El Salvador / Historical Memory

“Yes, I gave them the rifle to kill Ellacuría”

Edu Ponces
Edu Ponces

Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Carlos Dada

El Faro first published this interview in Spanish in June 2011, and published this translation on the eve of the 34th anniversary of the Jesuit massacre.

Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona was second in command of the Military Academy, where the order was received late at night on November 15, 1989 to murder Jesuit priests at Central American University (UCA). Not long after, he was one of just three military officers tried and found guilty of the crime, alongside the director of the Academy, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, and his assistant, Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza. Hernández Barahona was sentenced to three years in prison — commutable, while the other two were freed a year later under the Amnesty Law.

On May 30, 2011, a judge from Spain’s National Court issued arrest warrants for him and 19 other Salvadoran military officers for their participation in the crime. Judge Eloy Velasco’s order says the following about Hernández Barahona:

“One of Ponce’s favorites, he was personally informed by Espinoza about prior searches that took place at the Jesuits’ private residence at the UCA, even before members of the senior staff, being aware of the date and objective of the actions to be carried out. He also rallied the Atlacatl battalion before they left. He personally gave Amaya Grimaldi the AK-47 rifle that he would use to commit the murders, and he ordered the group to use graffiti to simulate that the killers were from the FMLN. He contacted Mendoza and Guevara by radio and told them to go to the Military Academy, where they met with Benavides. This was how the order was given to begin the operation to kill the Jesuits.”

Hernández Barahona gave this interview before learning of the arrest warrant issued by the National Court. He admits to his participation in the conspiracy, although in his version of events he had a much smaller role than what has been attributed to him.

Tell me about your participation in the murder of the Jesuit priests.
In the early months of 1989 I had been transferred to the Third Brigade, where I was the Head of Operations, and I had also been named Head of Studies and Training at the Captain General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy. We were not assigned to any operational unit, nor to any particular jurisdictional area of responsibility. We were teaching the cadets. In terms of war, it wasn’t much. And that’s even more the case here in San Salvador, because there was no war here. The war started in Guazapa, in the east.

The offensive...
November 11 took us quite by surprise. As a military officer I can’t really get my head around how the Armed Forces didn’t expect it. Around 11am on the 11th we heard over the military radios of clashes over in the northeastern part of the department. We asked senior staff, and they confirmed it. Around midday they declared a state of emergency, meaning that those of us who wore uniforms daily should wear civilian clothing, nobody should leave, no permissions nor authorizations should be given. Our mission at that time is to protect the cadets and the facilities. The Director begins attending meetings with the senior staff.

Are you referring to Benavides?
Mr. Benavides, yes. He was the only one to leave and come in, when he came to see senior staff. Nobody was with him. We spent the first two days solely in the state of emergency; there were no units inside the base. On the afternoon of the 13th he came from seeing senior staff and let us know that he had been appointed commander of the unit responsible for looking after the military complex that housed the General Staff, Defense Ministry, Military Academy, the National Intelligence Department and Colonel Arce. A lot of senior officials lived there. That was the area that unit covered.

Which units were there?
I just remember Military Police units, Cavalry, and the Atlacatl elite commando unit. At the Military Academy, the General Staff also assigns operators to oversee communications. That demonstrates that the Military Academy wasn’t intended to be a communications center, nor a control center. In terms of function it is subordinate to General Staff, through the Head of Operations. He came in on the night of the 15th, one of many visits made by the Director to the General Staff. He held a meeting in the cadets’ casino, which is where the old entrance to the Military Academy is, at around 9pm. In the meeting he gave us information about the enemy, who was everywhere in El Salvador. He told us about the problems in San Miguel, Usulután, and here in the capital. Then he told us, the officials, that the situation was quite critical and that there was an order to kill the Leftist leaders. He said it like that, “Leftist leaders”, and for us that was the UCA ones; Father Ellacuría. He said that the Atlacatl commanders had already gone to do reconnaissance, and knew their location.

And was that the first time you heard about reconnaissance?
Yes, we didn’t have more information. We weren’t in charge of that unit yet. As I understand, it was the General Staff who gave the order to the Atlacatl Battalion. It would be interesting to know what the mission he set out to them was, because reconnaissance has an objective. What is the objective that Mr. Benavides gave him? 

Then he asked where the Atlacatl Battalion was. We told him they were out, because everyone was out. Then he told us to call the Atlacatl Battalion. The meeting finished and he said to me, “Camilo, go and give the order to the Atlacatl Battalion,” and I said, “No, Colonel.”

That you should go and order the Battalion to go and kill the Jesuits?
To go and kill the Jesuits. 

But why were you the one who should give the order? What about the commander of the Battalion?
The commander of the Battalion is not in that command. Only the Atlacatl commando unit was there. The Atlacatl Battalion, as I understood, was in the area over by the Sheraton. The rest of the battalion, of Colonel Leo Linares, was engaged. The rest of the battalion was there. That unit, that section, that platoon of Atlacatl commandos were assigned to that security commando. So they were directly accountable to the General Staff, and the security staff assigned them to Colonel Benavides. They were like a task force made up from the various units that I mentioned: Military Police, Artillery, Cavalry and the Atlacatl Battalion commando unit.

You say that at the Academy you didn’t experience the war up-close. Why would a special operations battalion assign such a delicate task to someone who wasn’t experiencing the war up-close?
It is definitely incongruent that they assigned it to a director who wasn’t close to the war. Secondly, to have such a highly qualified unit as the Atlacatl commandos — their efforts were practically put to waste through the battalions’ efforts, because the battalion were in contact with war, in the Sheraton area, and this task force was just doing defense and protection. I think it was incongruent that they were used like that, being such specialists. 

