the Jesuit case is a mirror to this country. Some of the public figures, the politicians and business leaders that we see in the limelight as men of good character have a dark past, one for which they never paid their due. How can a country simply hit refresh and move on as if nothing had ever happened? Maybe it’s a mistake for me to simplify this much, but I believe that it’s impunity that makes the country we dreamed of at the end of the war still seem a mirage in the distance.


I’m writing now as I know that Montano has been sentenced to 133 years, four months, and five days in jail. I won’t deny that I was stunned, especially thinking about how it was the first trial to have real procedural guarantees… 31 years later! Yet it doesn’t take much effort to conclude that the sensation of justice, while important, remains symbolic. The sentencing of one member of the larger and more powerful generation of military officials known as “La Tandona” loses its luster when one considers the other 19 military members who were formally accused along with Montano and who have never faced justice.

September 11, 2020. Photo from El Faro: from the Transmisión de la Audiencia Nacional Española.
September 11, 2020. Photo from El Faro: from the Transmisión de la Audiencia Nacional Española.

We still, for example, have to establish responsibility for the other high-ranking officials who, according to the complaint in Madrid, supported the order for the crime to be committed. On November 15, 1989, there was a general meeting between Defense Minister Humberto Larios, the High Command—of which Montano was a part—the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commanders of other Army units. They discussed strategies to respond to the FMLN’s offensive in the capital. Afterwards, Montano also participated in a second, smaller meeting where Colonel René Emilio Ponce, the chair of the Joint Chiefs, gave the order to assassinate Ignacio Ellacuría—one of the Jesuit priests, and an important public figure in the country— and leave no witnesses. Ponce, as relayed in the trial, ordered Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, the director of the Military Academy, to use a commando unit from the Atlacatl Battalion for the operation. In attendance were Montano, Minister Larios, Vice Minister of Defense Orlando Zepeda, Joint Chiefs Vice-chair Gilberto Rubio, First Infantry Brigade Commander Francisco Elena Fuentes, and Air Force Commander Juan Rafael Bustillo.

None of them, except for Montano, were in Madrid. We also have yet to establish the role of former President Alfredo Cristiani. He has always denied being present in a meeting where the decision was made to assassinate Ellacuría. Montano has maintained that Cristiani was present at the November 15 meeting, where he was consulted on measures to be taken as part of the counter-offensive against the guerrilla, including the use of extreme violence. During the trial, Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza said that Cristiani could have issued a counter-order to stop the murders, but did not do so. Despite Montano’s insistence that Cristiani was there that night, the ex-president was also missing in Madrid. In 2009, he sent two representatives to lobby the Spanish prosecutor’s office to exclude him from the formal complaint, according to Wikileaks.

Another 13 military members with Interpol arrest warrants generated by the National Tribunal in 2011 were never extradited, and now remain in El Salvador in a sort of 20,000-square-kilometer prison, as exiting the country could prompt detention. Some have confessed to participating in the crime. Staff Sergeant José Antonio Ramiro Ávalos Vargas has admitted, for example, that he killed the Spanish priests José Amando López and Juan Ramón Moreno. Corporal Pérez Vásquez has confessed to having fired on Salvadoran Joaquín López and, having wounded López, executing him. A sergeant named Tomás Zárpate Castillo once admitted to shooting victims Elba and Celina Ramos “until I was sure they were dead.”

Both the officers who designed the operation and the soldiers that executed it continue to enjoy protections in El Salvador. In 2012 and again in 2016, the Salvadoran Supreme Court rejected their extradition to Spain. In 2011, the Salvadoran government—then controlled by the FMLN—safeguarded the military members in a barracks, away from the reach of the National Civil Police, as the court deliberated. In its 2012 denial of extradition, the court twisted the definition of an Interpol “red notice,” claiming that the alert did not compel capture, merely the location of the persons of interest. Then, in 2016, when Spain sent a new request for extradition, the court argued that the “matter had been settled” already in 2012.