And what does that mean — that that operation was a priority?
Which operation?

Of killing the Jesuit priests. Moving a force who are already engaged and who are special operatives as well — to move things around, and send them into this operation… that suggests that it must have been an important operation.
Or that it was prepared in advance. Let’s remember that the General Staff make plans, and within those plans there are strategic goals and tactical goals. My understanding is that if they sent them to do reconnaissance first, that means that it must have been monitored. I’m imagining, as a military officer. As a military officer I didn’t understand —until later— why the Atlacatl Battalion, a specialized combat unit, should be there.

And during an offensive…
But that is the decision of the General Staff. Head of Operations, in this case Colonel Cerna Flores, is the one who can say come and do this, or summon a unit… Let’s remember that at that time, the most powerful man in operations was the Head of General Staff and their Head of Operations. He was the most powerful man, who was confronting the attack. So he could call upon whichever units he wanted, or thought was best for the missions. 

So, at that time, we’re talking about Colonel Ponce and General Larios.
No. Colonel Cerna Flores. General Larios was Defense Minister. The chain of command was: President, Vice President, Defense Ministry… The two Vice Ministers, the Head of General Staff, and General Staff were: I think the C-1 was Colonel Avilés, the C-2 was Colonel Diaz… Imagine our surprise that Colonel Diaz was out of the country on commission, a routine mission. He is the one who would seek out information, establish where to search, and the objectives of the search. The 3 is the one who establishes the means of combat and designates them. 4 does logistics, 5 special operations and civil action, and 6 transmissions.

2 was Díaz, 3 Cerna Flores.
Exactly. Those two are the basics. And there was an ancillary who told us that the First Brigade had also been assigned some Leftist leaders who were at the Camino Real, the First Brigade would get them.. they also were strong enough to give protection, and that area was the responsibility of the First Brigade. Colonel Elena Fuentes was there.

Retired Salvadoran Lt. Col. Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, second in command of the Military Academy in November 1989, where the order was received to murder six Jesuit priests at Central American University (UCA). Photo Edu Ponces
Retired Salvadoran Lt. Col. Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, second in command of the Military Academy in November 1989, where the order was received to murder six Jesuit priests at Central American University (UCA). Photo Edu Ponces

Did all of those people participate in meetings of the General Staff?
Not all of them, because the five brigades were in different places. The security groups did. The First Brigade did, the Air Force as well, the Navy didn’t because they were in La Unión. The Armed Forces Center of Studies, the Military Academy, and the Center for Military Training, CEMFA, also did. We didn’t have any operative function; in those three we were about military training. The others were the part concerned with operations. The C-1 was staff, 2 intelligence and counterintelligence, 3 operations, 4 logistics, 5 civil action.

But the one who assigned units…
Colonel Cerna Flores.

Of course, so when Benavides arrives…
He told me I should go and give the commandos the order, and I told him no, that was an order I wasn’t going to give. 

Tell me how that conversation with him went. Did he only say that to you?
Just to me. 

What did he say?
That I should go and give the order to the Atlacatl commandos. And I said no. 

That you should give the order to…
To kill the Jesuits. 

And who exactly was he talking about?
In effect, Father Ellacuría. We didn’t have information regarding other priests. Father Ellacuría. 

So, he tells you directly. How does he say it?
He says I should give the order to the Atlacatl commandos for them to go and eliminate Father Ellacuría. 

Why did he say that? Did he explain that it had been agreed on among General Staff?
He already said that, in a meeting with officials, with all the officials. He said it before. He said it was coming from General Staff, that the situation was troublesome and pressing, that the country and the military were on the brink of collapse, and that the decision had been made to do this, and that, and among all that was the elimination of those leaders. 

Who directed the reconnaissance that was carried out prior?
I have no idea. No idea. 

Wouldn’t it be logical that the same person who directed the Atlacatl Battalion in that reconnaissance would direct the operation as well?
It may be. Possibly. Now, whoever ordered the Atlacatl commandos to do that must have been given a mission: Go and check who they are, what they’re like, how they sleep. What (mission) was given? Before Colonel Benavides, the General Staff was in charge of them. I imagine it was the General Staff who ordered it. And what is it they ordered? That would be important to know.

And if Colonel Benavides told you to give the order to the battalion… Beforehand shouldn’t he have updated you about what they had found in that search, and what the mission was?
Because I didn’t know anything. Or, what did he ask me?

Did he tell you: “there was a reconnaissance a few days ago, this is what we found, this is what the perimeter was, this is the mission…”?
The thing is that as officials at the Academy we didn’t have any involvement with the operative units.

So why did he ask you to give the order?
Because I was second in command to him. I imagine that it was because he didn’t want to get his hands dirty. 

And you told him you wouldn’t give the order.
“I’m not going to give this order. I can’t do that, Colonel,” I told him. 

I imagine that within the military hierarchy that would be taken as disobeying a senior officer.
Yes it would. It’s the only order I ever disobeyed in my military career. But I didn’t agree with it. 

But supposing that it’s an act of disobedience — what was Colonel Benavides’ response?
Well, I told him, “No, Colonel, go and give that order yourself”. “Well, fine, that’s fine then,” he said. And he went to give them the order.

He went to give them the order?
My understanding is that he went to give them the order. Because I didn’t see it. I didn’t see what each person did, in the darkness. I didn’t see.

And why did you refuse to do it?
Because I didn’t agree with eliminating Father Ellacuría. I knew him. I had been in the UCA, and there was more too before that; I met him when the coup happened. He knew my Colonel Majano well, who was our leader at the time. He knew him and he didn’t agree with it. I had fought against the guerrillas but in units, head on. But never a murder like that. Never. And one of that kind, even less so. But for him to send me to do something like that, to pull something like that out of his sleeve when we were there caught up in the midst of things… I didn’t agree with it. It was risky for me. It was a risk because the situation was critical. According to what they had said it was critical and something had to happen. But in that case, I didn’t want to.. I didn’t want to be part of it.