In El Salvador, it seems that the well of impunity is so wide and deep that the accused military members remained untouchable even through two FMLN administrations (2009-2019). Other countries, meanwhile, seem to have a much clearer picture. The United States, for example, decided to sanction 14 of those service members last year, prohibiting their entry into its territory as a result of “credible evidence” that they participated in the UCA crime.

Faced with this picture, it’s clear that the trial in Madrid has left a lot of matters unsettled. And this, in my opinion, is no accident, but a product of the immense resistance that powerful groups in the Salvadoran Armed Forces have exerted throughout this process.

Even the Madrid trial itself was able to occur in part due to a stroke of luck. After the war, Montano chose to settle abroad. When the National Tribunal issued its arrest warrant against him, in April of 2011, Montano was a private citizen living placidly on Irving Street in the city of Everett, Massachusetts. He was employed at a candy factory and lived in an apartment with his sister. The first to find him were journalists who had heard rumors about the presence of a possible Central American war criminal, wanted by Spain. And so Montano’s safe haven crumbled, and the extradition process began.

The trial took 12 years to begin from when the complaint was first presented before the National Tribunal. Had it not been for Montano, perhaps by this point nothing would have happened, because the rest of the Salvadoran military members in El Salvador are either protected or, like former Chair of the Joint Chiefs René Emilio Ponce, dead.

Because of that protection, the inevitability of mortality, as well as other complications, accountability for the crime in El Salvador remains a titanic task. Over three decades, the strategy of impunity as designed by the High Command has yielded results. From my perspective, this is one of the main reasons why the case is important today. We’re not talking about “just” a war crime, but the crime of the cover-up. The Jesuit Massacer case demonstrates that the institutions never worked. It doesn’t seem like anyone cared, or cares now.

In the last few weeks, President Nayib Bukele has not commented on the case at all except to use the story as a political weapon against his adversaries. Rodolfo Parker, a delegate of the Christian Democratic Party, has become one of the principal voices of the opposition, and Bukele has decided to attack him by bringing up his role in the cover-up as a former lawyer for the Investigative Commission on Criminal Acts by the Army, which was headed by Montano. Beyond that, neither Bukele nor his defense minister have taken any action to advance the cause of clarifying the case. He could, for example, open up the military archives so that the Armed Forces’ role in the massacre can be definitively determined. He could also exert diplomatic pressure for the United States to give El Salvador a copy of the case file prepared by the Truth Commission.

From Cristiani to Bukele, seven presidents have governed El Salvador. Everything points to the fact that the strategy of impunity put in place that same morning of November 16, immediately following the crime, remains in place.

The end of the war brought what was the key measure the criminals relied on to guarantee their impunity: amnesty. In 1993, an agreement among right-wing parties resulted in that law prohibiting the investigation of any war crimes, no matter who was responsible. The law directly contravened the Peace Accords. For 23 years, the law conveniently protected the players in the civil war. Starting in 2000, judges were granted enough authority to begin invalidating the law in certain cases, thanks to a ruling by the Constitutional Court, but they largely preferred to keep their heads down. In 2016, when the Constitutional Court struck down the amnesty and ordered the continued investigation of, at least, the cases under the purview of the Truth Commission—with the Jesuit case among them—the ball landed in the Attorney General’s court. Four years later, no war crime has been taken to trial.

The Jesuit Massacre is one of the few cases to have been reopened. It is now stuck in procedural limbo, waiting for the system to process the abundant appeals presented by the military defendants’ lawyers. La Tandona keeps resisting its debt to accountability.

Montano’s sentencing in Madrid is the closest the massacre has come to justice. These crumbs of justice, hopefully, will be enough to set off a real process in El Salvador. The annulation of the amnesty should, in theory, clear the way. But in this and other cases, El Salvador has demonstrated that it will do what it knows best. Hello, impunity.

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