What happened after? That was around 9pm at night?
Around 9pm. After that I was in my office, in the apartment we had, and before leaving they came to ask me for an AK-47 rifle that I had. 

Who asked you for it?
My orderly came first and said “Hey Camilo! They’re asking for the AK”. Then someone from the Atlacatl came, a commando I imagine he was, and I took down the one I had in my bedroom and gave it to them.

To the orderly?
No, to the members of the Atlacatl. 

Why did you have that AK-47?
I got it in the Third Brigade. Some guns fell to us during an operation and I got one of them. 

And did everyone at the Academy know that you had that AK?
Everyone knew, because I had even taken some officials to shoot with it, as a way to teach how to use that kind of gun. Also with fourth year students.

And the orderly comes and tells you that they want the AK-47.
Yes, and I said they should come, and then I went and got it and they took it. We were at the entrance to the Officials’ Casino. That’s where I handed it over.

Who did you give it to?
To some members of the Atlacatl. I don’t know who. I never knew anyone from the Atlacatl, I’d never seen Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra, I didn’t know who they were. The only one that I knew was Cerritos, the other Lieutenant. But I met him after, when he was around there, we were in the Belloso Battalion together. 

It seems logical to me that a military officer like you, Deputy Director of a Military Academy, knew exactly what an AK-47 was.

You knew it was a weapon traditionally used by guerilla fighters.

So, they’ve just told a military officer like yourself to should go and give the order to kill the Jesuits. You know what the Atlacatl Battalion is going to do. They ask for an AK-47, from a military officer like yourself. You know exactly why they’re asking for it.
Yes — and to what end. With the objective of going to kill someone, so that it would look like the guerrillas did it. Yes, yes.

And you began this conversation by telling me “I had no participation in it”. Don’t you think this makes you implicated?
Well… Yes, it does implicate me. It involves me as part of… well, as the object of things going on.

You handed over the weapon, knowing what it was for, that was used to kill Jesuit priests. You gave it to the physical murderers.

For any narrative – whether it’s military, judicial, journalistic… it makes you part of the conspiracy.
Maybe it was because at that moment I was obeying an order, right?

Camilo Hernández Barahona (left) in an interview with El Faro. Photo Edu Ponces
Camilo Hernández Barahona (left) in an interview with El Faro. Photo Edu Ponces

The reasons for your participation are a separate question, that we can talk about in a bit. But you handed over the weapon, knowing what it was for. Not just to commit the crime, but also so that others would be blamed for that crime.
But, consider the reality that there are 30 M-16 guns and one AK-47. So, the rest of them, the other 30… who gave them those? Who gave the other 30? 

It makes you part of…
It does, if they give me an order that means I have to… well, fine. But I’m not going to implicate myself. I am not going to implicate myself. They didn’t give me that gun, I got it through a confrontation. That’s how all the guns get there. What I did know was that they wanted to distort something. But did I know that they were going to kill someone? I did. 

And who…
And who were they, multiple people. And if it wasn’t me who gave him the AK-47? They would have done the same thing with the other 30 M-16! 

The point is that you knew. And you’re telling me that you handed over this rifle so as to obey an order, but I’m asking you who asked you for the rifle and you say it was an orderly…

An orderly isn’t going to give orders to the Deputy Director of an Academy.
No. They came to ask me for it on behalf of Colonel Benavides. They came to ask me to send them the AK-47 because he’d already asked me to give it to him. Right. It’s not that I gave it on my own initiative; he had already asked me for it. Fine, so when the Atlacatl Battalion arrived I gave it to them. 

And what happened after?
They were going to commit the murder around 1 in the morning. We were all there at the Academy waiting, each official in their room I imagine, in the dark where you couldn’t see anyone. The murder was carried out at 1 in the morning. I was in my office, and I went out to see what was going on and I found Colonel Benavides there in the Academy corridors. He told me: “it’s happened”. “Fine”, I replied. We parted ways and I went to bed.

Who coordinated the whole operation to kill the Jesuits?
I don’t know… I imagine that… 

Did Cerna or Colonel Benavides coordinate it?
Colonel Benavides. He gave them the order, and I imagine that he said what had to be done. Because that’s what they wanted me to do, to coordinate how those things might work. But I refused to do it. So I set myself apart from the operation at that point. 

So you met Benavides in the corridor and he told you it happened.
Yes, and I go to bed. Everyone goes to bed. In the morning, at 7 in the morning, they called me to the director’s office and said, “Look, go and find Colonel Ponce and inform him that we have fulfilled the mission”.

So, at night, after that you go to sleep?
Yes, yes. I went and rested. I was three meters away from where we were. 

How could you go and sleep? Did you not have a dimension of what had happened?
It was precisely because I was able to evaluate it that I didn’t give the order. I didn’t even want to take the suitcase. You journalists don’t understand the role of the Military Academy. The Military Academy had an educational role. We didn’t have interactions with any units that were there, and we didn’t have any jurisdictional area to defend outside of our four walls. Someone would come specifically to be the Director of the units, but we weren’t involved with them. He didn’t know them, and us even less so. Our jobs were the guards, patrols, administration and the security of the Academy. Those were our tasks. The war meant nothing to us! We were the only ones who would go to see our families in secret. And we weren’t the ones responsible, that was Colonel Benavides. 

The thing is that Colonel Benavides told you what they were going to do that night.
Yes, what was going to happen. And he gave us a snapshot of everything that was happening, with information about the enemy. 

I’m still finding it surprising that you’re able to say “I’m not going to give this order,” but you’re not able to say, “I’m not going to hand over the rifle that they’re going to use to kill them.”
Well it’s because they asked me for it, and I wasn’t involved… And also, he wasn’t someone from my team.

But it was yours!
Well, yes. But everyone has some kind of gun. I’m not going to give them my pistol which has been assigned to me. 

And what’s the difference?
The other one is no use to me, it’s a war trophy. You can lose it. But with my own pistol I’m responsible for it. 

But I wasn’t saying that you had failed to comply with your responsibilities. The point is that you gave them the weapon they used to kill them, whether or not it was the one that was assigned. You handed it over, knowing what it was destined for.
Because there were 30 more like mine. 

You were able to refuse a direct order from Colonel Benavides, but you didn’t refuse to hand over the weapon.
Yes, I definitely didn’t give the order, because I didn’t want to get involved. What Colonel Benavides wanted was to make it look like it had been the FMLN. But in my case there was already a “no”, that I wasn’t getting involved. But to him that was normal — he would think, “Well, if this guy doesn’t want to do it, I’ll do it”. In another scenario, he might have said, “okay, and this idiot, why doesn’t he want to give the order?” and that would have been it. But not this time, because I was sure of what I was doing. I did know that this was one more weapon that was going to the group.

With the difference that, if you hadn’t handed it over, you wouldn’t be implicated.
Yes, of course. I was involved from the moment we were there, from the moment they told us what was to be done. From that point, we’re accomplices. 

And you didn’t see nor hear the Atlacatl Battalion when they came back?
No, because it’s just us and the cadets inside the Academy. They come in through the street entrance in Santa Tecla, then they remain in the training area and leave, that’s it. He called me in the morning and said, “Take this suitcase (to Colonel Ponce)” — the suitcase was taken during the observations. I took the suitcase and told a Lieutenant who was with me to take it, because I didn’t even want to touch it.

We got into my truck and when we reached the General Staff offices, I asked for the office of the Head of General Staff. The secretary let us through. I went in, saluted, and reported back: “Colonel, let the director know that the order to kill Father Ellacuría has been carried out”. And he told me that he hadn’t ordered it. Then a C-2 collaborator burst through the door immediately behind me and said: “Colonel,  they’ve killed the Jesuits, the President wants to speak with you”. He didn’t say anything, but I told him “here’s the suitcase they sent for you”. “I don’t want anything”, he replied. “Take it”. So then I said to the Lieutenant, “let’s take it”. Then Colonel Ponce’s phone rang, he answered it, and told us we should leave.

I left his office, went to COFA to see if there was anything else. COFA is the Center of Joint Operations, which is where all the secretaries and officials received information. I saw Colonel Dorothy, a gringo. I recognized him and we greeted each other, but nothing at the General Staff seemed strange. So I got back in my truck, we went to the Academy, and I said to Colonel Benavides, “Colonel, Colonel Ponce said that he didn’t order that.” “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll talk to him.” Like that. “And here’s the suitcase, because he didn’t want to take it,” I told him. “Ah, well leave it there.” That’s everything that happened that day.

And you didn’t have any more information about who took part in the meeting where that decision was taken?
No. I can’t say who gave the order, or with whom. But if a commander who has power and authority comes to give an order like that, my understanding is that he has somebody’s backing. Because at our level a lieutenant or captain can’t do things like that. 

And did the Atlacatl Battalion sleep there after the operation?
They came in and my understanding is that they left again in the middle of the night. 

And no-one gave you your rifle back?
No, no. 

So you never saw the rifle again?
I didn’t. For me it was… it wasn’t like I needed that gun in a practical sense. I left it, they took it, and I never saw it again.

There are things that I find strange that are unknown, after so many years. For example, how did the Atlacatl Battalion get there?
To the Academy? 

When the offensive began, General Staff took a series of measures to defend the Military complex, organized by the C-3 in General Staff, Cerna Flores. He was in charge of all the Armed Forces’ media, that was him. He brought the units he was connected to that he considered necessary: Cavalry, Military Police, and the Atlacatl Battalion. Why? Only he knows. It’s the C-2 who gives the missions and objectives, informing about threats wherever they might be. He states objectives and subsequently summons certain units. As I understand it, the Atlacatl Battalion were around here in this area around the Sheraton. I imagine he told them to send him the commandos to the area, he must have requested that. 

Look, let me ask you in another way: Didn’t Benavides have the power to summon the Atlacatl command?
No. They had already given him several units. 

Imagine a scenario where Benavides had gone crazy, taken the decision alone. If he said “what we have to do is kill those Jesuit priests” – did he have the power to get on the phone and summon the Atlacatl commandos?

No, he didn’t. He was the director of a Military Academy. He didn’t have any say over operative units. None at all! And battalions that work through immediate reaction depend exclusively on the head of the General Staff, and consequently on the C-3. 

Could the C-3 take those kinds of decisions?

Without consulting Ponce?

So, they could?
Yes they could. He would say something like, “Hey, León, send me the commandos unit. Hey, Colonel Ponce, I told León Linares to send the commandos,” and they would say that was fine.

The thing is that if Benavides went back to the Academy saying that it was an order from the General Staff, the meeting couldn’t have just been him and Cerna, right?
No, no. And moreover, they’re colleagues; if Cerna had given him the order he had the power, according to doctrine, to say, “No you can’t do that, let’s ask the Head of General Staff, our boss,” or, “Look, Ponce: I can’t do what Cerna Flores is telling me.” 

Of course. It wasn’t Benavides who planned it, because the two day-long reconnaissance beforehand didn’t go through the Military Academy.
Right. And who can order reconnaissance? Only Section 2, who are responsible for deciding objectives. What was their goal with the observations? What did they tell the Atlacatl command to go and check, and why? It must be General Staff who know that, it must be in the books of C-2, Colonel Díaz. But as I told you, I was told that Colonel Díaz was on commission abroad, so Colonel Zaldaña was in charge. Why not look in the books? Intelligence calls it a Search Plan; why were the commandos sent there and what was their mission?

Where did the Atlacatl Battalion sleep after the observational operations in UCA?
I don't know. I don’t know where they were staying at that time. I imagine that in the General Staff, in the parking lot.

It seems like they were under some kind of instruction, because they didn’t sleep in the Academy on the night of the murders either. They went in, they reported in, and they left.
Yes, they left. In the Academy during the day sometimes they slept on the training patio, in some of the hallways there. They didn’t come into the main part of the Academy building. It wouldn’t be convenient for the cadets. So they stayed outside in the open part. 

Ok, let’s go back to that night. You had told them that you wouldn’t give the order to kill the Jesuit priests, but you gave them the gun and went off to sleep; you say that you weren’t even around when they came back.
They didn’t come into the building, that was the thing. They came through the street entrance, into the training area. That’s where they remained. I have nothing to do with that! I didn’t have to monitor who came in or out; it wasn’t my responsibility. 

Only that it wasn’t a normal day, nor just your normal people who are going to come in, right?
Whoever was on guard that night could have omitted it, too. At the front there was a security cabin, where there is an orderly, and further inside was the Head Guard. The Head Guard asked the one at the security cabin who was going in. We’re talking about midnight to 1am, in the dark. The other one replied that it was the Atlacatl commandos, and that’s what the kid wrote. For us, it wasn’t even on our minds.

Not necessarily, because what were they coming in for at 1 in the morning?
After having killed.

Well, yes. But was it in order to report that the mission had been accomplished?
Yes, I imagine so.

To report back on what had happened?
Part of what had happened.

To report back to the director of the Academy?

Wasn’t the Deputy Director with the Director?
No, and on top of that I wasn’t interested. 

You weren’t interested?
I wasn’t interested. I would get away from things. If it wasn’t the director summoning me I wouldn’t pay attention — all the officials were like that. 

Didn’t any other official want to be with Benavides?
No-one. Not that I saw, at least. 

But did everyone know why Benavides hadn’t met with them?
Yes, we all knew. We all knew what was going to happen. 

Look, I must insist: I’m not a member of the military but I do think that if I’m somewhere, and I know they’re going to kill the Jesuit priests, and I mention what they’re going to do, it’s not like I have nothing to do with it and I can go off to bed. I know that they’re going to kill six priests, at least Father Ellacuría.
But you’re a journalist — for you, it’s news.

No! No.
For us in the military it’s the final offensive. In the offensive you hear explosions and shooting everywhere. You lose more sleep over that, than over what is going to happen. When I’m not involved in something I can’t say to that Lieutenant, “Hey, move! Go over there”, if it’s not my unit. It’s not part of my unit. We couldn’t interfere with those units, not at all!

The fact that this one instant will follow you for the rest of your life remains a curious one.
But at that time you don’t think like that. You’re just thinking that you’re complying with an order by whoever is in charge. Nothing else. I didn’t want to get involved in this case. I thought, “Well, he knows it’s coming from above”.

And after all of it, you carried on with your normal work.
Like normal. 

Until a Special Commission was put together to investigate, and they started calling on the officials at the Academy. And they started asking for the books. 

When was that?
In the subsequent days. 

A few days later?
Yes, maybe the following week. General Staff formed the Commission and began to directly call on Academy officials. They began asking for the books. Lieutenant Yusshy realized that the Head Guard had noted the coming and going of the Atlacatl commandos that day. He told me, “The Director says we have to burn the books because they’re named on there.” I asked the Director and he said that apparently they’d found this and that, and that the books should be burnt.

The Director.
Yes, the Director. Well, that they should be given to Yusshy, to do whatever was convenient. And he burnt them. 

So you gave them to Yusshy.
No. I didn’t give them to him directly. As the Head of Studies I was in charge of the archives. I wasn’t Deputy Director, Head of Studies and Training was my position, so archives were my responsibility.

But there was no Deputy Director. In practice you were the Deputy Director.
Yes, in terms of command, but not as a position… “So, they should give you the books, then you can see what to do with them. If the Director says they should be burnt, then burn them.” So then Yusshy burnt them.

On orders that you gave. Because the Director ordered that you pass them to Yusshy.
Because it was Yusshy who discovered that entry in the books and recommended doing it.

In an interview with El Faro, retired Salvadoran military officer Camilo Hernández Barahona admitted to providing the rifle that the Atlacatl Battalion used to assassinate six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter in the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989. “At that time you don’t think like that. You’re just thinking that you’re complying with an order by whoever is in charge. Nothing else.” Photo Edu Ponces
In an interview with El Faro, retired Salvadoran military officer Camilo Hernández Barahona admitted to providing the rifle that the Atlacatl Battalion used to assassinate six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter in the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989. “At that time you don’t think like that. You’re just thinking that you’re complying with an order by whoever is in charge. Nothing else.” Photo Edu Ponces

And then?
Then that Commission didn’t get in contact with me. It was starting to feel like people from headquarters came and went because the Academy director was outside the facility. He was in a house that was adjacent. People came and went; bosses, trucks. None of us took much interest, but there was movement. Colonel Avilés came and went a few times after that and they say that it was him who made the discovery. I have no idea how... Or that’s what he said. But yes, Colonel Benavides started to go out; he was increasingly worried about the problem, and the conflict that was brewing. He would go out at night.

Is Colonel Avilés, Carlos Armando Avilés?
Yes. But Colonel Benavides began to be making himself absent – to make visits, I imagine. He once told me he was a friend of Colonel Rivas, from the Commission of Criminal Acts. He told me, “I spoke to Rivas, he was my colleague, and there’s no problem.” At that moment I felt that he wanted to keep us calm, let’s say. A few days later he called me and said, “They’ve found me out, so tell the officials that I’m going to take responsibility, so you won’t have problems.” I was summoned to the head office. Then, from my office, I called all the officials and told them: “Look, the Director told me that they’re detaining him because they’ve found that he is responsible, so what we have to do is say what we know, the truth. We don’t want to be in this situation but we know what happened”.

Then they transferred me to the Belloso Battalion. I was out for a while, and they summoned me to make a statement about the books. There was a conspiracy against me to claim that I was the one who burnt the books, to cover up the comings and goings of the commandos. It was enough simply to have called the officer on guard — but it was the General Staff who chose the officials who were there, and allocated their responsibilities. Benavides was at the top. Thank God that among the other officials we didn’t have anything to do and weren’t assigned to any unit, just Yusshy and Colonel Benavides. I was pulled down, to continue at the lower end, rather than upwards, like when it was suggested that what had happened was organized, planned, and structured at the Academy, and that’s not what happened.

Let’s talk about your trial — it was a strange trial. They accused you of obstructing the investigation into the destruction of the archives.
I was in the area and they summoned me to talk about the loss. My defense was Doctor Méndez Flores.

But first it was your uncle.
Yes; not officially, but he helped me. But they didn’t like him. Méndez Flores didn’t like that I had anyone except him. It even came out in the papers that they didn’t agree with it. So my uncle, who was a politician, told me not to take responsibility for anything, because I didn’t do it. And they told me to take responsibility.

Who are “they”?
Méndez Flores and the other doctor who was with him, I don’t remember who he was. I told them I had no reason to take responsibility for things I didn’t do. Moreover, I’m not the Director of the Academy with all the military decorations. If I had done it, why didn’t the Director of the Academy punish me? In effect, I didn’t admit responsibility, they took me to trial. They didn’t like it. They looked for someone among those in charge of the Academy who would testify that I was the one who ordered the books to be burned. For that they sentenced me to three years in prison, but three commutable years, so I didn’t spend much time inside.

How long were you detained?
I was detained in the National Guard for one month and some days. 

It seems like there’s a conflict of interest: Doctor Méndez Flores was your lawyer, but he was also represented Yusshy René Mendoza, the person who accused you of having given the order. How could the accuser and accused have the same lawyer?
And close with the Head of General Staff, who I had reported back to that the order had been fulfilled.

Colonel Ponce. Méndez Flores was a friend of Colonel Ponce. 

And how did you accept that? Knowing that he was defending Yusshy…
I had been discharged, I didn’t have any choice. 

I had wanted to have my politician uncle but they ordered me not to. 

Méndez Flores forced you not to? Who prohibited it?
The General Staff.

And they sent you to the battlefield again.
By that time I was already at Belloso. Here in the San Bartolo Free Zone. I was in Belloso prior; when they arrested me I was already in Belloso. 

And when was this attack against you that you’re talking about?
They started to demobilize some areas in Chalatenango. I was in Cerro Negro, around Las Pilas. There’s Cerro Negro, Arcatao, Chalatenango. They told me I had to run away because there was a meeting of the whole Frente leadership. I started coming down and when I got to Tejutla they put me on a truck and took me to Chalatenango. They told me: “Look, this is the operation you’re going to do against the forces present.” 

Who took that decision?
The General Staff. 

At that time it was Colonel Barrera. From Chalatenango to Arcatao is about 30 kilometers. There’s a highway. They told me, “We’re going to take you in a helicopter, at least to the other side of Sumpul. At least to establish a beachhead on the other side.” “Alright,” I told them, “I’ve got a day left.” Then they said, “Look, there are no helicopters, you should go on foot, although you can’t go via the highway and you can’t fight with the refugee centers there. And you need to be in Arcatao in 72 hours.” So I said, “Look, that’s not possible, if I went by road it would normally take me a day’s walking. I’m going to fight as I go…” but they said that I couldn’t do that. I was in Guarjila and couldn’t get through the street, I couldn’t get into the hole in San Isidro Labrador, so instead I went up the mountain. On my way up Guarjila, at a refugee camp —there was a Red Cross flag, Doctors Without Borders— some refugees grabbed me. For them, I was a sitting duck. I asked them not to shoot. My soldiers were furious we couldn’t shoot.

But we got through, to the other side, San José Las Flores. They asked me to stop, to see if they could find me a place to board. We cut trees and everything, enough for three helicopters. People were lined up for flights. Eventually, at the end of the day, they told me they couldn’t find one, and that I should come back tomorrow. I asked myself why they were causing me this delay — was it so that they could gather force? The next day, in the afternoon, they told me there weren’t any flights. It was 5pm. To start deploying at that time. We would cross Sumpul at 3 in the morning the next day. I knew that we were going to fail because we wouldn’t be able to cross the bridge. We had to go via Valle Verde. Luckily, that place was mined. Sadly I lost two or three soldiers there, but I was only a little injured, and was evacuated from there. That was basically where my life as an operative ended. They didn’t carry out the operation, but I could see that effectively what they wanted was for me to crash.

Why do you think they wanted to eliminate you?
Because I’m a witness, who could directly implicate Benavides and Colonel Ponce. Because if he didn’t give the order to Colonel Benavides, he then immediately detains me, tells me that it wasn’t him who gave the order and immediately orders Benavides to be detained. He was the most powerful man at the time. Or he could have called the President and said, “Mr. President, Major Camilo Hernández is here at the moment telling me this and that, and I’m going to detain him here.” So I was the link. I was more useful for them dead than alive — and I had never lost the opportunity to say that.

Did you ever speak to the Moakley Commission of the U.S. Congress?

But you did talk to the Truth Commission.
Yes, and I told them what I’m telling you. But they said it was better as a statement.  

Ah, but that was the Ad Hoc Commission.
The Ad Hoc Commission was the one that proposed the statements that the Truth Commission would then request. Just that. I went to speak to the Truth Commission in the Hotel that was the Sheraton before (now the Crowne Plaza). Once we were there, and Colonel Ponce too, they summoned all the officials from the Military Academy to a meeting in the Defense Ministry to inform us that we were responsible for the murder. That is, the Academy officials were responsible. When it was my turn to speak, the only one who wasn’t part of the “Tandona” graduation class was General (Ernesto) Vargas. They said to me, “And you, why didn’t you say anything?” And I replied, “I’ve reported to Colonel Ponce! I’ve come to give my account…

You said that in front of everyone?
Yes, I said it in public. I said, “I’m here to report. We knew about your plans. Colonel Benavides simply came with the orders; and they were orders from General Staff — what could we do? Nothing! And now you’re saying it’s us who’s responsible. No, sir.” That was the first confrontation I had with them.

And what did they reply?
That it was my obligation to have told the leaders what Benavides was ordering. But I said “No sir, I’ve never been that kind of informer. And especially not coming from a meeting with you.”

Nothing else happened after.
No, nothing happened. And it was because at that time I didn’t know they would make statements against me. If I had known, I would have complained.

And from there they discharged you.
There was another meeting. In that one, the Defense Minister Colonel Ponce was there, and they took us to a group of officials including President (Alfredo) Cristiani, and told us that we were part of the discharge demanded by the Peace Accords, and there was nothing more to do.

And what did you do? You had spent a lifetime in the army.
Yes. I did. But none of us there did anything. There were colleagues there who were older than me. I don’t know how well you know our sector, but normally if you’re a subordinate there’s no opportunity for a response.  

So, they throw you out after a lifetime in the army. What do you do? You’re still young.
I was 45. I went to university, and they gave me an opportunity in the pharmacy of the Armed Forces. From there, I tried to make a fresh start. I joined the military aged 23, so I didn’t manage to get my full pension. I was a Lieutenant Colonel, with the requirements to be promoted to Colonel, but that’s when they cut me off.

Life can take strange turns.
I come from a poor background. I grew up in a hostel in San Vicenta, sharing a mat with my siblings. My family got out of poverty because God granted me the opportunity to join the Military Academy. My mother died two years ago, on November 16.

November 16! That’s quite the date!
On the 13th they brought the lawsuit in Spain, and my mother died on the 16th. On the 17th I was attending her burial in San Vicente. She was the woman who gave me strength; she taught me never to covet what other people have, and to work and study. I would have liked to have finished my career, but not with the tarnish of, above all, being implicated in the murders of the Jesuits. My family were devout Catholics and they know it wasn’t me. Unfortunately it wasn’t like that for the rest of the country; the media always named me as one of the people involved. They kicked me out of ANDA, and President Gómez said it was because I was “involved in the Jesuit murders.”

And that was after the court case?

How did you find out you were accused as part of the Madrid court case?
They sent me the list in the mail. It came out afterward in the papers. But before it came out in the papers, Colonel Ponce called me to a meeting in the veterans’ house, opposite Cuscatlán park. General Larios, General (Juan Orlando) Zepeda, Colonel (Francisco) Elena Fuentes, Doctor Méndez Flores were all there; there was a lawyer who General Larios had brought, Colonel Majano, and me. And Colonel Ponce started talking about the situation and how the legal case had come about. I wasn’t familiar with the CJA nor the human rights organization in Spain. He (Ponce) started to explain it all. Doctor Méndez talked about the situation with the President (Cristiani).

The legal case was brought on the 13th, and you say you were burying your mother on the 17th. When was that?
A few days later. Ponce called me during my mother’s funeral. I think that’s how he had my number, and from there he summoned me to the meeting.

And what did you talk about in the meeting?
Information about what was going on. Who the people who had brought the case were and what they were doing. He told us that the Defense Ministry had a group of lawyers who were working on it, and that they would support us, above all by informing us on the situation in Spain. He also said that the line of the President Elías Antonio Saca’s government was to support us, and also that President Cristiani was no longer accused because he had pulled strings beforehand with two emissaries.

Which emissaries?
Doctor Santamaría and the lawyer, Samayoa.

Salvador Samayoa?
Yes, Salvador Samayoa. They knew beforehand, so they went there and pulled some strings, which is why Cristiani was left out. They also told us about those maneuvers. There was also a case that they would bring to the government, who would decide if they accepted it, and another for the Supreme Court who were going to decide if they accepted it. Doctor Méndez gave us the information about that, about the juridical part of the process and what was going to happen. We thought that nothing further would happen, that was our hope.

And then?
We met again and they told us they had been to Spain and that we had a meeting with the Defense Ministry so that they could give us a legal briefing. The meeting at the Ministry was with (Jorge) Molina Contreras and General Rubio Reyes, who was Head of General Staff; Vice Minister Palacios Luna wasn’t there. General Ponce was there, General Bustillo, General Zepeda, General Larios, General Elena Fuentes, me, Espinoza Guerra, and Guevara Cerritos. The meeting was so that the Defense Ministry’s lawyers could explain the next steps to us, and what the chances were that the government and Supreme Court would dismiss the Spanish case.

I had another chance to say to them —because Molina Contreras and Rubio Reyes were students of mine at the Military Academy— I told them again that we were there unfairly, we had been unfairly accused. I said we had behaved as soldiers of the homeland, but that members of the High Command hadn’t been able to decide things for themselves. I said, “I don’t know if you gave Benavides the order. If you say you didn’t, then you should tell him to speak up to the Generals, as your comrade.” One loses their fear.

Retired Salvadoran Lt. Col. Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, second in command of the Military Academy in November 1989, where the order was received to murder six Jesuit priests at Central American University (UCA). Photo Edu Ponces
Retired Salvadoran Lt. Col. Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, second in command of the Military Academy in November 1989, where the order was received to murder six Jesuit priests at Central American University (UCA). Photo Edu Ponces

Did Benavides never appear at any of these meetings?
No, never. We went to another meeting at the Presidential House, with President Saca. It was Doctor Méndez, General Ponce, General Zepeda, General Villamariona, and me. President Saca and Élmer Charlaix were there to receive us. They explained the details of the case that was happening over there, how it would work if the Spanish case was accepted, and they asked for financial support for the defense in the Spanish court. President Saca promised help. He didn’t say how much he would give in support. After the meeting only President Saca, Doctor Méndez, and General Ponce stayed there talking for a long time; the rest of us waited outside for about half an hour, then we left. I never found out what happened with them after — I don’t know if they gave money, or support. I don’t know.

Were you ever offered anything in exchange for your silence, or for taking responsibility?
No, never.

According to some versions, after the murder Benavides said to all the soldiers in the battalion that if they spoke they would be killed.
He could have done that, before he left, possibly. 

I’m actually asking you because in fact, there are at least two deaths, right?
Yes. Ah, one of the things that Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra told me when we saw him recently, nearly a year ago, “Colonel, when I went to Atlacatl” —because that same day he went to Atlacatl— “they left me in a volcano area to do a patrol, an offensive patrol, and there were O-2 (planes) flying over us.” He told me Cerritos was scared they would shoot at them, because it was like they were searching for them, as if they were searching for the location they had given, for them.” So then I told him about the Chalatenango case.

The Cadet who had written down the comings and goings (in the Military Academy, on the day the Jesuits were killed) — he was murdered.

How was he killed?
As I understand it there was a confrontation, but the strange thing is that he had a bullet wound in his back. I’m not sure, to be honest I’m not sure.

It’s pretty complicated to be killed by a bullet in your back during a confrontation.

The name says it all: confrontation.

And then there’s the case of Herrera Carranza, who was the only one to testify that the murder had been coordinated by radio. He was killed too, right?
Yes, yes.

And how was he killed?
I remember. Over in Morazán. But I didn’t know he had said anything. Herrera Carranza, he was a great soldier. A great soldier.

Herrera Carranza was the only military officer who confessed to the authorities that he heard military radio transmissions about the murders, prior to when the bodies were discovered. He was killed in strange circumstances, after being transferred suddenly to the Atlacatl Battalion.
But they killed him in the DM-4, didn’t they?

We have at least two deaths in strange circumstances, seemingly because of their link to this case.
And one attempt.

Yours? Plus the one that you’ve talked about, against Espinoza Guerra. Who told you he was with Cerritos.
Yes, all the commandos of that section.

And you and Cerritos didn’t talk?
No, no, no. With Espinoza Guerra it was a coincidence.

If you look at things in retrospect, it’s evident that the conclusion of this crime was the end of the whole centralized power of the Armed Forces, because it ultimately led to the United States removing their support, it brought the military under suspicion everywhere. No-one wanted to hear anything of the military because they had been openly confirmed as a group of murderers who could commit such atrocious crimes.
As a military officer I can confirm that there is planning. If there’s a war happening, any General Staff must at a minimum have an action plan; an action plan must have objectives, and the objectives are tactical and also strategic. So if there’s a group advising the leadership, they have to seek out tactical and strategic goals. What did those people end up saying? That I was responsible. What is it that Robert White (the former U.S. ambassador) said? That I organized, planned, and did everything toward the murder of the Jesuits. That’s what it says — they gave me a copy. Why? Because there are people who did start saying it was me, because they knew that I had gone to talk about the order of command. They wouldn’t say, “Camilo denied it,” because that wouldn’t interest them. “No, it was Camilo.”

The thing is that “Camilo denied it” is what Camilo says.
Yes, only Camilo.

Is that true?
Yes, only me and no-one else. And it was Cerritos and Espinoza who confirmed that it wasn’t me who gave them the order. They confirm that. But the Special Commission that senior staff organized at the start to investigate, that’s who started to blame me. People who were my contemporaries. It annoyed them for one reason or another, and that’s where it started. It was one of the things Parker was involved in.

Legislator Rodolfo Parker?
Yes, him. He saw that suddenly everyone wanted to involve me in the problem directly, saying that I was responsible. He told them, “Better not to; let them investigate”. Because the Commission was getting started, and they were making orders through the leadership. The same leaders who were coming to the Military Academy and already involved in the case. The Armed Forces tar me as a Leftist and coup-leader.

Because of your role when the Majano thing happened.
That’s right.

And what was your relation with Majano?
I was a Lieutenant. When the coup happened they called me, the oldest of my rank, to enter together with the coup, and he (Majano) brought me into the Presidential House. 

What were you doing in the Presidential House?
I was in the Presidential General Staff together with Majano.

What’s the next step for you?
After what?

After now.
For now? I’m just waiting for my acquittal to arrive from Spain.

*Translated by Ali Sargent

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